Britton on Film: The Complete Film Criticism of Andrew Britton
by Colin Fleming
Edited by Barry Keith Grant. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2008. 560 pp., illus. Paperback: $39.95.
With its reliance on extended syllogisms and sentences of granitic density, it’s a small wonder that Andrew Britton’s film criticism should have a conversational aspect at times. There’s not a ton of it—Britton succumbed to AIDS in 1994—but his acolytes are a committed lot, foremost among them film scholar Robin Wood, whose introduction makes the intentions behind this book plain: to show you, why, exactly, Britton was the best writer on film we’ve yet to encounter, a talent to knock Messrs. Agee and Bazin into a cocked hat.
Britton’s career revolved around the university, a stroke of geographical irony given his largely jargon-free prose. An Englishman, Britton became a graduate student of Wood at Warwick University in the mid-1970s, and later followed his putative mentor to Canada where he took up several Film Studies lecturing posts. There, he produced the bulk of his body of work, espousing method over position: Britton is not an “ism” type of thinker, or one who favored prescriptive tactics, but rather a critic of a much more organic, analytical bent. Each film was potentially “new,” a visual rendering of a freshly minted language. Once the language had been decoded, it was time to place this latest creation in the context of the world’s other languages—that is to say, its films. And, on occasion, its books.
There’s nothing prideful about Wood’s assertion regarding his friend’s eminence. As Britton’s teacher, he soon realized that it was the pupil who was instead the master, and, reading his reminiscences, one has the impression that his claims as to Britton’s eminence are characterized more by lament than full-throated boast—not only is the man overlooked, but he’s a victim of the prevailing, academia-sanctioned trends for theory at all cost. If you don’t know his work, you’ll learn with the first essay here—an attempt to decode Cary Grant’s appeal—that Britton was anything but an academic. His writing is dense, but free of jargon; mostly, he expects you to work—to solve the challenges that each knotty sentence poses, to remember points and arguments made thousands of words previously, and to have watched a ton of film. The approach is quite a distance from one like Agee’s, who first greeted his readers by remarking that he knew nothing about film, and didn’t expect them to either, the attitude being but let’s journey together, and see what we can learn. Britton, rather, can leave you behind if you don’t know the films he discusses like that personal all-time favorite you’ve screened sixty times. He’s a high-demand, high-reward writer, almost like it was the aim of his craft to find a 1:1 balance between clinical abstruseness and boyish enthusiasm, with the reader posed as potential struggler and potential learner.
Britton flexed his critical muscles to assess both the high and the low and Mandingo
The great critics, regardless of milieu, have always had a humanistic bent, one that tends to manifest itself in their expansive views of what might be considered notable. A top critic has the knack of finding value in what just about everyone else has deemed as slop—on occasion, at least—and Britton applies his Cartesian methods to dubious films like Mandingo and The Great Waldo Pepper. His arguments are almost always dialectical, like they’ve been strained through hundreds of years of philosophical and rhetorical practices, word-based arguments that function with algebraic precision, a continuous process of balancing tallies on each side of the ledger, and then applying the newly established information to the next problem set.
Not uncommonly, the end portions of sentences read like their beginnings. In “The Devil, Probably,” an essay that attempts to establish a connection between Seventies horror and the American Gothic of Melville and Hawthorne (you’d be wise to bone up on literary classics before tussling with Britton’s oeuvre), Britton argues that The Exorcist’s Regan MacNeil is Hester Prynne-like, but with telltale distinctions in the filmic context: “Metaphor, in this instance, engenders and is engendered by misrecognition: the return of the repressed isn’t clearly distinguishable from the return of repression.” He’s labored, by this point, to define all of those terms in the schema of his argument, and as one can see, Britton’s sentences have something akin to the quality of a wave bouncing from one side to another in a hermetic chamber. But he’s the one who built the chambers, and you can have a pretty decent time watching those waves ripple between their endpoints.
