Thursday, July 2, 2009

From Robin Wood to Robin Askwith

My own reluctance to confront the British cinema is simply attributable to my sense that its achievement is so limited and so much less interesting than that of other countries. 
Robin Wood [i]

Most actors preparing for a film would spend their time discussing with their producer and director the style and nuance of their character. I seemed to have spent most of my time discussing whether I should have my arse waxed or not.  
Robin Askwith [ii]

Writing in 1976 and responding to calls to formulate his critical position Robin Wood declared that he was a critic not a theorist. For Wood, the practice of a critic was to explore works whilst the purpose of a theorist was to construct systems. Though he acknowledged that practice and purpose occasionally overlapped here with each offering partial sustenance to the other, Wood is led to conclude that criticism and practice are two different disciplines. To illustrate this further Wood continues:
For the theorist, questions of value will be determined by reference to a previously elaborated system; for the critic, a sense of values arises from placing this experience beside that experience in an endless and flexible empiricism.[iii]
In part, Wood’s declaration was a response to earlier discussions raised about the validity of his approach. In 1969, for example, Wood submitted a defence of his position to the British journal Screen, a journal that became synonymous with the kind of erected theoretical systems Wood saw himself to be somehow apart from. Indeed, as Wood reflects in the introduction to his recently re-released Personal Views: Explorations in Film, this was the start of a period when the practice of film criticism was considered by many to be if not ‘eccentric’ then wholly ‘superfluous’. [iv]
Wood’s 1969 defence was prompted by suspicions surrounding the validity of his personal engagement with the films he chose to write about, in this case the films of Howard Hawks. Responding to the claim that his criticism lacked a structural framework, Wood began with the following quote from the novelist and critic D. H. Lawrence:
Criticism can never be a science: it is, in the first place, much too personal, and in the second, it is concerned with values that science ignores. […] All the critical twiddle-twaddle about style and form, all this pseudo-scientific classifying and analysing […] in an imitation-botanical fashion, is mere impertinence and mostly dull jargon.[v]
Admittedly, as Wood notes, Lawrence’s claims require modifying, not least in the light of the necessity to consider ideas of style and form when it comes to the cinema. Nevertheless, a concern for the ‘pseudo-scientific’ and the jargon that accompanies it is as relevant today as it was in 1969. Finally, as Wood himself claims, in a sentiment that helps motivate my own desire to write about British cinema:
My aim has been to write always from my own personal contact with the films. […] In criticism there can be no clear borderline between subjective and objective. One writes every time a sort of personal testament out of one’s sense of vital contact with a director’s work, one’s sympathy and recoil: this is what the films mean to me. At the same time, one tries to respond to the films as they are, avoiding temptations to produce one’s own versions and talk about them.
Furthermore, as he concludes:
A critic can only write with a deep sense of responsibility to his readers, towards art, and towards his own feeling of what matters, but his truth will still be about his own personal responses. It follows that this truth must always be provisional, subject to continual questioning both by himself and others.[vi]
That this continual questioning is significant is demonstrated by Wood’s introduction to his study of Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo, published in 2003. Here, for example, is Wood reflecting on the development of his response in the light of thirty-odd years of film writing:
The age in which we live is dominated by science and technology, hence by the assumption that everything worth saying can and must be susceptible to ‘proof’: you can prove that a cerrtain motif recurs through a dozen films noirs; you cannot prove, in any fixed, definitive way, that Out of the Past is superior to Double Indemnity, or why. A value judgement cannot, by its very nature, be proven. But that is its strength, not a weakness: a value judgement is there precisely to stimulate thought, debate, argument, to be discussed, modified, rejected; it leads to dialogue, not to the sense that ‘Well, we know that now, let’s pass onto the next’. [vii]
This is extremely relevant because as Amy Sargeant outlines in her recent critical history of British cinema, issues of value can be linked to broader ideas of what she calls ‘critical segregation’. For her, ‘the hybridity and eclecticism of British cinema should be deemed a virtue rather than a vice.’ Furthermore, as she continues, there is always a continual movement between different types of film appealing to different types of audience. Inevitably, Sargeant defines this movement as occurring between ‘high-brow’, ‘low-brow’ and ‘middle-brow’ but does express the desire to ‘question the critical usefulness of the inherited categories and vocabulary’. Indeed, as she outlines, in a sentiment that will mirrored by this book:
What this book is not is a history of box-office hits. […] I am more concerned here with interpreting and resuscitating the films themselves than with reiterating the sometimes ossifying academic debates which have accrued around them. I want to convey a sense of why – or, sometimes, why not – British audiences valued and enjoyed them (what they looked like, sounded like and felt like), of the circumstances in which they were experienced and why they continue to be worth watching now. [viii]
Like Sargeant, I have a desire to interpret and (sometimes) resuscitate and these twin aims help to explain the films I have chosen to discuss. Indeed, and like Sargeant again – and after this next point our positions will begin to diverge considerably – I am keen to avoid the perennial problem of critical segregation that occurs when a variety of films are considered together. It is simply the case that nowadays rigid distinctions of ‘acceptable’ or ‘unacceptable’ (when it comes to taste) and inherited categories (inherited from the history of writing about British cinema) carry far less authority than perhaps had previously been the case.
Jim Leach attends to this very notion in his recent consideration of British film. For Leach, critics telling the story of British cinema have always tended to privilege certain kinds of discourses, myths and stories at the expense of others. Indeed, as he declares at the start of his survey of British film:
Popular cinema is an art form as well as an industry, art films may become popular, and many films include signicant elements from both models. The boundaries between popular and art cinema were never as clearly drawn as critics sometimes try to make them seem, and these distinctions are becoming increasingly blurred everywhere.[ix]
With distinctions becoming increasingly blurred it is still essential to maintain a clarity of purpose. This is especially true when it comes to responding to what Andrew Klevan calls the ‘variations and permutations’, the ‘intricacies and richness’ evident in the close study of films.[x] It is necessary to note here that these ideas have a further and more reflexive sense as well, a sense where intricacies and richness, for example, are also prone to variations and permutations of their own as we move from film to film. Indeed, when faced with this as a prospect it is perhaps as well to adopt the kind of ‘inquiring tentativeness’ described by Peter Harcourt. As he reflects:
My own critical approach is to begin with questions that elicit descriptive answers, reflecting the need to know before we decide. I am continually asking ‘What is going on here? What does this moment in the film seem to be communicating? What is it celebrating? What do I really feel about it? What do you feel? [xi]
For me, then, Wood becomes a beguiling [if reluctant] figure to adopt as a guide for an exploration of the sights and sounds of British cinema at the end of the 1960s. One way to make Wood’s adoption appear more critically suitable is to let him be accompanied by someone whose presence and prominence in the British films of the period in question is somewhat comparable to Wood’s presence and prominence in film criticism from the same period – Robin Askwith.

