Robin Wood as poddleganger

by William Van Wert

from Jump Cut, no. 16, 1977, pp. 33-35
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1977, 2005

Poddelganger is a made-up word. It comes from doppelganger, the German word for "double" (as in the man versus his shadow in THE STUDENT OF PRAGUE or the two Marias in Fritz Lang's METROPOLIS). But the root word in question here is pod, as in Don Siegel's INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. Robin Wood is a poddelganger: Wood says one thing only to be contradicted by Wood's pod look-alike. My case in point is Wood's article "In Defense of Art" in the July-August (1975) issue of Film Comment, in which the breezy and eclectic confessions of a cultist are politically very clear: Wood is radically threatened by anything left of Louis XIV. He will portray himself as Rousseau's noble savage out in the woods, as Thoreau's self-taught man, and, more importantly, as an upstanding patriot whose film criticism preserves democracy (capitalism).

He will attack anything to do with film with a leftist political orientation or with new theories that might render auteur theory and armchair criticism a little bit obsolete. Thus, he will attack Bertold Brecht as theoretician, Jean-Luc Godard as filmmaker, Peter Wollen as film critic, and Screen as film magazine. The clash Wood sets up is that between art and politics, with art winning every time. His friends are "truth" and "beauty"; his enemies are subversives, revolutionaries, communists. What is clear in his article is that he treats his enemies in terms of static politics and not in terms of art in process. What is less clear, but just as important to note, is that what Wood sets up as art is just as political as what he dismisses.

From the very beginning of the article, there are two Woods speaking. There's the simple Robin, the humanist who's "just plain folks" like you and me ("I have tried to be myself, and to go my own way. Yet I always seemed to get on easily enough with my fellows in different camps, despite my intermittent tendency to insult some of them in print.") And then there's the cultured Robin, the one who's self-educated enough to throw allusions to literature, painting and music everywhere he goes, all the while stressing his personal response to each:

"I have spent fifteen years educating myself to respond to and feel at home with the Schönberg quartets, a process at first painfully frustrating, ultimately deeply rewarding. I can now 'hear' the Third Quartet (reputedly the most difficult) almost as naturally as I hear the Beethoven Third Symphony. This places me among a very small minority, but I am not aware of any self-congratulatory feelings of superiority."

Uneasy and forced comparisons to and fro between the arts usher forth from split Robin's mouth. He quotes Yeats' "The Second Coming" about the apocalypse at the outset, and one wonders uneasily if the quote has anything to do with Wood's going off to Canada for three years. The next time he quotes Yeats, it's to put down Godard: translate that as "art quashes politics one more time." The heading for section II of the article is even more curious: "Schubert Replies to Colin McArthur." Translate that: Robin Wood replies to Colin McArthur on the latter's review of Peter Harcourt's Six European Directors. Robin Wood "understands" Schubert and likes Peter Harcourt's book. Robin Wood doesn't understand/doesn't like Cohn McArthur's marxist analysis of the Harcourt book, so Schubert replies to Colin McArthur: art quashes politics one more time.

One more example: Robin Wood attacks Jean-Luc Godard throughout the article, especially the Godard of WIND FROM THE EAST (1969). Critic Peter Wollen wrote on WIND FROM THE EAST as an example of modernism. Wood "attacks" Wollen by proposing that Godard's film is much easier to read than George Eliot's Middlemarch. One more time Wood dredges up a past master to prove that the other critics are wrong and that art quashes politics.

It's a curious attack for anyone, let alone Robin Wood, to take. The very nature of his attack (his attactics) was what kept me reading. I really didn't understand where he was coming from (apart from three years in Canada listening to Schubert's Wintereise for breakfast, while cooking, while gardening). I was most perplexed by Wood's digression on Fra Filippo Lippi's Annunciation ("that hangs in Room III of London's National Gallery"). What did the painting have to do with anything else in the article?

