03 January 2011


Originally posted on the auteurs.com on Wed 03 Feb 2010 at 06:36 PM

I just learned of Robin’s death, which saddens me greatly. A couple of years ago I was asked to write down a few of my recollections of Robin, under whom I was privileged to study. These recollections follow.

I spent eight years in university (not all of them studying for a BA). The single most vivid memory from all those years is of the three of us sitting in the semi-darkness of Film House after hours, David Elliott, Robin, and me, laughing at The General or crying at Letter from an Unknown Woman. A reel of the film would end, Robin would go into the projection room to set up the next reel, I would phone for a pizza to be delivered; we would chat until the pizza arrived, David saying something funny – he always did; he just couldn’t help himself – and then we would resume watching the movie, laughing or crying, sipping red wine, munching pizza.

Robin Wood & David Elliott
It was simple and pleasant at the time but in memory those nights, and the days and nights around them, have assumed an almost mythical aura of perfection: being young and healthy, zits finally gone, immersed in a field one loved, surrounded by people one respected and admired – which included not only Robin Wood but also at different times Jim Kitses, Raymond Durgnat, and pre-eminently Peter Harcourt, one of the most inspired lecturers I have had the privilege of observing – and before adult worries about paying the mortgage and bailing your son out of jail irrevocably erode any concept of perfection. After graduation, after leaving Queen’s, life became more of a mixed blessing.
Peter Harcourt at Queen's University 1972

I started at Queen’s University in Kingston in 1968 as an undergraduate who intended to, and subsequently did, major in English literature. Queen’s had an impressive English department, which included the scholars Norman MacKenzie, A.C. Hamilton, and George Whalley, as well as respected writers David Helwig and Tom Marshall. Despite the well-credentialled department, the study of university English was missing something for me. The next year a friend recommended Peter Harcourt’s introductory film course, and whatever was missing was suddenly found – a sense of excitement about the subject, a sense that what we were studying mattered. Although my studies still involved a search for patterns of disease imagery in Shakespeare’s history plays, they now also involved an exploration of how this film and that film were alive, for us, today.

Robin Wood had joined the Department of Film Studies in 1969 and in 1970 I took courses with both him and Peter. With Robin, the process initiated by Peter advanced even further. Before taking Peter’s course I had read his articles on film in London Magazine and Film Quarterly (the fact he wrote for magazines made him seem more au courant than, for example, the fact that A.C. Hamilton had written a book on the Faerie Queene), but Robin Wood was an unknown quantity to me, though of course he shouldn’t have been; by that point he had written Hitchcock’s Films (1965), Howard Hawks (1968), Ingmar Bergman (1969), and Arthur Penn (1969), as well as numerous articles, especially in Movie. It only took a class or two before I realized that the tiny Queen’s film department, which consisted of Peter and Robin (and a small support staff), was truly blessed with two extraordinarily gifted professors, and I was blessed by being their student.

Unlike any other professor I encountered, before or after, both Peter and Robin listened to their students and seemed to actually care what they thought. Under their tutelage students such as Peter Raymont (who has produced and directed over 100 documentary films, including Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire) and Brigitte Berman (whose biography of Artie Shaw, Artie Shaw: Time Is All You’ve Got, won an Academy Award for best documentary) flourished. Nothing causes the rose to bloom more than a little sunshine, and Peter and Robin provided it in ample quantities.

David and I were specially blessed by being teaching assistants for both Peter and Robin, thus allowing us to know them better than we might otherwise. Robin at the time was living with his wife and three children in an idyllic limestone house on one of Kingston’s historic downtown streets, which reflected the idyllic life Robin was living at the time. It turned out it was the life Robin wanted to believe he was living.

When we returned to classes in 1972, we found that Robin was on his own, his wife and children having returned to England. Since he was at loose ends, since we liked the man, my friends and I welcomed him into our little group, and we would all have beers together at the Plaza Hotel after an evening screening of La Règle de Jeu or Rio Bravo or Madame de …. He was a boon companion, as they say; friendly, playful, with an explosive laugh. He got on particularly well with David Elliott, who had an inventive mind that liked jokes, puzzles, quizzes, all of which Robin relished with a kind of infectious, boyish glee. This tall, handsome, bearded Englishman simply enjoyed enjoying himself.

