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Robin Wood, 1931 – 2009

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."


Robin Wood’s “Incoherent Texts” is the single greatest piece of writing on film that I have ever had the pleasure of reading. He watched movies unlike anyone else, and that is a quality that is always in short supply. R.I.P. Robin.
I just learned of the death of Robin Wood who, in addition to his many other accomplishments, was an Honorary Member of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, an honor he shared with luminaries such as Christian Metz, Annette Michelson, Rudolf Arnheim, Jean Mitry, and Laura Mulvey. Wood’’s early and formative contributions to our field of interest, cinema, were highly influential, as an author, teacher, and journal editor. I was one of many who was inspired by his work and his intellectual courage. His essay, “An Introduction to the American Horror Film,” among so many others, emphasized subtexts — the Other, Women, the Proletariat, Ethnic groups, and “Deviations” — found in popular culture artifacts (or, to use Adorno’s better phrase, films of “the culture industry”). He also wrote about the aesthetics and ideology of the art cinema, including Bergman, Chabrol, and Antonioni. Many are probably familiar with his books on Hitchcock and Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan. I had the opportunity to meet him on several occasions, usually at film conferences, and he was a very gracious and wise man, as well as a scholar.
Andrew Sarris was the spur that sent me into film criticism as a career. Robin Wood was the biggest intellectual influence on how I approached film in the first 15 years of that career. I can’t imagine the world without him. George Robinson
yes, agreed. and let’s also remember how accessible his writing is. i was able to read it and GET it as an undergrad. and it’s still useful and powerful today.
I’d like to correct C. Jerry Kutner’s respectful obituary in one respect. Robin was not Canadian-born but English. Although he moved permanently to Canada in 1977 I don’t think he took out Canadian citizenship (like George Romero) but remained staunchly independent and far removed from any national boundaries. Although some of us have taken citizenship to avoid post 9/11 deportation, Robin remained firmly committed to world culture as well as hoping for a better one sometime in the future despite his pessimism.
I recall reading that Robin Wood refused to take Canadian citizenship on the grounds that he would have to swear an oath of loyalty to the Queen. As a republican, he felt unable to do so. This was perhaps typical of his stubborn integrity, a quality rare in today’s world, but visible in every page of his writing. To read him was to feel that you knew him. I never met Robin, but I feel his death, nevertheless, as a kind of personal loss. Since I first read Hitchcock’s Films Revisited as an 18-year-old schoolboy, he has been for me an influence and an inspiration. He was quite simply the greatest film critic in the English language. May he rest in peace. Alexander Jacoby
A real loss for film criticism and film writing [and just writing in general]. He had a really strong, clean prose that was always a delight to read. Few critics could so clearly and persuasively lay out their views on a film or a film director. His review of Cache
I had the pleasure of writing a long seminar work about Wood, his writing, and the fascinating transformation he did as a film critic in the 70s, when he re-read everything he had written. This opened me up to film criticism and film studies like nothing else during my first year of film studies at NYU. I owe his at least that much. RIP Robin Wood.
While at York studying film in the late 90s, I took a course taught by Richard Lippe, his partner. Robin guest-lectured a couple times. I remember the one he did after the screening of Life Boat by Hitchcock. His lucid analysis and passion about film as a critical art form were infectious. Later, I moved out to Vancouver but began to read all his publications, including his work in CineAction. His beautiful language, his perspicacity into life in general, his take on social suppression and the crying at the environmental degradation often shook me to the core. What a colossal loss, his passing. I am glad that Canada was his chosen home for all those decades. Rest in peace Robin.