I went back to the beginning and noticed that this article is an excerpt from a forthcoming book, Personal Views: Explorations in Style, to be published by the Gordon Fraser Gallery (London). The publisher in this case seems to explain a great deal of what's to be published. Wood has an ideology to peddle, within the restrictions imposed by having an art gallery as publisher of his book. Wood includes as allies both past and present poets, painters and composers, which implies that time, tradition and art galleries are on his side. Apparently, he feels so threatened that he must dredge up Bach and Beethoven to put down Brecht and Godard. Wood gets to attack his peer group (Colin McArthur, Peter Wollen, Screen), and the Gallery is pleased, because we readers now know where to look for Lippi's painting (Room III).

What emerges is a split meaning for "art" in the title of the article. There's the "art" of film and then there's the "Art" of Yeats, Schubert, Schönberg, Beethoven, Mozart, Mahler, Haydn, Bach, Fra Filippo Lippi, George Eliot, and Brecht. This second "Art" no doubt is pleasing to the publisher, but it's very confusing to the reader whose interest is in the "art" of film. In his inimitably disorganized way, Wood ties the two meanings of "art" together. Near the end of the article Wood is ostensibly talking about Godard and Brecht:

 "In TOUT VA BIEN he (Godard) has Yves Montand (as ex-New Wave filmmaker) say: 'I've discovered things that Brecht was into forty years ago.' The remark is made in connection with Montand's abandonment of a cherished project to film a David Goodis novel. Goodis wrote the book on which SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER was based, and Godard uses his name for a character in MADE IN U.S.A."

Confused Robin Wood talks about Godard and Brecht. Clear Robin Wood brings in David Goodis, which brings in Truffaut (SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER) and earlier Godard (MADE IN U.S.A.) when Godard was less political and easier for Wood to assimilate within the categories of New Wave and auteur theory.

After noting that any Mozart opera would respond to a Brechtian treatment these days, Wood ends the article by contrasting the worldview of Godard in WIND FROM THE EAST with the worldview in Jane Austen. Translate that: Godard / David Goodis / Brecht versus Robin Wood / Mozart / Jane Austen.

Enough of jump-cutting. If Robin Wood is so obviously ludicrous in this article, then why am I taking the time to point it out? It matters little that Wood can allude as he does. It matters little that he attacks Screen. I would too, but for somewhat different reasons, which the rest of this article should make clear. The attack on Screen is not the point. After all, not many readers of Film Comment would also be subscribers to Screen. The point is that there are many readers of Film Comment and many readers of Robin Wood. For that reason alone, Wood's misconceptions about semiology and marxist film criticism should be corrected. To use a Godard dictum: "form is content." An analysis of Wood's form in this article will reveal his content, specifically, his ideology. Wood states: "This is scarcely the place for political debate (and I am scarcely a political thinker)." I intend to show how very political he really is.

 Let's return, then, to the poddelganger theory. Admittedly, Wood has axes to grind. He and other auteur critics like Ian Cameron and Andrew Sarris would obviously identify more with Sequence, Movie and Monogram than with Screen, which has supplanted the former three in terms of importance in British film criticism. It's as if, like Rip Van Winkle, Wood emerged from three years in Canada to find that he'd become an anachronism. It's equally understandable that Wood should feel alien to semiology, which proposes to study film's language (as a language) and to study films as systems rather than study them as individual entities. It's also clear that he should feel threatened by marxist film criticism, which attacks "impressionist" critics like Wood. And perhaps, if he's really like Rip Van Winkle, it's understandable that he should lump Screen, semiology and marxism together into one giant monster. After all, when the Japanese westernized, they put on a Kabuki-style Hamlet in the 1920s in which the actor delivering the "to be or not to be" soliloquy did it riding a bicycle. It was all the same to them.

Wood's unkindest cut about his three villains is in the form of a film allusion which appears at the beginning of the article:

"If I sound at times like Kevin McCarthy in the later stages of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, the reader's forgiveness is asked in advance. It does seem to me sometimes as if, every time I turn around, another of my acquaintances has become a pod."

