Jump to: navigation, search

The Guardian (04/Jan/2010) - Obituary: Robin Wood




Robin Wood obituary

Influential teacher, critic and pioneer in the field of film studies

'Why should we take Hitchcock seriously? It is a pity the question has to be raised. If the cinema were truly regarded as an autonomous art, not as a mere adjunct of the novel or the drama – if we were able yet to see films instead of mentally reducing them to literature – it would be unnecessary." The opening lines of the first book by the film critic and teacher Robin Wood, who has died at the age of 78, had a remarkable and lasting impact on the field of film studies both in and beyond academia.

Before he published Hitchcock's Films in 1965, there were – in English, as opposed to French – virtually no books on film directors, and few books of any kind that brought either rigour or sympathy to the analysis of popular cinema. The teaching of so-called "film appreciation" in Britain was confined mainly to a few pockets within adult education and teacher training. This was already starting to change, but Wood's work was a key influence in validating and shaping a new discipline.

His Alfred Hitchcock book brilliantly set out the case for treating even Hollywood cinema with the same analytical seriousness as classic literature, and he quickly followed it with books on directors as diverse as Howard Hawks (1968), Arthur Penn (1969) and Ingmar Bergman (1969), as well as jointly authored books on Michelangelo Antonioni (1968) and Claude Chabrol (1970). By the end of the decade, he was able to leave his post teaching English at a secondary school, which he had somehow managed to combine with all that writing, for the university sector, and he remained a prolific and influential film scholar.

Few academics have incorporated so much autobiography into their critical work: successive new editions of Hitchcock's Films, for instance, make connections between Wood's own life and his response to the films, looking right back to a repressive family background comparable to that of Hitchcock himself and some of the director's main characters.

Wood was born in Richmond, Surrey, and was the youngest child, by many years, of a conventional middle-class family against whose values he rebelled, first in silence, but in later life very articulately. After boarding school at Malvern, which he hated, reading English at Cambridge was a liberating experience: he was profoundly influenced by the Shakespearean scholar AP Rossiter and, above all, by FR Leavis. For the rest of his life, he would declare an allegiance to Leavis, identifying with his "outsider" status within the academy, and with his uncompromising critical ethos, rooted in close reading of the text.

After Cambridge, Wood took a succession of teaching jobs in Britain and Europe; in Sweden, he met and married a teacher from Scotland, Aline Macdonald. Back in Britain, he taught English at Dartington, then at Welwyn Garden City high school. The Woods had three children and seemed a happy family. Meanwhile, he had begun to publish articles on cinema, notably in the vigorous new magazine Movie, launched in 1962 to challenge the tired orthodoxies that still dominated British film criticism. The impact of Wood's books led, in 1969, to an invitation to teach at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario and, in 1973, he took up a post at Warwick University, one of a series of experimental lectureships set up with British Film Institute (BFI) funding to introduce film studies to the university curriculum in this country.

His time at Warwick was productive, laying the foundation for what is now a major centre for film teaching and research. But Wood himself was unsettled, equally for professional and personal reasons. He saw his humanist values under attack from the aggressively austere film theory associated with Screen magazine; his marriage had by now broken up; he had come out as homosexual; and he felt the need to distance himself from the British culture he found so repressive.

In 1977 he returned to Canada, and soon established the parameters of a new life, shared with his partner, Richard Lippe. As professor of film at York University, Toronto, Wood made an impact on Canadian film culture comparable with his early influence in Britain, this time based equally on the inspirational effect of his teaching. In 1985 he and Richard, along with a number of his graduate students, formed an editorial collective to launch a new magazine, CineAction. Their own apartment was its editorial headquarters. Unlike many such idealistic ventures, it prospered, and still does after nearly 80 issues, scholarly and smartly produced, while retaining a radical cutting edge. Wood continued to share the editing, and to write extensively for it, until very recently. The magazine published a festschrift for him when he reached the age of 75.

Wood's critical output, over half a century, was extraordinary in its range, quality and sheer volume. There were new books, including two wide-ranging ones, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan (1986) and Sexual Politics and Narrative Film (1998), but also a steady flow of articles, for CineAction, for other magazines and for works of reference.

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. The clarity of his writing always ensured that he appealed to a wide audience. In 2006 Wayne University Press began reissuing his back catalogue of books, including the 1976 collection of articles to which he had given the characteristic title of Personal Views.

The opening of Wood's last book, a study of the Howard Hawks western Rio Bravo, published by the BFI in 2003, is typical of his insistentlypersonal style, and of the intensity with which he lived movies, as he did so much else. It describes how, being rushed to hospital in an earlier medical crisis, he found real serenity of mind in thinking about the stoicism with which Hawks's characters habitually encounter death.

He is survived by Richard, by Aline and their three children Carin, Fiona and Simon, and by five grandchildren.

Robert Paul (Robin) Wood, born 23 February 1931; died 18 December 2009 Toronto, Canada,