Wood's Dilemma

A look back at the landmark essay "Responsibilities of a Gay Film Critic"
by Tom McCormack  posted June 17, 2010
Email  |  Print  
A  A  A

This is the second of a two-part essay on Robin Wood. Read Part 1 here.

Robin Wood once wrote, "Any critic who is honest...is committed to self-exposure, a kind of public striptease." In keeping with that spirit, I'd like to offer a kind of confession: I'm not gay, and only barely a film critic (a freelancer), so it's with some trepidation that I begin writing the second installment of this essay, which will focus on Wood's 1978 lecture-cum-essay "Responsibilities of a Gay Film Critic." As will become clear, I think, Wood's thoughts have a significance that extends well beyond the reaches of both queer culture and film criticism—and even if they didn't, "Responsibilities" would still be a fascinating document of a particular mind working through complex issues at a particular place and time.

"Responsibilities" is one of Wood's many attempts to square his conservative sensibilities with his newly radicalized perspective. And by 1978, Wood had become very radicalized indeed. He begins the essay by telling us that a gay man cannot hope for anything but the successful overthrow of all existing powers, because "acceptance of the homosexual by society has its obvious corollary and condition: acceptance of society by the homosexual," the latter prospect striking Wood as undesirable, absurd, and "totally inadequate." Capitalist patriarchy, for Wood, could only offer homosexuals two, equally icky, prospects: "The aping of heterosexual marriage and family (with poodles instead of children) or l'amour fou, preferably culminating in suicide or alcoholism." For Wood, gay liberation was inextricably tied to free love or, as he put it, "relating freely to each other."

To a contemporary sensibility, Wood's insistence that monogamy is always to be resisted, that it is merely an extension of the capitalist desire to possess and control, strikes a somewhat antiquated chord. But I don't think one can fault Wood for simply going with the spirit of the times. This was a position that Wood remained attached to, as he became increasingly alienated from the post-AIDS gay rights movement, with its swing toward middle-class respectability (poodles!). It can be immediately sensed in a comment he repeated throughout his later career, that he could imagine gay people obtaining the right to get married, but, he said, "why they would want to is for me beyond comprehension." For Wood, to be gay was to experience what was rotten and oppressive in society; after such an experience, one could not in good conscience condone anything about that society: its values, its economic structure, its institutions. One could condone nothing, that is, except for its art, which now, with his new perspective, had to be seen as either oppositional or unacceptable.

Wood dedicates the bulk of "Responsibilities" to briefly analyzing three artists—Renoir, Bergman, and Hawks—seeking to show through these examples how a radicalized gay critic could and should go about art criticism.  I assume Wood was on some level aware of the flaws in his arguments, because he ordered them by strength: the section on Renoir is flaky and a bit hollow, that on Bergman is lively but equivocal, and his writing on Hawks is, in my view, pretty unimpeachable. To start with the dregs: Wood sees Renoir's Rules of the Game as, basically, an attack on heterosexual monogamy. He reads this not only in the film's plot, but also in its formal strategies. "The camera style emphasizes the structure-patterns of the scenario by never allowing us more than transitory identification with one character at the expense of others." OK, but then he goes on: "The style might be aptly described as perpetual visual promiscuity, quite breaking down the traditional one-to-one relationship of spectator to protagonist to which the cinema has habituated us." He sees this style as commenting on the characters' central problems: they are perpetually miserable because they insist on pair bonding and refuse to "relate freely to each other." The camera, on the other hand, shuns monogamy and instead relates very freely to everyone.

First the formal issue, the concept of Renoir's polymorphically perverse camera: I have a hard time believing that anyone who's seen Renoir's film would find anything remotely erotic about the gaze he directs toward his subjects. In the film, he resembles a stern patrician: perpetually and tragically disappointed by the behavior of his children, but unable to stop himself from marveling at their sweep as they wreak havoc around the playground. There is undoubtedly a way in which Renoir "relates freely" to his subjects, but his relation to them, lacking an erotic character, cannot, I think, be drawn back to issues of monogamy or a lack thereof, which by their nature are erotic in character. Then on the narrative level, Wood makes a claim that he returns to frequently in his later writing: that any portrayal of dysfunctional monogamous relationships constitutes a critique of monogamy. This is not completely illogical, but it's not entirely reasonable either. If it were true, the entire history of narrative art, at least since the advent of the novel, would be rendered very radical indeed—and this is, of course, Wood's goal in making such an assumption.

