Wollen, Peter 1938-
WOLLEN, Peter 1938-
PERSONAL: Born June 29, 1938, in London, England; married Laura Mulvey (an author and film director). Education: Studied English at Christchurch College, Oxford.
ADDRESSES: Agent—British Film Commission, 70 Baker St., London W1M 1DJ, England.
CAREER: Independent filmmaker, film theorist, and critic. University of California, Los Angeles, chair of film department, beginning 1993; has also taught filmmaking at universities, including Brown University, New York University, Columbia University, and Northwestern University; Distinguished Luce Professor, Vassar College. Director or codirector of films, including Penthesilea: Queen of the Amazons, 1974; Riddles of the Sphinx, 1977; Amy!, 1980; Crystal Gazing, 1982; The Bad Sister, 1983; Friendship's Death, 1987, Frida Kahlo and Tina Modotti, Welcome Aboard Soyuz, and Reading the U.S. Press. Curator of exhibitions, including "Kahlo and Modotti," "The Situationist International," "Global Conceptualism," and "100 Years of Art and Fashion."
Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, Indiana University Press (Bloomington, IN), 1969, 4th edition, 1998.
Readings and Writings: Semiotic Counter-Strategies, NLB (London, England), 1982.
On the Passage of a Few People through a RatherBrief Moment in Time: The Situationist International 1957-1972, MIT Press, 1989.
Singin' in the Rain, British Film Institute (London, England), 1992.
Raiding the Icebox: Reflections on Twentieth-CenturyCulture, Indiana University Press (Bloomington, IN), 1993.
Paris Hollywood: Writings on Film, Verso (New York, NY), 2002.
(With Richard Dyer and Jean Fisher) ElectronicShadows: The Art of Tina Keane, Black Dog Publishing (London, England), 2003.
Paris/Manhattan: Writings on Art, Verso (New York, NY), 2004.
Also contributor to Other Than Itself: Writing Photography, Cornerhouse Publications, 1989; with Ralph Rugoff and Anthony Vidler, Scene of the Crime, UCLA/Armand Hammer Museum of Art (Cambridge, MA), 1997; Addressing the Century: 100 Years of Art & Fashion, Hayward Gallery, 1998; and Glen Seator: Moving Still, edited by Nina Holland, Hatje Cantz Publishers, 2002. Contributor to periodicals, including Studio International. Editor, Screen magazine.
Working Papers on the Cinema: Sociology and Semiology, British Film Institute (London, England), 1969.
(With Lynne Cooke) Visual Display: Culture beyondAppearances, Bay Press (Seattle, WA), 1996.
(With Jim Hillier, and contributor) Howard Hawks,American Master, BFI Publishing (London, England), 1996.
(With Colin MacCabe and Mark Francis) Who Is AndyWarhol?, Andy Warhol Museum (Pittsburgh, PA), 1997.
(With Lynne Cooke) Visual Display: Culture beyondAppearances, New Press (New York, NY), 1998.
(With Amy Cappellazoo and Adriano Pedrosa) MakingTime: Considering Time As a Material, Art Publishers, 2000.
(With Joe Kerr) Autopia: Cars and Culture, Reaktion Books (London, England), 2002.
(And director, with Laura Mulvey) Penthesilea: Queen of the Amazons, 1974.
(And director, with Laura Mulvey, and producer) Riddles of the Sphinx, 1977.
(And director, with Laura Mulvey, and actor) Amy!, 1980.
(And director, with Laura Mulvey) Crystal Gazing, 1982.
(And director) Friendship's Death (science fiction), 1987.
Also coauthor of The Passenger.
SIDELIGHTS: Avant-garde filmmaker Peter Wollen has made independent films that reflect his interest in feminist issues, semiotics, psychoanalysis, modernism, and experimental artistic forms. In addition to making films and videos, Wollen teaches film and has written several books on film theory and criticism. His 1975 article "The Two Avant Gardes," published in Studio International, is considered a seminal contribution to British avant-garde film theory and practice.