Robin Wood was one of the great film critics. As a schoolboy, I learned English by reading Hitchcock’s Films. Ten years ago, Robin visited Helsinki and gave an inspired lecture on Marnie in a Hitchcock Centenary seminar. After the lecture at the Corona Bar he impressed us with his knowledge of modern Finnish music (Einojuhani Rautavaara, Aulis Sallinen). Even more he impressed us with his wisdom, dignity, generosity and unpretentious authority. We could sense that he lived as he taught. Antti Alanen, Film Programmer, Cinema Orion, Helsinki, Finland
I just learned of Robin’s death, which saddens me greatly. A couple of years ago I was asked to write down a few of my recollections of Robin, under whom I was privileged to study. These recollections follow. I spent eight years in university (not all of them studying for a BA). The single most vivid memory from all those years is of the three of us sitting in the semi-darkness of Film House after hours, David Elliott, Robin, and me, laughing at The General or crying at Letter from an Unknown Woman. A reel of the film would end, Robin would go into the projection room to set up the next reel, I would phone for a pizza to be delivered; we would re-fill our wine glasses, chat until the pizza arrived, David saying something funny – he always did; he just couldn’t help himself – and then we would resume watching the movie, laughing or crying, sipping red wine, munching pizza. It was simple and pleasant at the time but in memory those nights, and the days and nights around them, have assumed an almost mythical aura of perfection: being young and healthy, zits finally gone, immersed in a field one loved, surrounded by people one respected and admired – which included not only Robin Wood but also at different times Jim Kitses, Raymond Durgnat, and pre-eminently Peter Harcourt, one of the most inspired lecturers I have had the privilege of observing – and before adult worries about paying the mortgage and bailing your son out of jail irrevocably erode any concept of perfection. After graduation, after leaving Queen’s, life became more of a mixed blessing. I started at Queen’s University in Kingston in 1968 as an undergraduate who intended to, and subsequently did, major in English literature. Queen’s had an impressive English department, which included the scholars Norman MacKenzie, A.C. Hamilton, and George Whalley, as well as respected writers David Helwig and Tom Marshall. Despite the well-credentialled department, the study of university English was missing something for me. The next year a friend recommended Peter Harcourt’s introductory film course, and whatever was missing was suddenly found – a sense of excitement about the subject, a sense that what we were studying mattered. Although my studies still involved a search for patterns of disease imagery in Shakespeare’s history plays, they now also involved an exploration of how this film and that film were alive, for us, today. Robin Wood had joined the Department of Film Studies in 1969 and in 1970 I took courses with both him and Peter. With Robin, the process initiated by Peter advanced even further. Before taking Peter’s course I had read his articles on film in London Magazine and Film Quarterly (the fact he wrote for magazines made him seem more au courant than, for example, the fact that A.C. Hamilton had written a book on the Faerie Queene), but Robin Wood was an unknown quantity to me, though of course he shouldn’t have been; by that point he had written Hitchcock’s Films (1965), Howard Hawks (1968), Ingmar Bergman (1969), and Arthur Penn (1969), as well as numerous articles, especially in Movie. It only took a class or two before I realized that the tiny Queen’s film department, which consisted of Peter and Robin (and a small support staff), was truly blessed with two extraordinarily gifted professors, and I was blessed by being their student. Unlike any other professor I encountered, before or after, both Peter and Robin listened to their students and seemed to actually care what they thought. Under their tutelage students such as Peter Raymont (who has produced and directed over 100 documentary films, including Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire) and Brigitte Berman (whose biography of Artie Shaw, Artie Shaw: Time Is All You’ve Got, won an Academy Award for best documentary) flourished. Nothing causes the rose to bloom more than a little sunshine, and Peter and Robin provided it in ample quantities. David and I were specially blessed by being teaching assistants for both Peter and Robin, thus allowing us to know them better than we might otherwise. Robin at the time was living with his wife and three children in an idyllic limestone house on one of Kingston’s historic downtown streets, which reflected the idyllic life Robin was living at the time. It turned out it was the life Robin wanted to believe he was living. When we returned to classes in 1972, we found that Robin was on his own, his wife and children having returned to England. Since he was at loose ends, since we liked the man, my friends