A Life in Film Criticism: Robin Wood at 75



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A Life in Film Criticism: Robin Wood at 75
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Nov 9, 2006, 07:29

Photo by Armen Svadjian © 2006

The 1965 publication of Robin Wood's Hitchcock's Films is a landmark of film criticism. And though there are many good books on film, there are few true landmarks. To be sure, its author—a 34-year-old British schoolmaster and devoted family man—wasn't the first person to treat the venerable Master of Suspense as a serious artist: that distinction belongs to Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol. Yet Wood's book was different somehow. So rigorous in approach, so serious in tone, it almost gave the impression of having been untouched by any film criticism before it. Modest only in its size, this unassuming little tome was not content to merely appreciate Hitchcock's films. Instead, it argued for their artistic and moral integrity, invoking Keats, Shakespeare, and all of Elizabethan London in the process. Hitchcock, to the best of my knowledge, never read the book. But if he ever did, I've a hunch his face would turn a new shade of purple.

Wood had precedent behind him, though from the world of literature rather than film. The New Critics of the 1930s, for instance, had taught him to read closely and be attentive to nuance. Even more decisive was the influence of F.R. Leavis, the literary critic whose lectures Wood attended at Cambridge in the early 1950s. Ignored in his time and all but forgotten today, Leavis was serious about literature to a fault. As a critic he was mainly concerned with the moral implications of literature, with none of the attendant crudeness of approach one might expect from such a description. For him, the supreme artists were a group of novelists—people like Joseph Conrad, George Eliot, and D.H. Lawrence especially—“distinguished by a vital capacity for experience, a kind of reverent openness before life, and a marked moral intensity.” Needless to say, a credo of this sort couldn't possibly win the man many followers. “Openness before life,” “moral intensity”—forgetting for a moment how quaint these ideas sound to our modern ears, they finally mean something very different to each person, and depend too much on the critic's own personal response to be practical like semiotics, say. So much the better, thought Leavis, who put no stock in a scientific or objective approach to art. Unlike the cult studs of today, he believed that the best criticism depended not on any theory but on the critic's sensibility—and sensibility is not something you can mimic.

Wood acknowledged his debt to Leavis and “applied” those same ambiguous critical principles to film. What Leavis would have made of this is anyone's guess: besides hating popular culture in general, I know only that he preferred Keaton to Chaplin. From the evidence of the criticism itself, however, the unlikely pairing of Leavis (via Wood) and film was ideal. Like Leavis, there was nothing crude about Wood's idea of the moral in art. He was, for example, every bit as sensitive to directorial style as the Cahiers du Cinéma critics—the only difference being that, for him, style in and of itself is not enough. What finally matters is the meaning which arises out of the form: while it is easy to observe that Hitchcock is an impressive technician, says Wood, “we must always bear in mind the complex moral implications of the experiences we share or which are communicated to us.” If standards of this kind were rare in literature, they were rarer still in the cinema.

Wood was remarkably prolific throughout the 1960s: besides the uncountable number of articles he wrote for Movie and other magazines, there were books on Howard Hawks, Claude Chabrol, Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, Satyajit Ray, and Arthur Penn. In these, he developed and perfected an empirical style of criticism that deserves a category all its own: no longer Leavisian, but Woodian. He came out as gay and moved to Toronto in the early 1970s, thus ending his life as “the ideal bourgeois family man.” It's by no accident that during this transitional period Wood came to embrace a radical politics informed by Freud, Marxism, and feminism. From then on, he has tried to reconcile his earlier humanism with the more systematic methods of the ideologues/academics. The two sides have never fully come to terms with one another, but rather than weakening his criticism, this unresolved tension gives to it a greater fullness.

His essays on horror movies of the late 1970s/early 1980s—collected in the film studies staple Hollywood: From Vietnam to Reagan—were the first to recognize how well the genre lent itself to psychoanalytic reading. As ever, he was virtually alone in many of his aesthetic judgments, boldly downgrading critical safe bets like Davids Cronenberg and Lynch in favor of Larry Cohen's allegorical shoestring nightmares. Pauline Kael notwithstanding, no one was championing Brian De Palma's films more loudly than Wood. To be honest, Kael's rapturous prose does a better job of capturing the delirious formal qualities of De Palma's films. Wood, however, goes Kael one further by uncovering the ideological horrors barely contained in Sisters and Carrie: it's only after reading him that these movies become truly scary.

