Thursday, September 30, 2010

Movie Lover, Part 2

As I was saying yesterday, there were two significant events that altered my experience of watching movies. One of them was auditing a class with a friend of mine at York University. Out of a series of scheduling difficulties as a young mother trying to study art in a university with it's outrageous schedules...I landed up sitting in on a film lecture series with a friend at night. I always loved movies and had even had some experiences where I was beginning to learn how to articulate feelings and the movie viewing experience and to start to see movies as something other than entertainment.

I also explained how I wasn't exposed to the kind of cynicism about movies, the movie business and the aesthetic experience that is common today. Now everyone judges movies by box office, by whether or not it's Hollywood, or independent or for kids, or for women or mindless action or CGI, or sell-out or lowbrow. Or because they had such and such actors. So many people dismiss movies just because they don't like an actor or a director, or because they think it's too popular or mainstream. I was very lucky to land up in that film lecture with the fascinating Robin Wood.

Robin Wood didn't differentiate movies by popular versus artistic. He separated their quality and value by whether or not they were promoting "the establishment". As far as I could initially understand he believed that Hollywood couldn't produce movies that contradicted the status quo...which he believed was that the two foundations of North American society was patriarchy and capitalism. Believe me, when he first began speaking, i was so naive sometimes i didn't feel I understood what he meant.

I had no idea about his stature in criticism, I was there to watch movies with my friend, and maybe get some cake and coffee afterwards.

But Robin Wood changed my life.

I don't remember every movie we saw during that season, but I remember most of them. I think I remember them because every time the class was over and the movie had played and his lecture concluded...I felt like I had had reality pulled away from me, I had walked out of Plato's Cave. I don't think I knew who Plato was back then though. I just knew my eyes were opening up to a new way of looking.

I'm a terrible student and a very slow learner. This is true for when I was young and its still true today. I also didn't grow up with any kind of savvy about the world, or the human mind. I arrived at York University very unskilled at just about everything, but especially, about how to "read" movies or literature beyond entertainment value. I voted for the NDP to my parents horror, and was vegetarian and punk, but that was about the only self-conscious political action I had in my life. I more or less believed that socialism was better for all the people in a community than other systems of capitalism. (yes, socialism is a facet of least in Canada, it's focus is small-business and the community)

But I didn't know much else. I learned about politics from the lyrics and lifestyle of the popular band The Clash. I knew about the middle east, south america, dead-end economies all from listening to The Clash.

How can I explain the influence of Robin Wood on my small brain? Okay...he had an interesting format to his lecture. We were scheduled to watch Rear Window so the week before we watched it he showed us the first ten minutes. You know where we see the windows of the NY apartment complex, people moving about, and a cat walking up the stairs, Jimmy Stewart asleep, Grace Kelly wakes him with a kiss, he has a camera on his lap, his leg is broken in a cast and then Kelly turns on three lights...while saying her name out loud.

The projector goes off...only the first ten minutes and then Robin Wood talks about the images we just saw for about an hour. He says the cat represents Grace Kelly's sexuality. What? i thought my head popped off my shoulders. He says Stewarts broken leg is his castrated self, the camera is his virility and manhood, and that voyeurism is used by Hitchcock to make the viewer complicit in the events. I'm totally paraphrasing Wood and probably badly...but you get the gist. i simply had never heard these kinds of concepts and interpretations before. i was stunned. I don't think I slept that night and I couldn't wait to see the rest of the movie. That is the first time I watched Rear Window and it has remained in my top ten list ever since.

Compare what Robin Wood said to The New York Times review when the film came out in 1954:

Mr. Hitchcock's film is not "significant." What it has to say about people and human nature is superficial and glib. But it does expose many facets of the loneliness of city life and it tacitly demonstrates the impulse of morbid curiosity. The purpose of it is sensation, and that it generally provides in the colorfulness of its detail and in the flood of menace toward the end.

Robin Wood not only showed us artistic auteur movies like Rear Window but he also embraced popular movies including the horror genre. Among some of the films he showed he would focus on a way of approaching interpretation in a literary manner. With the movie It's A Wonderful Life he said it contained a thesis supporting socialism. Bringing Up Baby explored the philosophical notion of "the other". I had no idea what he was talking about most of the time...but he sent me off trying to work out these puzzles.

