Thursday 19 November 2015

Sam Rohdie's Passion(s): A Coda

Publicity for the Queen's University Belfast Study Day event held in memory of Sam Rohdie

Film Studies For Free is delighted to publish four additional tributes to the late film scholar Sam Rohdie (1939-2015). These join the ones published by this blog on April 14, 2015. Link here. Many thanks to Des O'Rawe and his Queen's University Belfast colleagues for their work in gathering them. Coming up next at FSFF we have a big round up to coincide with the upcoming festive season See you then!

On Friday, 9 October 2015, Film Studies at Queen's held a study-day to mark the recent passing of former colleague, Sam Rohdie. The event focused on the work of Jean-Luc Godard, and included presentations by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith and Rod Stoneman. It also included a screening of Une femme est une femme, and some extracts from Godard's more recent work. The study-day was well-attended, with an audience that included many of Sam's former students and colleagues from Queen's, as well as some of the friends he and Margaret had made while living in Belfast.
As a coda to this event, we are publishing Geoffrey Nowell-Smith's reflection on Sam's life and work, as well two pieces about Sam by former colleagues at Queen's, David Johnston and Des O'Rawe, and a tribute written by another close friend and collaborator, Stefania Parigi (Università degli Studi Roma Tre).

1. My Friend Sam Rohdie by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith

Sam Rohdie is – or was – the only person I know of who taught film studies in four continents – Europe, Asia, North America, and Australia. (He also did some teaching in Africa when he was a graduate student doing his anthropology fieldwork, but not film studies.) I was a friend of his, more or less continuously but with certain gaps due to his being on a different continent so much of the time, for forty-five years. And over that lengthy period we never had a row that couldn’t be patched up. People who knew him will recognise how unusual that is.

He was combative, abrasive, and bore grudges. Sometimes his temperament stood him in good stead, particularly in the early 1970s when he left Sheffield, where I first knew him, to become General Secretary of a small London-based organisation attached to the British Film Institute called the Society for Education in Film And Television (SEFT). At the time of his appointment both SEFT and its sponsor the Education Department of the BFI were in crisis. Sam played an important role in saving SEFT and turning it into a vanguard organisation not only for film studies but in wider intellectual life in the UK. He succeeded partly because he earned the respect of Sir Denis Forman, a former Director of the BFI and at the time Managing Director of Granada Television, who had been brought back to the BFI as Chairman to sort out the crisis. Denis was tough, imaginative, generous, instinctively progressive, and not easily put off by young whippersnappers who stood up to him, even aggressively. He had shown these qualities at Granada and was to do so again on his return to the BFI. Sam was to be a beneficiary.

But having turned SEFT and its magazine Screen into the voice of a new cultural avant-garde, Sam’s singlemindedness, his aggressivity and his inability – unlike Denis – to listen to criticism, meant that he fell foul of his former allies and was acrimoniously sacked from his post as General Secretary of SEFT and Editor of Screen.

Jobless in the UK, he went back to New York, where he came from originally. He taught there for a while, then went to La Trobe University in Melbourne, where the Aussies rather took to him, abrasiveness and all. He acquired – and lost – a new wife. More importantly, he became properly himself intellectually. No longer enslaved to the Screen dogma he had done a lot to foster, he developed new tastes, a new sensitivity to the richness of film language, and a new writing style with which to communicate his discoveries. The upshot was his book on Antonioni, which remains the best – certainly the subtlest – account of what is so special about that director’s films.

His break with “Screen” theory did not align him with any of the other tendencies in vogue in the world of film studies in the 1970s and 80s. He recognised the existence of a “classical” film language but his focus turned away from generalities to the ways in which this language was subverted and disrupted in the work of particular artists – besides Antonioni, his examples included Renoir, Pasolini, Godard, Nicholas Ray. This focus on the disruptive was in part a continuation of the other side of Screen legacy, its championing of a cinema that “bared the device” and broke with the comforting illusions of classical Hollywood and its avatars. But Sam’s interest was not in “baring the device” as such – another generality paralleling that of the idea of classical cinema itself. Rather he looked at the many and various ways, both overt and covert, in which certain film-makers destabilise the world they portray and the relationship the spectator has to it. This was to differentiate him not only from “Screen” theory but from “mise en scène” criticism which, while interested in the particular, remained locked in to the norms of the classical aesthetic.

