Winter 2010

Robin Wood—a Personal View

Tony Williams

Robin Wood 1931-2009

“At the beginning of his essay on John Galsworthy—one of the very few statements about criticism that mean anything to me—D.H. Lawrence insists on the critic’s obligation to make explicit the standards by which he judges. It is time to lay one’s cards openly on the table. I can see no purpose in the individual life beyond the complete realization of one’s humanity. The most basic urge may be that of self preservation, but, if one is thinking in terms of the quality of life, the mean and meager instinct to preserve oneself is insignificant besides the creative urge. By the creative urge, I mean all that drives us onwards towards the full expression of our human potentialities, the whole constructive, growing sides of our natures, at once dynamic and responsive. And the society whose main characteristics all tend towards the inhibiting and perverting of human creativity, and there is little sign that things are likely to improve in any foreseeable future. How to come to terms with this is the central human problem today, and one that the artists, through his creative functioning, must feel in a particularly acute form.”  Ingmar Bergman, 171.

The above quotation is one of many cited by D.K. Holm in his “Great Robin Wood Quotes” opening the tribute to Robin Wood in the excellent discussion site www.davekehr.com. It began on December 20th  2009, two days after news of Robin’s passing appeared there. If I’ve chosen to begin this article with this particular quotation, it is because I find this relevant to the entire breadth of Robin’s critical career that revealed more continuity in thought than discontinuities that many believe to be the case.

Born on February 23, 1931, Robin lived through the war years, experienced pleasure in Hollywood cinema, studied English at Cambridge University before working as a schoolteacher, running a school film society, writing his first essay on Psycho accepted by Cahiers du Cinema after rejection by the British establishment journal Sight and Sound, and then went on to write his classic monograph on the films of Alfred Hitchcock and why we should take his work seriously. From that point on, Robin never looked back. He experienced the 1960s in his own particular way and went to Canada in 1967 at the invitation of Peter Harcourt to teach in Canada’s first academic film studies program at Queen’s University. While there, his marriage fell apart when he came out both as a gay man and gay film critic but one who was never doctrinaire. He took his responsibilities seriously. When invited to head the new Film Studies Department at Warwick University in 1973, one of three funded by the British Film Institute for three years with the understanding that the University would then take over financial responsibility (the other two being Keele and Essex, the former soon reneging on its commitment by dismissing Richard Dyer and the second finding an excuse to get rid of Peter Wollen), Robin eagerly accepted the task and began an M.A. Program in Film Studies that would lead to a fully fledged department.However, due to the pernicious role of academic politics and Peter Harcourt’s invitation to return to Canada and teach at a new film department in Atkinson College, York University, Robin left in 1977 and never returned to England again except for some brief occasional visits.


Movie Magazine

During the early 1970s film had undergone a particular sea change exemplified by Screen that exhibited hostility to the former humanistic film criticism exemplified by Robin and the influential British film journal  Movie, choosing instead to champion post-1968 French theories notably associated with names such as Althusser and Lacan. Robin’s appointment evoked shock waves from the devotees of this now anachronistic brand of scholarship aptly described by David Bordwell and Noel Carroll as S.L.A.B theory associated with the names of Saussure, Lacan, Althusser, and Barthes. Indeed, Robin’s champions at Warwick University thought that they were on to a sure thing by supporting the appointment of somebody “safe.” However, they soon experienced a different person, now influenced by Marx, Freud, Feminism, and Gay Liberation. If Robin did not embrace Screen Theory he never dismissed it with condescension but took it seriously and tried to learn from it. I remember him speaking approvingly in a graduate seminar devoted to responses to his 1976 collection of essays, Personal Views, of Steve Neale’s critical comments in Screen as being the only one he regarded as having any real value. Now, come to think of it, that seminar was a variant of reception theory in all but name! Also, despite having reservations about the work of Roland Barthes in an article that appeared in a 70s issue of Film Comment, he later used that critic’s S/Z concepts in a very fine article written on Blackmail (1929) in cineACTION!  That later appeared in Hitchcock’s Films Revisited (1989), the third version of what began as a small monograph in the mid-1960s but now influenced by further reflection concerning the director’s significance related to a new wave of feminist film criticism.