The Gothic essay is a typical Britton effort in its breadth. He’s able to transition from William Blake to Val Lewton to Bringing Up Baby with commanding alacrity, and his understanding of screwball comedy—and his allowance for the range of its parameters—is perhaps the salient gift of his output. The essay on Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour is as probing as any written on the Z-budget hero, and Britton serves up some wonderfully transgressive perceptions with his take on the exchanges between the unsavory Al and his equally unsavory foil, Vera: “Indeed, the dialogue of some of their exchanges and the theme of the discomfiture of male presumption and complacency by a female anarchist suggest the direct influence of screwball comedy, and for all that Detour is an unusually bleak film noir with a tragic ending, it is very easy to detect within it the making of a Howard Hawks farce.” The syntactical breakdown is glaring, but this is a viewer whose gaze is clearly a learned one. Just as rewarding is the tone which greets the reader in the essay’s opening paragraph, a letting loose of that spirit of joie de cinema that all film lovers have experienced—though less commonly now, with the conveniences of the digital age—upon getting the chance to view a film that more typically inhabits a storeroom. Britton is rarely breathless, but he’s right on the edge when he describes Detour as “quite scandalously difficult to see if one lives outside of North America: at the time of writing, no commercial print exists anywhere in Europe.” Thank goodness he was in Canada, then.
Britton inhabits Detour as though he had rented living quarters in the print itself. The Gothic essay gives too much of itself over to literature; another, “For Interpretation: Notes Against Camp,” smacks too much of watered-down Clement Greenberg musings. The Detour piece though is Britton’s most compelling synthesis, a tour-de-force of subtle philosophical arguments, zest, balance, critical adjudication, humor, and honed narrative. It’s a well-shaped, well-staged piece, and when Britton beckons Thomas Hobbes to the stage to say a few lines—it doesn’t get much nastier and brutish than Detour—one has the sense that the philosopher behind Leviathan probably would have had a massive film noir DVD collection if he were a twenty-first century man. In crystallizing moments like these, you start to understand why Wood felt like he did about his fast-tracked pupil. All subject matter was fair game: whenever Britton doesn’t go too far afield and sticks to the business at hand, you’ll likely find yourself the lucky recipient of new thoughts that are truly energizing.
Britton arues that there is much of Howard Hawks's screwball comedy in Detour
Then again, there’s a lot to Britton that’s problematic. This is not a book that anyone but a lover of recondite treatises and boggy semantics will hover over for five hours. Britton can be inconsistent, and when you measure his lucid, clarifying moments against his excesses, you can’t help finding him a bit rebarbative—but only because you crave more of the insights, and less of the smoke. Britton “reads” a film like a text, a carryover from his literature background. In some instances, you get Henry James-related metaphors, or a dash of Sherwood Anderson, some Twain, Pynchon, and plenty of the literary critic F.R. Leavis, who was a beacon for both Britton and Wood. It’s an exceedingly multidisciplinary approach, where the poetics of Gerard Manley Hopkins are used to dissect Meet Me In St. Louis.
When Britton dislocates literary techniques and ideas from specific works, and brings them to bear on his cinematic perceptions, we get some real treats—new takes on narrative voice in film, for instance, with Britton stumping for works that make you work, because the narrator has something to hide, or can’t honestly face down his past. The viewer is sleuth, and a participant in the action in that he must seize on meanings in ways that a film’s narrator often does not. There’s much to be made of what isn’t said, and what isn’t shot, what we might think of as the gaps in a film where a viewer like Britton discovers artistry. Meaning, at its most potent, sometimes comes from the removal of traditional forms of meaning. “Much of the comedy of Bringing Up Baby is a matter of disintegration, simultaneously, of the apparently stable male ego and its language,” Britton writes. Just to show you how serious he is, he then gets seriously funny, extolling the film’s “Hello Mr. Bone!” joke as if he were a thirteen-year-old trying to hide his laughter (bone—ha!) while imitating a grown-up literature-loving film critic. In the process, he adumbrates Cary Grant’s particular duality, an explanation, of sorts, for how this actor of seemingly limited range could appear, paradoxically, so limitless in his best roles. Britton comes at Grant from one angle, then another, eventually pulling back the final trace of covering to reveal a romantic hero who was also a farceur—but with a courtier’s dignity.
Bringing Up Baby depicts the disintegration of the stable male ego
You’re going to have to get through a lot of symbolic castration talk and gibberish concerning phallic appropriation to get to Britton’s sum analysis, but you can rest easier in knowing that by the end of each of these essays he’s pretty much managed to throw his quarry down on the table.
Colin Fleming has written for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Slate, and BookForum.