He continued to write criticism during the 1980s and 1990s, his byline appearing most often in Cineaction!, the journal he helped start with his partner Richard Lippe and several colleagues, among them the late Andrew Britton. Wood's own articles are invariably the highlight of every issue; the best of these are collected in Sexual Politics and Narrative Film: Hollywood and Beyond, wherein he writes lovingly on Murnau, Renoir, Mozart(!), Ozu, Ophuls, Linklater et al. with characteristic insight and force. Though he has threatened on numerous occasions to give up film criticism in favor of fiction (he has written several unpublished novels), he still contributes regularly to Cineaction!, Film International, and, most recently, Artforum.

Among older-generation film critics Wood alone has remained relevant throughout his career—whereas Andrew Sarris long ago lost touch with the currents of film criticism, Wood has been more or less directing (and at times going against) those same currents for over forty years. Making a case for Renoir's greatness, Richard Roud said of him, “his oeuvre is so varied, rich and complex.” And the same is true of Wood. He is not only our greatest living film critic, but among the greatest in the history of cinema. The occasion of his seventy-fifth birthday this year coincides with Wayne State University Press's plan to reissue several of his early titles, including Howard Hawks, Ingmar Bergman, and 1975's much sought after Personal Views. His career therefore seems ripe for reappraisal. What follows is an interview conducted at Wood's apartment, over a few hours and much wine.

EARLY YEARS:

I was born in Richmond, Surrey, and we moved to Barnes, where we lived until I was about eight. But the Second World War began, and London was being bombed, so we eventually left for the country—just two days before all the windows in our house were blown in. I was a horrible child. Because nobody was very interested in me, I was simultaneously spoiled and neglected. At the same time, people seemed to think they had to make up for not really wanting me, so I got my way in everything. I used to throw tantrums if I wanted anything, I'd lie on the floor and scream and bang my head, things like that. Because I was surrounded by adults, I was also very precocious. I learned to read very quickly and abruptly, though I've forgotten how that happened. They suddenly discovered in my kindergarten school that I could read, but I can't recall anybody ever teaching me. It might have been from having Alice's Adventures in Wonderland read to me over and over again. By the time I was seven or eight I got into murder stories. It was really terrible British pulp-fiction stuff; I remember a group of detectives called The Four, and a whole series of books called, “The Four do this” and “The Four do that”…

We had a maid who was instructed to take me to the movies to get me out of the way. I used to especially love American comedies. I didn't know anything about filmmakers then, it was much more about the stars: Jean Arthur, Claudette Colbert, Cary Grant. That was partly my mother's influence, since she loved these films too. Of the British films, I remember seeing films with Margaret Lockwood and Mary Kaye Barnes. There was also a series of newspaper movies with Valerie Hopson, in which they became involved in all sorts of exciting plots and things while doing their investigation. I think the first one was called This Man is News, and then This Man in Paris, and so on. They seem to be completely forgotten now, these films; I've never been able to track any down, but I loved them.

From an early age I already knew I was gay, so I was terrified of women. I was terrified of men too, because I was always such a wimp and I was afraid of being bullied. I was terribly withdrawn and turned inward. I usually had one close friend, a kind of childhood love affair, though not sexual in any overt way. And that was all I seemed to want, just one really close friend who I could be with as much as possible. Well, actually, I did once try to have a girlfriend. I was about eight, and I'd been seeing a lot of sophisticated American comedies. And like the guys in the films, I thought I ought to have a girlfriend. So I went after this attractive girl called Pauline, which is also the name of my eldest sister, so I'm surprised I didn't run a mile from anyone called Pauline! (laughs) I remember that I kept trying to kiss her, but she hated this and everybody laughed at me. I still didn't know anything about sex or the basic facts of life, not until I was about twelve. But I realized from Hollywood movies that you were supposed to kiss the woman. So I was always trying to kiss Pauline, while she shrank and shuddered and ran. She didn't like me at all.

UNIVERSITY YEARS:

Robin Wood in earlier days

When I arrived at Cambridge, I had the good fortune to make friends with a person of my own year called Tony French. He was also reading English at Cambridge, and we somehow met right at the outset at a sherry party being given by the college we were in. Tony was extremely intelligent, and far ahead of me in reading—he obviously came from a much more literary background, or he had much better teachers than me perhaps. So he was the one who immediately said that we have to go to the classes of F.R. Leavis, whom I'd never heard of. I met Leavis only briefly. I actually presumed to send him one or two things I wrote where I'd disagreed with him. I sort of talked to him in the corridor after a lecture. I was fascinated by Henry James, and Leavis had already written about Henry James, and so he didn't want to read my undergraduate outpourings! But he was very polite and kind, and said yes, he'd looked through my work, and he really didn't have the time now, he was engaged in other things, and I had to understand that he still had a lot left to do. That was about the beginning and the end of my short contact with him.

