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Design Review: Volume 2, Issue 6 (May-June 1950)

Saraband for Blind Critics

page 130

Saraband for Blind Critics

This is the first of two articles written for Design Review on the fundamentally visual nature of the cinema.

The motion picture has been plagued by its bastard birth. Mothered by sideshow barkers and shirt salesmen, it was considered fortunate to acquire so early in its career such respectable foster-parents as the Drama, Literature, and Big Business. But ever since, blighted by its new-found family, the motion picture has been unable to discover its true nature. Our cinemas are still packed with diluted derivations from the other arts. Invariably, the patterns of the stage play or the novel adapted for the stage dominate the motion picture. Never, or very rarely, has a film been made that was true to its own visual nature from beginning to end. Yet if the cinema is an art, it is a visual art, not a dramatic or literary art.

The films we see, however, are hybrids and I find that when I speak of a good film I have loosened my language to include films which, though still subservient to the other arts, nevertheless face the special problems of an art that is the arrangement of moving pictures accompanied or supplemented by sound. Goodness knows when the cinema will move confidently and firmly in its own exclusive visual manner, concerned with its own type of perception and established in its own idiom independent of other art forms. In the meantime, I am satisfied to call a film “good” when it makes some step in this direction.

Accordingly, I am constantly depressed by that large body of so-called film critics who cannot see a film as an entity, but keep splitting the hybrid into its parts and tearing the parts to pieces. In this way, it seems to me, the cinema is kept in thrall to Drama, Literature and Big Business by valuations of films on the basis of their dramatic content, their literary fidelity, or their box office possibilities. Trade critics who are really watching the market often provide interesting sidelights on the picture industry, but the purpose of their reviews is obvious and no one would mistake them for serious criticism. My animosity is reserved for those writers who split off the literary and dramatic contents of a film, pillory them, and lead the public to believe they are film critics by making an occasional reference to the film's visual qualities.

In this way, many a good film becomes the occasion for their critical axe. It makes for lively reading sometimes, notably in the case of John McCarten in The New Yorker. But that's the best that can be said for it.

In New Zealand the most widely read local writers about films are “P.J.W.” and “Jno” of The Listener. Between them they have murdered many a film that, with the provisos I made earlier, I would call good. I can only hope they haven't turned intelligent audiences away from Blood on the Moon, The Lady from Shanghai, Cry of the City, or even such a superb film as L'Eternel Retour, to name a few that have been damned by their faint praise or outright abuse. They are, sad to relate, an echo of many leading critics overseas. I am prompted to write this by a recent review in The Listener by Jno of Saraband which, though a little more acid, was similar to the reviews the film Black and white wood of an audience watching a movie screen, by E. Mervyn Taylor. received overseas. Jno's review provides a brilliant example of what irritates me so—the patronising interest of a literary gent who seems incapable of seeing a picture. Let's examine what he wrote about Saraband.

He begins with an amusing shrug of his philosophic shoulders. “The cinema, which can be all things to all men—which can find stones in the running brooks, sermons in books, and grist in everything…turns in Saraband to the somewhat murky Konigsmark episode as if in an attempt to show that even the House of Hanover had its romantic interlude.” Besides being unsuccessful, this experiment is, he claims, “neither fish, flesh, fowl, nor good red herring.” But for whom? “The one-and-sixpennies, out for action and romance…will be irked by the sluggish pace of the story…The cognoscenti will be irritated by, on the one hand, the film's fidelity to the record in small and superficial things…on the other by the oversentimental picture it paints of Konigsmark and Sophie Dorothea.” Two types of filmgoers are thus disposed of. A third, to which Jno gives allegiance, is also dissatisfied. “Those of us who sit in the middle rows, and are not greatly concerned with ro-mance on the one hand or documentary fidelity on the other, so long as the dramatic potentialities of a given situation are adequately realised, will be disappointed by the fumbling direction, the general weakness of characterisation, and the prosy and lack-lustre dialogue.”

Three types of filmgoers, if they are conditioned by this sort of comment, will indeed be dissatisfied with the film. For there is little action, historical inaccuracy, bad direction, poor dialogue and poor acting (according to Jno). How about anyone who wanted to see a film? Perhaps there is something in it for them? You'd have to be psychic to page 131 know. Or “fumbling direction” might put you off. Perhaps the rest of the review might tell you.

But Jno goes on to surmise what Hollywood might have done with such a plot. More bust, lust and vulgarity, not so much refinement, but “at least it would not have suffered from the negative virtues.” (I hope Jno saw Prince of Foxes.) Next the acting receives Jno's attention. Joan Greenwood was insipid, Stewart Granger incapable of playing Konigsmark, and two supporting players “might have done well had they had more scope.”

The one concession Jno makes to the visual qualities of the film comes towards the end of his review—and is wrong, anyway. He writes that “the climax…was deftly done and well-photographed”—and cannot help, encyclopedia-in-hand, adding “and probably as close to the historical truth as one could get.” All in all, “well-photographed” and “fumbling direction” are the only comments that bear upon what should surely be the main criteria of a film's worth, its visual communicativeness or suggestibility. The review ended with an explanation that the uncertainty of the film lay in the shooting technique used being dependent on money-saving set-up sketches—about as penetrating an explanation as it would be to say that Matisse's paintings were good or bad because he was or was not wearing spectacles while he was painting.

So—a column and a half of condemnation directed against a film and barely a word about the visual qualities of the film. For Saraband, though far from being an exceptional film, did have positive merits, and I would call it a good if somewhat turgid film. Its merits lay in those very pictorial qualities which Jno omitted to mention, in the elegance, fidelity and artistry with which it reproduced the ornate, rather heavy period atmosphere of the Hanoverian Court. The film was a series of quite attractive pictures. Not a series of unified pictures, not cinema. The pictures remained static and cinema should develop its effect by the conscious arrangement of pictures in motion. But Saraband did at least attend to the pictorial composition of individual scenes.