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An Interview with Michael Wood

An Interview with Michael Wood

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Feature by: Evan Kindley

Posted on: 25 January 2009

“Much of our experience of popular films,” Michael Wood writes in his book America in the Movies, “resides in the place we usually call the back of the mind, the place where we keep all those worries that won’t come out into the open and won’t go away either, that nag at us from the edges of consciousness. Movies bring out these worries without letting them loose and without forcing us to look at them too closely. They trot around the park in the half-light and the exercise does us all good.” For the past forty years Wood has been taking exercise with the cinema, reviewing movies for a variety of publications, including the New York Review of Books, Sight and Sound, the London Review of Books, and New Society. As a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia, Cambridge, and Princeton University he has frequently taught courses on film, and is one of relatively few writers to comfortably straddle the worlds of academic and journalistic film criticism. America in the Movies, or “Santa Maria, It Had Slipped My Mind,” published in 1975, considers the golden age of Hollywood as a reflection of the mid-century American psyche, drawing on Sigmund Freud and Claude Lévi-Strauss and bringing an English expatriate’s perspective to the dreams, desires and anxieties immanent in movies like Casablanca, Gilda, The Hustler, and It’s Always Fair Weather. Wood – who has also written books on Stendhal, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Vladimir Nabokov, and Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour – spoke to us about his experience as a critic, the changes in film criticism and culture since the 1960s, the difficulties and contradictions of the auteur theory, and some possible futures for film studies.


Evan Kindley:

How did you first get interested in film? What are some of the first movies you remember seeing?

Michael Wood:

The first film I have a conscious memory of having seen is a movie called Reap the Wild Wind, with John Wayne, directed by Cecil B. de Mille. It’s a deep-sea diving story, and what I remember about it is an octopus and two guys having an underwater fight, slugging it out in diver’s helmets. I dreamed about the octopus for nights; I found the divers’ helmets pretty scary too.

Another memory came back to me more recently while I was teaching a course on Shakespeare and film. I looked at Olivier’s Hamlet and realized I’d seen that on a school outing. This must have been in 1947 or 1948. My hometown had four grammar schools – two boys’ schools and two girls’ schools – and they closed the schools for the day and took all of the students, something like two thousand kids, to Olivier’s Hamlet. It was a national act of postwar loyalty: the cinema as high culture.

But I also knew quite a bit about movies from my mother narrating them to me, rather than actually seeing them. I dedicated America in the Movies “to my mother and father, and memories of Ronald Colman.” My mother loved Ronald Colman; she saw all his movies, and she would tell them to me afterward, minute by minute, even though I’d never been to the movies myself. So I knew the whole plots of The Prisoner of Zenda, Random Harvest, If I Were King… But I knew them as sheer narrative.

EK:

Do you think that experience contributed to the way you think about film – thinking more in terms of narrative than mise-en-scène, dramatic performance, etc.?

MW:

Yeah, I think it’s something to do with it. For me, it’s always primarily about storytelling, and I’m not really as interested in documentary as I am in fiction films. Films and novels go together for me, in that they’re both depictions of imagined worlds.

Later, when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge in the mid 50s, I saw a lot of movies, but it was just what was on at the local theater. This was not cinephilia: it was just going to the movies. I had no sense of there being a film culture until I was a graduate student in Paris in the late fifties and early sixties. This was the birth of the New Wave. In that piece that Susan Sontag wrote about cinephilia, she says: “There was a masterpiece every two weeks.” And that was pretty much true – or, if not a masterpiece, then something pretty exciting. Either a Bergman movie, or an Antonioni, a Fellini, a Truffaut, a Godard. And at the same time, you could catch up on old films. A lot of people were doing that – not just movie buffs. I didn’t see Welles’ Touch of Evil in 1958, but I saw it in 1962, for instance. There was a general sense that the cinema was very exciting, that a lot of stuff was going on.

EK:

When did you begin writing film criticism?

MW:

The first film I ever reviewed was Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, in 1970. I was writing for a magazine called New Society, which has since been absorbed into the New Statesman. Its front pages were all about social and political issues and the social sciences, and the back end of it had cultural coverage like film and book reviews. John Berger used to write for it, as did Angela Carter. I started writing for them while I was still a postdoc, and for a while I wrote regular movie reviews.

EK:

How did you get involved with the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books?