POST-CAMBRIDGE:

I taught English for some years at various junior schools. After I got married, I got a position at a high school, and it was then that I founded a film society. The high school had film equipment—a 16-mm projector—and I had a number of boys and girls who were very interested in the cinema. I used to encourage them to write reviews of the films shown, then typed them up myself at home, and ran them off on the copy machine and distributed it as a sort of magazine. I wrote little bits occasionally, but I wanted them to write most of it.

EARLY CRITICISM:

My first real piece of film criticism was on Psycho, which, amazingly, was published in Cahiers du Cinéma. I'd sent it to Sight and Sound and got a letter back from the editor [Penelope Houston], saying didn't I realize that Psycho was a joke. I was so mad at that that I sent it to Cahiers on the spur of the moment. I thought, the hell, why not? I never expected to hear back, so I was astonished when I received a letter from [Cahiers editor and filmmaker] Eric Rohmer accepting the piece. It was certainly felt in England that I was taking Hitchcock too seriously, but in France this was not the case. Though the writers who founded Movie were already active by then: Ian Cameron, Victor Perkins, Paul Meisburg. They were mostly at Oxford, while I had come from Cambridge. I was about 30 years old by this time, I wasn't a kid anymore. While I was older than most of the Movie writes, they were much more experienced in thinking and writing about film. They had all grown up and been through University together, and were thoroughly familiar with the French approach to Hollywood. In those days, for the more progressive element in British film criticism, Cahiers was just way above everything, and the fact that I was published by them immediately gave me an entrée into all of those other magazines; everybody wanted me to write for them. I was somewhat influenced by Cahiers. My French was not so good, and the writings in Cahiers were so difficult, even in English; in French, they were more or less impossible. But I did at least get a glimmering of what they were trying to say. I began to realize that all of these films that I had loved in the past could be taken seriously, that some real artistic claims could be made for them. That was a revelation, and really all I needed to understand. So it was purely from that article in Cahiers that I became a film critic. I think if they had turned it down, I probably wouldn't have written about film anymore, and I would probably still be an English teacher today. It must have been such a close thing, because Cahiers absolutely despised British criticism, which they saw as old-fashioned and obsolete. The fact that they even bothered to read the article was quite amazing!

HITCHCOCK:

At the time I was teaching in Devonshire, way out in the West Country, and one night I was invited to London to meet Ernest Callenbach, the founder of Film Quarterly. That was where [critic and publisher] Peter Cowie approached me and said, “Would you like to write a book on Hitchcock?” And I said yes. I was quite drunk at the time. I got home on the train that night, staggered into my little cottage, and told my wife over breakfast the next morning, “The most ridiculous thing happened last night. I think I've agreed to write a book on Hitchcock. I must call them at once to tell them how absurd this is.” She immediately said, “Oh no, you can do it.” (laughs)

The book certainly got reactions. A lot of people thought it was ridiculous, this idea of taking Hitchcock seriously. He was seen as simply an entertainer; one was merely amused by his films, had a few shocks, a few laughs, and that was it. But it was also reviewed in a way that wasn't entirely dismissive, and then it gradually caught on.

ON HITCHCOCK TODAY:

If I was going to write an attack on Hitchcock, it would be directed at the relative lack of any kind of positive drive in his films. You have a sense of this suppressed underworld of psychological horror, but it has to be kept down because if it erupts, everything will be destroyed. I think that beneath the jolly façade, Hitchcock was a very frightened person. I also think that Lifeboat is one of his greatest films. He really deals with fascism there by making the Walter Slezak character so insidiously seductive, yet at the same time completely understanding that the things he stands for are actually monstrous and he has to be destroyed. I think it's the most intelligent approach to beginning to talk about fascism. If you simply say that all the Nazis are disgusting pigs, then you don't understand why fascism had such an enormous following. You have to understand its attraction before you can effectively denounce it. Another great thing about the film is the way Hitchcock shows the American millionaire siding absolutely with the U-Boat commander, being drawn to him more and more, and eventually playing the pipes for him while he sings. Saboteur is also a somewhat underrated film. It's amazing that it was made during America's entry into the way, and even though it disguises itself as an entertaining thriller, the implication is that all the wealthy people in America are, in fact, fascists and Nazi-sympathizers. Meanwhile, all the sympathetic characters of the film are working-class or circus freaks.

