Monday, December 21, 2009

Robin Wood

Just heard belatedly that Robin Wood has died. I was a big fan of his writings: back when I first started taking movies seriously and reading about cinema, his Hitchcock’s Films Revisited was a personal Bible (along with V F Perkins’ Film as Film, Danny Peary’s three Cult Movies books and Joy Gould Boyum’s Fiction into Film) – and later I came to discover his incredibly literate yet personal and sensitive readings of the films of Howard Hawks, Satyajit Ray, Ingmar Bergman and others. More than anyone else, his writings showed me what a complex organism a great film is, and how form and content are inseparable in the work of the true movie artists. His essays on Vertigo and Rio Bravo are among the most insightful film pieces I’ve ever read.

Some sites with Wood tributes and links: The Auteurs, Glenn Kenny’s blog, Girish Shambu. Also, this nice long feature.


  1. Robin was a top authority on Hitchcock films. Was just going through his book "Hitchcock's Films Revisited". In many Hitchcock film DVDs you can find his comments in the Extra section. Excellent critic... he will be missed.

  2. I only knew him from parts of his essay on Psycho (available on the net) that made quite an impression on me. I especially loved this bit of analysis -

    The lovers cannot marry because Sam has to pay his dead father's debts and his ex-wife's alimony; "respectable" meetings in Marion's home will be presided over by her (presumably) dead mother's portrait. From this "normal" hold of past on present, with its limiting, cramping effect on life (the essence of life being development), we shall be led gradually to a situation where present is entirely swallowed up by past, and life finally paralyzed.

    Very profound.
    I never thought of the early scenes in Psycho along those lines until I read this. It made me draw parallels between Psycho and It's a Wonderful Life. Two movies that couldn't be more different on the surface, but with striking thematic similarities. Both films deal with the cramping hold of the past over the present, albeit in very different ways.

  3. shrikanth: do try to get hold of the full essay if you can - and all of Hitchcock's Films Revisited, for that matter. That essay played a big part in helping me understand why I had been so moved by Psycho when I first saw it - it articulated things about the film that one rarely got to read in the more mainstream writings.

    An interesting thing about Wood is that he has a solid literary background, which enables him to intelligently (and unpretentiously) draw parallels between a literary work and a cinematic work (e.g., he likens the Ricky Nelson song sequence in Rio Bravo to the role of Autolycus the mischievous vagabond in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale and considers the former more thematically justified). But at the same time he always analyses a film as a film. The opening paras of his original Intro to the 1965 Hitchcock's Films read:

    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 of drama - if we were able yet to see films instead of mentally reducing them to literature - it would be unnecessary. As things are, it seems impossible to start a book on Hitchcock without confronting appreciate his films it is necessary that we grasp the nature of the medium. We are concerned here by much more than is normally meant by the term "technique"

    And then he gives an example of a short, 30-second scene from Marnie (a scene that isn't one of the film's "setpieces", or concerned in any obvious way with "technique" or "cleverness") to illustrate the rigour of Hitchcock's cutting between characters, the way camera movement complements the spoken word and so on. The book is full of fascinating studies like this.

    Btw, V F Perkins' analysis of the shower scene (and the earlier scene that serves as a visual "pre-echo" for it - Marion driving through the rain, the windshield wipers swaying back and forth) is another wonderful piece of writing on Psycho. Both these writers played a big role in showing readers that a film made by a true master is much more than the story it tells at a superficial level - themes and ideas are embedded in things like shot composition, the framing of a character, etc.

  4. Also see this post by David Bordwell - it includes a sample of the quality in Wood's writing that I mentioned in the last comment.

  5. Here are a few more samples of his writing along with his top 10.

  6. J'wock, Rahul: Thanks for the links. Loved several other posts on Bordwell's blog.

    to appreciate his films it is necessary that we grasp the nature of the medium. We are concerned here by much more than is normally meant by the term "technique"

    I agree. Generally, the knee jerk reaction to the term "technique" in the context of movies is to talk about how "well-made" the movie is. Such a reaction overlooks the fact that a lot of great movies are not particularly "well-made" in a conventional sense. Whereas, several "well-made" movies are actually pretty mediocre.

    For instance, James Cameron's Titanic may be a well made movie whereas Hitchcock's Marnie seems a fairly crude work on a cursory viewing. Yet, the latter is an endlessly fascinating film that lends itself to analysis whereas the former is a simplistic yarn which plays out like a 3 hr long cartoon.

    Drives home the point you made about impossibility in discussing form and content in separate terms while discussing great films

  7. shrikanth: incidentally TCM was showing Casablanca and To Have and Have Not back to back yesterday. It reminded me of a fine essay Wood wrote titled "To Have (Written) and Have Not (Directed)", which discusses the Hawks film as being central to the "Auteur theory" - in terms of how Hawks worked both with what he himself called Hemingway's worst novel and a template that resembled the Casablanca plot, and formed something new and original.

    I think the essay is available on Google Books, as part of the anthology "Movies and Methods, Vol 1".

  8. Rahul: that top 10 list is ineresting, though (like any other top 10 list by a serious movie lover) it would probably have been completely different if Wood had made it a few hours later. Also, not sure about this but I think that was done in conjunction with Criterion, to highlight some classic films that hadn't been properly released on DVD yet, and which Wood felt deserved better treatment. He hasn't included Vertigo, Rio Bravo or Ugetsu on the list, though in other writings he's referred to them as being among the cinema's very greatest achievements.

  9. Wow, I read the first sentence of this post and I thought, "Wait, what? The character from Buffy died?" :-S

    But then, after a short stop at wikipedia, I read his essay on Rebecca from the Criterion website, and wow. Can't wait to get started on the rest of his writing.

  10. J'wock: Couldn't place the Wood article. Nevertheless, here's a fine piece I stumbled upon. Guess you might like it.