Reflections of the Third Eye
5 October 2013
The mood swings of a movie critic
Now Playing: Pretty Things "SF Sorrow"
Topic: *Books for cineasts

I picked up Robin Wood's Hollywood From Vietnam To Reagan...And Beyond with the idea that it would cast some new light on New Hollywood cinema. It did contain some such, but not as much as I wanted, yet more disconcerting was the generous presence of things I hadn't asked for. Right off the mark Wood comes forward as a really heartfelt feminist, and he tries to enlist the reader on this political agenda by using, among other things, a list of shallow feminist arguments that one usually hears from sincere high school students ("women have never started a war", etc). However, even with a more mature propaganda line, the reader has to wonder what Wood's personal politics have to do with Hollywood movies, and why the reader is supposed to care about them. When Wood then informs the reader that he is gay, British and has a taste for Freud, Sorbonne meta-theory and left-wing politics, one may begin to wonder if the whole persona and text is some sort of superbly ambitious parody, where the unlikely name 'Robin Wood'  gives the final clue.

But this is probably all real, and once you get past the introduction (I urge you not to read it ) and into the actual essayism, things improve. For a while. The pieces cover a long period, and Wood's most serious critique dates from the 1970s, which is quickly understood even without checking. Presumably damaged by university trends of the day, various movies are scrutinized and analyzed, often intelligently, after which they are forcefed into a mandatory (for 1970s academia, that is) paradigmatic decoding that will, presumably, reveal their dirty little secrets. This paradigm is, of course, either Freudian or Marxist, or when things get really French, Marxist-Freudian. To find out what the film offers in and of its own themes and aesthetics, and what Wood really felt about it, you have to look really hard and maybe it emerges in a side comment. The bulk of the text is taken up by cleverly mapping some innocent screenplay writer's efforts onto Oedipal theory and Das Kapital.

Some of it is indeed clever, and the occasional relevance of psychodynamic theories to Hollywood film is obvious since the 1950s. The problematic aspect is when these ideological filters are placed in front of the screen in movies where they simply are irrelevant, and work as obstacles for a useful understanding instead of support. While a psychological reading is often valuable in movies that take the form of character studies or chamber plays, the need for that reading to be squeezed through a predetermined Freudian-Oedipal template is highly debatable; the movie itself, if owing enough depth and consistency, will provide its own psychological ramifications, which should be used as vantage points when trying to extract the sub-text and secondary themes.

The need to process any movie through a Marxist decrypting macine is less debatable than absurd, unless the aesthetics at play explicitly refer to that unusual perspective, or if one is writing for a communist publication. Robin Wood was far from alone in this peculiar habit, which is both selflimiting and arrogant (a rare mix) but obviously highly dated. Indeed, the rapid way this external paradigm-based criticism fell out of favor is ironic in view of the haughty undertone that suggests that these readings are the only valid approaches to cinema, now and always. That is not how things turned out, and with psychoanalysis having become more of a checkpoint preceding pharmacological solutions, and with Marxism as a meaningful real-life ideology lying buried in history's great landfill today, one might even feel a certain melancholy when confronted with this programmatic academic criticism from the 1970s and 80s; not because of nostalgia but because of the many good opportunities wasted and the many hours and years spent on this illustrious wild goose chase. At its worst, Wood's book reminds me why I used to hate mainstream movie critics, long ago.

But then, lo and behold, the author turns around and delivers a string of essays that are both worthwhile and essentially free from ill-fitting ideologies. Most surprising is perhaps a study of '70s horror and slasher movies which is written in a respectful, almost fan-like tone. And these aren't just any horror movies, but maligned cult works like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, It's Alive, Halloween, Dawn Of The Dead and Last House On The Left. The first and last of these are given long, intelligent and unprejudiced studies which not only praises the directorial skill behind them, but uncovers hidden themes and connections (I'm not sure if it was Wood who first saw how Last House On The Left was simply a remake of Bergman's Virgin Spring, but I suspect it may have been) that are likely to interest slasher fans as much as high-brow cineasts. Clearly written to provoke, these review essays have been vindicated by the passing of time, and Wood's contributions are likely to have assisted in the recognition many of them would receive. Sometimes he may even go overboard--I'm not sure even Psychotronic guys consider Larry Cohen's unusual indie creations to be quite the auteur masterpieces that they are presented as.

