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Aged in Wood

June 1st, 2003

BY D.K. HOLM

I remember finding coveted film books the way most people remember where and when they first saw a favorite movie.

In the case of the book Hitchcock’s Films, it was fall of 1971. I was in the Portland State University bookstore, then a massive monument to university press and special-interest books (now a textbook clearing house), with thorough holdings in most fields. After fantasizing for years about a career as either a comic book creator or a movie director, I discovered that I enjoyed reading about films more than making them.

It takes a special personality type to helm the unwieldy juggernaut of a film crew. It takes no personality at all to read a book about it.

As a person prone to collecting, I soon found that once I hit on a film writer I liked, I became ravenous: I tore his articles out of magazines and kept a file of them, and I sought out all the books he had written. Thus from early high school on I amassed what amounted to yearly anthologies of reviews by Andrew Sarris, John Lahr, and many others, culled from newspapers and magazines.

I’d been a fan of Hitchcock’s films since youth, an affiliation inherited from my mother, who, lore had it, once actually saw Hitchcock in person riding through Los Angeles on a Moped. I had read Truffaut’s interview book on Hitchcock but no other book about the director, although I was curious about him. But when I was bitten by the film criticism bug, I decided that reading the secondary literature on Hitchcock was a good thing. On that day in the Portland State University bookstore I pulled a small yellow paperback off the shelf, a book called simply if deceptively Hitchcock’s Films. That action was to spark an intellectual love affair — not with Hitchcock but with the book’s author, Robin Wood.

Later I was to learn that I was merely one of thousands of film readers who had succumbed to Wood’s charms. A cult surrounded Wood in the manner of the cult around his own mentor, F. R. Leavis, or around George Bernard Shaw or any number of mania-provoking authors. But in my first reading of Wood, later that night, I felt as if I were in the presence of a mind that was recognizable — my own. I had rarely read a writer whose sensibility so resembled what I took to be my own.

I was instantly beguiled by Wood’s prose style but also by his defense of Hitchcock as an artist at least as great as Shakespeare, something necessary in the Sixties and Seventies, less so now. And when I got to the chapter on Psycho, I was awed by his psychological acuity, his understanding of the characters, and the satori-inducing connections he made within the film (such as the bird themes marbled throughout it).

Almost overnight I became a fanatical collector of Robin Wood’s books. I rushed back to PSU the next day and cleaned out the shelf of his volumes (fortunately, he hadn’t written that much). I sought, mostly unsuccessfully, back issues of Movie, where many of his articles appeared, and thereby also became a fanatic follower of Wood’s peers in those pages, such as V. F. Perkins. I even dug up and photocopied a brief run of reviews he wrote for the Times Educational Supplement and an obscure book he co-wrote about French verbs. My admiration was sealed when he wrote a brilliant analysis of Klute for Film Comment. Klute was one of my favorite movies at the time, and I soon found an uncanny similarity between my taste in films and Wood’s, the difference being that he could articulate his views (I was once able to ask the film’s director Alan J. Pakula what he thought of Wood’s essay, and Pakula was delighted with it, while denying that any of the meanings that Wood unearthed were intentional).

Some fifteen solo books later, I am still collecting Wood, and I was delighted last year to see an updated version of Hitchcock’s Films issued by Columbia University Press. Officially called Hitchcock’s Films Revisited, Revised Edition, it comprises the original book from the late Sixties and a whole other volume’s worth of subsequent essays on the subject of Hitchcock and Wood’s interaction with his work. One of the interesting things about the book is that it represents in one easily digestible form the divergent paths of the two halves of Wood’s career, which, like Wittgenstein’s, can be neatly divided in two.

Though Wood was and is a master of close reading, he is also a polemicist. The early, pre-mid-Seventies Wood maintained academic tradition with his New Criticism style of in-depth reading of films frame by frame. The post-Seventies Wood is both much more political and much more personal. The key event in Wood’s life is that at a late age he came out as gay. It was an admission with far reaching implications. I can date my own “liberalism” about homosexuality to the spring of 1974 ,when Wood came out of the closet in the pages of Film Comment. So fixated on Wood was I that I had to accommodate the new information I had about him, probably a common fix for the world of mostly male film fans who were drawn to the masculinist worlds of directors such directors as Hawks, Ford, Walsh, Wellman, Fuller, and others, and whose favorite genre is usually noir, with its melancholy romanticism about men manipulated by women.

The “new” Wood frequently drops the academic mask in order to talk personally. Indeed, the introduction to the revised Hitchcock’s Films Revisited contains a frank autobiographical account of his sex life, one that might have been almost erotic in a different context.

Wood was born in 1931 into a typical middle-class English household. He attended Cambridge (the rest of the Movie contributors went to Oxford) and seemed destined for a life as a schoolteacher with hidden Lawrencian tendencies, but for the fact that he had a deep and abiding interest in film. Because he knew French, he was able to place an early version of his Psycho chapter in no less a publication than Cahiers du Cinema, which led to his Hitchcock book and to his contributing to Movie, the controversial, auteurist-oriented journal, the book-publishing arm of which also issued most of Wood’s books). Married and with three kids, Wood moved to Canada to teach, where he seemed to fall into a rather Decline of the Western Empire sort of academic lifestyle. He had his first physical gay encounter, a shattering experience, became closer to his wife, but then separated from her. He moved back to England to teach and lived openly as a homosexual before being offered another job back in Canada, where he has remained. Wood was able to clear some time along the line to co-found the magazine CineACTION!, which is run by a collective of academics and students, and is up to sixty issues.

The knock against Wood is that he slips into stridency, particularly when he attacks the heterosexist patriarchy, and I admit that I prefer the “old” Wood, when his standard helped inform my own petty attempts at criticism, to the new. Yet the new Wood can still astound. His essay on the beautiful Canadian film Loyalties is a model of sensitive probing of difficult issues. And in a recent issue of CineACTION! Wood made a compelling defense of contemporary teen films (for which I have always had a secret affection). This is Wood at his best: seizing on an unpopular subject (say, Cimino’s films Year of the Dragon and Heaven’s Gate) and knocking the reader off guard with a sympathetic take, his analysis making you see the films in a new light.

Wood’s credo is that criticism of art is criticism of life, though he spurns that reductionism. Probably the most famous sentences he ever composed appeared in his book on Bergman, an unfashionable director for most of the Movie crowd: “It is time to lay one’s cards openly on the table. I can see no purpose in the individual life beyond the complete realization of one’s humanity. The most basic urge may be that of self-preservation, but, if one is thinking in terms of the quality of life, the mean and meager instinct to preserve ourselves is insignificant beside the creative urge.”

My adherence to Wood is compromised only by what I consider the one defect in his aesthetic, which is an adherence to Freudianism. This didn’t bother me during the time when I, too, unthinkingly accepted this pseudo-science. But now as a Freud hater — no one, I believe, can read Frederick Crews on Freud and not come away with the sickening feeling that the previous century’s reliance on Freud as a paragon of insight was a misdirection tantamount to an intellectual holocaust — I have to substitute other words to make some of Wood’s passages palatable. The problem is that Wood sees Freud (and such acolytes as Norman O. Brown) as a liberator rather than an oppressor, when in fact Freud was a textbook example of the conservative, hypocritical advocate of repression that we associate with Victorians, rather than an angel at the gateway to liberation.

But that’s the making of a long argument, and a puff of negativity in what is meant to be a paean to a writer whom this reader has relied on, enjoyed, and admired for three decades. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Book Issue, Books and Authors, Holm | Link to this Entry

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