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Farewell, Robin Wood (1931-2009): The Relevance of a Radical Film Critic

 

“It is probably impossible today for anyone to make an even halfway commercial movie that shouts, in some positive sense, ‘Revolution!’ as loudly as its lungs can bear, so one must celebrate the films that seem (whether deliberately or not) to imply its necessity.” — Robin Wood1

At a time when comedy shows tell us the news and news shows tell us jokes, the line between reality and entertainment has become increasingly blurred.  This is as true for the corporate-owned news media as it is for the corporate-owned cinema, and although many writers have concentrated their efforts on exposing the propagandistic nature of mainstream news coverage — Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky in their book Manufacturing Consent, for instance — the entertainment industry also plays a tremendous role in perpetuating the ruling ideology.  Indeed, by producing decades of racist storytelling that pits the white, all-American, male hero against the smarmy, brown-skinned hordes, Hollywood is perhaps just as much to blame as the news media for creating a climate of indiscriminate fear in which a war of vengeance against one country (Afghanistan) can be so easily transferred to a completely unrelated one (Iraq).  Like the news media, the entertainment industry greatly contributes to the construction of public opinion, and at this time of war and economic meltdown, it is perhaps more important than ever to examine how the dominant power structures of society are manifested through these mass-marketed products of capitalist consumption.

Of course, to completely dismiss the entire cinema with one broad stroke as propaganda at the service of the powerbrokers in the White House and on Wall Street is to miss the point.  Just as Hollywood is capable of spinning reactionary tales, films also possess the potential to criticize our social structures and institutions or even to suggest progressive alternatives to the dominant social order.  Indeed, while there is nothing particularly brave or challenging about condemning the Hollywood dream factory, identifying from out of the vastness of cinematic slush those oft-overlooked films containing a subversive kernel of political radicalism is a noble endeavor indeed, and it is especially important at this precise historical moment when having hope seems ever so hopeless.

What is needed, then, is for us to embrace those individuals who can peer through the cinema’s camouflage of entertainment and escapism and can thus intelligently assess the ideology of the film industry’s cultural products.  In embarking upon this task, one would be well advised to turn to the voluminous writings of Robin Wood, a British-born film critic who spent his life teaching, discussing, and critically examining film.  With his characteristic wit, penetrating analysis, and beautiful prose, Wood took his readers to unexpected places, often noticing features of films that all others had missed.  One may sometimes disagree with Wood’s opinions, but it is simply not possible to walk away from his writings without being forced to seriously rethink one’s own position.

It is thus greatly unfortunate that this aggressive interrogator of popular culture passed away in December 2009 at the age of seventy-eight.  Wood left behind him a lifetime of work — hundreds of essays spread across dozens of publications (including the journal he co-founded, CineAction), a number of important books, and scores of previous students now scattered throughout various institutions.  Even though Wood achieved a star-like status within the world of academic film criticism, his name remains virtually unknown to a wider audience.  While not all of us are interested in analyzing the cinema, the themes and issues in which Wood was most highly invested — socialism, feminism, gay liberation, sexual freedom, racial justice, passivism, and environmentalism — greatly concern us all, and as we continue to ponder the politics of culture and society, we would do well to acquaint ourselves (or perhaps reacquaint ourselves) with the work of Robin Wood.

Robin Wood began writing seriously about film at a time when very few did.  Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to claim that Wood’s writings — particularly his early works on Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, and Ingmar Bergman — helped shape the field of film studies when the discipline was still in its infancy.  However, whereas many film critics have been chiefly focused on the aesthetic, Wood became increasingly concerned throughout his life with the cinema’s political and ideological dimensions.

Wood was no liberal idealist.  He understood that the various anti-oppression movements that defined his era — civil rights, gay rights, feminism, and the rest — must be rooted in the broader struggle of overturning the dominant social framework that enables and even encourages such oppression to begin with.  Thus, Wood did not make the mistake typical of so many well-meaning others like Vito Russo, author of the landmark study The Celluloid Closet, who concentrate their efforts solely on one or another social struggle without connecting it to the underpinning status quo — what Wood frequently called “patriarchal capitalism.”  In this sense, Wood can be counted amongst the truly radical.

