Posted by Susan Doll on January 11, 2010
Over the holidays, celebrated film scholar Robin Wood died of leukemia at age 78. I did not realize he had passed away until I saw his obituary on the Internet early last week, and I was saddened by the loss. Of all the historians, scholars, and critics I have studied and read over the years, Wood has been my most lasting influence.
While I enjoy reading the work of those who regularly write about film, I am extremely selective about those writers I consider true influences. The problem I generally find with the hundreds upon hundreds of writers who hold forth on film is twofold: Scholars steeped in cinema history, theory, and aesthetics write in such a tedious style that their ideas are lost in their academic jargon; critics and reviewers who write in breezy, entertaining styles often have so little formal background in film studies that their interpretations of movies are inaccurate or distorted, and their opinions are little more than reflections of their personal tastes. Scholars are often elitist in their choice of films to study or analyze, which can make them dismiss the very movies most of us enjoy. On the other hand, reviewers and critics are too blinded by their personal tastes or too full of themselves to be truly interested in helping their readers get more out of their viewing experiences. Robin Wood was that rare film scholar who loved popular movies, understood the contexts in which they were produced, and was devoted to interpreting them in a down to earth style that anyone could understand.
Born in 1931 in Richmond, Surrey, Wood tolerated a conventional middle-class childhood, including the obligatory stint in an English boarding school. He attended Cambridge and became a teacher at various secondary schools in Britain and Europe. At one school, he began a film society for his students and then decided that they should all write essays on the movies they watched. Getting in the spirit along with his students, Wood wrote an essay on Psycho. He began to realize that the Hollywood movies he had always loved could be discussed seriously as art—an art autonomous from literature or theater. Wood submitted his piece on Psycho to Sight and Sound magazine, but the editor refused it, adding that Wood had obviously missed the fact that Hitchcock intended Psycho as a joke! Yikes! I wonder what happened to that editor.
Wood sent the article to Cahiers du cinema, which published it. After his article appeared in Cahiers in 1962, he began submitting essays to Movie, a new English film journal that challenged the old order of criticism. Just like the early 1960s saw a revolution in filmmaking in the western world, so began a new era in film criticism, with Wood ahead of the pack. In 1965, he published his first successful book, Hitchcock’s Films, which took the Master of Suspense seriously as an artist when most of the world still considered him a maker of entertainment for the masses. Though the French had elevated the role of the film director to that of serious artist, or auteur, in Cahiers du cinema, and Andrew Sarris had taken up that cause in America, Wood’s book on Hitchcock became a seminal publication for England in that direction. Francois Truffaut pays homage to Hitchcock’s Films as a significant link in the evolution of the auteur theory by including it in a scene in Day for Night, which is Truffaut’s valentine to filmmaking. In Day for Night, Truffaut also stars as the main character, a movie director embarking on his next project. In one scene, the director receives a package of books in the mail; as he goes through the package, each book is shown in close-up, which is an excuse for Truffaut to pay his respects to the books and the scholars he admires, including Hitchcock’s Films by Wood.
In 1977, Wood moved to Canada to teach film studies at York University where he remained until retirement in 1990. During the 1970s, Wood’s approach to criticism was influenced and even reshaped by socio-political movements such as the women’s movement and gay rights, and he tackled burgeoning film theories such as structuralism and psychoanalytic theory. More monographs on directors followed over the years, along with books on genres and the nature of film criticism, including Howard Hawks, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan, and Sexual Politics and Narrative Film.
Of all the books associated with Wood, the one that has meant the most to me is American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film, a selection of articles by Wood and three associates published in connection with a retrospective of the American horror film at the Toronto Film Festival in 1979. Truth be told, I don’t really own the “book.” When the title was first suggested to me as a resource for a class that I was teaching, I photocopied American Nightmare at the library, and I still use that copy, which is pictured at the top of this post. Over the years, I have highlighted passages from Wood’s contributions to the book and made notes in the margins. Each time I use American Nightmare, I make more notes, so the photocopy is like a chronicle of my own thoughts on Wood’s ideas. My worn-out photocopy of his book may be an eyesore but it is my monument to his influence on me, and I am sentimentally attached to it.
