Robin Wood, R.I.P.

Film critic Robin Wood died on Friday, December 18, 2009. You can read the New York Times obituary here to get an idea of his importance in his chosen field. I want to tell you about his influence on me.

To repeat something I seem to say often here, I grew up in a small, isolated west Tennessee town. I loved to read, but books were expensive and hard to come by, since the town had no library (and barely a school). Movies, though, were free on television. And because my dad loved Westerns, I grew up watching a lot of John Wayne movies. My preferences were always for science fiction and horror, but you can’t be constantly exposed to something without developing an affection for it. Thus I love John Wayne Westerns. But as a teen, I started to comprehend that some (True Grit, Rio Bravo, The Searchers) were markedly better than others (Chisum, Cahill: US Marshall, Big Jake).

In college, still enamored of film and toying with ideas of screenwriting, I began to learn why some movies were better than others. I discovered that the Wayne Westerns I loved the most–including Red River, which I’ll proclaim my favorite film of all time–were directed by Howard Hawks, a man of such gargantuan talent that he made an acknowledged classic in damn near every genre. And without a doubt, the leading Hawks scholar was Robin Wood.

(the cover of the edition I read in college)

From the library at the University of Tennessee at Martin, I checked out Wood’s monograph on Hawks. It had just been republished, I believe, so the edition was shiny and new, lending it an immediacy (and it was again republished in 2006). I learned about Hawks films I’d never seen (the original Scarface, unavailable then) and discovered brilliant connections between films as different as comedy (Bringing Up Baby), wartime intrigue (To Have and Have Not), musical (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) and even historical epic (Land of the Pharaohs).

In other words, I learned why his work, worked.

I never became a screenwriter, obviously. And it took me a long time to become a real writer. But a lot of what I know about how and why a story works (in any medium) comes from studying the films of Howard Hawks, and Robin Wood–ironically best known as an expert on Hitchcock–gave me the key.

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