Critical dialogue:
No tundra theory, please

by Bill Nichols

from Jump Cut, no. 17, April 1978, p. 36
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1978, 2005

JUMP CUT NO. 16 has arrived up here in Canada at last. It's a very impressive issue. The Special Section on gay films marks an important step forward for political film criticism and hopefully will become a regular aspect of JUMP CUT's ongoing work.

There's just one little problem. Not with the Special Section. With one of the "Theory" articles, namely William Van Wert's analysis of Robin Wood's criticism. There's a wee tinge of the urban provincial or the Yankee chauvinist peeping through what is an otherwise reasonable spelling out of Wood's conservative aesthetic. It seems to be directed at Canada.

Canadian film criticism needs no defense, especially in an issue which openly acknowledges that it is alive and well (pp. 2, 13, 39), which counts Canadian critics among its contributors. And yet, Van Wert believes Wood's troubles stem, in part, from being out in the tundra too long: "one wonders uneasily if the quote has anything to do with Wood's going off to Canada for three years" (p. 34). Why "one"/Van Wert wonders — about Wood's reference to Yeats and the apocalypse in relation to a Canadian "exile — is as difficult to fathom as Wood's original reference, if not more so.

Van Wert goes on, describing Wood's attacks on modernists (Godard) by recourse to the past (George Eliot). Once again he wonders,

"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)."

Something of an "out-of-it-up-north" complex seems to be developing here. It leads Van Wert to take another stab at a tundra-theory of conservative criticism. Like Ian Cameron and Andrew Sarris, Van Wert's Robin Wood would not take kindly to Screen's dominance of British film criticism. Unlike Cameron and Sarris, though, Wood at least has an excuse:

"It's as if, like Rip Van Winkle, Wood emerged from three years in Canada to find that he'd become an anachronism."

"One wonders" how Martin Walsh remained so vital and political a critic despite five years in Canada, given Van Wert's strange proclivity toward geographic determinism. Not all of us are so fortunate as Van Wert to live smack up against the heartbeat of theoretical/political criticism in Philadelphia, but not all of us have turned completely into reactionary pods either. Perhaps when Van Wert finishes his child's checkup, he can pop up to Canada and bestow his diagnostic skills upon the rest of the Canadian film community. I for one would eagerly welcome such a visit: I've recently begun to develop an interest in Schubert's "Wintereise," though I still prefer Eric Clapton while gardening.


We apologize to our Canadian readers for an obvious lapse in vigilance.

 — The Editors