Robin Wood (23 February 1931 – 18 December 2009)

Over the next few months I am re-publishing the posts that I want to preserve from the previous incarnation of this blog, just in case I ever lose control of that site or it vanishes. What follows was originally published on 31 December 2009 on betweensympathyanddetachment.blogspot.co.uk.

If one wished to show a person outside the academy how films can be discussed and attended to intelligently, in a manner that goes beyond the swapping of prejudices in conversation, and the journalistic practice of summarizing a film’s plot and awarding a number of stars between nought and some other number, but that does not alienate a non-academic audience through its style, theoretical apparatus and/or unstated assumptions, then one would do well to recommend any of the numerous books written by Robin Wood, a film critic who participated in the creation of film studies as an academic discipline and critically chronicled its evolution, who died earlier this month.

It was heartening to witness the flurry of internet testimonials that swiftly followed the announcement of Wood’s passing. Many of those writing had known Wood personally, or at least encountered him once or twice. But even among those who had not, there was often an impulse to share ‘what Robin Wood had meant to them’ – when they had first encountered his writing and how it had shaped their approach or style, or even encouraged them to take up film studies as an academic pursuit. This is entirely appropriate, since there are few writers – and still fewer academic writers – who give so much of themselves, in a particular way, on the page. To read (and re-read) Robin Wood is to learn about Robin Wood’s life, to be invited to accompany him on his never-ending quest to critically examine (and re-examine) not only a set of films or a culture, but himself – all these tasks being demonstrated, in the process, to be inseparable from one another.

My initial decision to study film had nothing to do with Robin Wood. The directions that my study has taken, though, have been deeply influenced by his work. The University of Warwick is a good place to become steeped in Wood lore. Its Department of Film and Television Studies maintains a commitment to close textual analysis, one of the key features of Wood’s work. Indeed, Wood taught in the department in the 1970s, alongside several members of staff who still work there today (and with whom I have often taken the opportunity to discuss him). One of the major turning points in Wood’s intellectual life was the relationship that he formed with Warwick’s second postgraduate film student, Andrew Britton. Take a trip up to the third floor of Warwick’s library, and you will find a copy of the first issue of the film journal Framework, founded at Warwick by its postgraduate film students (including Britton), which features an interview with Robin Wood about teaching at Warwick, and includes a picture of a long-haired, bearded Wood holding forth at the bottom of a lecture hall. As far as I can tell it is room H0.51. I would like to think that it is, as this is the room where, around thirty years later, I delivered Hollywood Cinema lectures to second year undergraduates – including on my reading list several pieces by Wood (both his accounts of Vertigo, and his ‘Ideology, Genre, Auteur’ piece, which contains brilliant readings of Shadow of a Doubt and It’s a Wonderful Life). My PhD thesis used a quote from Wood’s bookPersonal Views as its title and its structuring idea (and the presence of Wood in the account as a whole goes far beyond the places where he is cited). That quote, which compares the camerawork of Max Ophuls to that of Alfred Hitchcock and Otto Preminger, is also the name of this blog: ‘Between Sympathy and Detachment’.

Wood writes with an enviable fluidity. His passion and vigour is unmissable, but my feeling is that his acuity – the perceptiveness with which he crystallizes, without fuss or fanfare, the crux of a movie’s operations – only really comes to light when one turns to study and write about the films Wood has already discussed. Take this passage from Wood’s (first) discussion of Vertigo:

There follows about a quarter of an hour without dialogue, showing us the growth of Scottie’s obsession with Madeleine. She herself is introduced by a camera movement different from any that has preceded it, that sets a new mood, maintained throughout the ensuing sequences up to Scottie’s next meeting with Midge.

Wood moves between details (a passage without dialogue, a distinctive camera movement) and effects (showing the growth of obsession, setting a mood) with seeming effortlessness and utter modesty, quietly tying his far-reaching account of and argument about the movie to observable textual features, convincing the reader and taking them along with him, whilst never breaking his stride. Along with V F Perkins and Gilberto Perez, Wood is one of the writers whose style I aspire to.

Perhaps another reason why even those who have not met him feel close to Wood – beyond his weaving of his personal life into his critical accounts, I mean – is his ‘conversational’ style. By this I do not mean ‘chatty’: Wood does not attempt to disarm you with a direct address or a pally nudge. Rather (and more on this later), one is faced with a writer always (ie. never) making up his mind, weighing up tensions, entertaining counter-arguments, balancing contrasting features… living continuously with his favourite works, and returning to them endlessly for further inspiration and insight. Throughout his life, Wood’s most fundamental intellectual influence was F R Leavis, for whom the ideal critical exchange took the form ‘This is so, isn’t it?’/’Yes, but…’ This is what makes me particularly sad to have never met Robin Wood: his style on the page made me want to know him off it. To discuss, face to face, with Robin Wood (and others), with a DVD beside us to consult, La Règle du jeu, Vertigo, Letter from an Unknown Woman… to have a living conversation, where we could spend an hour on a second of film, probing the implications and possibilities of a gesture, a line, a look! That would have been a precious and joyous experience.

