Monday, January 19, 2015

Robin Wood on Communal Art

I'm a big fan of the late critic Robin Wood. He wrote two of my favorite books on movies: HITCHCOCK'S FILMS (1969) and HITCHCOCK'S FILMS REVISTED, REVISED EDITION (2002). The first book was a masterpiece that forever altered the way people viewed Hitchcock as an artist (I think you could argue that it's the most influential work of scholarship on any filmmaker). The second book was something truly amazing--a radical rethinking of the previous book in light of Wood's growing preoccupation with gender theory. You don't have to agree with any of Woods's arguments in either book to appreciate that you're dealing with a brilliant scholar bringing the full weight of his thinking to an important artist.

I say that all at the beginning because although Wood has been lumped in with auteurist critics he was quick to admit that movies are a form of communal art. I'm writing an article right now on the great screenwriter Leigh Brackett's work with director Howard Hawks, and I was flipping through an old copy of Wood's book on Hawks's masterpiece, RIO BRAVO. Here's what he had to say at communal art in that book:

"Classical Hollywood seems to have been the last stronghold of 'communal' art, in which artists, artisans and mere hacks could learn from each other, borrow from each other, share a common legacy of idioms, forms, genres, and conventions: the kind of community that nurtured Shakespeare, or Mozart and Haydn, all of whom vastly extended the legacy they inherited without feeling the least need to jettison it. We still (whatever the transformations of modernism, post-modernism, etc.) live in the lingering aftermath of romanticism, the notion of 'personal' art produced by some 'genius' out of his own private cerebrations. The richest periods of art have always been the communal ones, in whatever culture, whatever period. Hawks's achievement should not be belittled simply because he had the good fortune to develop within such an environment. He used existing forms and genres and idioms, he welcomed and worked with collaborators without feeling any qualms about 'stealing,' about 'originality,' about repeating himself (or others), and his name is on a body of work of quite exceptional richness, individuality, and integrity. I see no contradiction in these statements, though I would certainly acknowledge certain differences between writing King Lear or composing Le nozze de Figaro (in private) and filming Rio Bravo with actors and technicians on a set. I would go further and claim that 'communal' art, with its acceptance of sharing and collaborating, the 'ivory tower' as far removed as possible, is the ideal and necessary configuration for a 'democratic' or 'socialist' art. It is of course ironic that what seems to be (for the time being) its final flowering should have taken place within a supremely capitalist industry or 'dream factory' supposedly dedicated to lulling 'the masses' into hypnotised acceptance.... In any case, when I use the word 'Hawks' in what follows, I want it to refer to the total signifying practice of the films that bear his name.... With the proviso that I do not believe the films could ever have existed without the presence of Hawks himself somewhere at their centre."

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