Throughout his writings, Robin exhibited a keen sense of personal honesty and integrity that never concealed the particular perspective from which he wrote at any particular time. One quotation, from “Responsibilities of a Gay Critic” cited by Jim Gerow at 4.25 p.m. on December 21, 2009 www.davekehr.com.,  reveals more continuity than discontinuity having intrinsic associations with the one beginning this article where Robin “lays his cards” on the table. He did so again but in an unexpected manner a decade or so later.

“Yet I believe there will always be a close connection between critical theory, critical practice, and personal life; and it seems important that the critic should be aware of the personal bias that must inevitably affect his choice of theoretical position, and prepared to foreground it in his work.”

The subtitle of this contribution is not accidental. It both refers to the original edition of Robin’s 1976 collection of essays first published by Gordon Fraser in 1976 as well as the sheer impossibility of me writing an “objective” evaluation of his key contributions to the area of film criticism for nearly fifty years. For Robin, the personal was always important both in criticism and consideration of political issues. “I’m waiting for you to write in a personal manner” was something he always said to me. Although I did not know Robin closely, I had the privilege of being one of his MA students in Warwick University during 1976-77 and kept in touch with him over the years until two weeks before he left us on the morning of December 18th.

After finishing grading earlier that day, I intended to phone him later in the evening. However, when news of his passing broke on www.davekehr.com., I phoned his apartment. My first words were, “Is it true?” The answer was affirmative. Many of us had known about Robin’s state of health for over a year. He had gradually lost his sight; a tragedy to anyone passionately involved in the visual arts, and was now limited to listening to audio-books and music. Fortunately, he died peacefully in his sleep sometime between 8:00 – 9:00 a.m. that morning. This was a blessed relief in more than one sense.

Robin was spared the painful end he dreaded. I once heard him say over thirty years ago that his major fear was being tortured.

Many tributes to his work have appeared since then on sites as varied as David Bordwell’s grossly misnamed blog. (since this distinguished site is much more than a “blog”), the Auteurs Daily, Catherine Grant’s Film Studies for Free, and obituaries in The World Socialist Web site of December 21, 2009, The New York Times of December 22, 2009, the January 3, 2010 issue of The Toronto Star by Canadian critic Geoff Pevere and an obituary by Charles Barr in the January 4th  edition of The Guardian (UK) I really have little to add to these except to say that the tribute he gave to his late colleague and friend Andrew Britton as “the greatest film critic” England has ever produced may be even more applicable to this very generous spirit. It is true to say that Robin Wood revolutionized film criticism in more than one sense. By his concise and excellent prose writing influenced by the best traditions of Cambridge English exemplified by F.R. Leavis and his associates in Scrutiny, Robin brought to the realm of film criticism qualities of literary excellence and high seriousness that were unseen before and will never probably appear again. His writings represented a model to which we all aspired but very rarely (if ever) succeeded in matching. Joseph McBride defined Robin in his touching tribute on www.davekehr.com. at 11.14 pm on December 18th  as a “Renaissance man of the cinema, the Renoir of film critics” and “We will never see his like again.”

During the 1970s, Robin began to consider political issues that most people assumed were absent from his early work leading to the mistaken idea of a division between “early Robin” and “late Robin.” But, despite this misleading label, the two phases were not so far apart as most believed since the early work intuitively recognized the presence of certain issues that would be readily understood against the light of his later discoveries of Marx, feminism, psychoanalysis and gay liberation that provided an alternative to those bleak, existential “no exits” he often found in the films of Antonioni, Bergman and Hitchcock – to name three such examples.  As well as divergences, there were also consistencies akin to the very nature of that organic text that fascinated him in film as much as that concept also fascinated his mentor F.R. Leavis in literature. To the best of my knowledge, Robin never studied under Leavis but he was one of those many Cambridge students who flocked to his lectures resulting in a standing room only situation. Despite moving into what were regarded as taboo areas by the conservative academic establishment, Robin never rejected Leavis and evaluation always formed an important part of his critical activity.