[i] Robin Wood quoted in an interview with Framework, Issue 1 (Warwick University, 1974), reprinted in All Our Yesterdays: 90 Years of British Cinema (ed.) Charles Barr (London, BFI Publishing, 1986), p. 3.
[ii] Robin Askwith, The Confessions of Robin Askwith (London, Ebury Press, 1999), p. 2.
[iii] Robin Wood, Personal Views: Explorations in Film (London, Gordon Fraser, 1976), p. 10.
[iv] Robin Wood, Personal Views: Explorations in Film - Revised Edition (Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 2006), p. 4.
[v] D.H. Lawrence quoted in Robin Wood, ‘Ghostly Paradigm and H.C.F.: An Answer to Alan Lovell’, Screen Vol. 10, No. 3 May/June 1969, p. 33.
[vi] Wood, pp. 34-35.
[vii] Robin Wood, Rio Bravo (London, BFI Publishing, 2003), p. 8.
[viii] Amy Sargeant, British cinema: a critical history (London, BFI Publishing, 2005), pp. vii-ix.
[ix] Jim Leach, British Film (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 3.
[x] Andrew Klevan, Film Performance: From Achievement to Appreciation (London, Wallflower Press, 2005), p. 7.
[xi] Peter Harcourt, Six European Directors (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1974), p. 18.