Reinterpreting the Gods

Remembering Robin Wood, film critic and classical auteurist
by Tom McCormack  posted June 16, 2010
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This is the first of a two-part essay on Robin Wood. Read Part 2 here.

In the story of English-language film criticism, Robin Wood looms large. He was one of the first film critics to publish serious, book-length studies of individual directors, and also one of the first to get a job teaching at a university. He either participated in or bore witness to most of the major intellectual developments in film writing, and in arts criticism more generally. Wood's death, on December 18, 2009, was marked by many tributes both online and in print. From June 18 to July 8, the Cinematheque Ontario in Toronto is presenting "Personal Views: A Tribute to Robin Wood," a series featuring many of Wood's favorite directors, including Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, George Romero, Max Ophüls and Kenji Mizoguchi.

The second part of this essay, to be published tomorrow, will discuss Wood's 1978 essay "Responsibilities of a Gay Film Critic" as it relates to his later writing, to film criticism, and to the culture at large. But first, I'd like to offer a brief biographical sketch—partly because, by design, Wood's criticism is intimately bound up with his biography. Robin Wood grew up in a middle-class home in a suburb of London in the 1930s and '40s. He would later recall his childhood as somewhat suffocatingly bourgeois. In high school, he discovered classical music, particularly Mozart, and it was an encounter that, he later wrote, "totally transformed my life, awakening me to the sense of human potential beyond anything that my immediate environment recognized or could cope with." Wood attended Jesus College, Cambridge, but was not a particularly dedicated student (he had a 2.1 GPA). He preferred to read and study on his own, and to focus his mind on subjects that lay outside the academy at the time, like movies. But he was fanatically devoted to professors who sparked his interest; namely, F.R. Leavis, to whom he would remain dedicated throughout his life. Central to Leavis's project was the claim that the goal of literary criticism was to discern and promote art that was beneficial to society at large, a claim Wood wrestled with, intensely, throughout his career. Despite his attachment to Leavis, Wood had something of a chip on his shoulder about academia and, like many errant intellectuals before and after him, he decided to become a high school English teacher.

Wood married Aline Macdonald in 1960 and set about the business of having children and starting a family—he would have three kids in total. In 1962, he wrote an essay on Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, which was rejected by the British magazine Sight and Sound but eventually published, in a French translation, in the somewhat hipper and, in Wood's eyes, more prestigious Cahiers du cinéma. This brought him to the attention of the folks at the magazine Oxford Opinion, whose film critics went on to start the British film magazine Movie. Still teaching high school English on the outskirts of London, Wood wrote a number of well-received articles and published three books: Hitchcock's Films (1965), Howard Hawks (1968), and Arthur Penn (1969). To the extent that a film critic who didn't publish weekly journalism could, in the 1960s, be a celebrity, Wood became a celebrity. He was well respected and, what's more, he was a leading light in the English-speaking world of a critical movement: auteurism.

A great deal has been written about auteurism, and it's worth clarifying what, in Wood's case at least, it really meant. Simply put, Wood claimed that, within the strict boundaries of the classical Hollywood studio system, certain artists were able to produce personal movies that had a legitimate claim to being considered high art. Auteurism, in Wood's hands, was not, as it is sometimes portrayed, a championing of pop culture as such. Nor was it a celebration of the conflation of high and low forms. It was—in the age of Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol's complementary miscegenations—essentially very conservative. There was a strain of romanticism in auteurism, a celebration of the triumph of individual vision. But there was undoubtedly a strain of classicism, too: Hollywood offered, in an increasingly semi-literate age, when the reading public could hardly be counted on to tell a sonnet from a sestina, a set of widely recognizable symbolic and formal codes; ones that authors could use, personalize, tweak—not just work despite, but work within. Wood, and Andrew Sarris, loved Hollywood directors not just because they "managed" to make great films within a set of imposed restrictions: the restrictions, the codes, were part and parcel of their greatness. These movies, for them, spoke to a conservative impulse; they offered a shared language; in a word, they offered a tradition. One can see this clearly if one asks a simple question: Why focus on Hollywood movies at all? And why stick with them? If authorial freedom, pure and simple, were the true focus of auteurism, if it was really all about romanticism, all the auteurists would have jumped ship for Stan Brakhage and the New American Cinema, or at least for European art directors, who enjoyed a great amount of freedom. The supposed limitations of the Hollywood studio system were essential to their appeal to the conservative tastes of Wood and other auteurists. Wood himself, later in his career, said that Hollywood represented "the most extraordinary tension between the Classical and the Romantic that can be imagined."