I knew, as I prepared to compose this tribute, that I could not embark upon the writing of it without first re-reading the thing that I often find myself returning to for a blast of inspiration and motivation: the 1988 introduction to Hitchcock’s Film RevisitedHitchcock’s Films was originally published in 1965. As is the case with many academic books, it was later added to: an extra chapter, on Torn Curtain, was added in 1969, and a ‘Retrospective’ in 1977. It was in 1989, though, that a much more unusual revision and expansion occurred. Hitchcock’s Films Revisited was published. It included a new introduction, followed by the contents of the original book (complete with 1969 and 1977 additions), followed by eight new chapters. Between the publication of Hitchcock’s Films and Hitchcock’s Films Revisited, Wood’s thinking, and life, had undergone a profound shift. He had come out as a homosexual, and become politically conscious, adopting a form of feminist-socialism. Wood’s view of how criticism ought to function had also changed. Wood now saw his original work as assuming that the role of criticism was to explicate great works, whose greatness was attributable solely to their author, and resided in the profundity of their statements concerning an unchanging ‘human nature’. The newly politicized Wood found these assumptions deeply problematic: what we often think of as falling under ‘human nature’ is in fact a construction of the dominant ideology, and is rendered as such precisely to make it appear ‘natural’, that is, unsusceptible to change by, say, political action. But whilst the dominant culture may appear coherent and unified, if one looks closely, and critically, and begins to scratch the surface a little, one will find tensions, contradictions, and even radical possibilities. Great works of art, and their creators, are not shut off from a culture and its tensions; rather, their greatness resides in their dramatization/thematization of these tensions.

Hitchcock’s Films Revisited, then, displays the invigorating spectacle of a critic coming to terms with a past version of himself. In the introduction, Wood explains at length the principles lying behind his decision not to censor his former self, but instead to surround the former text with what amounts to a counter-argument (though not an absolute repudiation), and to annotate that text with new footnotes.

The errors are, I think, worth registering rather than surreptitiously correcting: to draw attention to their existence should help to counter the very common tendency among film students to quote from printed texts uncritically, as if they were assumed to be sacrosanct and infallible.

This kind of public acknowledgment of one’s own error may harbour its own kind of narcissism – as Wood himself acknowledges in a further introduction to the 2002 edition of Hitchcock’s Films Revisited. However, when one has witnessed the tenacity with which others working within academia will stick to their guns (I choose the metaphor of confrontation and destruction advisedly), Wood’s actions appear all the more worthy of praise. The egotism – and often, the machismo – that one finds everywhere one looks in the contemporary university has other unfortunate consequences, as Wood noted. Whatever criticisms one may have of it, one could not describe Hitchcock’s Films Revisited – nor the overwhelming majority of the rest of Wood’s output – as anything less than totally committed: aware of its place in its cultural moment, involving the writer’s whole being, morally and intellectually, and emerging from a love of that which it concerns itself with, not wishing to master and subjugate its object, but part of an ongoing, mutually-enriching relationship, an endless unfolding. Wood was not publishing to fulfil a quota of ‘outputs’ expected of him by a central university administration so that his department could successfully pass through an assessment exercise and declare itself ‘the 7th best film department in [wherever]’. Indeed, competition as a whole was often attacked by Wood as one of the destructive modes of behaviour fostered by a capitalist society. As Stefan Collini has noted, assessment exercises that pit comparable departments in the same country against one another run contrary to the collaborative, cross-institutional nature of academic enquiry at its best.

The modern university was something that would often find its way into Wood’s prose. Take, for example, this passage from the newest preface to Hitchcock’s Films Revisited:

The term [education] has changed its meaning since I studied at Cambridge in the early 1950s. Then, it meant (to me at least) something like ‘defining oneself in relation to our cultural history, our living past, and in relation to the world today; developing oneself intellectually, emotionally, culturally; learning to make choices, to discriminate; discovering onself, developing oneself.’ Today (to judge from the responses of many students I have encountered), it means ‘Will this help me to a career? If not, will I at least get a good grade?’

Whatever its flaws and silences, one gets from Wood’s prose what one rarely finds in prose associated with the academy (to the extent that when one is confronted with it, there is the temptation to scoff at its naivete): accounts that hold themselves accountable not only to ‘the text itself’ (whatever that may be) or a theoretical approach, but to the whole of life and culture – to what is wrong with our mode of social organization, and what a better one might be like, or how it might feel. This is why Wood felt justifiably aggrieved when people tried to separate his readings of films from his radical politics, or told him that his first book on Hitchcock was his best. Wood felt, rightly, that his politics and his critical method were inseparable.

Wood championed a mode of social organization that best recognised and nurtured human creativity, and fostered its fulfilment in all. This is why, as well as opposing the stultification of capitalism, he registered his rejection of left wing ideologies and theories, including film theories, that he perceived to be anti-humanist (and, relatedly, to be hostile to the concept of value). Finding the world around him – the ‘impoverished, polluted soil of patriarchal capitalism’ – so unconducive to such ‘blossoming of the soul’, Wood was struck with wonder when he encountered works that offered glimpses of a better one. Terry Eagleton has argued that in our instrumentalist, neo-liberal culture, where so many people know the price of everything and the value of nothing, art has come to play a surprisingly important ethical role in our lives. Spending a lifetime educating oneself and others about the critical role of great artworks and great artists, and arguing for those works’ value, as Wood did, would then seem to be a worthwhile endeavour indeed.

This is so, isn’t it?

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