For Kevin McCarthy, substitute Joe McCarthy. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS is a film about "aliens" taking over human bodies. In those red-scare years aliens also meant communists. Wood's thinly-disguised allusion is a ploy/plea for our approval. His attack is that of the humanist ("it is directly relevant to my work as a critic and as a teacher that I set supreme value on the quality — and individuality — of the individual life"), while the "aliens" here (Screen, semiology, marxism, Godard, McArthur, Wollen) are to be seen as anti-human, unfeeling communists. So: how can any good American resist such an argument? Let's see ...


Talk about negative space. Wood picks on Manny Farber. Part of Wood agrees with the semiologists (I think Wood really means marxists here) that Farber is impressionistic, while another part of Wood really admires Farber's "extraordinary associational processes." Wood quotes Farber on Godard (the "resonance' of WEEKEND), but he doesn't tell us anything about Peter Harcourt on Godard. It's curious, because Godard is one of the six directors treated by Harcourt, and Wood is "defending" Harcourt. The conclusion for Wood is the following: "If it isn't semiological, then it's impressionistic." Wood attributes that conclusion to semiology; I attribute it to Wood, since I haven't found any such polarized conclusions in the work of any of the semiologists I've read. The section concludes with the voice of the fence sitter:

"Meanwhile, my quarrel is less with what it is actually doing than with its arrogant self-assertion: the common assumption that any alternative is now discredited and made obsolete by its example."

Translate that: what they're doing is okay, but I'm not doing it, so, because of "them" I feel discredited and obsolete.


What's curious about this section is Wood's scathing attack on Colin McArthur (who attacked Peter Harcourt) without any semblance of a defense of Harcourt. It's really Wood versus McArthur. Wood quotes McArthur on Harcourt:

"Mr. Harcourt's romantic commitment to the personal response of the critic is paralleled by his ultimate commitment to the notion of personal artistry… the materialistic critic would offer an alternative model of the critical activity. Naturally, he would pay scant heed to his own (or anyone else's) personal response to a film since, from the materialist perspective, personal responses are not personal at all but are culturally and class-determined."

 Wood responds by forcing the personal response on the culturally and class-determined one:

"If I sit next to someone from roughly the same cultural background as myself watching TOKYO STORY, RIO BRAVO, or DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER, am I to assume that our responses will be identical?"

Wood seems, to assume that the materialist critic's method would deny him his soul or something and that class determination means automaton film criticism, when, in fact, it merely means applying a methodology a little more scientific than that of the armchair personal opinion, opinion which obscures the "work of art" (Wood's term) by the language of the critic (Farber's extraordinary associational processes obscuring Godard's WEEKEND).

An attack on Godard's using Yeats is sandwiched between an attack on McArthur as one of the "'intellectuals' of film criticism" and a praise of Wood as one of the last noble savages:

"I have been told, on very good authority, that I am an 'anti-intellectual,' because my work consistently implies a refusal to separate my emotional life from my intellectual life."

Here again Wood is a poddelganger. On the one hand, he states:

"Let me say at once that the posing of relationships between socio-economic structures and aesthetic structures seems to me an admirable and potentially very rewarding critical pursuit. Also, there could be no objection to anyone's examining the cinema as a social process."

In the next breath, the other Wood affirms: "This cannot, however, logically be considered a substitute for the traditional relationship between art and criticism." By almost anyone's standards, using Fra Filippo Lippi to refute the stance of a film journal (Screen) would not be considered the "traditional relationship between art and criticism." What Wood fails to understand here is that those "intellectuals" of film criticism are not attacking art; rather, they're attacking criticism. Wood seems to be justifying the former by his own brand of the latter when he writes:

"When the decision becomes exclusively one of the intellect and the will — when it is determined, that is, by a rigidly held body of dogma, allegiance to which demands that our spontaneous responses be suppressed — then we do both ourselves and art an injury."

Anyone but the sorriest boob can see that the use of the intellect does not preclude spontaneous responses. If they're spontaneous, how can they be suppressed? What's asked for is that those responses not preclude the intellect, that those initial responses not be the critic's sole guide to film-writing, that something beyond rough draft criticism be possible.