and I welcomed him into our little group, and we would all have beers together at the Plaza Hotel after an evening screening of La Règle de Jeu or Rio Bravo or Madame de …. He was boon companion, as they say; friendly, playful, with an explosive laugh. He got on particularly well with David Elliott, who had an inventive mind that liked jokes, puzzles, quizzes, all of which Robin relished with a kind of infectious, boyish glee. This tall, handsome, bearded Englishman simply enjoyed enjoying himself. Some time after John Anderson made an appearance in Kingston, I was sitting in Robin’s office, sipping on an always-present glass of wine – Robin is nothing if not sociable and cordial – when he came “out” to me. It is only in retrospect that I see how momentous this disclosure must have been for Robin. This was in Kingston in 1972. It would be unfair to call this a backward city in a backward time, but things were different in 1972 and Kingston has always seemed a bit off the beaten track. To the best of my knowledge I had, at that point, never met a gay person. Had I not at some time as a teenager read a book called Counterfeit Sex about what the book identified as sexual dysfunctions such as impotence, nymphomania, and homosexuality, I would have had no idea what being gay even meant. The subject was, simply, never mentioned. In 1972 there was no Gay Pride Day; there were no shows on television like South Park dealing with gay themes; no film critics writing articles about the responsibility of a gay film critic: silence reigned. To my everlasting shame I had no idea how deeply Robin was affected by the circumstances of his life at the time. When he told me he was gay, I nodded my head sympathetically and said, “Oh, that must be hard for you”, or something equally inane, all the while wondering if in light of his disclosure it would be impolite to re-fill my wine glass. The introduction to his Hitchcock’s Films Revisited, Revised Edition (2002) reveals that he contemplated suicide at this time, so profound was his despair at the loss of his family, especially his children, whose diapers he changed, whose births (for two) he assisted. One does not have to know Robin well to know that he feels deeply and commits himself absolutely. I have no doubt that he had committed himself absolutely to his family and family life. To be wrenched from that family and to realize that the family life he believed in and was committed to was, at least partly, an image he had constructed must have been devastating. The next year, 1973, he was gone from Canada, returned to England. We communicated fitfully for a while. I visited John and him in Coventry. We re-established contact for a while after he returned to Canada to teach at York University in the late 70s, both of us then living in Toronto. But friendship is quite often a function of a time and a place as much as the people, and the time and place for our friendship was in Kingston in the early years of the 70s. Although I have seen Robin only a couple of times in the past decades, he remains my guidepost. Whenever I feel a waning of courage or strength, I read Robin, whose courage and strength in searching for what is alive and of value in our civilization and in attacking what is dead, moribund, or pernicious, gives me the courage and strength to, if not proceed with Robin’s brightness and integrity, at least go on another day, doing one’s best, in the ways that one can. - Gary McCallum
Wow! I would simply like to add my most humble response to the note above concerning the passing of Robin Wood a few short years ago. I was a student of Robin at York U. back in the late 1970’s and I most heartily concur with the comments stated (by Gary McCallum) regarding Robin’s character and personality. He was a fine man, I am sure, but for me, even more so, he was simply a great professor of film, something which I had aspired to in those days but which life and its complications messed up my trajectory a bit. However, those classes we had with Robin, in our youth, were spectacular eye openers to the wonders of the learning process, of film culture, and of cultural expression in general. Although I have strayed a bit from my earlier passions in film, what I learned there I have applied, in my own way, to everything I have learned since, and for that, I have great masters of education such as Robin, Peter Harcourt, and others (Richard Lippe, and that other great, pristine intellectual mind, the poor fellow who passed away long ago, their friend from England, Andrew Britton) to thank. I did not, as it were, deserve to even be in the company of such great minds, great communicators, but I felt their presence, passion, and involvement in their fields, and from that alone I learned a great deal, to say the least about their method of expressing themselves. Those were exciting times, they were, and my hat is off to Robin and company, and to everyone like them in the vast field of education, whatever its form. Addios, Robin, you are one of the greats!

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