Wood then moves on to Bergman, whom he finds inherently much more problematic than Renoir. This bodes well for his reading, because from the late 1970s on, Wood's criticism is on much surer footing when he's dealing with work he's essentially ambivalent about than when he's arguing unabashedly in favor of something. His book Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan is magnificent partly because, while he likes certain films of that period and doesn't like others, he has no deeply rooted urge to champion any of them—he is not, in other words, reinterpreting the gods, but merely giving due consideration to a few mere mortals. In his very brief analysis of Bergman, Wood cuts to the heart of the issue that anyone encountering Bergman's work knows well: "What the films repeatedly assert, with impressive intensity and conviction, is that life under the conditions in which it is lived is intolerable, therefore... At which point a shutter comes down." He continues, "The shutter asserts, ‘the conditions are something called "the human predicament"; they can't be changed.'"

But as Wood continues to work through the implications of this conclusion, he eventually finds that Bergman does have, if not a solution, a sort of consolation: "In Bergman's world, as nothing can be changed, all that people can hope for is to learn to forgive each other for the pain they inflict." In a nutshell, this is Ingmar Bergman's cinema. Any viewer is free to take it or leave it, find it problematic or decide to be in essential agreement. On one level, Wood knows this, but on another he would prefer not to. He would prefer that there be something inherently problematic about Bergman's films, some set of internal contradictions tearing the films apart, rendering them illegible. In reference to the intolerability of life and the shutter coming down, Wood asserts: "The ‘therefore' should continue: ‘therefore we must strive to change the conditions.'" The "therefore" should continue in exactly this way if you agree with Wood's ideological assertions at the beginning of his essay. If, on the other hand, you agree with Bergman's worldview, the "therefore" has no need to continue. Wood is well aware that he's using his own beliefs to read Bergman. "Responsibilities" is about the need to use one's own beliefs to read works of art, but for all of Wood's talk about "interpretation and evaluation," there's almost no mention of the fact that this might require rejection.

Wood begins his remarks on Hawks by stating, "I suspect that were I to re-read my early books, the one on Hawks would embarrass me least." As one would guess, his analysis of Hawks is his most confident in this essay. After noting a certain masculinism inherent to Hawks's worldview, Wood goes on to say, "What is striking is the almost total absence of home, marriage, family—and not only concretely but as concepts." The "almost" here is important; this is not true of a film like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but generally true, and overwhelmingly true of what Wood calls Hawks's adventure films. Wood elaborates, "The adventure films create an alternative order, cut off from mainstream civilization, centered on the male group." Furthermore, in the adventure films, the women figures are interesting, and their interest "lies in the total absence...of any logical role for them." "In Hawks there is no positively conceived civilization, no home, no marriage. Woman becomes problematic by her very presence." This is a striking observation about Hawks's adventure films, and Wood has some cunning insights into the comedies, which contain "one of the most striking, consistent, and peculiar features of his work: the fascination with role reversal." The role reversal takes many forms: child and adult in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, sophisticated and primitive in Monkey Business, human and animal in Hatari!, human and vegetable(!) in The Thing—but most often the role reversal concerns men and women. Wood offers few examples of this, because anyone familiar with Hawks's work knows this to be a frequent occurrence, even if no other critic before Wood pointed it out. Wood concludes from all this that there is a repressed focus on bisexuality in Hawks's work: and you don't have to stretch your imagination very far to see the absolute chaos of Hawks's comedies as pointing toward some anarchic sense of freedom—be it from marriage, home and hearth, or from the concept of gender.

But let's go back to Wood's dealings with Bergman. Wood's writing was frequently alive with thought, constantly alert to counter-arguments. But like any powerful thinker, he could powerfully think himself into a rhetorical Bermuda triangle. While his essays could be infinitely subtle, he could also make sweeping statements that lacked nuance. He could claim, for example, that "it is impossible that anyone who really loves Mozart's music...could support or participate in corporate capitalism." (Let's ignore the fact that the word "participate" here is pure nonsense.) Even if we give Mozart over to the revolutionary cause, Wood could be bolder. He wrote, "The great films of mainstream narrative cinema, Hollywood or otherwise, do not have to be ‘read against the grain'; they simply have to be read. Read carefully (and collectively) they point in a single direction toward a single goal, the urgent need for social revolution." This statement takes for granted that there is one correct way to read a text, one obvious and self-evident conclusion to draw from cultural objects, that texts are not by their very nature polysemous, messy, ideologically slutty things.

