From the monthly archives: December 2009

ROBIN WOOD

23 February 1931 – 18 December 2009

 

Robert Paul “Robin” Wood died this past December at his home in Toronto from complications associated with Leukemia. His longtime partner Richard Lippe was at his side. Robin Wood was a world renowned film critic whose essays and books changed the direction of film criticism and scholarship.  His books on Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Ingmar Bergman, Claude Chabrol, Satyajit Ray, Arthur Penn along with his landmark readings of horror films and his collections of essays mark a seminal contribution in the history of writing about film.

Born in England and educated at Cambridge where he studied under F.R. Leavis and others, Robin Wood learned the value of reading the text. While the literary critics at Cambridge may not have appreciated his emphasis on popular culture, they gave him the critical tools to treat films as works of art that carry important cultural and moral meaning. His readings of a wide spectrum of films (from Hitchcock to Haneke) are all shaped by a sensibility to narrative structure and visual style, read through minute cinematic detail, characters/actors, quality of direction, feeling and ideology.  Robin Wood started to write about film before VCRs existed. He thus developed an astonishing talent for recollecting audio-visual details, often breaking films down into shots and remembering entire film sequences through dialogue. This attentiveness to the formal qualities meant that he would see a film numerous times before writing about it (and would never write about a film he saw only once). Such attention to the formal complexity of visual and narrative detail would characterize his exacting critical prose from the start, and indeed is the very quality of close textual reading that has come to represent a certain tradition in film studies and criticism that we associate with publications like Cahiers du cinéma (which published his first essay on Psycho in 1960) and the journal Movie to which Robin Wood contributed for many years.

As literary works were for Leavis, film for Robin Wood was not separate from the world but very much implicated in its social fabric. It was the responsibility of the critic to discern these meanings and to communicate them to a larger community. Robin Wood’s writings have that special and rare quality of being both profound and accessible. This responsibility became overtly political in one of his landmark essays “Responsibilities of a Gay Film Critic.” Here is the opening paragraph:

First, my title. I intend equal emphasis on all three terms: gay film critic. Critic: one concerned in problems of the interpretation and evaluation of art and artifacts. Film critic: one who makes the central areas of that concern the cinema. Gay-not just the word and the fact it points to, but the word and fact asserted publicly: one who is conscious of belonging to one of society’s oppressed minority groups, and who is ready to confront the implications of that for both his theory and his practice.” (Film Comment,  Jan/Feb 1978. Vol. 14, Iss. 1: p. 12)

Thus Robin Wood formulated a political mission for film criticism (one which arguably was always present in his writings). His mode of address is direct and engaging. Students of his Advanced Seminar on “The Structure of  Film” at York University in the 1980s, will recall his introduction to Godard’s Tout Va Bien, a film deeply connected to the responsibilities of the gay film critic. Godard’s film was a form of consciousness raising which imaginedchange in terms of everything, everywhere, all at once. Robin Wood often maintained that his own task as critic and teacher was: “To contribute, in however modest a way, to the possibility of social revolution, along lines suggested by radical feminism, Marxism and gay liberation.”

Robin Wood was dedicated not only to writing about film but to teaching film studies—and he was a superb and beloved teacher. He contributed to film programs in England (University of Warwick 1973-1977) and in Canada (Queen’s University (1969-1972) and York University 1977-1991). For many years he was Chair of the Atkinson Film Program at York where he developed an entire curriculum devoted to the study of film. With students and colleagues from York, he formed a collective and launched CineAction, a journal of radical film criticism (http://cineaction.ca/) that continues to publish three issues annually. He retired as Emeritus Professor in the early 1990s and continued to teach graduate courses in the Department of Film until 2007.

While Robin Wood should never be thought of as a Canadian Film Critic — his political and cultural concerns were always far broader and international. He has however, contributed to film studies in this country by virtue of the thousands of students, scholars and filmmakers that he has fostered through his writings and teachings over the last four decades. In May 2006, the Film Studies Association of Canada hosted a “Tribute to Robin Wood” (later published in CineAction 71 ) in recognition of his stellar contributions to our field. As Peter Harcourt, another legend in film studies and the person responsible for bringing Robin Wood over to teach in Canada, has said: “Loving him as a friend, I knew from the outset that Robin would contribute enormously to the discourse of film studies in this country; and this he has certainly done. To experience Robin discussing a film is not only to alter one’s understanding of how films can be discussed but also of how they are related to the moral fabric of the social world.” (“Tribute to Robin Wood,” FSAC May 2006). Robin Wood’s unique critical voice, his brilliant film analysis and audacious writing style (always brimming with surprising insights and (re)evaluations), and his singular vision for the politics of film criticism – will be sadly missed.

Janine Marchessault
York University 2009

Janine Marchessault studied with Robin Wood, and was a member of the CineAction Editorial Collective for several years.

 

Select Bibliography

Hitchcock’s Films, 1965
Howard Hawks, 1968
Ingmar Bergman, 1969
Arthur Penn, 1969
Claude Chabrol, Wood and Michael Walker, 1970
Antonioni, Revised Edition, Wood and Ian Cameron, 1971
The Apu Trilogy, 1971.
Personal Views: Explorations in Film, 1976
Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan, 1986
Hitchcock’s Films Revisited, 1989
Sexual Politics and Narrative Film: Hollywood and Beyond, 1998
The Wings of the Dove: Henry James in the 1990s, 1999
Hitchcock’s Films Revisited, Revised Edition, 2002
Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan…and Beyond, 2003

Bibliography Compiled by D. K. Holm: http://www.cinemonkey.com/reviews/robinwood/woodbooks/woodbooks.html

Recent Interview with Robin Wood: http://www.yourfleshmag.com/artman/publish/article_773.shtml

Eulogies:
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/22/arts/22wood.html

For extensive links to a growing list of eulogies see:
The Auteurs Daily http://www.theauteurs.com/notebook/posts/1345

Film Studies for Free http://filmstudiesforfree.blogspot.com/