Wood stood out as one of the chief practitioners of a new and, to some, seductive movement. This got him an invitation to teach, on a three-year contract, at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. It was the autodidact's dream come true: validation on his own terms. He was a university professor without an advanced degree, and in a discipline that he himself had helped create: film studies. He would later remark that he "always felt like something of a gatecrasher in academia," and one can sense no small amount of pride in the statement.

While he was in Canada, Wood's marriage came apart, and Wood began to come to terms with his homosexuality. For a year after he and his wife separated, he lived in his office because he could not afford his own apartment—most of his money was being sent to his wife and children in England. After the end of his three-year contract at Queen's, he returned to London a divorced, gay man. He would later write, in a barely veiled piece of autobiography slipped into an article on Bergman's Persona, that "ideology is our home—the home in which we grew up. While we remain within it, however constricted and frustrated we may feel, we have ‘nothing to worry about: It's so safe': we know the rules. As soon as we step outside, renouncing it, we are alone, we have no bearings, there are no rules anymore, we must discover new ones or construct our own. Though less abrupt, it is as frightening and disorienting as the experience of birth must be, when the infant leaves the security and warmth of the womb (even if it is a bit uncomfortable at times) for a strange new world in which the first experience is usually to get slapped and made to scream."

Wood, we can assume, returned to London feeling something like a Philip Roth character: drunk, to the point of being sick, on both the thrill and the agony of transgression. (Feeling like he was being slapped and made to scream!) He returned to England to be near his children, whom his wife would only let him see once a week. And there was more punishment in store for Wood. He found that a new group of scholars, loosely congregated around the British film magazine Screen, had not only displaced him within the world of film criticism, but had made great efforts to discredit him and his school of thought, the now-dreaded auteurism. The Screen group was busy using the methods of critical theory to investigate cinematic form: or, put more precisely, the Screen group was helping to cement what would come to be known as critical theory by applying the tools of Marxist analysis, psychoanalysis, semiotics, post-structuralism, deconstruction, etc. to films. Wood was so totally out. Authorship? Give me a break, haven't you read Barthes's "Death of the Author"? Romanticism? Classicism? These were dead concepts; societal constructions now open to the most rigorous and deflating kinds of analysis.

Wood was stung by their rejection and, what's more, infuriated by the writing of these emerging scholars. He found them arrogant and condescending, caught up in a mob mentality and possessed by the certainty of recent converts. Furthermore, he found their prose abstruse to the point of obfuscation. There was an intense inferiority complex at work in Wood's reaction to the Screen group, partly resulting form the fact that at first he actually didn't understand their prose. He later wrote, with startling honesty, "I was afraid to speak to them and literally trembled in their presence." And, "I somehow knew that they must be right and therefore I must be wrong."

But before long, he set about attacking them in prose, often quite humorously. Making frequent overtures to a kind of even-handedness, he nonetheless characterized the Screen group as a bunch of childish, naïve ideologues, with little to no understanding of art or criticism. In Wood's world, Raymond Bellour's application of semiotic analysis to The Big Sleep read "as if an English teacher suddenly discovered clause analysis and was so excited by it that it seemed, for a time, the only way to talk about a Shakespeare sonnet." Colin McArthur used Marxist criticism "like a trump card, as if he had just discovered it." Peter Wollen's revised conclusion to Signs and Meaning in the Cinema was "compounded of confusions, distortions and self-delusions in roughly equal measure." It was "an extraordinary piece of frenzied mystification." Wood had more nasty words for Wollen, and called him out in numerous essays. Among his most damning assessments: "Wollen's writing customarily suggests great haste, as if he can only function in a flurry of excitement."1 More generally, Wood thought that the Screen group saw "the critic's first priority as a frantic quest for the latest thing." And only a profoundly alienated2 intellectual could begin an essay thus: "The concept of Realism has been tackled (and attacked) of late with formidable theoretical elaboration; all that seems lacking is common sense, which I shall endeavor to supply."3 Perhaps his most intriguing observation about the Screen group—intriguing because it becomes increasingly central to Wood's own thought—was this comment: "It is striking that the change in ideology has not been accompanied by any significant change in the works and directors admired: the pantheon is the same, but the gods have to be reinterpreted."