Of course, if you're a revolutionary like Wood, everything points in a single direction toward a single goal. You already have a conclusion; you're merely collecting evidence. Because Wood likes Bergman for reasons that have nothing to do with feminism or Marxism or race politics, he can't quite bring himself to admit the simple fact that he disagrees with Bergman. Instead, Bergman's films are "problematic"; they point toward their own failures, and thus point toward something potentially revolutionary.

Let us assume that we are in basic ideological agreement with Wood—and for the record, I find myself generally sympathetic to Wood's basic political claims: that everything worth saving within consumer capitalism is basically everything that stands in opposition to it; that war, poverty, and injustice are the products of a particularly male mindset, an aggressive one that results from the oppression, on the basis of gender difference, of everything that is feminine within men; that women and people of color are victims of this male aggression and that they suffer severe psychological and material damage daily as a result; and that all of this is completely intolerable to any thinking, moral human being. Intolerable not only because it offends our sense of justice, but because it leads everyone, even those who supposedly benefit from the system, to be overwhelmed by "dissatisfaction, anxiety, greed, possessiveness, jealousy, neuroticism." If you think this way, as I often do, you're going to read history accordingly, and art is part of history—but where you run into problems is when you want to argue that art is more than just part of history.

At times, Wood's thinking veers very close to the academic school of new historicism, or cultural poetics, as exemplified by people like Stephen Greenblatt. According to this view, art is a window (thoroughly fogged up) through which we can view history, can get a grasp on the ideologies that guide it, and, perhaps, launch a critique. It's a perfectly valid line of argument, but it basically renders all art equal. All art is a product of the ideology of its time, and all art can be looked to if you want to know how people thought at a particular moment in history. Wood spent time in print attacking the gender politics of F.W. Murnau's Sunrise, and in a way his thoughts on the matter are all excellent. He's absolutely convincing in his arguments about the assumptions the film makes and the prescriptions it offers. But why talk about Sunrise at all? Any romantic melodrama from 1927 would have served Wood's purpose in this article, so why did he choose the most exquisitely expressive masterpiece of the silent era? Is it that great works of art do a better job of laying bare their ideology? The mind revolts at this idea—intuitively the opposite is true: the more incompetent the artifice, the easier it'll be to see through the ideological pretensions. If your goal is to view a culture through its art, the only valid criteria for the objects you analyze are their popularity and palpable cultural significance—which hardly accounts for the auteurist canon that Wood remained dedicated to.

The truth is that Wood analyzes Sunrise because he'd rather spend time with it than with the slew of other, lesser movies that would have served his purposes equally well—despite everything in it that he finds reprehensible, he likes it. He admits as much at the end of the article—sort of. Often in Wood's criticism, he will destroy a film based on ideological grounds, and then, at the end, find its redeeming facet. It's a charming maneuver, like the genre director who, in the last act, inevitably sends in the cowboy to save the damsel in distress—bold, romantic, sentimental, and frequently unconvincing. According to Wood, Sunrise is redeemable because "it in fact testifies to the essential sickness of Western culture." Wood could never commit himself to a new historicist view of art because he was too attached to the Leavisian insistence that evaluation was central to criticism. But in terms of evaluation, phrases like "testifies to" and "lays bare," another favorite of the later Wood, can be a kind of Orwellian doublespeak. If you find something sick, it will always "testify to" its own sickness. Wood, very cleverly, tries to use phrases like this to mean that texts both embody and critique an ideology—or critique through embodying. It's necessary here to bring up Wood's essay "The Incoherent Text," one of his most powerful pieces of writing. Wood claims that all texts are at some level incoherent, and that some are especially incoherent, containing contradictions and critiques of themselves. Wood's later essays on Hitchcock and his work on 1970s horror films are excellent in large part because he is dealing with particularly over-determined texts in terms of gender and politics. But when he writes about, say, Bergman and Murnau, he often takes for granted that the films must be incoherent because they seem to espouse a nonradical agenda.

Wood's criticism raises some interesting questions, like what does it mean to like something? The identity politics that Wood became so fascinated by proposed an entire system of moral feeling, and it's a system of moral feeling that has—some would say at the price of being significantly watered down—been adopted by the intellectual culture at large. It's ended up being relatively comfortable with popular culture, since popular culture is assumed to be a set of codes and symbols to be viewed ironically, consumed haphazardly, adopted in subversive ways, and relentlessly critiqued, the chief tool of that critique being a kind of haughty derision. But it's a system of moral feeling that is entirely anxious about instances of culture that resist distance, resist irony, resist being camped or queered, culture that asks, in other words, to be liked.