From Melbourne Sam went to Hong Kong, where he acquired a new wife (his third), this time for keeps. He spent time in Paris and Rome, developing his interest in Godard, Pasolini and Bertolucci. He mostly stayed away from London, and his return to the UK was to Belfast. Forcibly retired at the age of 65 (which was the rule at the time: exceptions could be made but Queen’s for whatever reason did not wish to make an exception in his case) he then finished his scholarly career back in the United States.

He died last April, leaving his last book in proof.

The presiding genius behind this last book, Film Modernism, is Godard. The over-riding thesis of the book, developing ideas expressed in his earlier work, is that in 1960 Godard, together with Antonioni, Pasolini, Bertolucci and a few others, revolutionised the cinema and for the first time in history aligned it with the modernism that had taken the artistic world by storm fifty years earlier but to which the cinema up to then had been resistant. But while the early Godard of Breathless (1960) and Une femme est une femme 1961) had taken the first steps towards creating a truly modern cinema, it was the later Godard, particularly that of the monumental Histoire(s) de cinéma (1988-1998), which most fascinated Sam and, in a sense, defeated him. He made several attempts to write a book just on Godard, focusing on Histoire(s) but could never bring it together. Much of what he wanted to write about Godard is folded into the pages of Film Modernism, and is his legacy.

He is survived by his first wife, Jean McCrindle, and their daughter Claire, and by his second and third wives, Annie Langusch and Margaret Lam.

2. Remembering Sam by David Johnston

Sam Rohdie was the first Professor of Film at Queen’s University. I was Head of School at the time, and was on his appointment panel. The first signal he gave of his enduring willingness to come at you from left field was in his interview. Other candidates answered stock questions in stock ways, but to one query as to why he had moved from Australia to Hong Kong, Sam smiled and drawled with disarming honesty ‘Love’. That one-word (but in his voice two-syllable) answer got him the job, in my book anyway. It marked him out as a maverick, and in an institution – and indeed a whole sector - increasingly prone to the deadening sameness of a compliancy culture, to be human and different and unexpected was a breath of fresh air. He was a maverick but, at the same time, he was a great film critic and an intellectual of stature; to be a maverick and still be regarded by your students and peers as one of the best in the field anywhere, requires extraordinary finesse. He was a contrarian, of course, but an endlessly intelligent and creative one. Like many Americans he rose early, and would regularly send at least six impossible emails before breakfast. I would open them with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation, but they would always make eloquent representation for the ideal programme in Film Studies that Sam had in his mind. Never once did he use the word ‘vision’. But he had a glorious sense of what Film at Queen’s might become. And I came to share that sense. That’s how I remember Sam: a colleague who challenged because he cared, not least about language itself. A colleague who became a friend.

3. Travels with Sam by Stefania Parigi

Sam for me was always the man from another planet: Africa, Australia, Hong Kong ...

An unstoppable traveller. All his books read to me like travel diaries, performances of an individual wandering through nature, cinema, the imagination.

As time went on his thoughts led him increasingly to reject any form of organicity or system and took form more as fragments of an adventure, where knowledge was sparked off by pleasure. Montages, cross-cuttings, as suggested in the titles of the books which brought together his pieces of writing, jotted down at any time of day or night, between a swim and a wander through images of the cinema and of the world. Of a world that becomes cinema and a cinema that never ceases to be a fantasy of the world.

His pages shine as if covered in droplets, like his swimmer’s body.

This is my first memory of him: athletic arm movements in a little swimming pool, in a small hotel on the Adriatic coast, courtesy of the International Festival of New Cinema at Pesaro. It would have been in 1987 or perhaps 1988.

We got to know each other thanks to a captivating laugh. Out of control, childish, quite out of scale with his giant’s body. He was very handsome, women flocked to him.

Maybe Sam and I talked more about love than about cinema. But it was all the same. Don’t get me wrong. We told each other stories of our loves as if we were eternal adolescents who could not tell life from representations of it.