Work on Robin’s legacy will continue over the next few decades and a start has been made on bibliographies by D.K. Holm on his web site cinemonkey and by Brad Stevens. Despite the diversity of his work, the one tribute that could be made is that quintessential Hawks comment, “You’re good, you’re real good.” As anyone who has studied the films of that director closely knows, the term never means a universal sense of superiority and being good at everything. That is the mundane “jack of all trades” definition. Rather, it implies knowing one’s limits and choosing a field one can really excel in. If John T. Chance in Rio Bravo chooses a rifle because he knows other people are much better with a short gun, Robin decided to excel in the close reading practices endemic to the work of F.R. Leavis in books such as The Common Pursuit and The Great Tradition and later works such as Nor Shall My Sword. He never regarded himself as a guru in the fields of Marxism, feminism, and psychoanalysis but eclectically borrowed elements to refine further his idea of a progressive film criticism that would have the utopian aim of furthering a better life for everyone.

When I first attended University in the late 60s, there were no officially recognized film classes available at all in British higher education. Despite gaining a B.A. and a PhD in a different subject, I became regularly involved in the sadly now defunct Manchester University Film Society during 1967-74. This allowed me not only to see classics such as The Seventh Seal for the first time, following the frustrating experience of seeing a clip years before on the old BBC TV Tonight (1957-65) weekly news program headed by Cliff Michelmore usually concluding with a Scottish folk song by Robin Hall and Jimmie McGregor as well as review in a different context a Hollywood film such as Budd Boetticher’s The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960), the type of film only available in that relatively unsophisticated cinematic culture where I previously lived. I do remember (probably cut and dubbed) versions of Marcel Carne’s Therese Raquin (1953) and Kenji Mizoguchi’s Street of Shame (1956) appearing briefly in special sensationalist showings, the former re-titled The Adulteress with a huge sexy poster of an amply proportioned Simone Signoret reclined on a bed attracting the voyeuristic male gaze. (This is one instance where Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” thesis works but not in relation to the actual film!) Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour (1965) only lasted one day at Swansea’s Carleton Cinema, now the site of a chain bookstore but I do remember fondly those old Republic Studios color genre productions (more often than not starring John Payne) such as Raiders of the Seven Seas (1953), Silver Lode (1954), Santa Fe Passage, Hell’s Island, and Tennessee’s Partner (all 1955), the latter co-starring Ronald Reagan in his most accomplished screen role as a dumb cowboy. This may not have been an area for a “cinematic Great Tradition” but there was a lot of generic diversity which probably explains my appreciation for the contemporary explorations of Takashi Miike and other commercial South-East Asian directors today.
Many years later after experiencing a freeze in academic hiring positions in a country whose rigid reasoning ran like, “If you don’t get a job six months after gaining a Ph.D you’re damned for life”, I had the opportunity of being accepted for the one year M.A. in Film Studies program at Warwick University. Following his usual practice Robin met me at the train station and accompanied me there on my return after the informal day-interview. He introduced me to two other graduate students: Andrew Britton and American Deborah Thomas recently retired from Sunderland University. I was accepted and then began a very fulfilling year studying a subject I had loved for years with one of the key figures in English film studies than and now. Robin also suggested that I consider other programs available at Keele and Essex but I was so attracted by the atmosphere and cordiality I experienced on my visit there that Warwick was my obvious choice.

Three other students were on the M.A. Program – Brian Taylor, Marian Doyen, and Ramin from Iran. I often wonder what has happened to him over the years and hope that he is all right. When I began I had no idea what would be my MA thesis but Robin suggested a dissertation on the horror film and the western. We M.A. students mostly supported ourselves financially. Andrew was fortunate enough to receive a government grant. Like the Oxbridge system, we were left to our own devices apart from a regularly scheduled seminar modeled on the Oxford-Cambridge tutorial system. Responsibility for submitting drafts of our dissertations were left to us and Robin was a very rigorous and demanding supervisor. However, we all attended the three courses available to other undergraduates at the time: Introduction to World Cinema, Hollywood Cinema, and a special seminar on the Western arranged in association with the American Studies Department with Edward Countryman and Edward Gallafent in regular attendance.