MW:

In the late sixties I moved to America and started teaching at Columbia, where my colleague F.W. Dupee was very close to the people at the New York Review. It was his idea that I write for them. We made a deal pretty soon after that, in 1972 or so. I got paid a little more than the average, and I did ten pieces a year, all through the 70s. At this time I mainly did Latin-American fiction, and I did some literary theory stuff as well. I probably only did a couple of movie pieces in the 70s. I started writing more movie pieces when I went to England in the 80s. Now I write two or three pieces a year… doing ten a year was quite a strain! I remember reviewing Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow when it appeared, and finishing it overnight in order to hand in the review the next day. And I would occasionally finish writing a piece while the messenger was waiting to pick it up.

Robert Silvers at the New York Review is a genius of an editor. A great editor is a person who knows who should write about what. And it’s never obvious. You pick somebody, they’re not the expert, they don’t necessarily know anything about it, but you’ve got a hunch this would be the right person for the subject. He was always coming up with stuff like that.

EK:

How did your book America in the Movies come about?

MW:

I was asked to write a book about the sociology of the cinema, which eventually turned, by a devious series of moves, into America in the Movies. This had to do with the times as well as me: what I discovered was, once I’d described the imaginary world, I had already described the real world. A simple parallel account of the real world would either be exactly the same, or too different to be interesting. I thought the book was about movies in the world: movies and audiences, authorship, how movies fit in people’s minds – in that sense it was sociological. So, although there’s nothing sociological about America in the Movies in a conventional sense, I did think of it as a picture of the collective social imagination at work. And I couldn’t step outside that imagination and say, “Well, this is how it really is.” Because that was how it really was! The imaginary world was real in its way. Even if I could have conducted sociological surveys of the real Americans who went to the movies during that period, I still wouldn’t have believed them. The movies are the truer account. This is about fantasies, and you can’t ask people questions about their fantasies: you can’t legitimize fantasies that way.

The French structuralist anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss was really important to me at the time: I’d read pretty much everything by him at that point, particularly his work on the structural study of myth. That really seemed to me like a great model for talking about the movies. He talks about myth being a collective neurosis, and a neurosis being an individual myth. And he also says that a myth offers a solution to a problem that has no solution. If you had a solution, you wouldn’t need the myth. The whole theory of America in the Movies, essentially, is derived from that notion. That seemed to me deeply interesting, and must have been important to me for other reasons. You tell stories that are not true, because the stories that are true aren’t enough. If the true stories were enough, you wouldn’t need fiction. And equally, you wouldn’t tell fictional stories unless they were significant in some way. There’d be no grounds for fiction if truth was enough; and there’d be no use for fiction if it was just fiction.

EK:

What was the reaction to the book like in academic circles?

MW:

Well, one reaction I remember was Lionel Trilling’s. I ran into him on the Columbia campus while I was still writing the book, and he asked me what I was working on. I told him I was doing a book about American movies, and he gave me a look and said in a rather grand and weary manner, “Ah yes, you young people have to do that kind of thing these days, don’t you?”

But the general reaction was pretty good; it was well reviewed in most places. I was slightly defensive about it, because I felt it was too much addressed to viewers to be of interest to moviemakers, and a little bit too intimate with the business of movies to be of general interest. You had to be inside the business of movies in some way to appreciate it. At the same time, I was then very anxious to do the theory really light: Lévi-Strauss and Althusser appear, but you scarcely saw them: they come up and vanish before you can get your eyes on them! I wasn’t nervous about the theory per se; I was worried about being heavy-handed. My friend at Columbia, Ann Douglas, really liked that book, but she thought it was anti-intellectual, because I was openly refusing to engage with debates about theory that were going on at the time. Which is probably true, in some ways.

EK:

In America in the Movies you write that, as an Englishman writing about American film, you’re able to see “a sense of context and continuity where the natives tend to see only random change and crack-up.” Do you see any development in the kinds of national myths Hollywood represents today, as opposed to the ones you wrote about in America in the Movies? Or are these structures so deep that they don’t really change very much over the course of 30 years?

MW:

That’s an interesting question. The myths must be different now; I don’t think they’re exactly the same.