Wood had no interest in camp aesthetics or the ironic embrace of pop culture. He liked things that wanted to be liked, and for that reason his mind remained a war zone. In a way, Wood's life was bifurcated into two separate lies: after unearthing one store of repressed knowledge—that he was a homosexual—he set about repressing another store of knowledge—that he was, at the very least, incredibly attracted to art objects for reasons that were not directly political. Take another look at Wood's characterization of life under capitalism quoted above; it leads to "dissatisfaction, anxiety, greed, possessiveness, jealousy, neuroticism." This is psychoanalytic language, to be sure, but there's more to it. In a coded language, and perhaps unbeknownst to himself, Wood was still making pleas regarding our souls.

Catharine MacKinnon and Harold Bloom born as conjoined twins,1 dead set on reaching some kind of agreement, but each one unable or unwilling to relinquish a single point to the other—this was Wood's dilemma. And it's a dilemma that is still very much alive in the culture at large. When Wood says, "To be political today is the only way to avoid the trivial," he's not just stating a belief, but voicing an extraordinary amount of anxiety. If you want, like Wood, to make broad moral claims about art and pitch them to the general public, you have to deal with the fact that public discourse only has two languages: that of entertainment (pleasure and sensation) and that of politics (materialism, basically). So if you want to, say, make a claim that it's generally beneficial for everyone in the culture to listen to Handel's Agrippina, you might find yourself really screwed, because the culture can find in Agrippina nothing particularly entertaining or political. Since you can't well argue with people's sensations, you can endeavor to justify Agrippina on political grounds, but you might run into some problems. You can get abstract, and politicize aesthetics on a formal level, arguing that certain aesthetic experiences produce certain mindsets. But when you get concrete, like Wood did, and deal with art on the level of narrative incident, your job becomes tricky. 

I've tried to do some justice to the contradictions that animate Wood's later writing, but at points may have focused too much on one side of them. I feel compelled, again, to say that I find Wood incredibly brilliant, and I find his writing endlessly fascinating; not only because it dramatizes many of the issues of contemporary intellectual culture, but because one finds them dramatized by a compelling, insightful, and lively mind—not to mention by someone who wrote great prose.

The essay of Wood's that I have the most affection for is "Creativity and Evaluation," which he wrote in 1990 for the magazine he co-founded, CineAction. In the essay, Wood takes issue with "the perverse denial by intellectuals of everything that fundamentally matters, that gives life meaning, the only force that could rejuvenate and transform the civilization: creativity." Wood narrows in on the university in this essay, and he is enormously troubled that professors in the humanities no longer have any way to convince their students that the objects being studied are great or important or relevant to their daily lives.2 Anyone with even a passing acquaintance with the modern university system is aware of the problem, and anyone familiar with modern intellectual thought knows very well many of the issues I've raised in this essay. What's astonishing is that, in essay after essay, Wood took it upon himself to solve these problems once and for all. He was, in the final accounting, one of the most ambitious art critics of the latter half of the 20th century. He was a frantic one-man band trying to synthesize all of the best impulses of Western culture. He asked the juiciest and most fundamental questions that an art critic can ask: Why should we, as a culture, care about art? And what can a critic do or say to make people believe that it's worth caring about? If his arguments falter, if they contain contradictions, that may actually be their strength. Often, enlightening critics don't just present ideological positions; they remain "committed to self-exposure, a kind of public striptease." If you read enough of Wood's criticism, you can see him naked. And if I do say so myself—here Wood would point out that my repressed, inherent bisexuality is coming to the surface—he's quite beautiful.

1. Incidentally, this would make the basis for a great David Cronenberg movie.

2. As much as he was disappointed with professors, he had animus for students too. In a very amusing passage, he recounts students who repeatedly approach him and ask, "What must I do to get a B plus?" "The correct answer: ‘You just failed.'" 


Fighting Words

Fighting Words
by Imogen Sara Smith
posted August 12, 2014

Fighting Words, Part 2

Fighting Words, Part 2
by Imogen Sara Smith
posted August 20, 2014

On the Margins: The Films of Patrick Lung Kong

On the Margins: The Fil…
by Andrew Chan
posted August 12, 2014

Robin Williams: A Sense of Wonder

Robin Williams: A Sense…
by David Schwartz
posted August 12, 2014

Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment
Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, directed by Howard Hawks
Photo Gallery: Wood's Dilemma


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


film criticism  |  Howard Hawks  |  F.W. Murnau  |  Robin Wood  |  sexuality  |  Ingmar Bergman  |  Jean Renoir  |  academia


Reinterpreting the Gods by Tom McCormack
More: Article Archive


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.

More articles by Tom McCormack