Saturday, December 19, 2009

Robin Wood, 1931-2009

Film criticism has lost one of its giants: Robin Wood has died. He was 78. Catherine Grant has assembled a wonderful collection of links as a tribute to him. Armen Svadjian summarizes Wood's career and interviews him in a piece from 2006. David Hudson collects links to reactions around the film blogosphere.

Wood was a prolific and impassioned critic with a broad range and deep convictions. He was an inspirational writer and yet he was sure to provoke occasional disagreement and exasperation in even his most loyal followers. Most notably, he declined to keep his criticism at a remove from his personal life. (A well-known instance is his piece "Responsibilities of a Gay Film Critic" [pdf].) When Hitchcock's Films Revisited was released in a revised edition in 2002, he included a 33-page preface that was pure autobiography. Joe McElhaney's review of the book is a wonderful example of the deeply felt, searching, and sometimes ambivalent response that Wood was often capable of provoking.

My one memorable encounter with Wood occurred about 10 years ago at a limited Hitchcock retrospective in Toronto. He wrote the essay accompanying the series, and appeared in person to lecture on Marnie immediately following the screening. I suspect most of the audience had not read him and didn't know who he was, but nearly everyone stayed--electrified--for an hour while he held forth on the film. At the end, someone asked him about the T-shirt he was wearing. He swelled his chest out and pointed to it so everyone could see. It had a picture of a crystal ball with a photograph of Barbara Harris on it. It was, he explained, a protest shirt: he was wearing it in defense of Family Plot, which had been left out of the retrospective.

In addition to the Hitchcock book, my own favorites among his work include his writings on Howard Hawks (the book he wrote in 1968, the more recent BFI Film Classics monograph on Rio Bravo), and his collection Personal Views. But really, the moment I put that down, I realize how unfair and inadequate my selections are. It's impossible to winnow down his enormous contributions to just a couple of titles.

So, your reflections on Wood and his work? Any favorites among his writings? Please feel free to share them.


Blogger Maya said...

Lovely anecdote about the t-shirt protest, Girish. How fortunate you were to have heard him lecture.

December 19, 2009 4:41 PM  
Blogger weepingsam said...

He was a superb critic. I'd read him mostly in anthologies until a couple years ago, when I read Sexual Politics and Narrative Film - very possibly from a recommendation at this blog... it was extraordinary, bringing new angles on films, like Ozu's, I've long been obsessed by... Or maybe for putting very clearly things I saw in Ozu - the passage quoted by Bordwell today is key: "If we gain new freedoms, we should also beware of casually casting off the past without asking ourselves what in it—what standards of seriousness, what beliefs, what aspects of our lives—might be worth preserving. I find all these thoughts in Ozu, incomparably expressed."

And - Cineaction was a really good journal... though I haven't seen it in a while - I hope it's still being published...

December 19, 2009 6:44 PM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

There will be many wonderful tributes to Robin forthcoming, I am sure, but I have a humorous tale of 'brief encounter' with him: back in 1982 (I was 21 at the time), he was a main guest at an Australian Screen Studies conference (he spoke on RAGING BULL and PERSONA). In my humble session, I gave (dressed in a rather natty suit and bow tie) a howling 90-minute diatribe (all elegantly written and read out), called "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes", which was a critique of then-current film theories (I was a Deleuzean before it was fashionable!). This paper gave rise to many colourful responses at the end, but perhaps the best was from Robin, who duly denounced me as a "reactionary", and added that I was such a disappointment, given that my piece from 1980 on CRUISING (which he cites in HOLLYWOOD FROM VIETNAM TO REAGAN) had been so good and full of promise !!! Ah, what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger ... and I have Robin to thank for that !!!

December 19, 2009 6:50 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Maya!

Sam, I also love his defense of Linklater's Before Sunrise in that book. CineAction continues to be published; I try to pick it up each time I visit Toronto. Here is the table of contents of the latest issue.

Adrian, that is an absolutely hilarious anecdote!!

December 19, 2009 6:55 PM  
Anonymous Just Another Film Buff said...

R.I.P Mr. Wood, I was about to start the Hitch book...

