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Robin Wood, 1931 - 2009

David Hudson

The Auteurs Daily

Robin Wood's Introduction to Hitchcock's Films Revisited

"Just learned, Robin Wood has died," Jaime posted at Dave Kehr's site yesterday evening. "I can't think of anything else to say, except that the loss hurts, a lot. What a wonderful mind."

Anecdotes and appreciations have followed in the ensuing hours. "He and Andrew Sarris were my role models when I started writing film criticism," posts Joseph McBride, "and they remain my two idols in the field. Robin wrote brilliantly and in great intellectual depth and with a brave candor and passion. He showed us all the way to write about films seriously and with the kind of scholarly involvement that characterized the work of the great literary critics who paved his way before film criticism became a true scholarly field. Robin was one of the few auteurists who weathered the structuralist storm by accomodating its insights while not succumbing to its jargon or conformism. His work was actually strengthened by that challenge. I agree that his unusual willingness to evolve and rethink his ideas (as in his various editions of his Hitchcock book [Hitchcock's Films Revisited], especially his great chapter on Marnie) is part of what makes him great."

One of Robert Cashill's favorite books is Wood's Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan. "His book about that turbulent and fertile era is all the more rewarding for its close readings of movies either difficult or dismissed (like Heaven's Gate and Cruising) and low-budget horror films on the fringes of respectability, like Eyes of a Stranger."

"Even on the occasions when he was wrong, he was the smartest, the most persuasive, the wittiest, the most literate, the most compassionate of any of us," writes Glenn Kenny. "And yes, I hesitate to use the word 'us.' Still, I feel about him as Godard felt of Welles: 'All of us will always owe him everything.'" And Glenn follows with a handful of incredible quotations from the books.

Ray Pride collects four more from a 2006 interview with Wood in Your Flesh Magazine.

"He's a model to aspire to (and to mimic at one's peril)," writes Keith Uhlich at the House Next Door, pointing to a "personal favorite: Wood's Film Comment essay on Lee Isaac Chung's Munyurangabo, which called my attention to a very worthy and wonderful film."

For more - much more - Catherine Grant has posted another one of her outstanding roundups at Film Studies for Free. Anyone looking for weekend reading couldn't do better than to start right there.

"A memorial service will be held in Toronto on Tuesday," notes Tony Williams on the a_film_by list.

Meantime, here at The Auteurs, Paul Johnson has created list in Wood's memory.

Updates, 12/20: "I don't know any critic whose intellectual and political horizons expanded as much as Wood's did in the 1970s," writes David Bordwell. "Since criticism was for him a form of living, he took his readers along as he discovered structuralist theory (which he had once attacked), accepted some tenets of psychoanalytic theory, and launched ferocious attacks on patriarchy and capitalism. The same moral fervor that informed his 1960s writing became focused upon the political oppression of women, gays, the poor, and free thought. Now, he suggested, the apparent stability of 'ordinary' life relied upon psychological and social repression. If one theme runs through his work - that of the precariousness of decent human relations in the face of disorder - it finds its late expression in his belief that conservative politics, in the name of maintaining order, is implacably bent upon destroying our kinship with others." Also: "Wood's 2008 list of the films he most valued is on the Criterion site here. DK Holm maintains an invaluable, continually updated bibliography of Wood's writings here."

"My one memorable encounter with Wood occurred about 10 years ago at a limited Hitchcock retrospective in Toronto," recalls Girish Shambu. "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." Besides sparking a new conversation, Girish also points to Wood's "Responsibilities of a Gay Film Critic" (PDF) and Joe McElhaney's review of Hitchcock's Films Revisited for Senses of Cinema, "a wonderful example of the deeply felt, searching, and sometimes ambivalent response that Wood was often capable of provoking."

"He was one of the finest minds our field has produced," writes Dave Kehr, "one of the very few writers who negotiated the critical climate change from the warmly humanist breezes of auteurist introspection to the chilly winds of ideological prescriptiveness without compromising his clarity of thought or moral seriousness."

"The publication of Hitchcock's Films by Robin Wood in 1965," declares C Jerry Kutner at Bright Lights After Dark, "was the moment when English-language film criticism truly came of age.... [N]o writer on the subject of film has influenced me more profoundly."

Via Movie City News: Wood on Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise, on George Romero's Diary of the Dead and on Claire Denis's I Can't Sleep; and CineAction's 2007 tribute.

Updates, 12/21: James MacDowell remembers encountering Wood for the first time: "Most of the articles and books I had previously read as a film studies undergraduate attempted an 'objective' tone, avoiding first-person emotion at all costs. Wood, clearly, was attempting something different."

"Robin often made pleas for Criterion to put out his favorite films, and Leo McCarey's Make Way for Tomorrow always topped that list," writes Liz Helfgott. "This fall, we were finally able to put that project together, and, at his suggestion, to include his chapter on the film from [Sexual Politics & Narrative Film]. We are dedicating the release to his memory."

Update, 12/22: Mark Asch describes just how Wood "dictated my approach to film criticism, and my outlook as the editor of the L's film section."

Update, 12/23: "Influenced by the Cambridge critics FR Leavis and AP 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." From William Grimes in the New York Times, a quick but fine summation of a life.

Update, 12/25: Jonathan Rosenbaum passes along Wood's final top ten.

Update, 1/1: "I have no choice but to strike a personal note," writes former Film International editor Michael Tapper. "Because, as for so many other friends of Robin, mine was a personal journey. It all started with reading one of the most important texts on horror film, his 1978 essay 'Return of the Repressed' in Film Comment.... This was during the last gasp of the 1960's leftist movements, largely self-destructing under the brutal and cheerless heels of Stalinism and Maoism, and one its mantras was that popular culture equaled American culture equaled Imperialist propaganda.... That there could be other aspects of popular culture - aesthetical as well as moral and ideological - was inconceivable. I had a hunch something else was going on in many of the films I saw, especially in the contemporary tidal wave of horror films. In no way did they seem reaffirm conservative values - old or new - and reading Robin's essay put all the pieces together. In his elegant mix of intellectual seriousness and irresistible joy, it was as if he gave words to my very own experience. Later I learned that many others have had similar experiences."

Update, 1/4: Charles Barr in the Guardian: "While film studies, the discipline he had helped to establish, inexorably followed a familiar academic trajectory, becoming staidly respectable, a field for careers based on narrow specialisms, he remained the best kind of generalist, continuing, as he had from the start, to engage equally with classical and contemporary cinema, and with films from many countries, and to place them in a wider cultural context, informed by his expertise in literature and music."

Update, 1/6: Dennis Cozzalio wonders what on earth Jeffrey Wells was thinking when he took "a dying critic's last words and use[d] them in such a self-aggrandizing, opportunistic way."

Update, 1/8: Jim Emerson recalls picking up Hitchcock's Films in high school, and then: "Try to talk about movies as movies - that is, as Wood said, as a unique art form and not an outgrowth of literature or theater - and somebody will think you're getting too 'technical' (as happened at a recent year-end critics' panel I participated on at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle). Kathleen Murphy responded: Would it be too technical to discuss the texture and color of paint on a canvas? Well, of course not. But may people still view movies as little more than stories told with actors, rather than, say, considering shots as sentences - with shapes, contours, rhythms, colors, nouns, verbs, adjectives..."

Update, 1/12: "Of all the lessons that I learned from Robin Wood, the most important involved professional graciousness," writes suzidoll for TCM. "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."

 

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