Sam seemed to move all the time inside a kind of fairy tale, in which ancient and modern images were mixed together, and where horizons merged with each other in a wandering flow.

He combined certain refinements of thought with a taste for the continuous discovery of the most basic forms of pleasures, which he found in every nook and cranny of life. He was a solitary and he was a communitarian. His cooking was a performance very like the performance of his writing, each caught up in the same display of impulsive vitality.

There is no doubt that he had nothing to do with the academy, at least as we understand it in Italy. He cultivated independence with a boyish pride and could be as cutting in his negative judgements as he was warm and constructive in his appreciation. He was very generous with me and offered to translate some of my writings on the Italian cinema for an English publisher.

Together we had the privilege of enjoying a free run across the field of aesthetics, with no protocols to respect or formulae to box us in. I mean aesthetic here also in its original sense of perception; aesthetics as pleasure and pain, as a form of knowing, an extricable twining together of thinking and the senses, in brief a field of flesh and blood, of dreams, of projections outward towards the other and plunges deep into the interior of the self. But also as an inexhaustible field in which to play.

Moreover, writing for Sam was above all a way of capturing the oscillations, the light and shade of the internal and external world, as if one were for ever in an gigantic rotating merry-go-round.

And his laugh. So subversive, so exhilarating, shaking and embracing you at the same time, it made me feel that he was indestructible, like one of those fantasies that move in and out of the screen, challenging us with their uncertainty. And now I have nothing left to say but this: Sam so far away, Sam so close.

4. Sam/Belfast by Des O'Rawe

My first encounter with Sam was at a BFI study day at the Queen's Film Theatre (QFT). He had arrived only recently to Belfast, and was still finding his feet. His talk had an edgy eloquence, culminating in a ferocious denunciation of BFI Education and its policies. Belfast can often seem at one remove from the metropolis, and I suspect much of what Sam said that afternoon meant little to the assembled gathering (especially, given that most of us probably knew little about his history with the BFI.)

At that time, I was teaching an undergraduate module on Irish film and visual culture with Colin Graham and Eamonn Hughes. Shortly after Sam's appointment, we met with him and I remember a good-humoured meeting, at which The Big Sleep (and 'Rusty' Regan) was discussed at length. I happened to mention to Sam that I was also teaching film courses in the local further education college, and I was surprised at his genuine interest in extra-mural and outreach film education, and so - half mischievously - I invited him to call in on one of these classes. A week or so later, true to his word, he paid a visit. In the classroom, he was courteous but didn't pay much heed to me, preferring to sit enigmatically at the back, sporting a pair of dinky designer sunglasses. We were about to screen F.W. Murnau's Tabu that morning, and Sam was delighted on hearing this news. (This choice of film was fortuitous: I had ordered up NosferatuTabu arrived instead, and I decided just to go with the flow.) After the film, Sam talked to us about cinematography, anthropology, vampires, exoticism, the sea, the moon, Tabu as a documentary, Tabu as a painting, Tabu as a dream, Tabu as NosferatuTabu as everything the cinema should be, and still can be. He listened carefully to whatever the students had to say. He was inquisitive but encouraging, witty but also self-deprecating - and completely unrecognisable from the volcanic eccentric who had erupted at the QFT a month or so previously. Once I got to know Sam, I realised that this kind of teaching situation was his métier - relaxed, unfettered, unscripted, free - sitting among students talking about a film, encouraging them to explore new ideas and possibilities, and also wanting to learn with them.

Of course, a part of Sam relished the challenge of wooing an audience, and he could be very good at that. (A couple of years ago, I bumped into a former reluctant student of ours who told me the only thing he remembered about his entire first year at university was 'that Sam Rohdie lecture on Rules of the Game'). However, I think Sam's best and most influential teaching at Queen's was done with smaller seminar groups, in situations where he could persuade students to think for themselves, to embrace difficulty, to lose their bearing before discovering a space where the cinema alone could work its magic.

With the benefit of hindsight, and all things considered, it was only a matter of time before Sam and Margaret moved on from Belfast but he certainly made a lasting impression, influencing the lives of many of us, in all sorts of ways. A critic with a distinctive vision, a teacher with a method, and a professor with something to profess, Sam will be much missed - not least by his more intelligent critics.