With rare exceptions, people don't spend a large part of their intellectual careers attacking writers with whom they completely disagree; they may, on the other hand, spend a large part of their intellectual careers attacking writers with whom they almost completely disagree, and here's where things get interesting.

As I've argued, Wood had an essentially conservative disposition regarding art; by temperament, he was oriented toward a very classical view of formal matters—he liked some of the more formally experimental European directors but generally found avant-garde cinema distasteful. And he was, from the beginning, and passionately, a classical humanist. (During the heyday of Theory, one of the editors of Screen pejoratively referred to him as an "unreconstructed humanist," a moniker he proudly wore for a time.) His view of criticism, of the whole humanistic project, was deeply influenced by F.R. Leavis: he believed that criticism, like all intellectual endeavors, functioned by contributing to the moral well-being of a society. The critic's job was to seek out work that would positively contribute to the moral life of the people, and to analyze and explicate it in a way that would do the same. Inherent in this project was the goal of making moral claims about art that had some general cultural resonance. And Wood sensed, much earlier than almost any other critic with such a conservative disposition,4 that the members of the Screen group, and all the theory jockeys, were actually doing just that, or partially doing it at least. Wood had inherited a spiritual view of morality and art: art was good or bad depending on how it reached, spoke to, or enriched the deepest part of you—your soul, basically. A new tide was cresting that held a materialist view of morality and art: art was good or bad depending on the effects it had on completely tangible issues of oppression and injustice. There was a psychological component to all of this (or an ideological superstructure), like the assumption of class superiority, or the internalization of gender hierarchies, but these things had necessarily concrete manifestations (or a material base), like the egregious living conditions of the poor, or the domestic abuse of women. Wood was—because he was gay, I believe, and his own writing repeatedly backs me up here—extremely sensitive to the moral claims of materialism. He had experienced the ass-end of Western culture's ideological superstructure (repressing his homosexuality for years), and, not insignificantly, its material base (recall his not being able to afford an apartment after his wife left him). While he found the jargon of the Screen group to be in bad taste, and their methods to be flawed—too totalizing—he was, in the end, extremely amenable to many of their claims. But it wasn't simply a matter of agreeing or disagreeing. This is a case of one deeply held belief system clashing head-on with another, and it threw Wood into a spiritual and intellectual crisis that he would spend the rest of his career trying to sort out—it's a crisis that, I believe, in a very broad and important way, resonates throughout post-1960 intellectual thought, but I will return to that later. Wood could not simply turn his back on his past allegiances, but neither could he look at them in the same way, a way he increasingly began to see as naïve and ideologically questionable. So, as he derisively noted regarding the Screen group, the pantheon remained the same, but the gods had to be reinterpreted.

1. I personally have great respect for Peter Wollen, but concede that Wood has a point here. There is something suspicious about this aspect of Wollen's writing, and it's the same thing that's suspicious about Slavoj Zizek, who seemingly cannot make a single observation without succumbing to a rapturous associational ecstasy. 

2. Despite the fact that Wood had a very successful career, and that he continued to be published and read long after many of his opponents at Screen faded into the distance, Wood's sense of alienation never abated. In a particularly amusing piece of invective written later in life, Wood suggested that students overthrow the university system, running it as they see fit and "calling in the professors in an advisory capacity whenever they feel they might be of use (very seldom, if my estimate of many of my ex-colleagues is accurate and representative)."

3. In this instance Robin begins to sound remarkably similar to another Wood, James, who writes frequently, whenever he gets the chance it seems, on the exact same issue, with the exact same tone of condescension. 

4. Or any that I know of, but I'm hardly familiar with every critic of the 20th century. 


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Photo Gallery: Reinterpreting the Gods


June 18-July 8, 2010 Personal Views: A Tribute to Robin Wood


film criticism  |  Alfred Hitchcock  |  Howard Hawks  |  Robin Wood  |  auteurism  |  academia  |  sexuality


Wood's Dilemma by Tom McCormack
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Tom McCormack is a critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared in Cinema Scope, Film Comment, Rhizome, The L Magazine, and other publications. He is a regular contributor to Moving Image Source, an editor at Alt Screen, and the film and electronic art editor of Idiom.

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