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  • Film and the Cultural Tradition
  • Raymond Williams

Preface by Dana Polan

One purpose of the preceding essay was the veritably archaeological one of bringing to light a lesser-known corpus of writings (on film and moving-image culture) by one of our most important cultural theorists. I wanted to show how rich and rigorous Raymond Williams’s long-standing engagement in the study of cinema was, and to that end I invite the reader to continue the discovery of Williams’s film corpus. I offer, then, as a complement to “Raymond Williams on Film,” a hitherto-unpublished piece on film by Williams, a 1971 Radio 3 talk, “Film and the Cultural Tradition,” from the Raymond Williams Papers archived at Swansea University. The reader will find in this concise bit of writing many of the themes we’ve encountered across the corpus of Williams’s interventions into cinema culture: for example, the recognition of the insistent relevance of film, over the other arts of the moment, to the student generation of the present time; the concomitant acceptance by the (older-generation) scholar that Williams is that he has a responsibility to take this art seriously even though many defenders of “high” culture do not; the consequent recourse to historical analysis to show that this situation (emergence of a new cultural form that has to fight for legitimation) is a recurrent one (the novel was, for instance, once considered unworthy of attention at Williams’s Cambridge); and at the same time the offer of another level of historicizing to suggest that film’s history offers up something unique (namely, its emergence simultaneously with that of an avant-garde, for which its own formal accomplishments could serve as inspiring, breakthrough formal techniques); the sense, then, that film both belongs to dramatic tradition and yet can extend that tradition beyond the blockages of the moment (the trap of the enclosed stage, for instance) in cutting-edge ways; the assertion that new social arrangements and relationships (new structures of feeling such as the modern experience of mobility) need new conventions adequate to their full exploration; the admission that all this has to be fought for to remain vital (for example, the defining techniques of film such as montage can quickly ossify into stereotypes that confirm seeing as is rather than as it could be); and so on. I hope such pieces as this show the vibrancy of Williams’s engagement with film and spur continued interest in his work—and perhaps new archival discoveries. [End Page 19]

I wonder how many people now, when they think of the arts of the twentieth century, think first or even at all about film. In the last fifty years film has produced at least as many major works as any other form you could think of: many more, I would say, than its most evident analogue, the stage-play. There have also been a great many bad and mediocre films, but that is a familiar situation also in the theatre and in fiction. In the universities, now, film is the most important single interest among arts students, and in my experience this has the intensity of attention and, where possible, practice, which in previous student generations belonged to poetry and to experimental prose. Yet I notice some people talking of this as if it were only a question of students liking to spend a lot of time in the cinema: a tone that reminds me of the stiff academic remarks when English literature was proposed as a university study—that anyone would like to spend his mornings reading novels. And if he would like it, one gathers, he shouldn’t. Ironically, the academic generation that now ably defends the study of literature usually suspects the study of film, though willing to admit that of course they often go “to the pictures,” but as entertainment, in their leisure, out of business. Almost any contemporary work then gets more respect, more attention, if it is in one of the forms that have traditional cultural sanction—the novel or the theatre—than if it is in this other form, film, which still, after more than half a century, is felt at...


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