Following the screenings of the first two classes, tutorials were often also conducted with students mostly by Robin and Andrew. These sessions were personally and educationally affirming having none of the barrenness and rigidity associated with tradition university education aptly defined by Jack London as “the passionless pursuit of passionless intelligence.”  High critical standards, nevertheless, were expected and all of us attempted to deliver them accordingly.

Robin also brought many contemporary critics such as Richard Dyer, Claire Johnston, Alan Lovell, and Jim Pines down to lecture. Often we would meet at the house owned by Robin and John Anderson for evening meals and stimulating discussions. I often said to Robin during phone conversations in the last year that he was guilty of “spoiling us.” He introduced us to a world where university education was creative, fulfilling, and stimulating, far different from what it is now, as well as far removed from the anti- intellectual departmental environment I initially encountered where the only approved readings outside course texts were those derived from the labels of Budweiser cans. Horrified at a Provost’s suggestion that statistics should be used to “evaluate” what should have been a positively creative experience I found myself in an environment having too many close parallels to the world of Louis Ferdinand Celine often listening to the repeated class comment of one student that a film was “too damned long.” I remember the shocked expression on a wannabee Hollywood screenwriter professor one day. “You’re reading a book? You’re reading a book?” Even an English department could contain “witty” comments on Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and nothing else on any other worthy film. I do not exaggerate dear reader. These incidents actually happened.

In his last two decades, Robin eventually realized that the model of F.R. Leavis’s Cambridge no longer existed and that universities were now merely training schools for those wanting entry into the capitalist system and its values. This may be regarded as a sweeping statement and evoke outrage in certain quarters. However, Robin evaluated the university as to how much or how little it approximated F.R. Leavis’s goal of a creative center of critical intelligence uninfluenced by market values and the insidious numbers game mechanism that may open new departments, such as business studies, or close others (usually in the humanities) no matter how worthy their creative achievements may be. In an era where university Presidents openly refer to students as “customers” (with the parallel implication of regarding faculty as service workers behind the counter expected to follow that business axiom “The customer is always right”), Robin’s critiques are more relevant today than ever especially with undergraduate students oppressed by loans and huge tuition fees and their graduate counterparts desperately hoping that their roulette wheel gamble with heavy debts will eventually get them that lucky number of a tenure track position in an era where part-time, poorly paid adjunct positions are now becoming the norm under new market conditions. Unfortunately, corporate values rule universities today with higher administrators earning obscene salaries at a time of economic recession, making one incompetent decision after another until they eventually receive their golden parachute, more often than not returning to the classroom “where they really belong” and continuing their inefficiencies in subject areas they have long lost any interest in.

Yes, it was a different era and I weep for those students experiencing a very different situation today. But, at the same time, I recall what the late Jim Allen (who often collaborated with Ken Loach) once said to a group of visiting American students at the old Manchester Film and Video Workshop in the early 1980s who regarded his talk and the film he ran as equivalent to an encounter with a space alien—“You can’t make your private deal with capitalism.” This is truer today than ever before especially for those spineless faculty members and complacent students who think they can personally benefit from what is really an appalling state of affairs.
Like most British universities of that time, many stimulating cultural activities occurred in Warwick since this was before the student loans era introduced by Tony Blair as one of his first official acts in 1997 and the recent New Labour expectation that business models should dominate higher education. Warwick University Film Society ran offerings such as Brian De Palma’s Sisters and Orson Welles’s F for Fake.  Nearby Coventry had its cinemas showing films such as Carrie and Barry Lyndon while London was only one hour away in those halcyon years of British Rail before it became privatized, broken up into inefficiently run franchises, and hideously expensive.

