Robin Wood, who died on Friday aged 78, was primarily of the world of academic film studies, but he started writing for movie magazines before the discourse of film criticism became as tiered as it is now, and the effortless force of his prose, his idiosyncratic personal voice and frequently combative opinions carried over quite well, and popularly, to the most mainstream highbrow film discussions—he’s up there with Stanley Cavell, David Bordwell, all guys you probably haven’t heard of unless you maintain an interest in long-form, rigorous film criticism, but whose writing can, I submit, easily find a toehold in your consciousness.
He also, quite inadvertently I’m sure, dictated my approach to film criticism, and my outlook as the editor of the L’s film section.
To back that trolley up a second, I would suggest that of Wood’s myriad works the one which will define his legacy is the one I’m (coincidentally or not) most familiar with: Hitchcock’s Films Revisited (Revised Edition), the last version of a not infrequently (but nevermore) updated and expanded text first published in the mid-60s. As a latter-day introduction to the book, Wood offered something like his own autobiography, claiming that “the personal is political”—which he then went on to prove, in a history of his upbringing and conflicted identity as a long-closeted gay man that makes an exemplary demonstration of how personal experience can reveal social context; and how it shapes criticism, juxtaposed as this memoir is with essays written at various points in Wood’s life, focusing with evolving frankness and politicization on the plight of Hitch’s women.
His Vertigo piece is definitive, but my favorite thing he wrote is the closing lines of his consideration of Under Capricorn (which he found grossly underrated; I concur wholeheartedly):
But anyone willing to accept that terms such as “slow-moving,” “melodramatic,” “devoid of humor” are descriptive, not evaluative, should be capable of recognizing the centrality of Under Capricorn, both the the Hitchcock canon and the [Ingrid] Bergman canon.
There’s no reason you’d know this, but the one word L film critics aren’t allowed to use is “boring” (and “bored,” “boredom,” et cetera). Partly this is because like Robin Wood I don’t think that “slow-moving,” etc, is necessarily a mark against a film, at least not when it’s intended as a storytelling strategy. In fact many of my favorite films are glacially paced and light on plot—you think nothing is happening, until you learn to recognize that everything is happening, but if you’re not predisposed to the learning process you’ll dismiss them as “boring.”
Which isn’t true: it’s just that you were bored watching it (which could be for any number of reasons ranging from the filmmaker is stretching a thin premise to you’re not predisposed to movies that move this way to you were hungry and impatient for the movie to end so you could go off and eat a tuna sandwich or whatthefuckever). And that’s the other point: unlike the terms Wood quotes, “boring” can only ever be evaluative, an endpoint to your response, and never descriptive.
In the film reviews we run at the L, we aim to account for the experience of a movie, not tell consumers which product they should fork over to spend Saturday night with. As such, we aim to burrow into a film’s goals, and the means by which it achieves them (or doesn’t). Which means not summarily piling evaluative adjectives atop a film, but rather understanding it on behalf of the reader and once or future viewer—although please note that is not the same as not expressing our opinions. It’s a matter of backing up judgement with an understanding, earned through description, of what the film does, and how it does it.
It perhaps goes without saying that the late Robin Wood, who packed a whole strategy for looking at art into a throwaway subordinate clause, was unparalleled in the art of description.