24 December 2009

Robin Wood — off to the Big Screen in the Sky

I'm a guy who is prone to hero worship and so forth. But one of the great heroes of my adult life, one of my great mentors, was Robin Wood. I've often said that he was probably the greatest influence on me beyond my parents.

I first met Robin when I was about 20, and Elliott Lefko dragged me into one of Robin's film lectures at York University, where Robin was a professor at Atkinson College. I was enthralled by Robin's class and screening, and proceeded to take several courses with him, including a course on Hitchcock and De Palma, one on Japanese cinema, and another on European cinema. I later became, for about 10 issues, the typesetter and designer for CineAction!, the magazine of radical film theory that Robin co-founded with an eclectic bunch of very exciting thinkers, including Richard Lippe, Florence Jacobowitz, Bruce LaBruce, Scott Forsthe, Susan Morrison, Janine Marchessault and others.

In those classes, and through my friendship in those years with Robin, I learned a huge amount about how to watch films, how to write, how to think. I had never met someone so truly radical and brilliant. And such a beautiful humanist.

I heard yesterday that Robin died last week, at his Toronto home that he shared with his partner, the film critic Richard Lippe. Robin was 78. No one ever gets enough years, I think, but Robin did accomplish so much: he was a huge inspiration, I'd bet, to not only hundreds but thousands like me: students and colleagues who gained new appreciations for how films could be read and appreciated.

I hadn't seen much of Robin in the past decade or so — but when I did see him he was always thoughtful and good-humoured and affectionate and, well, intimidating. I have followed his writing/thinking in CineAction!, and he has always surprised me: he's never become some rote Marxist film critic: he always reevaluated, and gave every work its own consideration.

This week I'm going to watch Rio Bravo, a favourite film of his, by Howard Hawks, and maybe I'll even screen Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which he once dubbed "the most distinguished American film of the 1970s," a claim that would be laughable … until you see in it what Robin saw in it. Robin also introduced me to my own favourite film: Vertigo. I remember his voice catching after he screened it in our class, even though he had likely seen the film dozens of times by then.

This obit appeared in Tuesday's New York Times:

Robin Wood, Film Critic Who Wrote on Hitchcock, Dies at 78


Published: December 22, 2009

Robin Wood, a film critic who published the first serious work in English on Alfred Hitchcock and who applied formal rigor and moral seriousness in his book-length appraisals of Howard Hawks, Arthur Penn, Ingmar Bergman and other directors, died on Friday at his home in Toronto. He was 78.

The cause was complications of leukemia, said Richard Lippe, his longtime partner.

Mr. Wood, who was British by birth and education but spent much of his career teaching in Canada, made a remarkable debut as a critic. While teaching English at a secondary school, he placed an article on Hitchcock’s “Psycho” in Cahiers du Cinéma, the celebrated journal associated with the French New Wave and auteur theory. With this validation, he began writing for a variety of British publications and followed up with a series of influential studies of important directors.

Influenced by the Cambridge critics F. R. Leavis and A. P. Rossiter, whose morally committed approach to literary criticism galvanized a generation of British university students, Mr. Wood never lost sight of the ethical and political aspects of film. This tendency became more acute after he came out as a gay man in the 1970s and took a sharp turn to the political left.

He had come to believe, he told the reference work Contemporary Authors in 2005, that there was only one defensible motive for writing about film: “To contribute, in however modest a way, to the possibility of social revolution, along lines suggested by radical feminism, Marxism and gay liberation.”

Robert Paul Wood was born in Richmond, Surrey, on Feb. 23, 1931. A fractious child, he was often taken by a maid to the movies to get him out of his parents’ hair and soon developed an infatuation with the Hollywood comedies of Jean Arthur, Claudette Colbert Cary Grant.

After earning a degree in English from Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1953 and a diploma in education a year later, he taught English at secondary schools in Britain and France. At one, he started a film society and encouraged students to write critical appraisals of the films they watched.

Following his own advice, he wrote an essay on “Psycho” and submitted it to the British journal Sight & Sound, whose editor returned it with the comment that Mr. Wood had failed to see that the film was intended as a joke.

Infuriated, Mr. Wood sent it to Cahiers du Cinéma, which, despite its contempt for British film criticism, accepted the article, a careful teasing out of the themes of sex, death, money and compulsion in the film. The Cahiers cachet afforded him instant entree to the British journal Movie, to which he began to contribute in 1962.

“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,” he told Your Flesh magazine in 2006. “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.”

Mr. Wood, a penetrating critic with a graceful prose style, soon emerged as one of Britain’s most influential film writers, a reputation enhanced by the groundbreaking “Hitchcock’s Films” (1965). “A lot of people thought it was ridiculous, this idea of taking Hitchcock seriously,” he told Your Flesh. “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.”

A series of important monographs followed: “Howard Hawks” (1968), “Arthur Penn” (1968), “Ingmar Bergman” (1969) and “The Apu Trilogy” (1971), which dealt with Satyajit Ray’s work. With the critic Ian Cameron he wrote “Antonioni” (1968), and with Michael Walker he wrote “Claude Chabrol” (1970). Many of his essays were collected in “Personal Views: Explorations in Film” (1976).

In 1973 Mr. Wood was invited to create a film studies program at the University of Warwick, in Coventry, where he lectured until accepting a post as professor of film studies at York University in Toronto in 1977. He retired in 1990.

In addition to Mr. Lippe, he is survived by his children Simon, of Toronto; Carin, of Bath, England; and Fiona, of Bordeaux; and five grandchildren.

In his later film criticism, Mr. Wood concentrated on politics, specifically sexual politics. A 1977 speech to the British Film Institute, “Responsibility of a Gay Film Critic,” gave notice of his new critical program, which he pursued in “Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan” (1986) and “Sexual Politics and Narrative Film: Hollywood and Beyond” (1998). With colleagues at York, he started a radical film studies journal, CineAction, in 1985.

His enthusiasm for Hitchcock never flagged. In 1989 he returned to the subject in “Hitchcock Revisited,” appraising the director from new angles but maintaining his admiration. “I think the best of Hitchcock films continue to fascinate me because he’s obviously right inside them, he understands so well the male drive to dominate, harass, control and at the same time he identifies strongly with the woman’s position,” he told the World Socialist Web Site (wsws.org) in 2000. Hitchcock’s films, he continued, “are a kind of battleground between these two positions.”

So, good night, Robin Wood. You were a genuinely great man.

Love, and over and out.


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