By the fall of 1977, Robin had moved to Canada and I had returned to my version of the “asshole of the world” aptly defined by that line in Apocalypse Now when I should have gone back to Manchester. By then, Robin had written his classic essay on the American Horror Film with its generous footnote mentioning me when it was really another example of his unique creative thought. Maybe my enthusiasm over The Texas Chainsaw Massacre had something to do with it? Who knows? In 1979, Robin performed another very humane and generous act in helping me out of my current cultural and professional isolation by inviting me to participate in “The American Nightmare” retrospective that he and Richard Lippe programmed for the Toronto Film Festival. That was my first visit to North America. As well as meeting Wes Craven, Brian DePalma, George Romero, and Stephanie Rothman, I used my speakers’ fee for a Greyhound Bus trip to see as much of America as possible visiting Buffalo, New York, Providence, R.I (due to my interest in H.P. Lovecraft), Washington, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Athens, Ohio before returning to Toronto. George Romero was very hospitable when I visited the Latent Image in Pittsburgh. I saw the basement used in Night of the Living Dead, met Vince Survinski and other Romero associates such as Christine Romero, Michael Gornick, and Tony Buba, visited the Monroeville Mall site for Dawn of the Dead when malls were unknown in England. During my Athens, Ohio visit I also met Jerry Fielding who had scored many of Peckinpah’s films. I mention all this because it was due to Robin’s generosity that I was able to visit a country I never thought I would ever be able to do and experienced a recharging of my critical batteries.

I did not see Robin again until a decade later when I visited a Toronto that was beginning to show the signs of decline mentioned in the www.wsws.org .interview with David Walsh and Joanne Laurier. By then, I had managed to escape from Thatcher’s Britain in the more than coincidental year of 1984, and made my first contribution to cineACTION!. This was a journal he founded as part of an editorial collective with Andrew Britton, Richard Lippe, and several of his graduate students. As a magazine of radical film criticism in its early years, cineACTION! bore more than a passing resemblance to Scrutiny but it was one having an entirely different approach criticizing the Hollywood mainstream and championing more alternative forms of representation. In 1989, Robin was beginning to become disillusioned with higher education and he eventually resigned from York University in 1990 to work on novels and other forms of writing. We kept up phone contact for the next two decades.

It is difficult for me to write objectively about his work. Like many, I was inspired by his writing in the early days and this still continues in the present. I met many students and young tenure-track faculty who were similarly impressed and I had to reiterate constantly to Robin that he was not forgotten but still inspired others despite the moribund state of higher education and the shallow attitude of many academics who flirted with high theory but understood absolutely nothing of central importance for creative existence. They evoke the type aptly described by Hardy Kruger’s Heinrich Dorfmann in Robert Aldrich’s The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) who have “remembered everything and learned nothing.” For me, Robin was a very important mentor whose inspiration was central despite the fact that our literary and cinematic interests often diverged. Robin could be awkward and difficult at times but who is not? We clashed on the merits of The Deer Hunter versus Apocalypse Now as well as the significance of Oliver Stone’s work. But there was never any of that pathologically academic acrimonious backbiting and nursing of old scores awaiting payback at a particular time no matter how far in the future it may be. Fortunately, what I’ve often described as the “psychopathology of academic life” was never one of Robin’s characteristics and this was due to his outsider status in the realms of honesty and integrity, rare qualities in academia as in most areas of everyday life.

Despite his suspicions about Michael Powell (and it is interesting that I Know Where I’m Going is on his Criterion Collection Top Ten list, another example showing that he was never as rigid as certain detractors believe), I remember that person saying to me during the time I met him as resident director at Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios, “Creative people are difficult. That’s why they’re creative!” If Robin every hurt anybody, this was either due to the fact that they espoused an untenable position opposed to his own higher standards or failed to recognize the often ironic tone of his wit. It is more true to say that he was the injured party in many instances especially when former supporters at Warwick University turned against him, leading him to return to Canada once again. It is little wonder that his final project (which will never be finished now) was a book length study of the films of Michael Haneke, a director having a grim perspective about the past, present, and future but whose work contains a rigorous sense of honesty that Robin appreciated.

