I remember the first time I find a coveted film book the way most people remember where and when they 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 edifice to university press and special interests books (now a text book 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 upon a film writer I liked, I became ravenous: I tore his or her articles out of magazines and kept a file of them, and I sought out all the books they had written. Thus from early high school on I amassed what amounted to yearly anthologies of reviews by Andrew Sarris, John Lahr, and numerous 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 Mo-Ped. I had read Truffaut's interview book with Hitchcock, but no other book about the director, although I was curious about him. Then suddenly in the early '70s 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-hued paperback off the shelf, a book called simply if deceptively Hitchcock's Films (it was in fact the second edition). 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 Wood's 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 sensibility 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 initial defense of Hitchcock as an artist at least as great as Shakespeare, something necessary in the '60s and '70s, less so now. And when I got to the chapter on Psycho, I was awed by his psychological acuity and understanding of the characters, and the satori-inducing connections he made within the film (such as the bird themes marbled throughout Psycho).
Almost over night 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 out, mostly unsuccessfully, back issues of Movie, where much of his writings 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 for the writer 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 learned that there was 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 the essay, and Pakula was delighted with it, while denying that any of the meanings that Wood unearthed were intentional).
Some 15 solo books later, I am still collecting Wood, and was delighted last year to see an updated version of Hitchcock's Films issued by Columbia University Press last year. Officially called Hitchcock's Films Revisited, Revised Edition (413 pages, $22.50 0 231 12695 6) it comprises the original book from the late '60s, 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, for like Wittgenstein's, Wood's career can be neatly divided into two.
Though Wood was and is a master of close reading, he is also a polemicist. The first, pre-mid-'70s Wood maintained academic tradition with his New Criticism style in depth reading of the film frame by frame. The post '70s 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. Indeed, 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 mostly were drawn to the masculinist worlds of directors such as Hawks, Ford, Walsh, Wellman, Fuller, and numerous 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 new 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, by the way, divides his life into four, and that make sense, but from
Wood was born in 1931, from typical middle class English stock. The first film that made an impression on his was Top Hat. He attended Cambridge (the rest of the Movie contributors attended 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 than Cahiers du Cinema, which led to his Hitchcock book and to his contributing to Movie, the controversial auteurist-oriented journal whose book publishing arm also issued most of Wood's books, as well). 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 they broke up. He moved back to England to teach, now livingly openly as a homosexual, and was then offered another job back in Canada, where Wood has remained. In the new preface, Wood goes into such detail about his adventures in academia and the gay subculture. Wood was able to clear some time to co-found the magazine CineACTION!, which is run by a collective of academics and students, and is up to 60 issues.
The knock against Wood is that he slips into stridency, particularly when he attacks the heteosexist patriarchy, and it's true that were I to examine myself I would admit that I prefer the "old" Wood to the new, when his standard has helped inform my own petty attempts at criticism. 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 (to which I have always had a secret affection). That's probably Wood at his best: seizing on a topic or a film (say, Cimino's films Year of the Dragon and Heaven's Gate) and knocking the reader off guard with a sympathetic take on a normally despised topic, his analysis making you see the film in a new light.
Probably the most famous sentences he ever composed appeared in his book on Bergman, a rather unfashionable director for most of the Movie crowd: "It is time to lay one's cards openly on the table [though he didn't really do that until years later]. 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." Wood's credo is that criticism of art is criticism of life, though he spurns that reductionism. But Wood can also be drolly funny, as in a Film Comment review of the book The Oxford Companion to Film, when he corrects a factual error in a reference to Notorious: which the book says "has little violence but it culminates in a magnificent final shoot-up in a wine cellar." Adds Wood: "The writers boyish enthusiasm for this entirely imaginary holocaust has a certain charm. Scholarship must insist, however, in its spoilsport way, on the restoration of Hitchcock's boringly nonviolent staircase descent."
My adherence to Wood is compromised only by what I would consider one defect in his aesthetic, which is an adherence to Freudianism. That didn't bother me during the time when I too was unthinkingly accepting of this pseudo science. But now as a Freud hater – no one, I believe, can read Frederick Crews on Freud and come away with a 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 nouns to make the passages palatable. The problem is that Wood sees Freud (and his acolytes such as Norman O. Brown) as a liberator rather than an oppressor. Freud was a textbook example of the conservative, hypocritical advocate of repression that we associate with Victorians rather than the 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.
This essay originally appeared in Black Lamb in 2003.