Typical of Wood's rough-draft approach to aesthetics is his attack on Screen for "dirty words" without ever giving us examples of those words in context. If the reader is unfamiliar with Screen, he/she can only take Wood's word for it; they're against the traditional, against the aesthetic, against the avant-garde. There are no Screen quotes to contradict Wood. I have two objections to Screen's being the bully for Robin Wood's haymakers. One involves contradictions in Wood's arguments; the other involves some fundamental misrepresentations on Wood's part, whether intentional or not.

Even if Screen were the monster Wood sets it up to be, the mode of attack Wood chooses would be suspicious. One gets the feeling that Robin Wood cannot understand what's being written these days in Screen; so, he attacks words out of context rather than dealing with theories and arguments in toto. I could admire Wood if he would admit he can't read Screen; I think Screen's most ardent subscribers would complain from time to time of incoherent or obscure texts. But Wood here uses Screen as a vehicle for a more scathing attack on semiology and marxism, as though Screen were the official organ of either or both!

It's a new dictionary that Robin Wood proposes. Dirty Word number one is bourgeois. Wood somehow gets from "bourgeois" as a negative word ("none of us wants to be thought 'bourgeois'") to "bourgeois ideology" as something not only desirable, but also fundamentally "human":

"Impulses of love, generosity, and tolerance, all readiness to listen to other points of view, everything we have learned to call, in the finest sense, 'human' — all these are aspects of 'bourgeois ideology' and its means of perpetuating itself."

This path of double distortion is hard to follow. On the one hand, he's saying Screen is wrong when he goes ad hominem (that is, Screen is bourgeois, Screen is elitist, Godard is elitist, the enemy is everything it attacks). On the other hand, Wood suggests that, even if the enemy is right, it's better to remain as one is, for "bourgeois" equals "human."

 As for "elitism," Wood takes a double track to the point of jabberwocky. His argument seems to be that the artists most in favor with the editors at Screen are in fact the most elitist. Counterbalancing this argument is Wood's assertion that his appreciation of Schubert, Mozart, Beethoven and Schönberg may very well put him in an elite (a minority), but he would certainly not exclude others from appreciating these composers.

"To put it succinctly, nothing is ever going to come between me and The Magic Flute. It is not, however, an elite from which I would wish anyone to feel excluded; on the contrary, I would like to share my advantages with as many others as possible. That is why I am a teacher."

It is difficult not to see the elitism running rampant through Wood's arguments. He takes Godard/Gorin to task on the issue of elitism in terms of audience. Yet he justifies his own elitism is terms of personal preference. Like comparing apples and oranges. What is necessary to understand Wood's argument on both tracks is an analysis of class and class values. It makes me want to play Brahms for Robin Wood, to let him appreciate the music in his own rarefied vacuum, and then to play the same Brahms for him with the visuals of Buñuel's LAS HURDES.

Wood's failure to come to terms with art as a product of its culture permits him to continue armchair criticism without documentation.

"I have come to feel, during the past few years, that SANSHO THE BAILIFF and TOKYO STORY may be superior to any American film I know — superior even to VERTIGO, to RIO BRAVO, to LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN — superior in a greater maturity of vision, and in the completeness and conscious authority with which that vision is realized."

What "maturity of vision" are we to measure here, if not that of Robin Wood ("I have come to feel, during the past few years…")? For those of us who are not in the same armchair as Wood, what exactly do "maturity of vision," "completeness" and "conscious authority" mean? Can they be measured in terms of the specific content of the film frame or must they be resurrected from the subjective recesses of Robin Wood's mind? This kind of freelance facile criticism insists that guides like Robin Wood are needed for the appreciation of films, that they alone and the test of time can judge the merits of a work, because they have given us no methodology for judging the works ourselves. What is really needed is a working methodology for viewing films, one which would allow an audience gradually to assume the role of critic for itself.

Screen is not the answer to Wood's nontologies. It suffers from faddism, chronic jargonese, catalogue sickness, and theory without practice. Yet, Screen has published English translations of current French thought on such subjects as semiology, structuralism, Brecht and Freud. The reader should not be content with Robin Wood's dismissal of Screen nor even with my dismissal of Wood concerning Screen; she/he should also read Julia Lesage's article, "The Human Subject-You, He or Me? (Or, the Case of the Missing Penis)" which first appeared in JUMP CUT (No. 4) and was then reprinted in Screen (Summer 1975).