Wood did not shy away from taking bold and often unpopular stands, and in his pursuit to unearth neglected cinematic treasures and claim them for the progressive cause, he often defended much-maligned films like It’s Alive (1974), Mandingo (1975), Cruising (1980), Heaven’s Gate (1980), and The Doom Generation (1995).  Thus, Wood could never be accused, like so many others, of putting his finger to the wind to gauge the direction of academic fads.  Indeed, Wood quickly fell out of favor with much of the academy when he resisted going along with certain fashionable trends in film studies — namely, Lacanian psychoanalytic theory and semiotics.  This is not to say that he remained an ossified relic of a prior era, stubbornly opposed to any and all change.  To the contrary, Wood constantly demonstrated a remarkable ability to rethink previously-held positions, to submit himself to stringent self-criticism, and to make appropriate changes.

Indeed, Wood was not born a radical, and his political concerns, which eventually came to dominate his writing, are mostly absent from his earliest works including his influential first book, Hitchcock’s Films.  Wood’s turn to radicalism was part of a gradual evolution of political awareness — one that he, like so many of us, first resisted.  Reflecting on this process, Wood later observed, “Our emotions have to be educated, and emotional education is the most painful of all processes, because the education is resisted at every point by what we call our instincts but might more reasonably think of as our ideological structuring.”2

While Wood’s radicalization was the product of a gradual development and not any “Road to Damascus”-like epiphany, his political transformation can nevertheless be linked to his coming out as a gay man, both in public and private life.  His coming out was all the more courageous considering that at the time he was already married with three children.  Wood’s coming out eventually led him to pen one of his most influential essays, “Responsibilities of a Gay Film Critic,” in which he characterized his earlier writings on film as case studies in self-oppression — that is, “an alternating pattern of peeping out of the closet door and then quickly slamming it shut, and pasting over the chinks with placards on which words like Marriage, Family, Health, and Normality were loudly displayed.”3  From this moment on, his writings on film took on an increasingly political edge.

Wood’s penchant for uncovering radical political subtexts in the otherwise ignored and disregarded can perhaps be best demonstrated by his writings on the horror genre.  Horror formed something of a running theme throughout Wood’s oeuvre, spanning from his first published piece of film criticism — an illuminating essay on Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) — to his later writings which include analyses of Audition (1999) and Diary of the Dead (2007), as well as discussions of the films of Michael Haneke which, though not technically horror, are certainly horrific.  Some of his most insightful work on horror, however, was inspired by the arrival of the gruesome grindhouse exploitation film at American drive-in theaters in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Upon its appearance in cinemas, the exploitation horror film cycle — which included such infamous box-office screams as Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Last House on the Left (1972), and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) — was met by very little positive critical attention.  The New York Times reviewer of The Last House on the Left, for instance, did not even finish his screening of the film, walking out in disgust after fifty minutes.  Similarly, a writer for Harper’s Magazine derided The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as a “vile little piece of sick crap” and likened it to pornography.4  But even those few who dared to defend such films often struggled to articulate any good reasons.  For instance, a writer in Film Comment who penned an overall positive review of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre nonetheless concluded that the film had no meaning or greater intellectual value; “There’s no point pretending that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre hides a secret life in which it is something other than, or ‘better’ than, it means to be. [. . .]  I don’t think it ‘means’ anything at all.”5

In contrast to such views, Wood detected beneath the bloody surface of these films a progressive voice articulating the countercultural movement’s growing frustrations with the capitalist status quo and all its hideous symptoms.  While others condemned these films or timidly tip-toed around them, Wood took a bold stand, claiming that horror “is currently the most important of all American genres and perhaps the most progressive” and that “in a period of extreme cultural crisis and disintegration, [horror] alone offers the possibility of radical change and rebuilding.”6  Wood’s defense of the seemingly indefensible should not be mistaken for some sort of misplaced pubescent passion for the tasteless and the trashy.  Rather, his position was the result of clear-eyed evaluation and the careful application of Marxist-Freudian analysis.

