Geoff Pevere: The Critic as Artist – Creating Contemporary Criticism

The late movie critic Robin Wood once wrote a fabulously cogent and highly pissed dismissal of the very idea of guilty pleasures. His point was this: if you liked something, and if you could assemble a reasonable argument in defines of it – which is to say if you could make a case for your pleasure – there was absolutely no guilt involved.

As a critic, and one of the best ever, Wood wrote extensively and brilliantly about Hollywood movies. He was among the first in the English language to make a case for the genius and artistry of Alfred Hitchcock – a status which is now so taken for granted the name is virtually a brand – and he performed similar foundation-pouring services beneath the reputation of people like Howard Hawks, Leo McCary and Arthur Penn. His gift was the illumination of patterns, themes and concerns which made you consider the work of these filmmakers with revelatory freshness. In the process, entertainment was transformed into – if you’ll forgive the ancient terminology — art.

Wood was trained at Cambridge in the study of literature, and his primary inspiration was the formidable literary critic F.R. Leavis. From Leavis Wood not only learned how to discern but how to track and articulate the consistencies of vision and theme in authors’ works, but how to assemble this into a formidably persuasive case. One might also make the case that that’s precisely where criticism itself becomes art: when it engages with the work so intimately and thoroughly it sheds light not only on its object but on its own potential. It’s a process of mutual illumination, and it lifts both artist and critic to a state of, if not divine grace, then synergistic vitality. They feed off each other, make each other seem somehow more alive.

Wood’s trajectory brought him from literature to film, and from art movies – all the rage among his generation’s tweedy intelligentsia – to commercial cinema. Hard as it may be to conceive now, when one can easily find scholarly, rigorous and perfectly serious work on everything from Lady Gaga to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it was a rather radical path to blaze. Indeed, to read much of the criticism of Wood’s emergent era – the early to mid-sixties – is to get the sneaking impression that the only way one could justify movies (that most craven of the popular arts) at all was by cleaving off the junk from the jewels. Loving Bergman, Antonioni, Dreyer and Bresson was one thing, but making a case for Alfred Hitchcock something of an altogether different order. These were carefully established ramparts, designed to keep a proper sense of class structure in cultural matters, and here was this man Wood rather gleefully tearing them down.

During his career, which eventually brought him from England to Canada, where he taught at York University for many years, Wood’s approach only grew more forceful and fascinating. A gay man who only came out after becoming a husband and father, and a dedicated Marxist socialist, he developed an agenda in his criticism that qualified work according to its radical potential and articulation of what he saw as capitalist society’s most indictable offenses. While this only lent his criticism even more sharpness and precision, it also left Wood marginalized, dismissed and ignored. He was seen as dogmatic, blinkered and – worst – politically correct, and by the time he died in 2009 most of his best work was sadly out of print.

But something else had happened by the time he passed on: he had almost single-handedly engineered a serious reconsideration of the horror movie, and in the process opened a hitherto almost entirely disreputable genre to a largely unprecedented degree of serious critical attention. Prior to Wood’s attention, almost nobody was taking filmmakers like George Romero, Larry Cohen or Tobe Hooper seriously. After it, they had become instrumental figures in a vigorously revealing form. You couldn’t talk horror without them, and you couldn’t talk movies without horror.

It was precisely Wood’s ideological inclinations that prompted him to take horror movies serious in the first place. In scary movies Wood saw society talking about all the things it fears most and panics about. It was a kind of crack in the facade of calm normality, and through that crack all manner of ugliness leaked in. He called it “the return of the repressed”, and he studied horror movies the way some people might examine failures in the immune system. It wasn’t ghosts, zombies, leather-faced chainsaw killers or cannibal babies we were afraid of, it was what they represented: sexuality, deviance, lower class violence, the revolt against a power structure which wouldn’t even be a power structure if it didn’t have somebody to be powerful over. Wood saw the very idea of normality as a construction, and the horror movie as popular culture’s way of imagining what happens when the beams are exposed and the walls begin to crumble.

His work is fascinating, vital and – perhaps most impressively – exceedingly well reasoned and written. He may be the single most persuasive writer on the movies that I’ve ever read, and I say this even though I think his work did indeed become circumscribed rather unproductively by the political project to which it was ultimately made to serve. (Wood never really forgave either David Lynch or David Cronenberg for what he saw as the reactionary tendencies in their work, and that’s like failing Melville for insufficient kindness to whales.) But even when I disagree  I am compelled to read on: his powers of reasoning and persuasion are so formidable and forceful they hold my attention, widen my vision and summon my humility. Most importantly, they remind me that good criticism isn’t just about me telling you what I think is good. It’s about me telling you why I think that. If you like it, it can’t suck, at least not for you. The only thing to feel guilty about is not bothering to make a case.

We now have an email where all of us here at Don’t Believe A Word I Say can be contacted dbawis@rogers.com. Please use it to ask questions, tell us what you would like to read about, links you would like to share, and, let’s hear what you have to say.

Geoff Pevere has been writing, broadcasting and teaching about movies, media and popular culture for over thirty years. He can’t help himself. His column appears every Friday.

 

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