In his attack on modernism, Wood implies that a guide (Wood is available) is needed; explicitly, he favors George Eliot's Middlemarch to both Peter Wollen as critic and Godard as filmmaker, because (1) Eliot's book wins on the test of time (the older is better, à la Thoreau), and (2) it wins on the test of complexity. But here again, Wood marches two differing contexts to the fore. The complexity of Godard's WIND FROM THE EAST is felt by Wood to be elitist because incomprehensible. Here complexity means befuddlement; hence, a debit. The complexity of Eliot's novel derives from the co-participation Wood feels invited to while reading: hence, a credit. Where Wood cannot comprehend, he attaches blame; where he can keep up and fill out, as it were, he throws a rose.

 Yet, it is easy to see that Wood is not as interested in defending nineteenth-century fiction as he is in attacking "modernist" critics: in this case, Peter Wollen. Wollen is the straw man, perhaps because he has been the most articulate (accessible) proponent of structuralist and semiological approaches to film, including approaches to older film theories like the auteur theory, or perhaps because Wollen has revised his very popular Signs and Meaning in the Cinema to include a chapter on the avant-garde in film, a chapter which, among other things, praises Godard and finds fault with Robin Wood.

"However, the structures discerned in the text are often attacked in another way. Robin Wood, for example, has argued that the auteur film is something like a Platonic Idea. It posits a real film, of which the actual film is only a flawed transcript, while the archi-film itself exists only in the mind of the critic. This attack rests on a misunderstanding. The main point about the Platonic Idea is that it predates the empirical reality, as an archetype. But the auteur film (or structure) is not an archi-film at all in this sense. It is an explanatory device which specifies partially how any individual film works. Some films it can say nothing or next-to-nothing about at all. Auteur theory cannot simply be applied indiscriminately. Nor does an auteur analysis exhaust what can be said about any single film."

Wollen must have been anticipating Robin Wood's certain rebuttal when he concluded:

"There is often a hostility towards any kind of explanation which involves a degree of distancing from the 'lived experience' of watching the film itself. Yet clearly any kind of serious critical work — I would say scientific, though I know this drives some people into transports of rage — must involve a distance, a gap between the film and the criticism, the text and the metatext. It is as though meteorologists were reproached for getting away from the 'lived experience' of walking in the rain or sunbathing. Once again, we are back with the myth of transparency, the idea that the mark of a good film is that it conveys a rich meaning, an important truth, in a way which can be grasped immediately."

 Wollen cautions against the myth of transparency which underpins all of Wood's criticism. Wood attacks Wollen's concept of modernism, a chief tenet of which is that the "spectator has to work at reading the text." Wood "exposes" this myth of modernism with accusations of confusion, unclear thought/logic and ultimate error. In a rush of middle-gray prose, Wood dismisses Wollen, along with the other writers at Screen. Perhaps Wollen's recent successes as screenwriter (THE PASSENGER) and director (PENTHESILEA, co-directed with Laura Mulvey) have made Wood even more vindictive.

As for Wood's comparisons between Wollen's AfterImage article on Godard and his Signs and Meaning…, I think something should be said. In the AfterImage article, Wollen argues for Godard's style in WIND FROM THE EAST in much the same way that Eric Bentley points out the difference between the epic and dramatic theaters to explicate Brecht. Whereas Wollen approaches Godard through his use of Brechtian devices in the AfterImage article, he views Godard much more broadly in the revised Signs and Meaning, to the point that Godard is the inheritor of Duchamp and Leger and Buñuel; at the same time, Godard is seen as the dominant influence upon later filmmakers like Dusan Makavejev, Jean-Marie Straub, Skolimowski, Bertolucci, Kluge and Glauber Rocha. It is a new kind of auteur that Wollen suggests in Godard. Wood, whose own leanings have been more towards Claude Chabrol than toward Godard, may have felt compelled to justify his own previous work in light of Wollen's assertions.