Wood’s audacious postulation hinged on the identity of the monster.  He argued that the monsters of these grindhouse films were not some alien menace or external evil threatening society from without.  Instead, they represented the consequences of the dominant social order taken to their logical extreme.  His reasoning was centered on repression and specifically the notion of the “return of the repressed.”  In the exploitation film, that which is repressed — sexuality, femininity, or the inconvenient victimization of ruthless capitalism — returns in a monstrous form as zombies, cannibals, Leatherface, or even the mutant baby of It’s Alive.  In short, evil in these films represents patriarchal capitalism’s obstreperous children.  The appearance of these monsters on the silver screen, then, constituted subversive acts of protest against the bloodbath in Vietnam, social and economic inequalities, racial and sexual oppression, patriarchal power, and the monogamous heterosexual straitjacket.  Thus, Wood opened up the 1970s exploitation film, that basest of cinematic specimens, to a progressive and even radical political interpretation.  For Wood, the ultimate message of such horrors was that the much glorified American Dream was merely mystification, obscuring what could more accurately be described as the American Nightmare.

Take, for instance, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre — that grisly story about a group of youthful travelers who unwittingly fall into the hands of a perverse family of crazed cannibals.  Wood argued that this gruesome tale was not just a bloody exercise in senseless brutality and nihilistic spectacle; instead, it was an attempt at artistically rendering the state of human relations under the pressures of late capitalist society, and it therefore represented a far more significant social statement than anything offered by those more polished Hollywood horrors, The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976), The Sentinel (1977), and the like.

For Wood, it was no coincidence that director Tobe Hooper chose to portray his film’s macabre family of cannibals as former slaughterhouse workers who had been replaced by more modern methods and machinery.  Out of work as a result of the callous and morally indifferent logic of capital, the family continues practicing their butchery upon human victims, thus reproducing the rapacious, dog-eat-dog conditions of capitalism quite literally.  Cannibalism in these films, then, carried an important symbolic value.  As Wood put it,

It is no accident that the [. . .] most intense horror films of the Seventies at ‘exploitation’ level [. . .] are all centered on cannibalism, and on the specific notion of present and future (the younger generation) being devoured by the past.  Cannibalism represents the ultimate in possessiveness, hence the logical end of human relations under capitalism. [. . .]  [The cannibals of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre] only carry to its logical conclusion the basic (though unstated) tenet of capitalism, that people have the right to live off other people.7

Not all cinephiles share Wood’s enthusiasm for this infamous film cycle.  Indeed, all these decades later, many are still unable to stomach it.  Nevertheless, Wood’s political interpretation paved the way for the appropriation of these films into the canon of counterhegemonic filmmaking.  Just as Wood’s work on Hitchcock a decade earlier had played a not insignificant role in elevating the critical estimation of that director into something more than mere bourgeois entertainer, his defense of the grindhouse exploitation film was largely responsible for rescuing it from critical oblivion.

As the radicalism of the 1970s gave way to the reactionary 1980s, the cinema too lost its previously subversive zeal.  It was as if the Hollywood studios’ answer to yesteryear’s feminist movement came in the form of a pulsating bicep.  Hypermasculinity, it seems, was the order of the day, and whatever vestiges remained of the previous decade’s radicalism were quickly drowned out by a formidable barrage of formulaic exploits showcasing the muscles and machismo of a cinematic panoply of Reaganite action heroes: Chuck Norris, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and the rest.  In one nightmarish moment, real life seemed to imitate Hollywood when the actor-turned-president Ronald Reagan, referring to the 1985 Beirut hostage crisis, quipped, “Boy, I saw Rambo last night.  Now I know what to do the next time this happens.”8

It is out of this reactionary atmosphere that Wood yet again uncovered a sliver of progressive hope within the horror genre: Day of the Dead (1985).  Horror during this time was not the breeding grounds for radical subversion that it had been a decade earlier, and Wood was not impressed by the new slew of screen monsters.  For Wood, the slasher cycle inaugurated by the superstar villains Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and Freddy Krueger represented an ideological perversion of its predecessors.  While Leatherface and the inbred cannibals of The Hills Have Eyes (1977) had represented dire denouncements of the status quo, these new monsters symbolized instead the repressive social order’s puritanical enforcers.  Thus, for Wood, horror films had become little more than cinematic sermons, warning audiences against the immorality of intercourse rather than smashing the boundaries of systematic repression.9

