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  • Close Up 1927–1933: Cinema and Modernism
  • Richard Maxwell
Close Up 1927–1933: Cinema and Modernism. Edited by James Donald, Anne Friedberg, and Laura Marcus. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998. Pp. x + 341. $65.00 (cloth); $19.95 (paper).

The three editors of the quarterly magazine Close Up were neither established film journalists nor established filmmakers. Bryher was the daughter of a wealthy shipping magnate. H. D., by the late 1920s a well-known poet, was her friend and sometime lover. Kenneth Macpherson, who aspired to make films, married Bryher in 1927. What underlay the whole scene, making it possible, was Bryher’s money, which financed both Close Up and POOL, a larger filmmaking/publishing enterprise of which it was part. (The main film project of POOL was Macpherson’s Borderline [1930], on which H. D., one of its stars, wrote an irritatingly defensive pamphlet, reprinted in the present collection.) A personal fortune opened up the possibility of asserting and exploring some elevated, occasionally unpopular enthusiasms.

This fascinating selection from Close Up attempts a broad survey while exploring in particular depth the work of H. D. and the novelist Dorothy Richardson. Typically, Hollywood gets short shrift as does the British film industry, though Macpherson discusses Hitchcock’s Blackmail admiringly. German and Russian cinema (G. W. Pabst, Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov) are consistent points of inspiration. In her general introduction, Anne Friedberg takes Close Up’s normative tone to be singular: whereas “popular film criticism,” “academic film histories,” and “film theory” all attempt “to imitate or prolong the cinema’s imaginary effects,” Close Up hoped to determine these effects a priori: “They advocated a cinema that mirrored the aesthetics and production of their own written discourse” (3). This seems too drastic a claim. Close Up wanted to hold London and Hollywood to an alternative cinematic standard; that standard, however, had already been established elsewhere—not in the “written discourse” of the magazine but before that, on the continent, in actual film practice. Like most enthusiasts, the Close Up writers were usually at their best when endeavoring to prolong “imaginary effects” from their favorite movies; it’s just that these favorite movies did not happen to be the common currency of the United Kingdom, whose censors worked hard to keep Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and other politically or sexually suspect material from getting into mass circulation. The Close Up line is thus both elitist and democratic. Those films that take fullest advantage of the medium have not been seen widely, at least in Britain; Close Up hoped to create general interest in them, possibly even to help in creating new institutions for distributing and exhibiting them. (Along these lines, the collection reprints an admiring essay on Elsie Cohen’s ambitious Academy Cinema, as well as polemics about worker’s films, art films, and so forth.) Close Up typically mixes this kind of agitation with careful appreciations of particular movies, as in H. D.’s piece on Lev Kuleshov’s By the Law, here called Expiation, where a rehearsal of the film’s plot is suggestively interwoven with a narrative of the author’s attempts to see the work she is writing about.

On the other hand, Dorothy Richardson’s “Continuous Performance” columns, a high point of the collection, offer a somewhat different viewpoint. As Laura Marcus observes, Richardson was less interested in experimental or avant-garde films (Macpherson’s great love) than she was in everyday, habitual movie-going—“continuous” not only because the films she attends are being shown repeatedly but also because their value is cumulative. One drops in on the local cinema regularly; sometimes one is delighted, if only by a stray detail. Richardson’s columns embody a modernist aesthetic of the epiphany, but this makes them sound more programmatic, less attractively casual, than they are. A pianist/accompanist hums on and off; his singing is “a spontaneous meditative appreciation of things seen” (162). “[Credits] were a revelation [End Page 197] of the size of the undertaking and our wondering gratitude went forth to the multitude of experts who had laboured together for our enterprise,” a naive delight that soon wears off, however (165). She...

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