December 19, 2009 9:14 PM  
Blogger Marc Raymond said...

Robin Wood was my favorite critic, and certainly the person who most turned me on to thinking seriously about cinema. I also love the political commitment and passion in his work, even when I disagree about specifics. I'm also a big fan of the piece on Ozu from SEXUAL POLITICS AND NARRATIVE FILM. Like Girish, I find it hard to narrow down his best works, but in addition to the piece on Ozu, one that comes immediately to mind: "Ideology, Genre, Auteur" (on SHADOW OF A DOUBT and IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE).

Although I never met him, the personal nature of his writing made me feel like I did. And perhaps that's why, in addition to his greatest as a writer, I will miss him. I just received the collection BRITTON ON FILM which includes a Wood introduction, which I think I'll read tonight.

December 20, 2009 5:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A truly bad way to start a day, learning of the death of one of my very few real masters in film criticism. Silently "arguing" with him as I read him was one of the greatest pleasures, since, no matter how much one could disagree with him (and I sometimes did, even a lot) his arguments were always intelligent, measured and reasonable, so you had to take them into account, watch again the film in question or try to search the strange Canadian movies he lately loved so much (I'm still searching a couple of them). I'll mention something he wrote in "Film Comment" about a director I've always had mixed feeling about, Robert Altman, which I found particularly enlightening. His first Hitchcock book and "Personal Views" are two of the books I've read more times.
Miguel Marías

December 20, 2009 7:31 AM  
Blogger girish said...

David Bordwell has posted a Robin Wood tribute.

December 20, 2009 8:40 AM  
Blogger ZC said...

Just a little anecdote to add. Wood was on a panel during the Ozu centenary stuff organized in NYC (this was up at Columbia University) and as he was describing (I think) Late Spring he started to weep. It was an inspiring thing to see ...

December 20, 2009 12:55 PM  
Blogger Matthew Flanagan said...

James MacDowell has a nice tribute here.

On a totally personal level, Wood's Rio Bravo monograph is probably most valuable to me - the opening anecdote (if it can even be called that) was a hell of an eye-opener a few years ago. A major part of what makes his criticism so important was his acknowledgement (and practice) of the fact that there's no tidy (or even conceivable) divide between "cinema"/cinephilia and "life" - as much as people still like to claim. At the time this was something I really needed to learn, and no doubt still do.

I admire his writing on recent cinema very much too - he was one of the few visible "elder statesmen" who made a sincere effort to grow with the cinema, engaging with its modernity far more willingly than so many of his contemporaries (guilty parties: Perkins, Sarris, etc). Of the later essays, I thought his Artforum piece on I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (2007, reprinted in CineAction! a year or so later) was really great. Brief extract:

"The relationship between invention and reality in art is always tenuous and variable. Questions arise: how much was consciously thought out by the artists involved, how much spontaneous invention? How much lived experience, and how much 'Why don't we try this?' Let me say at once that I have met Tsai briefly, and he does not at all strike me as someone who would attempt to cut his ex-lover's throat with the sharp edge of a half-opened tin can. It seems impossible to resist a sense of parallels between film and reality, but I imagine Tsai and Lee had a good laugh over what may well have been a monstrous parody of their shifting relationship, which might well have activated a certain amount of pain and disappointment, but clearly was dealt with in a civilized way, reaching the Wordsworthian level of 'emotion recollected in tranquility'. They continue to make films together, and Lee has since made his own debut as a film director, with committed support and encouragement from Tsai. I would guess, however, that the personal story underlying their work (if my guess is correct - and I stand to be corrected) accounts for the particular intensity, complexity and profundity of what I take to be Tsai's finest work to date: a masterpiece that, like most masterpieces, demands the closest attention, patience, and repeated viewings: demands that tend not to find a ready response in our take-a-bite-and-spit-it-out, rapidly disintegrating civilization. (Toronto today seems in many respects not unlike the Kuala Lumpur we see in the film, just a tad more stream-lined: people out of work, homeless, reduced to begging in what is supposed to be a civilized city, everyone rushing to somewhere, whether they have anywhere to go or not, a general atmosphere of desperation ... the same ... the same, perhaps, today, all over the allegedly civilized world)."