Apart from a cult following of enthusiasts, Day of the Dead — the third installment of director George Romero’s Living Dead series — was almost universally panned by critics and audiences alike.  Wood, however, lavished praise upon the film, pronouncing it “the most uncompromising critique of contemporary America (and, by extension, Western capitalist society in general) that is possible within the terms and conditions of a ‘popular entertainment’ medium.”10  Thus, Wood again discerned within the horror genre a trace of radical optimism during what otherwise seemed to be politically and culturally bleak times.

The film involves a group of survivors of an ongoing zombie apocalypse, passing their days secluded in an underground tunnel system.  The survivors are purportedly working together as a team, but theirs is clearly a divided lot.  They are separated into three different units — soldiers, scientists, and technicians.  Each of these, Wood argued, represented three major ideological strata of society: the reactionaries, the reformists, and the radical revolutionaries.

The soldiers are ceaselessly vile — swearing, abusive, machoistic, masochistic, and racist.  Their solution to the zombie plague is to cling to their phallic weaponry.  Thus, Wood saw them as fascists who deal with defeat by blindly continuing their destructive fight.  They are society’s Rambos and Reagans.  Or, to put it in twenty-first century terms, they are the neo-cons and the Sarah Palin voters.

If the soldiers represent the film’s right-wing reactionaries, the scientists are its reformers who hope to restore the old society by curing (or perhaps even controlling) the zombie hordes.  That the social order they hope to salvage was a failure matters not, and while the scientists may seem greatly preferable to their fascist associates, both groups are ultimately shackled to the dead weight of the past which is coming, in the form of Romero’s sluggish zombies, ever so slowly to swallow them up.

Wood’s reading of the film is still frighteningly relevant today when, at a time of economic and political calamity, a great portion of American society seems, like Day of the Dead‘s misguided scientists, dead set on restoring the very institutions and policies that brought about these crises in the first place.  Society cannot be revived.  It is utterly beyond recuperation, and the only viable option is the radical one: to fly away, start fresh, and teach future generations better.  This alternative is embraced by the film’s third group, an Irish electrician and a Caribbean pilot who are eventually joined by the film’s central protagonist, a female scientist, after she finally comes to terms with the futility of her efforts at reviving what once was.  Wood argues that if there is any hope for our society, we too must follow this path and begin to think outside the restrictive capitalist box.  Very few Hollywood films indeed articulate such radicalism.  Coming in the middle of the Reaganite 1980s, Day of the Dead resembles a desperate plea from a socially-conscious filmmaker against the reactionary forces around him, and Wood was astute enough to apprehend the film’s progressive cultural value.

To only focus on this limited sampling of Wood’s work is to do him a serious disservice.  The breadth of his writings covers much more ground than this small handful of films may suggest.  Nonetheless, these examples demonstrate that film criticism is indeed serious business and that the cinema should, like all cultural products, be carefully evaluated so that anything worth retaining is neither lost nor forgotten but is instead embraced and utilized.

Wood’s radical political convictions, unlike those of so many turncoat hippies, did not dull with age.  If anything, they grew stronger, and in his final years, he wrote of the need to reenergize the leftist politics of film criticism.  Indeed, Wood chose “protest and revolution” as the theme of the last issue of CineAction he was to edit.  Looking back over that issue’s opening editorial, it appears as a swan song in which Wood unleashed some of his harshest charges against the state of contemporary society.