ARTHUR PENN

I can't remember exactly how I got into that. I was working with Ian Cameron and his Movie paperback series of books. He was always on the lookout for new ideas. I'd seen several of Arthur Penn's films and was very excited by them, so I think I suggested that I might write a book on Penn and simply jumped right into it. I sent Penn a copy of the book when it was published and got a very nice letter back. I came to Canada in 1969, and the following year he invited me out to Calgary to watch the filming of Little BigMan. He was a terribly nice man, and we sort of remained friends—very far apart, hardly ever seeing each other. I've rather lost track of him now, I suppose largely because he stopped making films. I remember he came and talked to my class once when I did a course at New York University in the 1970s, which turned out to be one of the most embarrassing evenings of my life. It was very early in the term, and I hadn't really gotten to know the students. I'd assumed I had a few intelligent kids who would ask intelligent questions, so I hadn't prepared them in any way, I didn't give them any guidance as to what sort of things they should ask. And all they did was ask things like, “Mr. Penn, how can I get into movies?” They were supposed to be discussing his films with him! (laughs) When we had Brian De Palma a few weeks later, I more or less told the class the questions they should ask before he arrived.

INGMAR BERGMAN:

A friend of mine once remarked that the Bergman book is almost my autobiography. And I think that's the weakness of the book. I now have a lot of reservations about Bergman. I think they were always there in the background, but I simply would not allow them to surface; what I saw as flaws in his films I would often ignore. Bergman has constantly and consistently confused ideology with something like the human condition. The misery in which his characters generally live is seen as something unchangeable, but there is no criticism of the culture that has produced these people. It's as though everything is eternal—life has always been like this, life is always going to be like this. This seems to be the assumption behind his films. I'm always annoyed at the way in which you reach a point in several of his films where the relationship between the characters seem to be going rather well, and then, suddenly, there's a jump—everybody's miserable again, and you hardly know what's happened. The most extreme case is in A Passion, which was given that dreadful title in America, The Passion of Anna. Two-thirds of the way through the film, Bergman's own voice on the soundtrack suddenly says, “Six months passed and everything had gone wrong.” (laughs) We never know why everything went wrong; it's just assumed that everything must. I'm working on a new edition of the Bergman book, which I'm thinking about updating somewhat. Not every film, but I'd like to write about A Passion, which, despite my objection to it, I think is possibly his greatest film. I recently attacked Bergman in a Swedish magazine, and apparently the Swedes loved it. (laughs) I think they've had about enough.

CLAUDE CHABROL:

I've always admired Chabrol; I still do. I love the way he makes films anyway, whether he has anything to say or not. He often knows that the film is going to be a disaster before he makes it. But he just loves to keep working, and every third film or so is wonderful. LesBonne Femmes is still one of my favorite films.

ANDREW BRITTON:

I was teaching at the University of Warwick. They had hired me to found their film studies program, and Andrew came to me as a graduate student. Within a month or two, I had become the student and he had become the teacher. He remains the most brilliant person I have ever come in close contact with—a wonderful person, and his writings are amazing. I'm still struggling to get a university press somewhere to publish his collected writing. But I think they're afraid to, because in his work he demolishes all the leading stars of contemporary film theory. His book on Katherine Hepburn is the best book on Hollywood that I've ever read. He takes Hepburn as a kind of focal point, and he goes into all these questions of genre, ideology, and the start system. Without losing its focus on Hepburn as a star, it becomes a general book about Hollywood cinema, and it's simply the best one I've ever read.

EARLY 1970s:

It was a terribly troubled period in my life, because my marriage broke up during those early years in Canada. After my wife took our three children back to England, I spent a year more or less sleeping on the floor in my office because I couldn't afford a living space. It's all pretty grim.

I returned to England in 1972 because I wanted to be close to my children. All the developments in European criticism appeared to have bypassed Canada largely, or at least the Queen's University film department; I'd never heard of semiotics until I got to England. The whole basis of my criticism was now repudiated by the dominant tendencies in criticism. I couldn't understand most of the writings these people were pouring out, and I had great difficulty finding any work. At last I got the post at the University of Warwick, because they actually wanted somebody from a sort of older school, not a semiotician. I seem to remember there was a small outcry at my being given the post.