December 20, 2009 5:50 PM  
Blogger ADRIAN said...

i was just reading one of his essays a few weeks ago, a total loss.My Tribute to Wood. Life goes on.

December 21, 2009 2:24 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Via Adrian M., from Dave Kehr's site:

"I am Robin Wood’s son ... Very touching to see so much warmth and kind comments. Robin had a great life and will be missed by many. I am extremely proud that he was my father. He was quite ill for a while and he went out peacefully at home with his beloved cats and good friends around him. His legacy in print will no doubt live on for a long time. Cheers to all!"

-- Simon Wood

December 21, 2009 12:28 PM  
Blogger Gareth said...

When I was first becoming more interested in film - in my mid-teens - a friend's father was clearing out old books and gave me copies of Wood's volumes on Hitchcock and Bergman.

I'd never heard of him before that but devoured both books. Although I'd seen nearly many of the Hitchcocks due to a great BBC retrospective one Christmas, I had only seen one Bergman at that point (The Seventh Seal) but that book has resonated with me to a greater degree, perhaps because I had to imagine the films from Wood's eye-opening analyses and a few small but highly evocative stills. I dug the books - still in remarkably pristine shape! - out over the weekend and must reread during the break.

December 21, 2009 12:46 PM  
Blogger Jonathan Rosenbaum said...

I just got back from a trip to Paris, where I had already heard the tragic news--even though I was also pleased to learn that Robin died surrounded by many of those who loved him the most.

It's also gratifying to see the outpouring of love, affection, and very justifiable admiration for Robin and his substantial and highly influential work that has been appearing on the Internet. The only sour note for me has been paging through the bound galleys of a new book, 480 pages long, called THE COMPLETE HISTORY OF AMERICAN FILM CRITICISM by Jerry Roberts that Santa Monica Press is bringing out in early April. I've just been writing a column for the Spanish Cahiers du Cinema disputing some of the everyday assumptions lodged behind three words in that seven-word title--"The", "Complete," and, above all, "American"--and lamenting the (admittedly unexceptional fact) that even in such an apparently serious and careful book as this one, all academic criticism and practically all non-American criticism go unmentioned, even as influences. So among the names missing from the 26-page index are Dudley Andrew, Janet Bergstrom, David Bordwell, Serge Daney, Ray Durgnat, Tom Gunning, Miriam Hansen, Tom Milne, James Naremore, Gilberto Perez, Peter Wollen ... and, yes, Robin's missing too. In short, the same sort of American isolationism that creates such havoc in the world under its various other forms. Consequently, one can't help but come away from a book like this with the impression that Charles Champlin (19 index references) and Roger Ebert (56 references, one to a 19-page stretch) have been infinitely more important to American film criticism than Robin Wood was. It simply ain't so.

December 22, 2009 3:02 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Wow, thanks for letting us know, Jonathan: the list of omissions is truly shocking.

December 22, 2009 3:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jonathan's comments contain an ambguity similar to saying someone is a "short film maker" - Robin Wood was "important to American film criticism" - the criticism of U.S. cinema - but not to "American film criticism" - film criticism practised by residents of the United States. He was a Brit who lived the second half or so of his life in Canada. Further proof of Jonathan's point: if you're an outsider, you don't count.

I never met Robin and only saw him twice, once in my first year of university in the late 1970s, when he spoke on male buddy movies, and once at a conference in Toronto in the mid-1980s. He wasn't a part of the conference, but stood up at the back of the hall after a panel discussion with Stephen Heath and a couple of young whippersnapper British grad students who knew that the answer to any question began with the words "Jacques Derrida". (The moderator of the panel, a U Toronto French professor, called them the "Daring Derrideans". You really had to be there - in the 1980s - to appreciate the extent to which this brand of French theory had overtaken English-language academic discourse.)

Robin Wood made an impassioned plea directly to Stephen Heath on behalf of a discourse that was not only interested in the Derridean "film text" but in all that lies around and without and within the film. He really put his foot in it when he asked Stephen Heath what the "point" of all this new theory was. There was an embarrassed silence, like someone had let the wrong kind of person into a swank party. Robin seemed lost and at sea in the new world of this brand of French theory, but he fought back - was this when he began to be much more openly political in his writing? - and outlived its practitioners.