[A]s climate change escalates, temperatures rise, ‘natural’ disasters (which are anything but natural) become more frequent and more extreme, corporate capitalism sees to it that its ever more mystified populace are deluded into what is generally regarded as happiness, with the availability of more and more gadgetry, newer and newer fashions, ‘the latest’, with which we all have to keep up, rock, pop, TV sitcoms, outpourings of emptier and ever more repetitive Hollywood sex comedies, crazy comedies, horror, torture, dumbing down. . . .  And on we go to the ending of all life on our planet.  The time for socialist revolution is now, not when it is too late.  Tell your neighbours.11

Just days before his passing, Wood, lying upon his death bed, dictated to a friend his final top ten film list.12  Occupying the number one spot was director Howard Hawks’ 1959 western, Rio Bravo.  It may seem an odd choice to those unacquainted with Wood’s writings, but of all the films Wood returned to again and again, Rio Bravo appeared perhaps the most frequently.  Indeed, if ever there was a film that encapsulated all the issues Wood held dear, Rio Bravo is it.  Contained within the film’s narrative are many themes: human relationships, freely expressed love, the fight against fascism, camaraderie, and — most importantly — the heroic acts of regular people.  Unlike many other John Wayne westerns, Rio Bravo is not a simpleminded salute to the solitary male hero.  Rather, it is a joyful celebration of the communal underdog.  The film concludes triumphantly with a ragtag group of normal folk — the drunkard, the cripple, the ethnic other, the hussy — all coming together heroically in solidarity to oppose the film’s capitalist, militaristic menace.  It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that Wood saw this film as a cinematic blueprint for how to live life.

Many of Wood’s writings begin with something of a confession — a highly personal and often touching admission of his own inadequacies and failures, from the pain caused to his family by his coming out to the heartache and sorrow that once almost drove him to jump in front of an approaching train.  Reviewing his writings and reconsidering his love of Rio Bravo, I suspect that he saw himself amongst that film’s group of unlikely heroes.  Rio Bravo is a splendid celebration of a common humanity.

The notable literary theorist Terry Eagleton once wrote, “Margins can be unspeakably painful places to be, and there are few more honourable tasks for students of culture than to help create a space in which the dumped and disregarded can find a tongue.”13  This is how we should view the work of Robin Wood, and if there is one theme to his writings that will continue to have a lasting relevance, it will be his insistence that films, even those produced by the most profit-hungry of studios, can have a redeeming political value, giving a voice to the voiceless, and that the cinema too can be used as a weapon in the struggle to overturn the capitalist status quo.  One need only be willing to watch and discern.

While Wood was neither the first nor the only writer to extend such ideas to the medium of film, he did so with a style and strength, an honesty and intellectual integrity that were uniquely his own.  We can learn a lot from Robin Wood, both those of us who are involved with film studies and those of us who are not.  As the struggle against oppression continues on every front, his radical voice will be dearly missed.

1  Robin Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan . . . and Beyond: Expanded and Revised Edition (New York, Columbia University, 2003) p. 342.

2  Robin Wood, Personal Views: Explorations in Film, Revised Edition (Detroit, Wayne State University, 2006) p. 394.

3  Ibid., p. 389.

4 Howard Thompson, Review of Last House on the Left, New York Times (December 22, 1972); Stephen Koch quoted in Carol J. Clover, Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (Princeton, Princeton University, 1992) p. 22.

5  Roger Greenspun, “Carrie, and Sally and Leatherface among the Film Buffs,” Film Comment 13 (January/February 1977) p. 16.

6  Robin Wood, “An Introduction to the American Horror Film,” in The American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film, eds. Robin Wood and Richard Lippe (Toronto, Festival of Festivals, 1979) p. 17.

7  Ibid., pp. 21-22.

8  Quoted in Susan Jeffords, Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era (New Brunswick, Rutgers University, 1994) p. 28.

9  Robin Wood, “Beauty Bests the Beast,” American Film 8 (September 1983) pp. 63-65.

10  Wood, Hollywood, p. 287.

11  Robin Wood, “Protest and Revolution,” CineAction 70 (2007) p. 1.

12  The full top ten list is available online at www.jonathanrosenbaum.com/?p=17784.  Last accessed June 2, 2010.

13  Terry Eagleton, After Theory (New York, Basic, 2003) p. 13.


Gregory A. Burris is an instructor at Istanbul Bilgi University in Turkey.  His other articles have appeared in such publications as CineAction, CounterPunch, Dissident Voice, Middle Eastern Studies, and the Quarterly Review of Film and Video (forthcoming).




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