Wood also thought that many popular movies were great opportunities for studying history and prevalent views of the eras they were made. I totally was blown away. I again had just never thought of these things and was not taught to look at the history of narratives in this way growing up. We watched several mainstream popular movies and discussed what they told us about the world and the human condition by their stereotypes. Robin Wood didn't ever ever critique a movie in that class by saying it was either "bad" or "good". To this day, I still rebel when someone can only say a movie is "bad". For Robin Wood movies, especially popular movies, were windows into our culture and the human condition.

I I have written about Robin Wood on my blog before In 2006. And i am sort of repeating myself here with this post if you compare the previous entry. But this week on one of my online bookclubs, his name entered my mind...and later I looked him up on google. Robin Wood passed away last year and so I felt he was due some note here again, at the risk of repeating myself. I always had a democratic approach to movie viewing but Robin Wood taught me that it is an heroic way to appreciate movies regardless of whether they are "good or bad". And he taught me to watch out for Hollywood movies because they may not be able to portray reliable narrators when it comes to oppression. He felt movie and storytelling critics had the responsibility to help us see the oppression around us. And his main objection to the two foundations of North American society which are patriarchy and capitalism were that they corrupted relationships.

I think he was right and I thank him for that lesson too.

Here are the movies that I remember we saw in his lecture, and I had not seen any of these movies before, this was my introduction. I thank Robin Wood for that too. Just looking over that list of 14 movies I am so impressed by it's variety and that many of the movies were wonderful love stories, which makes sense seeing as Robin Wood was the ultimate soft=heart for studying the human and their relationships. R.I.P. Movie lover.

Singing In The Rain
It's Alive
Oh Lucky Man
Rear Window
The Manchurian Candidate
Bringing Up Baby
Some Like It Hot
Citizen Kane
It's A Wonderful Life

Related Links:

1) an interview with Robin Wood
2) Why Robin Wood matters
3) From Vietnam to Regan and beyond
4) New York Times obit.


mister anchovy said...

Excellent post. What a great movie list. I think Mr. Wood was an inspired critic, and, although I don't always agree with his point of view, he was very convincing. Personally, I don't see one way of looking at a film as heroic or good or bad or right or wrong, even if some approaches interest me more than others (I might have thought that at one time though...). How interesting that he felt that film-makers have a responsibility to help us see oppression around us. I know as someone who has spent a lot of time making paintings that I never felt the weight of that responsibility, and I'm sure I would take exception to anyone who tried to tell me what my responsibilities as an artist were.

sp said...

Thanks for this post. I tried to write something about Robin Wood on my blog when I heard about his death, but I couldn't seem to convey the impact he had on my film studies; there was so much I wanted to say.
You've said a lot of it for me.
I also went to York and Robin Wood, although not teaching there anymore, was an important part of studies. Some of his ideas were the anchor to my thesis. Fortunately, I did have the opportunity to have him as a reader.

I did get to take a course with him when he returned to York for a couple of years to teach some graduate courses. It was a favourite class of mine, and I'll never forget watching Robin Wood get such pleasure from a movie he had probably seen dozens of times.

Candy Minx said...

Mister Anchovy, I agree with the feeling that to teel an artist what their responsibility is not very proactive to the art-making process. I didn't agree with everything Robin Wood believed but I do agree with the argument that the two foundations of North American society are patriarchy and capitalism...and that those two foundations corrupt relationships. And certainly since the time I was exposed to his initial arguments those forces have lessened slightly. Slightly. I had the sense that whether he was aware of it or not the idea that it was an heroic gesture to not judge movies by whether they are good or bad was at the very least allowing the medium it's own opportunity to be studied as a kind of cultural record of stereotypes. Looking beyond a "favourite" actor, or genre or style is a resource for approaching films anthropologically. the idea that to study a system like the "Hollywood movie" is a case of the observer influencing the experiments outcomes or conclusions is a very interesting idea to me to this day. I also believe that trying to see such a system, or shall we say worldview, as portraying and transmitting its values and taboos as impenetrable or challenging to try and "step outisde" of a particular worldview or centricity is heroic. Heroic by questioning authority.

SP, so good to hear from you and your feelings about encountering a force of nature like Robin Wood. he really was a compelling thinker and personality. I also remember feeling that this guy was amazing at being able to be transported by movies he must have seen so many times too. He seemed to enjoy so much about people and all their foibles and accomplishments. I loved that he took so many critically dismissed movies seriously and enthusiastically as artifacts of human life.

The internet is so filled with haters who seem to resent spending any money on movies never mind art...that it is a refreshing memory to think of someone who probably would have paid money to watch the films he loved not losing sleep over a few bucks. He seemed to think the time someone took to make a movie was reason enough to engage with it's storyline. I believe he was truly a "people person".

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