And then... it's back to Haughtyville again, with an awful, bitter and poorly grounded attack on the blockbuster wave of Hollywood's 1980s. Wood makes it sound like Spielberg and Lucas were out to offend him personally, is blind for the timeless enjoyment and excellent craftsmanship behind the first Indiana Jones movie, and the extraordinary pop culture response to the Star Wars series means nothing to him. Again, I'm reminded of the worst criticism of its day, where aloof Woody Allen admirers would go to see Sylvester Stallone movies and then review them as if they had been presented as Woody Allen films.

As mentioned earlier, the New Hollywood coverage wasn't as extensive as I hoped for. Coppola is completely absent (Wood admits, in roundabout terms, that he doesn't understand Coppola's movies), there's nothing about the BBS gang, Ashby, Beatty or Bogdanovich, and the Altman piece is surprisingly negative. What one does get, in this roller coaster ride of a book, is an enthusiastic and generally worthwhile Brian de Palma exegesis, whose main fault is that it was written so early (late '70s). Once more, Wood is surprisingly forgiving of De Palma's known problems (plot holes, strange casting, inconsistent characters) and heaps praise on things like Blow-Out, Dressed To Kill and even The Fury. I would have loved to hear what he had to say about Snake Eyes, for example.

Equally enthusiastic and worthwhile are Wood's comments on Michael Cimino's two massive monoliths of controversy, The Deer Hunter and Heaven's Gate. The apologetic tone before The Deer Hunter is surprising given the snide remarks about 'racism' awarded certain other films, but also demonstrates that Wood, when the stars were properly aligned, was able to think outside the box and come up with novel and often controversial perspectives. The Deer Hunter coverage is merely introductory but still manages to make several valuable points, including details that casual viewers may have missed. As controversial, in another way, is the praise laid on Heaven's Gate, whose failure to communicate with the audience Wood explains as a groundbreaking approach to story-telling courtesy of Cimino. That main characters are introduced very late, and that their relations are poorly signalled, and that some scenes go on quite long for no obvious reason, are all taken as part of Cimino's re-invention of cinematic storytelling. Or something like that. I'm not really disagreeing; Heaven's Gate is a fascinating movie, and possibly it may get better the longer cut one sees, but I can't help but thinking that Woods is crediting Cimino with a little more genius than he actually possesses.

Another director of that generation to receive a bit of attention is Scorsese, where Raging Bull and King Of Comedy are closely examined, the former for a hidden homosexual theme (which Scorsese apparently agreed on), the latter for a psychological overhaul which occasionally oversteps the line but remains mostly useful and indeed welcome, in view of its undeserved 'minor' status. Wood refers to having covered Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and Taxi Driver, but these writings are not included, and given his non-comprehending comments on Taxi Driver (because he dislikes Schrader's male-sacrifice themes), that may be no loss. Schrader gets a dose of Wood's mood swings anyway, as American Gigolo is treated like something that cat dragged in, and rather than a cynical look at a cynical period, its perceived problems seem to be somehow connected to Schrader's personality. Not criticism at its best, or most prescient, given how Gigolo later came to stand as a roadpost where Hollywood's '70s ended and the '80s began.

Some modern writings round out the book, but they're vague and bland and look to be there mostly so it could be presented as an "update". In toto, I rarely recommend cherrypicking, but Wood's criticism is so very uneven in quality and tone that it's the best way to approach this collection--I recommend reading the chapters on '70s horror movies, De Palma, Cimino and Scorsese, and much or all of the rest can be ignored with no loss.



Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 2:12 AM MEST
Updated: 8 October 2013 8:13 PM MEST

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