The Canon: Howard Hawks by Robin Wood

October 28, 2010

No book in the entire field of film studies has had a greater impact on me than this one. Robin Wood's passionate and insightful analysis is the best possible companion to the films of the great American director Howard Hawks.

Hawks, who died two years before I was born, is best known for adventure films about male bonding (Only Angels Have Wings, 1939, and Rio Bravo, 1959, are good examples) and quick-witted romantic comedies about attraction through antagonism (1938's Bringing Up Baby is his best).

He made films in Hollywood in every decade from the 1920s to the 1970s, in a diverse range of genres, yet with a remarkable thematic consistency. For his success in making personal films within the Hollywood studio system, film critics celebrated him as a true artist (an auteur), at a time when considering film as art was still a radical notion.

Wood's book was first published in 1968, and it remains the most convincing account I have ever read of Hawks' artistry.

Typically for Wood, the analysis is educational yet highly personal, accessible yet subjective, and - for me - genuinely inspiring.

Wood died less than a year ago, and he has rightly been acknowledged as a major contributor to the development of film studies; he founded influential film magazines, was among the first to teach film at university level, and wrote several books (indeed, his volume on Alfred Hitchcock is surely much more widely read than this book on Hawks that so influenced me).

Wood refuted suggestions that he was a scholar or a theorist, describing himself finally as a critic. He had no interest in the detached objectivity he saw as characteristic of theorists, and at the heart of his discussions of Hawks' films are questions of artistic and moral value. I think one of the reasons I love Hawks so much is that his films are fundamentally "decent"; they are about good people struggling with self-respect and personal redemption. Wood undoubtedly feels the same way, and the themes he identifies in the work of Hawks - integrity as an individual and loyalty as a member of a group - are much more important than the films' visual and technical qualities.

As a student, I taught myself auteur theory by obsessively watching every Hawks film I could find, and devouring Wood's analysis after each viewing. One of the great charms of Hawks is his insistent repetition from film to film, yet Wood's interpretations always provided original ideas and new insights. I was as passionate about Wood's writing as I was about Hawks' films.

What strikes me now is how similar the two are: just as the films of Hawks were made with an unpretentious and highly personal simplicity, so Wood's writing, unencumbered by theoretical frameworks, expressed his individual passions with poetic clarity.

This book is a product of its time, arguing a point - that mainstream entertainment can be art - that is widely accepted now: film studies as an academic discipline is proof of that.

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