Sunday, 20 December 2009

Robin Wood: 1931-2009


“You know, I believe that if there's any kind of god, it wouldn't be in any of us, not you, or me, but just... this little space in between. If there's any kind of magic in this world, it must be in the attempt of understanding someone, sharing something. I know, it's almost impossible to succeed, but who cares really? The answer must be in the attempt.”

– Céline (Julie Delpy) in Before Sunrise

Robin Wood was one of the greatest and most influential of film critics. He was also one of the main causes of my learning to love writing about the cinema. Some kind of personal tribute to mark his passing feels absolutely necessary, since – apart from anything – it is probable that this blog itself wouldn’t exist had I not encountered his work.

Many film scholars and cinephiles who grew up in the 60s and 70s can trace their serious interest in film back to Wood’s classic book Hitchcock’s Films (1965). It is easy to see why, given it appeared both before Hitchcock’s reputation had been consolidated (Wood felt it necessary to open the book with a question that would never be asked today: “Why should we take Hitchcock seriously?”), and indeed before American film itself was regularly treated with seriousness by English language critics. However, I (and many friends and colleagues my age) am proof that one certainly needn’t have been around at this seminal moment in order to have been inspired and influenced by Wood’s work.

The first piece of Wood’s that I definitely remember reading is his article ‘Rethinking Romantic Love: Before Sunrise’ (from Sexual Politics and Narrative Film: Hollywood and Beyond). It was with a beautiful, sharp shock that I read its first words:

I knew, the first time I saw Before Sunrise, that here was a film for which I felt not only interest or admiration, but love.

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. What drew me in was not only the fact that he felt the same way about this film as I did, but that he had felt it necessary to open an article in such a forthrightly, nakedly personal manner. It seemed to me that this writer was being open about something that was being problematically repressed in so much other scholarship: the absolutely central, unavoidable, importance of the critic’s own personal response – what V. F. Perkins calls “the evidence of feeling”. The article went on to engage in a detailed, impassioned reading of Before Sunrise from various angles (authorship, structure, historical context, ideology, performance, style), yet this reading had clearly been prompted, as Wood makes clear, by love. Never before had I been moved by film criticism.

Looking back on this moment now, perhaps the reason I was so immediately seduced was because Wood was writing from a perspective of love about a film that I too loved, which in itself was concerned with love. In one sense, there was probably already enough romance in this to have caused a young fan and critic of Before Sunrise to swoon. Yet, even more, I remember being struck in particular by the way in which the emotions Wood admitted to were placed in perfect dialogue not only with the film, but with the critical act itself. Towards the opening of the piece, Wood (making reference to a line of dialogue from the film) says that he immediately knew Before Sunrise was a film that

I would ultimately want to write about, as a means at once of exploring it more systematically and of sharing my delight in it with others – of finding that "magic" in the "attempt".

Then, at the end, writing of the film’s own beautiful final sequence (watch it here), he writes:

The sequence evokes the ending of Antonioni's L'Eclisse, but without its sense of desolation and finality: rather, the feeling is of sadness and happiness inextricably intermingled, regret for the separation and the uncertainty but a deep satisfaction in the degree of mutual understanding and intimacy two human beings have achieved in a few hours, how nearly successful the attempt to bridge “this little space in between”. And, as Celine says, the “answer”, the “magic”, must be in the attempt. The same might be said of the critic's relationship to the films s/he loves.

Of course, part of the beauty of the personal quality of Wood’s writing is simply that it allows you to feel as if you in some sense know him, meaning that to engage with his arguments is to – as he once said of another critic’s work (Jim Kitses’ Horizons West) – “engage with another mind, another psyche, in a fully human way”. For Wood this was not just a question of honesty: it was a matter of the irreducibly social nature of criticism as an act of intellectual and emotional communication. I think this fact is made poignantly transparent in the quotation above.

Wood finds a way to make the entire article – like the greatest cinema – have a ‘form’ that is inextricable from its ‘content’. The personal nature of his writing here is not only a matter of frankness, but also a necessary response to the themes of the film, to the relationship between critics and films in general, and to the relationship between critic and reader. Furthermore, in one final layer of coherence, Wood’s writing very often ensured that the particular nature of this relationship between critic and reader was – as I can attest to – one of love.


  1. Lovely tribute, James.

    Just out of curiosity - do you know what Wood thought of Before Sunset? I can't remember reading anything by him on the later film, but his description of Sunrise's finale might actually suit it better...

  2. Thanks for the comment.

    As far as I know, he never wrote on it, which will forever disappoint me. I in fact wrote to him while writing my undergraduate dissertation (which was partly about Before Sunrise) specifically to ask him his opinion on Sunset, but he never got back to me...

  3. Thanks for this, James. Much appreciated.

  4. Wonderful piece, James. You know that Linklater was actually influenced, for the script of BEFORE SUNSET, by Wood's piece on the original film? (They were friends, and Linklater always showed Wood his scripts - which, according to Kent Jones, elicited a response something like: "Well, it's OK, but it's not BEFORE SUNRISE" !!) I too asked Wood for a SUNRISE/SUNSET comparison piece for ROUGE when the latter film first appeared, but he politely declined, saying he had his hands full doing the Wayne State Uni updates of his previous books. He gave me no clue as to his opinion of BEFORE SUNSET.


  5. Adrian - I've heard rumours that the journalists' polarised opinions on Jesse's book at the start of Sunset were inspired by Wood's own oscillations on what might happen 'After The End' of Sunrise... I'm not sure where the rumour came from originally (maybe Jonathan Rosenbaum...?).

    The reason I so wanted to hear Wood's feelings on Sunset was to see what the deep regret for a missed opportunity of a sustained relationship that is expressed by both characters (and the dot dot dot ending) did to his view that Sunrise posed the question: "Would it be if they did or if they didn't [meet up in Vienna]?" There is such a longing in the film - but for what? Is it for the utopian relationship that Wood sees the first film calling for, which is "of a quite different order from anything offered by the familiar models"? Or is it for something much more traditional? This is what I would have loved to kick around with him.

  6. A lovely piece, I think you have definitely struck on the aspect of his criticism that excites me most too (though I don' know that piece of writing, or the film I have to say).


  7. James, thank you for this marvelous tribute! It's also nice to discover your blog--I look forward to following it!

  8. Girish, thanks for the comment - I'm a big fan of your blog, so that you're looking forward to reading more is very flattering! Anyway, much appreciated.

  9. Thanks for posting this. I read Wood's Before Sunrise piece in CineAction in my university library and was delighted to find someone responding with such intelligence and sensitivity to a film that was largely dismissed on release. Later on, I was even more surprised to realise just how eminent a critic Wood was - and charmed to discover that a critic in his sixties could still speak with such directness about romantic love...