Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Of Robin Wood, David Cronenberg, and... Clint Eastwood?

Robin Wood's book Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan (updated a few years ago with and ...and Beyond added to the title) is one of my favourite works of film criticism, politicized or otherwise; the book looks at the changes in American cinema from the 1970's - a time of gritty, cynical, despairing, and often highly revealing films unafraid to challenge the status quo - to the 1980's, with the rise of Lucas and Spielberg and an attempt to (I believe Wood's term was) "paper over the cracks" revealed in the previous decade and create a cinema of reaction and reassurance, which we have with us to this very day. It's one of the few essential volumes of film criticism I'd point cinephiles towards - consistently thought-provoking and memorable, and always a pleasure to read. I was most saddened by Wood's death in 2009, and am happy to say that I have an essay coming up in CineAction (in issue #88, I believe) that engages with a particular aspect of his legacy. I mean no disrespect for the man whatsoever that I spend most of that essay disagreeing with him.
I should explain a bit. I was introduced to Robin Wood's writing with the essay "Cronenberg: A Dissenting View" included in The Shape of Rage, a book on the films of David Cronenberg published in the mid-1980s. In it, Wood takes issue with what he perceives as misogyny, a disgust towards sex, a reactionary fear of social change, and a general mood of grimness and wasted energy found throughout Cronenberg's early commercial features. 
Wood's essay is remarkable insofar as he stands utterly alone in the book (and among film critics of the day, who were rushing to call Cronenberg a "visionary," a term Wood takes lucid exception with) in challenging the merit of Cronenberg's work. Further, he does so with arguments that seem on first blush to make a great deal of sense; he writes about Cronenberg in such a way that he provoked me, at least, to step back and re-consider all of the man's films that I had seen at that point, and ask where Wood got it right, and why, and where he got it wrong (and how). This was an extremely valuable reaction, an extremely useful provocation, since it made me really think about Cronenberg's films, and about my own values, perceptions, and viewing habits; while at the end of my process of re-examination I found I still admired the movies under discussion - Shivers, Rabid and The Brood were the three most hotly contested in Wood's essay - I saw them in much richer terms, thanks to Robin Wood: it may seem a paradox, but no other piece of writing on Cronenberg has done so much to enhance my appreciation of the man's films as Wood's thoroughgoing attempt at a repudiation of them.
Since reading Wood's essay some 20 years ago, some part of me had been waiting for an opportunity to write a paper that really delved into Wood's self-described "attack" on Cronenberg. I was reminded of this after a brief chat with Tom Charity after a screening of Rabid at the Vancity Theatre a few years ago; and last year, a class at UBC, taught by Cronenberg scholar Ernest Mathijs, finally gave me the opportunity to write an early draft of it. The final essay, much revised, will be appearing in the upcoming issue of CineAction, entitled "Sex, Science, and the 'Female Monstrous': Wood Contra Cronenberg, Revisited." 
I'm pretty pleased with this essay, actually. While I've published plenty of interviews, reviews and blog-rants, not much that counts as serious criticism has appeared in print under my name, and thanks to the help of editor Susan Morrison (very patient, very perceptive) and a lot of time spent reworking the piece, I think the end result is pretty damn good! Not exactly sure when it will hit the shelves - the present issue, 87, also has essays dealing with Wood and Cronenberg, and is currently what one finds on the shelves, so don't grab the wrong one by mistake.
Meantime, those of you curious about Robin Wood should consider seeing High Plains Drifter at the Cinematheque on Friday. One would not expect an openly gay, feministic, left-wing film scholar like Wood to have much praise for the films of Clint Eastwood, but one of Wood's great virtues is his willingness to stand out from the crowds in championing (or attacking) certain films (he was certainly one of the only gay critics to have much good to say about William Friedkin's Cruising). High Plains Drifter was a film Wood much admired. He describes it in Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan... and Beyond as "crude but remarkable... the Lone Hero rides in from the Wilderness not to defend the Growing Community but to reveal it as rotten to its very foundations before annihilating it" (p. 25). Later in the book, comparing the film with fusions of horror and the western like Race With The Devil, he describes it as "a Western in which the Hero from the Wilderness turns out to be the Devil (or his emissary) and burns the town (American civilization) to the ground after revealing it as fundamentally corrupt and renaming it Hell" (p. 76). (The caps are meant to emphasize the archetypal elements in the film, which are strong indeed).
Nevermind that Eastwood would likely not credit the idea that he ever wanted to burn American civilization to the ground - unless that's what he has in mind by backing Mitt Romney, har, har - there was a time when he made some pretty energetic, provocative, and even, yes, politically interesting films (I confess to also really enjoying The Gauntlet on a recent re-viewing of it, despite the absurd levels of paranoia and self-pity on display; it kinda makes me want to re-visit Sudden Impact and to read at least portions of Sondra Locke's tell-all memoir of her time with him, The Good, The Bad, and the Very Ugly). I haven't really been that intrigued by Clint's recent films - I've seen very few since the early 1990's - but High Plains Drifter is certainly one of his most interesting accomplishments, and doubtlessly his nastiest film to date (I remember there's some rape stuff in it that made me really uncomfortable when I last viewed it, many years ago). Check it out Friday, double billed with the classic Jimmy Stewart/ Anthony Mann western, Winchester '73 - and be sure to let me know if you agree with Wood's interpretation...! Other critics discuss the film here
(By the way, though none of our attempts at capturing stills to illustrate the essay ultimately were high enough quality for CineAction, thanks go to Dan Kibke for his patience and efforts in helping me; at least the stills make for good blog illustrations. Thanks, Dan!).

Oh, and by the way: Happy Birthday, Penelope!

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