December 23, 2009 12:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Outlived intellectually speaking, of course. May Stephen Heath and all the daring Derrideans live long and happy lives too.

December 23, 2009 12:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Girish, sorry to bother you, but the link to "Responsabilities..." goes to an uncomplete text. And I cannot find where did I read a really very good (recent? relatively so, I'd say) Robin Wood piece on "Gaslight" (mainly Cukor's).
Miguel Marías

December 23, 2009 4:46 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Hi, Miguel ~ Alas, I looked awhile but can't seem to find a complete text of Wood's essay. I don't know if this would help but it also appeared in Film Comment (Jan-Feb '78), in Wood's collection PERSONAL VIEWS, and is also reprinted in Bill Nichols' anthology MOVIES AND METHODS, and in the collection OUT IN CULTURE, edited by Corey Creekmur and Alexander Doty. The essay on the 2 Gaslights is in the collection SEXUAL POLITICS AND NARRATIVE FILM. The essay is partially available here:

December 23, 2009 7:14 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Robin Wood's New York Times obituary.

December 23, 2009 7:25 AM  
Anonymous gabe klinger said...

I'd go even further than Jonathan and add that to really encompass the American critical landscape you would have to mention the film programmers who achieved a critical identity through their film series and invaluable program notes. These include people like Iris Barry (who was also a film critic, though much better known for her role as the founder of MoMA's film dept.) and James Card, among many others.

December 23, 2009 1:05 PM  
Blogger Jonathan Rosenbaum said...

Thom Loree, one of Robin's closest friends, just sent me Robin's final Top Ten list, dictated to another good friend, John Anderson, two days before he died. And both of them have kindly given me permission to post this on my website, which I've just done, with illustrations for all the titles (including a couple that are uncertain).

December 24, 2009 5:47 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Jonathan! Here's the link.

December 24, 2009 5:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, Girish... I was trying not to have to search for the books, under piles of books and magazines, and re-read these on line, as a kind of tribute to Robin Wood. First thing I did was watching once more "Rio Bravo".
Miguel Marías

December 28, 2009 7:13 AM  
Blogger girish said...

And I re-read Robin's BFI monograph on RIO BRAVO yesterday: an utter delight.

December 28, 2009 7:42 AM  
Blogger MovieMan0283 said...

I've only read a few of Wood's essays, mostly collected in anthologies. In fact I didn't know about the political turn his writing took in later life - he even said something to the effect of his criticism only being important inasmuch as it contributed to social revolution. Now, quite often, that kind of engagement can result in dry, moralistic writing but from what I've seen and heard about Wood's later work that wasn't the case here at all - and a summary of an essay on Hitchcock, which apparently noted the ambivalence between Hitch's misogynistic streak and sympathy with the women (a tension which David Lynch and Roman Polanski, among others, may share) sounded fascinating. Does anyone know if it's online? I've love to read that.

By the way, girish, I'm soliciting submissions for a year-end round-up of blog posts - seeing what each blogger feels is their best work. Feel free to jump in with your own favorite - the relevant post is here:

& you could also respond in this thread or by e-mail ( Enjoyed your work this year & best of luck for 2010,

Joel (MovieMan0283)

December 29, 2009 2:06 PM  
Anonymous James MacDowell said...

An excellent tribute to Wood by James Zborowski at Between Sympathy and Detachment:

January 02, 2010 1:12 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Catherine Grant collects a number of Robin Wood tributes.

January 04, 2010 8:54 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Charles Barr pens an obituary in the Guardian.

January 05, 2010 8:16 AM  
Blogger girish said...

At Scanners, Jim Emerson posts a tribute to Robin Wood.

January 08, 2010 8:40 AM  
Blogger girish said...

A tribute by Janine Marchessault at the Film Studies Association of Canada. In her piece she provides a link to this 9-page festschrift to Robin Wood in Cineaction.

January 09, 2010 10:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought this will certainly interest all those who are interested in Robin's work.

A link to a documentary in progress on Prof. Robin Wood.


January 21, 2011 11:25 PM  

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