At the time I wrote the book, I thought that these myths belonged to a very specific period – essentially 1940-1960, and after that it was over. I thought it had to do with color, the big studio production, when people went to the movies twice a week. So the theoretical claim was that you couldn’t do this with a later period of cinema: you needed a homogeneous, mythmaking world, as provided by Hollywood. I would have said that after the 60s, you get more individual artists – the cinema gets perhaps more artistic, better or worse individually – but the collective mythology is gone. As long as you’re talking about a Martin Scorsese, or even a George Lucas, there is too much of a sense of a kind of individual personality there, even if they do get to the myth. Scorsese would be the equivalent of Welles or Hitchcock in their heyday: in a Welles or Hitchcock movie, it’s them you’re watching it for, not American mythology. There is a dominant personality that overrides the mythology. Whereas, in a Douglas Sirk movie, there is a kind of imaginative submission to the mythology. In an ordinary Western, the genre takes care of the submission to the mythology. And I would have said, once you get more and more Coppolas and Scorseses, you begin to get used to these people, and value them and their styles above the myths they are bringing you.

But now I think that seems to have been some sort of lull, and by the 80s, all the old mythology was back again! It just sat out the 60s and 70s.

EK:

Do you think it matters the extent to which the assumptions about who’s watching the movies line up with the actual audiences? After all, this is one thing that’s changed since the 60s: demographic research and niche marketing has gotten a lot more sophisticated, so movies, especially Hollywood movies, are made with a much more precise sense of who is likely to see them.

MW:

Yes, it has changed. In the 40s and 50s, a Hollywood studio would hire people to project the dreams of the audience. Whether they really were the audience’s dreams you can’t know: because they’re going to the movies all the time, not making movies of their own, and they didn’t have any alternative. So in a sense it’s circular, a tautology.

That’s the basic picture, though: the projection of dreams. And this picture is complicated, if not destroyed, by the auteur theory. If it’s an individual artist, they’re not hiring themselves to express anybody else’s views. It’s not their business to imagine what the largest number of Americans wants to see.

But again, I don’t think the auteur theory really explains how most movies are made. Most movies now are designed by a committee, and fixed by the producer, and every fixing is going to be presumably in the direction of what they think people want. So there is a kind of imaginary sociology going on. And that’s where I think the films become readable, as a kind of fantasy version of the country.

Perhaps that’s why, in film criticism now, there’s a kind of return to sociology – and perhaps the whole thing could be done at a deeper level. You could write a book like America in the Movies, with sociological readings of films, but with more access to the way movies are actually made: production and reception histories of individual movies, information on how movies are put together, how they use market research, how they invent what they think people should want. Once you’re back on that ground of assumption of what people want to see, you can read it as a picture of the public imagination, rather than some private imagination. Even – especially – if it’s wrong. An imagination that has completely erroneous ideas wouldn’t be untrue to the public imagination—the public imagination is wrong about all kinds of things. That’s how it works!

EK:

It is true that the auteur theory has completely taken hold in the way we conventionally think about movies, and also the way they’re marketed. And it does seem that most film criticism – as distinct from film theory, perhaps – just takes the auteur theory for granted.

MW:

Yes, and that’s not really about art or films: what’s behind that is a kind of political model of authority and meaning, a very old-fashioned and unreal idea that meaning is delivered by some particular person in authority delivering it. But that isn’t true in ordinary life, it’s not true anywhere. Meaning arises out of very complex transactions: people being willing to listen, people speaking, people saying what they want to say more or less, misunderstandings, overtones, undertones… All these things that are going on in any simple speech act.

This is why we need more and more film history: more and more detailed history of how individual movies are made, how they got from script to shooting—a kind of genetic criticism of the movies. There are a lot of great archives out there, and there’s lots of stuff to be done. But the theoretical point behind that work would be to ask, what does it mean for there to be composite authorship? And maybe it means it’s not quite authorship at all. I don’t think you can say that a great movie is co-authored by some mixture of a bullying producer, a hack director, genius scriptwriter, moderately good actors and a lot of luck. That’s not authorship; that’s something quite different. You can’t turn that into an equivalent of the story of Charles Dickens writing Bleak House. So the model of composition could be thought about differently. Because you don’t want to say that it’s just random; on the other hand, you can’t just multiply the authors and say, “This is now collective authorship.” Too many contradictions arise.

For instance, in that great book by Pauline Kael about Citizen Kane [The Citizen Kane Book], her idea was that it was really Herman Mankiewicz who deserved credit. The scriptwriter, not the director. Which is a great tendentious argument, and it was very interesting to see how she worked that out. Of course, Welles was a genius too. But it’s not really that Welles and Mankiewicz became one person to make that movie: it’s that the movie is the result of a struggle between Mankiewicz and Welles. The movie’s like the Hegelian synthesis of the two of them, without them ever actually getting together.