No matter what our perspectives may be, it is true to say that we have now lost one of the greatest talents in film criticism of the post-war years. Like F.R. Leavis, Robin was opposed to dilettantism and his attitude would be very different from those self-styled “film experts” who plague English and media departments today. In Hitchcock’s Films, he quotes Spenser. “For of the soul the body form doth take; and soul is form and doth the body make.” Robin then makes the logical conclusion, one that influenced his entire critical being. “If we can’t find the `soul’ of a work of art expressed in its body, informing and giving life to every limb, then we may be pretty sure it is not worth looking for.” This is something that unconsciously motivated my book on Robert Aldrich more than coincidentally titled Body and Soul: The Cinematic Vision of Robert Aldrich. He was a director that Robin would have disagreed with me concerning my evaluation of his work. Had we ever debated, I’m sure a comment such as “Yes, but…” would have emerged. Similarly, when I questioned Robin’s comment about George Romero’s Creepshow as being little better than “a series of empty anecdotes in which nasty people do nasty things to other nasty people” he admitted that he had no knowledge of the EC Comics tradition that motivated this film. Anyone else would have bluffed their way out of this dilemma. By contrast, Robin had the personal honesty and integrity not to do this. Whether he would have changed his mind over Creepshow is another matter.

In his very affirmative and generous tribute David Bordwell also defines what really mattered for Robin in terms of the impact his monographs had during the ’60s and early ’70s:

“These monographs showed, in incisive detail, what most auteur criticism simply proclaimed: great directors expressed their personal vision of life in and through cinema. Wood showed, scene by scene and sometimes shot by shot, that movies harbored layers of feeling and implication in their fines grain of detail. Without fanfare he introduced ‘close reading’ to film criticism. Although never academic in the narrow sense, he took cinema as seriously as did critics of art or music or literature.”

Indeed, it is this seriousness that links both the early and later stages of Wood’s critical trajectory and it is a mistake to separate them by mourning the loss of the humanistic early Wood who became seduced by the rigid concepts of Marxism, psychoanalysis, feminism, and gay liberation. Both were complementary.

Other insightful comments by Bordwell in his December 19, 2009 internet tribute are also relevant here: “For Wood as for Leavis, great art inevitably grappled with the ultimate demands of living. Close analysis was nothing unless it revealed the author’s felt engagement with human values. This state of affairs imposed equally stringent obligations on the critic…Being a critic, analyzing and interpreting and judging, was a heavy responsibility, and every word had to be weighed. The very status of film as art, indeed the status of art itself, was at stake.”

Later, he would find the issue of human values intrinsically bound up with those later political areas he began to explore and discuss in his wrings. As Bordwell points out, “The responsibility of criticism made writing inescapably personal. The critic responds to the work as a living being, as a `whole man alive’ – a Leavis phrase that Wood was wont to quote. Personal Views, the title of Wood’s first collection of essays, signaled both the artistic visions expressed in the films he studied and the sincerity with which he advocated for or inveighed against a film, a trend, or a system of ideas.”

It again has to be emphasized that the concepts of F.R. Leavis were always an integral part of Robin’s critical philosophy. Although that Cambridge literary critic dismissed film, Robin revealed that the work of Alfred Hitchcock and others could survive the most rigorous type of scrutiny exemplified in that form of critical practice. In his speech following his Life Achievement Award at a meeting of The Society for Cinema and Media Studies, he again championed the role of this great critic. Unfortunately, the response on the part of certain members fully justified his suspicion concerning this academic body and its publication Cinema Journal whose contents often embodied that barren academic prose that contrasted with the type of creative, personal and vital writing that he so espoused. Film had to be taken seriously as well as a commitment to progressive social change that would also embody the life affirming elements contained in that Great Tradition that so influenced him.

Robin went peacefully but we do have his important critical legacy one that will endure and become re-evaluated over the years but in the mode of “Yes, but…?” “It is so, isn’t it?” with those important question marks motivating our readings and changed perspectives in the manner that Robin often did. I will now end by quoting those lines from the concluding service of Sam Peckinpah’s The Ballad of Cable Hogue but omitting the deity associated with Robin’s favorite hymn “Oh, come, all ye faithful”. “Take him…but don’t take him lightly”, for all present and future readers.