Robin Wood's Favourite Films
Films listed below as selected by the late distinguished British-Canadian film critic for Sight and Sound polls in 1972, 82, 92, 2002
Films he picked most often over the 4 selections:
Rules of the Game 4
Rio Bravo 4
Letter from an Unknown Woman 3
Celine and Julie go Boating 2
Heaven’s Gate 2
Tokyo Story 2
“Wood was born in Richmond, London, England. According to Contemporary Authors he attended Jesus College, Cambridge, where he was influenced by F. R. Leavis and A. P. Rossiter, and graduated in 1953 with a diploma in education. From 1954 to 1958, Wood taught in schools in both England and Sweden. After a year in Lille, France, teaching English, Wood returned to schools in England, and again in Sweden. where he met Aline Macdonald whom he married on May 17, 1960. They had three children, Carin, Fiona, and Simon.
Wood began to contribute to the film journal Movie in 1962, primarily on the strength of an essay he wrote for Cahiers du cinéma on Hitchcock’s Psycho. In 1965, he published his first book, Hitchcock’s Films (New York: A. S. Barnes, 1965). From 1969 to 1972, under the aegis of Peter Harcourt, Wood was a lecturer in film at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario. In September 1974, Wood and his wife divorced. Around this time, he also had a relationship with John Anderson, the dedicatee in at least one of Wood’s books. Later he was to meet Richard Lippe, with whom he lived from 1977 until his death in 2009.
From 1973 to 1977, Wood was a lecturer on film studies at the University of Warwick, Coventry, where he met the future film scholar Andrew Britton, whose influence on Wood, by his own account, was as great as Wood’s on his student. Britton led him away from liberal attitudes. Wood became professor of film studies at York University, Toronto, Ontario in 1977, where he taught until his retirement in the early 1990s. In 1985 Wood helped form a collective with several other students and colleagues to publish CineACTION!.
Wood’s books include Ingmar Bergman (Praeger, New York, 1969), Arthur Penn (Praeger, New York, 1969), The Apu Trilogy (Praeger, New York, 1971), The American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film, edited by Robin Wood and Richard Lippe (Festival of Festivals, Toronto, 1979), Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan (Columbia University Press, New York, 1986), Sexual Politics and Narrative Film: Hollywood and Beyond (Columbia University Press, New York, 1998), The Wings of the Dove: Henry James in the 1990s (British Film Institute Publishing, London, 1999), and Rio Bravo (BFI Publishing, London, 2003).
Columbia University Press has reprinted and updated his book on Hitchcock, and Wayne State University Press has recently begun a series of reprints of his early books, with new introductions. The first in the series is Howard Hawks in 2006, to be followed by Personal Views in 2006, and Ingmar Bergman.
Changes in Wood’s critical thinking divide his career into two parts. Wood’s early books are still prized by film students for their close readings in the auteur theory tradition and their elegant prose style. Wood brought psychological insight into the motivations of characters in movies such as Psycho and Marnie, and Wood was admired for his tendency to champion under-recognized directors and films. After his coming out as a gay man, Wood’s writings became more — though not exclusively — political, primarily from a stance associated with Marxist and Freudian thinking, and with gay rights. The turning point in Wood’s views can arguably be pinpointed in his essay “Responsibilities of a Gay Film Critic”, originally a speech at London’s National Film Theatre and later published in the January 1978 issue of Film Comment. It was subsequently included in the revised edition of his book Personal Views.
Robin Wood died from leukemia on December 18, 2009 in Toronto."
Hitchcock’s Films, 1965
Howard Hawks, 1968
Ingmar Bergman, 1969
Claude Chabrol, Wood and Michael Walker, 1970
Antonioni, Revised Edition, Wood and Ian Cameron, 1971
Personal Views: Explorations in Film, 1976
Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan, 1986
Sexual Politics and Narrative Film: Hollywood and Beyond, 1998
Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan…and Beyond, 2003
Wood on Sansho the Bailiff
Sansho dayu can be taken as representing the ultimate extension and one of the supreme achievements of a certain tendency in the world cinema, the tendency celebrated in the critical writings of André Bazin and associated with the term “realism.” The only way in which the term is useful, and not actively misleading, is if it is applied to specific stylistic options. (Clearly, Mizoguchi’s late films are not “realistic” in the sense in which a newsreel is “realistic.”) The following features are relevant.
1. The Long Take , tending to the sequence-shot. Mizoguchi developed a long-take technique quite early in his career; in Japan, he was frequently criticized as old-fashioned for not adopting the editing techniques of Western cinema. One must distinguish, however, between the sequence-shots of Sisters of Gion (1936), for example, and those of Sansho dayu . As Nöel Burch has convincingly argued in To the Distant Observer , the earlier type of long take, where the camera is held at a great distance from the characters, remaining static for long stretches of the action, with its occasional movements maintaining emotional and physical distance, is peculiarly Japanese, rooted in elements of a national aesthetic tradition. The sequence-shots of late Mizoguchi, on the contrary, are compatible with certain practices of Western cinema, for example, the works of Wyler, Welles and Ophüls. Whether one is content to say, with Burch, that Mizoguchi succumbed to the Western codes of illusionism, or whether one places the stress on his plastic realization of their full aesthetic and expressive potential, doubtless depends on one’s attitude to the codes themselves.
2. Camera Movement . The clinical detachment with which the camera views the characters of Sisters of Gion is replaced in the late films by an extremely complex tension between contemplation and involvement. The camera moves in the great majority of shots in Sansho dayu , sometimes identifying us with the movements of the characters, sometimes (perhaps within a single shot) withdrawing us from them to a contemplative distance. The film’s famous closing scene contains particularly beautiful examples in the two shots that frame it: in the first, the camera begins to move with Zushio at the moment he hears his mother’s voice and is drawn towards it, then cranes up to watch the movements towards reunion, until the mother is also visible within the frame; in the last shot of film, the camera moves upward away from the reunited couple, to reveal the vast seascape and the solitary figure of the old seaweed-gatherer, his task now completed.
3. Depth of field . Again and again Mizoguchi makes marvellously expressive use of simultaneous foreground and background action. That something is amiss with the priestess’s plan for the family travel by sea is subtly hinted by the presence, in distant long-shots, of a small hunched figure sinisterly scuttling away as the family walks to the water. The impact of the following sequence of the kidnapping and separation of mother and children is largely created by their being kept consistently within the frame as Mizoguchi cuts back and forth between the mother’s struggles and the children’s struggles, so that we are continuously aware of the widening distance between them.
It is true that this bringing to perfection of a certain kind of cinematic art in Mizoguchi’s last period coincides with a shift to a more conservative ideological position. The rage against oppression and cruelty is still there, but it is now heavily qualified by resignation, by a commitment to notions of spiritual transcendence. However, the tradition that feeds the film is rich and complex, and one must honor—whatever one’s own political position—an art that brings such a tradition to its fullest realization.
17William D. MacGillivray
19Josef von Sternberg