Film criticism in Britain is dead. Hardly a single piece of perceptive criticism has been written here in the last few years. Indeed, it is sometimes difficult to believe that British criticism has ever been alive. Perhaps in the good old days of ‘Sequence’….
These are the first lines of the film section of the re-launched Oxford Opinion, No. 38, published on 30th April 1960. Ian Cameron’s editorial is accompanied by an attack on a BFI publication, Fifty Famous Films 1915–45 (felt by the Oxford Opinion writers to reveal ‘the standards and prejudices of this country’s cinematic establishment’), an article ‘The Commercial Cinema: a few basic principles’ and fairly short reviews of Comanche Station, Le Coup de Berger and Ascenseur pour l’échafaud. Nothing so very shocking, one might think, but this was the opening shot in a battle over the relative significance of film style that raged between a dozen film journals and elements of the national press.
Charles Barr recalls his encounter with the journal as an undergraduate:
I remember going to a bookshop in Cambridge, probably in my second year or so, and picking up this magazine Oxford Opinion and glancing through it and thinking, ‘Oh it’s got some writing about films, I’d better buy this’. And then reading the first issue of Oxford Opinion with the writing on film, and being rather outraged by it, rather shocked. It was obviously powerful writing but it seemed so wrong…. Here were a lot of films that I either hadn’t heard of or just assumed were very minor, like a Randolph Scott B-western. It was exciting but it seemed deeply wrong, unsettling, rather outrageous.
From today’s perspective the animation and the passion of the critical debate of the early sixties seems extraordinary. It is difficult to imagine an undergraduate magazine of today provoking a national debate in the manner of Oxford Opinion. Yet, exploring the material it becomes clear that for the participants this was a battle of real cultural significance — and so it has proved.
Both in the arguments expressed and in their presence as objects, the journals of this period help to evoke the excitement and importance of film culture in the early sixties. On the screens of the day played out the last great films of the Hollywood studio system, the vibrant variety of the nouvelle vague, the work of Antonioni, and the British New Wave. Equally, it was a provocative and exciting era for print culture, publishing and graphic design. In this context, small film journals developed what V.F. Perkins has recently described as ‘an international effort to invent film criticism, to find ways of writing about cinema that escape the limits of the reviewer’s craft’.
At the heart of the exhibition is Movie, which three of the four critics writing about film for Oxford Opinion went on to found in 1962. Movie championed the great accomplishments of Hollywood (among other things) by developing a detailed critical approach, responsive to film style and grounded in material evidence, and in doing so helped to establish a professional basis for the study of film. The exhibition puts Movie in context, by presenting it alongside a range of other film journals of the period — influences, adversaries and fellow travellers.
The exhibition — which includes Cahiers du Cinéma, Postif, Présence du Cinéma, Oxford Opinion, Definition, Motion, Film Culture — runs in the foyer of the Main Library at the University of Reading until September 24th. Among its aims is to better assess the typographical qualities of Movie by locating it in relation to its peers; a workshop will take place in July bringing together scholars from around the country with colleagues from the University’s departments of Film, Theatre & Television and Typography & Graphic Communication in order to explore these concerns.