Some time after John Anderson made an appearance in Kingston, I was sitting in Robin’s office, sipping on an always-present glass of wine – Robin is nothing if not sociable and cordial – when he "came out” to me. It is only in retrospect that I see how momentous this disclosure must have been for Robin. This was in Kingston in 1972. It would be unfair to call this a backward city in a backward time, but things were different in 1972 and Kingston has always seemed a bit off the beaten track. To the best of my knowledge I had, at that point, never met a gay person. Had I not at some time as a teenager read a book called Counterfeit Sex about what the book identified as sexual dysfunctions such as impotence, nymphomania, and homosexuality, I would have had no idea what being gay even meant. The subject was, simply, never mentioned. In 1972 there was no Gay Pride Day; there were no shows on television like South Park dealing with gay themes; no film critics writing articles about the responsibility of a gay film critic: silence reigned.

To my everlasting shame I had no idea how deeply Robin was affected by the circumstances of his life at the time. When he told me he was gay, I nodded my head sympathetically and said, “Oh, that must be hard for you”, or something equally inane, all the while wondering if in light of his disclosure it would be impolite to re-fill my wine glass. The introduction to his Hitchcock’s Films Revisited, Revised Edition (2002) reveals that he contemplated suicide at this time, so profound was his despair at the loss of his family, especially his children, whose diapers he changed, whose births (for two) he assisted. One does not have to know Robin well to know that he feels deeply and commits himself absolutely. I have no doubt that he had committed himself absolutely to his family and family life. To be wrenched from that family and to realize that the family life he believed in and was committed to was, at least partly, an image he had constructed must have been devastating.

The next year, 1973, he was gone from Canada, returned to England. We communicated fitfully for a while. I visited John and him in Coventry. We re-established contact for a while after he returned to Canada to teach at York University in the late 70s, both of us then living in Toronto. But friendship is quite often a function of a time and a place as much as the people, and the time and place for our friendship was in Kingston in the early years of the 70s.

Although I have seen Robin only a couple of times in the past decades, he remains my guidepost. Whenever I feel a waning of courage or strength, I read Robin, whose courage and strength in searching for what is alive and of value in our civilization and in attacking what is dead, moribund, or pernicious, gives me the courage and strength to, if not proceed with Robin’s brightness and integrity, at least go on another day, doing one’s best, in the ways that one can.

- Gary McCallum


A reader said:
Robin Wood in a chapter entitled “Fascism/Cinema” in his collection of essays Sexual Politics and Narrative Film: Hollywood and Beyond (1998) describes Yo-Yo Ma as being an exemplar of the fully alive person, praising his “openness and generosity of spirit, his rich enjoyment of music, of others, of life... Let him stand as a perfect paradigm of the human being in his/her fully creative flowering, from which all taint of the fascist mindset is totally absent”. I do not believe it would be inapt to describe Robin Wood in similar if not the same terms. Robin’s generosity of spirit and his love and rich enjoyment of music (see “Renoir and Mozart” in Sexual Politics and Narrative Film and his numerous references to Stravinsky and Janaĉek throughout his writings, in for example the Introduction to Hitchcock’s Films Revisited: Revised Edition (2002)), of literature (see Wings of the Dove (2000) or “Levin and the Jam: Realism and Ideology” in Personal Views), of cinema (see everywhere), and of other people (see the many tributes from his colleagues and students posted on the Internet following his death) pervade and distinguish his work. This was a man who loved life, loved others and was loved in return. At one point he invoked Albert Schweitzer’s phrase “reverence for life” as an essential component of the fully alive person. Robin displayed this reverence for life in every sentence he wrote, in his every act, in his every breath. Robin Wood can stand, without undue exaggeration, beside Yo-Yo Ma as a “perfect paradigm of the human being in his/her fully creative flowering, from which all taint of the fascist mindset is totally absent”. We will miss you, Robin.

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