Peter Harcourt (1931-2014)
Peter Harcourt, An Introduction
When Joyce Nelson and I edited our anthology Canadian Film Reader in 1977 we decided to end the book with a chapter entitled, “Introduction.” It was too cute a ploy, something I wouldn’t do today. On the other hand I’ve never regretted our choice of author for that piece: Peter Harcourt.
Peter was the Introduction to Canadian Film. He began by introducing it to himself, coming around the long way as so many people did back then. As a University of Toronto undergrad he studied music and played jazz trumpet. Then he off he went to study English literature at Cambridge under the sway of F.R. Leavis who demanded only that the study of anything be productively engaged in the construction of a better world. Like Grierson or fellow Leavis student, Robin Wood, Peter came to believe that film was his path to exactly that sort of critical engagement. The early sixties found him working at the British Film Institute’s Education Department, contributing to he film journals of the day and eventually teaching film courses at a number of art schools around London.
England, as it turned out, was prologue. In 1964, Peter wrote a long article for Sight and Sound about the National Film Board’s Unit B. In it, we find that self-introduction to his own national cinema:
There is something very Canadian in all this, something which my own Canadianness prompts me to define. There is in all these films a quality of suspended judgment, of something left open at the end, of something undecided…there is also something academic about the way Canadian films have been conceived. There is something rather detached from the immediate pressures of existence, something rather apart. “The Innocent Eye: An Aspect of the Work of the National Film Board of Canada” (Sight and Sound, 34, 1 (Winter, 1964-65), p. 21.
It seems to me that when Peter wrote this he had found his Leavis-mandated cause, the nexus of his critical work: a non-negotiable demand for purposeful detachment, manning the barricades of a space “rather apart.”
So began Peter’s second work of introduction, introducing this understanding of Canadian cinema, Canadianness, Canada to Canadians themselves. He returned home to a perfect storm of cinematic energies: a crescendo of Canadian documentary at Expo and Challenge for Change; the chaos (creative and otherwise) of a newly subsidized feature film industry, a free for all of emerging talent finding its way into every genre. Peter was hired to add one more ingredient to the mix: university film studies. He founded the program at Queen’s in 1967, shaped the emerging York program beginning in 1974 and then went on to his permanent home, Carleton, in 1978.
Peter taught with humanity and passion, weaving together the cosmopolitan refinement gleaned from his London days and the pursuit of his Canadian mission. His classroom was a conversation that often spilled over to the campus pub. No one was left unheard. Peter’s former students smile at the sound of his name.
He also wrote – constantly and on everything from European masters and emerging experimental filmmakers to the minutiae of government film policy. I don’t recall him attacking films or filmmakers, not even those of the New Hollywood, our principal nemesis. What he did best was to champion filmmakers who mirrored his own discovery of detachment and the something rather apart. His pantheon was made of cinematic slow food, filmmakers who could wait for the point to make itself.
Peter’s most lasting introduction – what I will remember him most for providing – was the introduction of all of us to each other. His pursuit of Canadian cinema took place at the personal level, over who knows how many dinners over who knows how many years. He always cited people, no matter how elevated their stature, by their first names. This wasn’t entertainment sleaze-speak. Peter really knew everyone across and well beyond the spectrum of Canadian cinema. And he expected them to work for the common goal. If there was an impenetrable cultural divide or a deathless ideological struggle going on, you would never know it from the people sitting at Peter’s table. Not even the gender wars could shake his inclusiveness. He told anyone who would listen that feminism was the Copernican Revolution of our times. The cosmos, having shifted, wasn’t going to shift back.
That glad, gregarious, prolific acceptance of the future is Peter’s great legacy. He writes in his memoirs of being a child in the grey Pre-War English Canada, a soulless, frozen outpost of the dying British Empire. After that, everything got better. Thanks to Peter’s introductions, it also got better for everyone whose lives he touched.
 A Canadian Journey: Conversations With Time. Ottawa: Oberon Press, 1994.
Professor Emeritus Peter Morris, a pioneer in the field of Canadian film studies, passed away on February 2 after a brief battle with cancer.
Prof. Morris joined York’s Faculty of Fine Arts in 1988 as a professor in the Department of Film, where he taught in the undergraduate and graduate programs until his retirement in 2002. He also taught in York’s Graduate Program in Communications & Culture.
Alongside his contributions in the classroom, Prof. Morris was an able academic administrator, serving as director of the Graduate Program in Film (1991-1994), chair of the Department of Film (1993-1996) and coordinator of the interdisciplinary Fine Arts Cultural Studies Program (1999 to 2003) in the Faculty of Fine Arts.
Colleagues describe him as being a passionate and dedicated teacher who was committed to advancing the understanding, teaching, preservation and appreciation of Canadian cinema history.
“In 1967, the warehouse containing the original prints of Canada’s historic films burned down. Peter was hired by the National Archives to rebuild that collection,” recalled film Professor Seth Feldman, a close friend of Prof. Morris. “In the process, he not only put together a better collection – one that was properly catalogued and accessible – but he also convinced the National Archives that its film collection was as important as any of the other collections it held.
“Peter was a thoughtful, humane, pragmatic and innovative administrator,” said Feldman. “After serving a term as chair of York’s Department of Film, he was persuaded to stay on as acting chair for another year, then another, and then the year after that. When the department was too embarrassed to ask for yet another year as acting chair, he took a sabbatical and then came back to head up the Fine Arts Cultural Studies Program. He built that small entity into a virtual department.”
In addition to his teaching and administrative prowess, Prof. Morris was a prolific author. Among his many publications are the books Embattled Shadows: A History of Canadian Cinema 1885-1939(1978, reprinted in 1992), The Film Companion (1984) and David Cronenberg: A Delicate Balance(1994). He served as editor and translator of Georges Sadoul’s 1972 Dictionary of Films andDictionary of Film Makers, and published numerous articles and monographs on Canadian and international film.
Prof. Morris was the founding curator of the Canadian Film Archives in Ottawa and the founding president of the Film Studies Association of Canada (a division of the Canadian Film Institute). From 1989 to 1993, he was editor of the Canadian Journal of Film Studies, a publication of the Film Studies Association of Canada and the country’s leading academic peer-reviewed journal in the field.
Prof. Morris leaves his wife Louise Dompierre, three children and six grandchildren.
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.
York University 2009
Janine Marchessault studied with Robin Wood, and was a member of the CineAction Editorial Collective for several years.
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
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/
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