In Wood’s introduction to the book, he lays out his interpretation of the horror film, the genre most often despised or ridiculed by reviewers and scholars alike. He took the horror film seriously as the genre that exposes the nature of familial and personal relationships in our society. Using psychoanalytical theory, he postulated that the monster in a horror film represents the “Other,” which is something middle-class, mainstream society attempts to repress, ignore, or eliminate much to its detriment. However, that which is repressed must come out, and so the monster—symbolic of dark sexual desires, anger, violent tendencies—will inevitably be unleashed. Killing the monster is equivalent to putting a lid back on those dark urges. That Wood suggested a link between personal repression and social oppression made his ideas that much more interesting and useful. Thus, in some films, the monster could represent class oppression, racism, or gender subjugation. I completely stole Wood’s interpretation of the horror film for my classes on genre, though I have elaborated on it over the years. Students always enjoy getting something deeper out of a genre many of them love because it validates their tastes while making them think.
In addition to his engaging writing style and his willingness to treat popular genres as serious art, I was influenced by other aspects of Wood’s scholarship and criticism. He preferred very close readings of films as opposed to cursory generalizations. Scene by scene, and sometimes shot by shot, he unpeeled the various layers of a film’s meaning. He often commented that he preferred to see a film he was writing about more than once because he could never completely understand it after only one viewing—a statement I can’t help but recall whenever I read one of those superficial reviews that pop up on a film’s opening day. Throughout his career, Wood was a humanist who pondered the ways in which the movies revealed something profound about the human condition. He engaged in criticism that was not evaluative but put a film in a context to explain it so that his readers could get something meaningful out of their viewing experiences. Robin Wood’s rigorous writing with its sincere and serious style was about as far removed as you can get from the snarky, flippant commentary so prevalent in today’s reviews, particularly on the Internet.
I also admire Wood’s comments on contemporary films, trends, and styles revealed in his recent writings and interviews, and his views have helped shape my own. At the conclusion of his consideration of Under Capricorn in Hitchcock’s Films Revisited, he wrote, “. . . anyone willing to accept that terms such as ‘slow-moving,’ ‘melodramatic,’ ‘devoid of humor’ are descriptive, not evaluative, should be capable of recognizing the centrality of Under Capricorn . . . .” He seemed to be indirectly criticizing those reviewers and critics who have been weaned on hyper-paced editing, ironic Tarantino-like dialogue, and action-based genres and are all too quick to crucify any film with sentiment or melodrama, or with a measured sense of pacing. In an interview on the World Socialist Website, Wood was asked about contemporary cinema, and he confessed, “I hate a cinema that’s been taken over by special effects.” And, though he used to be a fan of action films, he noted, “I don’t find contemporary ones exciting. They’re just boring. Often the first half hour is interesting when the characters are being introduced, after that it’s just explosions, explosions, more explosions, bodies being shattered, people falling off roofs. I find it noisy and boring.” I also love action films and regret that they have become bogged down in needless CGI and badly edited explosion scenes. I wonder what Wood would think of films like Avatar, in which the special effects drive the material instead of servicing it.
Of all the lessons that I learned from Robin Wood, the most important involved professional graciousness. My first job out of graduate school was as an associate editor for a four-volume film encyclopedia, and Wood agreed to write a handful of essays on specific films and directors for the project. I copyedited his work, and I had the nerve or stupidity to change a few phrases of his well-written pieces. I phoned him to talk over the changes, as was our policy, and instead of objecting or complaining, he kindly declared how much better I had made his essays sound and thanked me for it. It was a complete fabrication on his part, because I did not make his essays read better, but he understood the value of encouraging a young cinephile. I didn’t quite catch on to him until I was older and wiser, but after I realized his generosity and courteousness, I was inspired to be as gracious to those seeking my help. Robin Wood was an incredible film scholar and an even better man.
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