The questions raised by Wood in his last section are the most far-reaching and the most coherent of his whole jumbled piece. At least, one has to allow that Wood knows how to put on a finish. His opening remarks concerning the differences between "works of art" and "revolutionary tools" seem pointed and provocative. Yet he opts for the former and dismisses the latter, not allowing for the fact that the two often merge over time. Marcel Duchamp is a case in point. His ready-mades ("In Advance of a Broken Arm — a snow shovel; "Fountain Readymade Urinal"; "With Hidden Noise; "Why Not Sneeze?"; "The Chocolate Grinder" etc.) were a blatant assault upon retinal art, clearly to be seen as "revolutionary tools." Today, they are appreciated as "works of art." The riots originally caused by the first showings of films like ENTR'ACTE and L'AGE D'OR have been replaced by enthusiastic applause from aficionados in art cinemas.

The reason for such mergers, aside from the usual assimilations by time, seems to stem from a radical change in the form of an art, causing a change in audience perception, which, once changed, perceives the exceptional as ordinary. When Godard first displayed his dazzling jump cuts in early films like BREATHLESS, audiences were taxed to keep up with the narrative. The virtuoso technical rule-breaking in those early films was not so tightly aligned with the political themes as in the later films. When Godard seems to deny his own previous knowledge of filmmaking in the later films (WEEKEND on), giving us painfully long takes of 'interview" cinema, of characters facing the camera in front of colorless and uninteresting backdrops and working through a political ideology with the audience, Godard is using film as a "revolutionary tool." He is insisting that we listen, that we really hear what is being said, because there is nothing interesting in the visuals to divert us from hearing. We can walk out of the film, in which case Godard wins by having provoked us to anger/action; we can sit and accept Godard by the sitting and mere fact of listening to the characters, in which case he wins again. Or we can fall asleep, at which point both we and he lose.

 Robin Wood's prognosis on Godard stems not from the future but (as we've come to expect from this latter-day Thoreau) from the past. Godard will be as Brecht has been.

"Yet Brecht is now himself a generally accepted and respected part of tradition; his plays are produced by bourgeois-capitalist theater companies without any sense of incongruity."

Brecht is a good example for showing double vision on the part of critics. Leftist critics tend to emphasize Brecht's political theories about art (the "revolutionary tool" school), while critics like Robin Wood ignore the reasons why Brecht was attacked during the McCarthy era and focus only on the plays (the "works of art" school). A similar phenomenon seems to have developed for viewing Godard, with Godard himself dismissing his early films as "bourgeois" and "playing," or with armchair critics like Wood dismissing the later films as too political and lacking in aesthetic genius or creativity.

The difference here is fundamental and must be understood if readers are ever to dissociate themselves from so-called "guides" and be able to view films for themselves. What Robin Wood insists upon in the work of art is an imitative replica of reality. What Peter Wollen seems to be arguing for in discussing the works of James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Godard and others is the absence of representation, the insistence upon the spectator's participation to complete the work of art/revolutionary tool, and the recognition that what is experimental in art must be understood in terms of failure rather than success. The Surrealists expected riots at their exhibitions and readings. Duchamp expected outrage and insult with his readymades. Godard expects hatred, boredom and confusion from the uninitiated in his audience who, have come to see a work of art and instead see a revolutionary tool. In terms of this concept of failure, which suggests that process is much more important than the finished product, there should be no more distinction between works of art and revolutionary tools. The ultimate assumption, however, posed by such experimental works is that the methods of evaluating them need to change in accordance with the change in form/ content embodied in these works.

Robin Wood obviously can't go around evaluating Peter Wollen and Godard on the same aesthetic continuum on which he evaluates George Eliot or Mozart. He's not far from coming down off the fence and joining his "enemies" ("What, then, is the status of these films, and how does the non-Marxist, but not unsympathetic, critic handle them?"). He's asking, and that is a good start. The first answer given to Robin Wood should be that modernism is no myth in film, just in film criticism. As another old backwoodsman, Robert Frost, once suggested, we don't need better writers; we just need some more "right readers."