EK:

Since you mention Pauline Kael, I’m curious to hear about your influences, or just other film critics that you read and like.

MW:

Well, I grew up reading English film critics like Dilys Powell and Penelope Houston, and Philip French who still writes in the Observer. But they tended to be more film buffs in a way—they knew a lot about film, but they didn’t have that edgy critical style, like Kael. Kael is a great model for anyone, I think, because she was a wonderful stylist, very funny, and she really cared about the movies. And it did seem, in the 70s, that movies were central to the culture in a way that they’re not now. The movies she wrote about, everyone you’d be likely to meet had seen these movies: you’d talk about them everywhere you went. You’d read her, Molly Haskell, Andrew Sarris. There was a total sense of everyone focusing on these movies. And it wasn’t just a matter of whether they were any good or not. It was a way people talked about their culture. These critics were tastemakers, but also provided a focus for discussion: they provided a forum.

I thought Kael was invariably right about the movies she disliked, and quite often wrong about the movies she liked. She’d be gung ho about The Warriors or something… Although I did use to think, whenever I liked a movie, that I’d better read her review and find out if it was OK to like this movie!

I never actually met her. She rung me up once, after I wrote a piece in the New York Times Magazine about a movie by Marcel Ophüls called The Memory of Justice, which he made after The Sorrow and the Pity. The morning it came out, Pauline rang me up and said, “I was so relieved about that piece – I thought it was going to be a whitewash of this terrible film, and you really did a wonderful job.” I had managed to say that it wasn’t a great movie – it’s an interesting movie, but it’s got a lot of flaws – and she figured the Times was going to promote it as twice as good as The Sorrow and the Pity.

EK:

What do you think of the current New Yorker critics?

MW:

I think David Denby’s usually wrong in his opinions, but he’s often on to interesting things. There’s very rarely a piece where he doesn’t stumble into something interesting. Whereas Anthony Lane is a great stylist, and incredibly funny, but he doesn’t really have to be writing about movies. He could be writing about anything. I think he and David are quite a good pair, in a way: David doesn’t write nearly as well, but he cares about the movies in a way that Anthony doesn’t. He cares about the current condition of the movies. Whereas Anthony’s perfectly happy to talk about old movies, and trash most of the new ones. It doesn’t distress him that movies are terrible. He thinks, another terrible movie, another occasion for wisecracks. Whereas I think David gets depressed about it. He’s a very gloomy fellow: he has this “everything’s going to the dogs” sort of attitude. He worries about the fate of films. And Kael did, too. So if you put them together, you get something like Pauline Kael: the wit and style on the one hand, and the passion on the other.

I do think it’s a very good thing in a critic to worry about the medium. I’m probably not enough a worrier. My sense is that you have to be interested in the possibilities of the medium, work that does something that stretches the medium, but I don’t worry about the actual history of film. And I think that’s a good thing for a critic to do: to be concerned about the medium and what’s happening to it.

EK:

There are many people who lament the fact that there is a kind of cultural divide between journalistic film critics and academics. What are your feelings on this?

MW:

There has been a big divide, but I think it might be getting better. I don’t know why it happened, but I do know how it happened, though the why and the how might be connected. I think film studies was very anxious to be respectable, which meant being analytic, having a language, having a discipline (and this may have been truer in the UK than it was here). Some people proceeded by going in a formalist direction, like David Bordwell, and other people became historians and did archival work on the industry, censorship, that kind of thing. But a lot of people – I’m thinking in particular of the magazine Screen – went into theory, which slightly mystifies me. Going into theory doesn’t mystify me, but the particular theories they used – and this is true in literary theory too – were a mysterious hodgepodge: there was no particular reason for us to be interested in the theories we were interested in. The particular mixture of Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, a little bit of Derrida, a little bit of the Frankfurt School… it’s a strange mixture. And this use of theory was very alienating to the general critic. But I think that’s calmed down a little.

EK:

What about other academics who write on film from a different disciplinary perspective, like the philosopher Stanley Cavell?