My wife was very reluctant to allow a great deal of contact between the kids and me. I could only see them occasionally on weekends, so in the end there seemed no point in staying in England just for that. Also, my partner John couldn't get work in England; he had no legal status there. So we came back to Toronto and broke up about a fortnight of coming back. We thought we were coming home to save our relationship, but it didn't work out that way.

HOWARD HAWKS:

Hawks' weak point is that he's so apolitical, which occasionally leads him into trouble. The more times I see Red River, the angrier I get with it. You cannot let the John Wayne character off the hook like that, because by the end of the film he's become a fascist. He's killed people in cold blood; he's become a complete tyrant. In the original screenplay by Borden Chase, he ends up dead; and that's how the film should have ended. Apparently Hawks changed the ending because he didn't like people to die unless they had to, or something like that. He had no idea about politics at all. In some ways that's an asset, because in other films it sets him free to go so far. I was watching Monkey Business the other day, and what an amazing film that is! It's a devastating movie about not just modern society, but about human existence. By the end, the film seems to suggest that all human life is necessarily built upon repression of some kind, and to release everything is going to lead to chaos. I think with Hawks there's always the possibility that chaos might be a great deal of fun, whereas in Hitchcock chaos is just going to be negative and terrible. I also think Red Line 7000 is a very good film. It's obviously not Hawks at his best, but it's so much better than the films that surround it. Man's Favorite Sport might have been a masterpiece, but the actors aren't good enough. Rock Hudson is not Cary Grant, and Paula Prentiss looks so nervous and neurotic that it's impossible to find her funny. I think Hawks just got tired. He's using a lot of the same old routines, but the film just sort of collapses. It's only really interesting if you're interested in Hawks. El Dorado I now find a very ugly film; it's so crude and clunky, gross almost. Rio Lobo is just a tired, second-rate work. Amidst all that, I think Red Line 7000 stands out. Hawks suddenly working with this young cast of unknowns seems to have rejuvenated him to a great degree. The whole James Caan-Marianna Hill plot is wonderfully played out; their scenes together have a real chemistry and crackle.

SATYAJIT RAY:

Ray was seen as belonging to the British film element. All the young guys who were promoting Hollywood and writing for Cahiers were dismissing his films quite unjustly, and I didn't like that. But I love Satyajit Ray's films, and I have very happy memories of him. I met him back in England when I interviewed him for the BBC. At the time, with all this stuff about political correctness, one of the things under attack was Peter Sellers playing an Indian in The Millionaires. I was rather delighted when Ray said to me, “You know, one thing I would really love to do is to make a film with Peter Sellers. I loved his performance as an Indian.” (laughs) I've never forgotten that.

HOLLYWOOD:

Hollywood has been so taken over by corporations and businessmen that it's very difficult to conceive of it producing much interesting work nowadays. The few people who have tried to make idiosyncratic films have failed in many ways. I can't share the general enthusiasm about Paul Thomas Anderson or David Finch. Fight Club is a disaster; it hedges its bets to such an extent that there's nothing left at the end. The Game is such a copout. These films certainly don't go far enough in any way that makes sense. I think Finch's best and most coherent film is Alien III. Femme Fatale was certainly watchable and intriguing, but game playing really, not a very serious film. Michael Cimino obviously can't make another film now, with the utter failure of Heaven's Gate and his failure to reestablish himself after that. I'm afraid today you have to look abroad—Michael Haneke, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Kiarostami.

CANADIAN CINEMA:

I respect Atom Egoyan, though I can't seem to love his films; I kind of admire them as exercises, but they don't touch me somehow. There are certain small Canadian films that I've come to love, like Kitchen Party and Rollercoaster. William MacGillivray (Life Classes, Understanding Bliss) has a wonderful screenplay, but the Canadian funding agencies continue to ignore him. They're only interested, presumably, in box-office projects. I don't think a serious filmmaker in Canada can raise the money to make a film. I always think of Ingmar Bergman, who was taken up by the head of Svensk Film in the very early years. Film after film he was encouraged to make, and all failures. But they had faith in him; they saw something there, so they continued to finance his films. And suddenly, there was Smiles of a Summer Night, Wild Strawberries, and The Seventh Seal. The same thing could be happening in Canada, but nobody with money will get behind a director. There won't be any great Canadian cinema until that changes.

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