MW:

I’ve always liked Stanley Cavell’s work. I think The World Viewed is a sort of perverse book, very wayward, but full of the most brilliant things. And Pursuits of Happiness is a book that just gets better and better every time I read it. When I first read it, I thought it was incredibly interesting, but over the top in all kinds of ways. I reviewed it in the New York Review and made those jokes about how over the top it was. I hadn’t met Stanley at that point. And he would refer to my review in lectures, where he would say something like: “An intelligent and otherwise sympathetic critic found this remark of mine hilarious; I had obviously not persuaded him of my need for this language.” And now I think there is an interesting point of disagreement between Stanley and me – and this might be an English vs. American thing. Stanley would say, if I get a little too high-flown, if the tone is a little too grand for the occasion, well who cares: it’s not about taste, it’s about getting people to see things. And I think I want to say, the tone’s got to be adjusted to the occasion. If you talk about Cary Grant in too grand a manner, comparing him to Emerson and so forth, you’re not talking about Cary Grant, you’re talking about something else. All the references to Shakespeare and all the grandiose phrasing… From my point of view I want to say: there’s something wrong with his ear for this, he hasn’t heard it right, he’s not close enough to the material. What he would say is, what Michael hasn’t understood is that I need this elevated voice to get across the sheer grandeur of the film. I’m not trying to imitate Cary Grant, or get close to him. And my argument is that maybe we need to be a little closer in style to the thing: not imitate it or pastiche it, but find a voice that’s somewhere in the register. That’s the position I’m tempted to hold; though I could easily believe that my position is wrong and Stanley’s is right.

EK:

You’ve written mostly about Hollywood films, but quite a lot about experimental fiction. Are you interested in avant-garde cinema? Do experiment and innovation serve the same purpose in film as they do in fiction?

MW:

The short answer about avant-garde cinema is I don’t really know enough about it to comment. But I suppose I’ve got mixed feelings about the idea of the avant-garde. I’m always sympathetic to it, in the sense that you’ve got to be sympathetic to experiment, and I think of experiment as a positive value.

But you know, there’s a great phrase from Roland Barthes: he says, “I am at the arrière-garde of the avant-garde.” I’m not as avant-garde as he was, but I’d say that, like him, I’m sympathetic to avant-garde movements on principle, but a little suspicious of the pieties of the avant-garde, the sense of being more virtuous than other people, more in the right. So I suppose I’m more genuinely interested in experiments that take place at the edge of the mainstream.

EK:

Do you look at the 1950s or 60s as a golden age of cinema? Do you think that the movies have gotten worse since then?

MW:

I don’t think movies have gotten worse, but I think good movies have gotten scarcer. The industry has become crasser, I think, and is going for much cruder sorts of effects. The whole thing works on a cruder basis, though it was pretty crude before. Though maybe some future generation of critics will rescue all the auteurs hiding in these crass movies. After all, that was what the auteur theory was meant to do: it was meant to rescue art from all the crassness, rescue directors from producers…

EK:

What about the state of film criticism today? The New York Film Festival recently did a panel on “Film Criticism in Crisis,” addressing the fact that so many newspapers and magazines across the country are cutting back on their arts coverage.

MW:

Yes, that’s happening all over, and it’s quite a serious situation. This may be a bit solemn, but I think there’s a politics to this question of cultural coverage. Because culture should be something that people argue about and have really different opinions on. And I think cultural pages are ideally the place where those arguments should happen. They’re not just a frill, designed for certain arty people who happen to like that sort of thing. But that is how editors often treat them. They think, we don’t really need this, it doesn’t sell the paper. I’d like to believe they’re wrong, but it’s sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

EK:

What does seem to be missing, besides venues, are people writing really interesting criticism for a more general audience, in the way Kael did—people making a case for film as something other than what film buffs like.

MW:

Yes, I think the dispersal of interest is the problem: nothing feels central to the culture. No book, no film, no show, no painting feels like the thing everybody needs to be discussing, through which you negotiate your anxieties. I don’t think there’s anything like that today.

So this might be something that film critics should do more energetically: not pontificate about which movie is better, but at least address the questions of why these things matter, what’s at stake, why critical judgment matters, why certain kinds of discussions about movies need to keep taking place all the time. If you simply say, movies are a taste some people like, just as others like embroidery or antiques, that seems to me a loss. Movies are not like that; nor are books, for that matter.

I do think it’s quite a good idea to imagine that at least one of your readers might be somebody who’s not already interested in film, who doesn’t already think it matters. What would you say to a person like this? It also keeps you honest, in a way: it helps remind you of why you yourself care about these things. Presumably, one cares about them because they actually matter, not because one just happens to like them. So there should be a mildly missionary quality to criticism, I think: you’re not going to force it on anybody, but you do think it’d be a good idea if more people went to the movies.

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