In the late 1960s, Wollen was associated with the Education Department of the British Film Institute (BFI), where he worked on Signs and Meanings in the Cinema. The book, an analysis of film according to structuralist and linguistic theories, attracted the attention of a serious academic audience and became an influential text among film students and teachers. Though New Statesman reviewer John Coleman found the book incomprehensible, a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement praised it as "the best exposition of [French auteur] theory, its genesis and its justifications ever to appear in English." Though the critic also commented that Wollen's analysis of American films did not sufficiently consider the "specificity of the film medium," the reviewer went on to express admiration for the author's ability to relate film theory "to wider areas of linguistic theory and theory of art." The critic further noted that Wollen's section on early Russian director Sergei Eisenstein's aesthetic theories was of particular value. London Review of Books critic Michael Wood, commenting on an updated edition of the book, noted that it "still reads well." In addition to his own book, Wollen also edited an anthology in 1969, Working Papers on the Cinema: Sociology and Semiology. Like Signs and Meanings, this volume was intended for a scholarly audience.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Wollen began to focus on making his own films. He attracted critical notice with Penthesilea: Queen of the Amazons, a film he directed with feminist filmmaker Laura Mulvey in 1974. Like their later collaboration, 1977's Riddles of the Sphinx, the film uses experimental forms to explore such issues as the ways in which myth and history construct sexuality, and the practical difficulties of caring for children. The team went on to make 1980's Amy!, a short feature based on the life of British aviator Amy Johnson, who set records in solo flights from England to Australia, to Japan via Siberia, and to Cape Town in the early 1930s. In Crystal Gazing and The Bad Sister, Wollen and Mulvey used video to explore the ways in which fantasy is structured. Wollen's later films include Friendship's Death, which People's Peter Travers found a "punishingly claustrophobic sci-fi treatise" with an uninvolving plot about a female extraterrestrial and a journalist who discuss political and ethical dilemmas in the Middle East while the PLO wage war around them.
In 1984, Wollen's second book on theory, Readings and Writings: Semiotic Counter-Strategies, was published. London Review of Books critic Christopher Norris found it a "mixed bag of texts," including both essays and "experimental fictions." Norris observed that Wollen's essays, grounded in theory from the late 1960s, can seem somewhat dated, but added that "Wollen succeeds in reviving . . . [the] heady radical flavour [of that time] by picking up ideas where he needs them, and not attempting any large-scale unwieldy synthesis." Norris commented, "What [Wollen's essays] lack in consistency or rigour, his essays make up for in 'intellectual verve.'" Colin MacCabe, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, rated Readings and Writings even more highly. "In some ways it is difficult to praise the book highly enough," he wrote. "Wollen is never less than lucid and he is constantly aware both of the variety of the cinema's own history and the relation of that variety to developments in other arts. The book is full of illuminating cultural juxtapositions and acute historical parallels." Nevertheless, MacCabe faulted the book for its failure to address in sufficient depth the relation between popular artistic forms and the avant-garde, and its failure to consider the political climate of the 1960s and 1970s. Despite these problems, MacCabe concluded that Readings and Writings "remains the best collection of writings on politics and art to have emerged for a decade."
In Singin' in the Rain, Wollen examines that film in terms of the history of American dance, the development of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) studio, and the post-World War II anti-Communist climate in the United States. Wollen, wrote J. Belton in Choice, "makes astute observations about the use of sound and Kelly's ecstatic descent into the pleasures of infantilism as he splashes about in puddles." Belton recommended the study for both general and academic audiences. John Fell commented in the Film Quarterly that the book follows the evolution "of character-inflected dance performance developed on stage," which Gene Kelly later arranged for film. Fell noted that, although Wollen's section on blacklisting might seem exaggerated, it accurately reflects the impact on Hollywood.
Raiding the Icebox, a collection of Wollen's essays that World Literature Today reviewer Marcel Cornis-Pope called "a lucid revisioning of modernism," was well received among critics. Spectator contributor Bryan Appleyard praised this "ambitious inquiry," but questioned Wollen's fragmented approach and his serious consideration of developments (such as situationism) that Appleyard maintained were unnecessary. Nevertheless, Appleyard appreciated Wollen's understanding of the ways in which mass production and Third World influences have affected artistic forms and meanings. Roger Cardinal, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, deemed Raiding the Icebox a "thoughtful, informed and absorbing book," observing that it "manages to remain erudite while being both entertaining and provocative." He enthusiastically praised the author's "talent for parallels and interpolations which pluck revelatory threads out from that all-too-even fabric we have come to identify as 'Modernism.'" Though Sight and Sound reviewer James Donald found that Wollen "accepts too easily the current American orthodoxy" regarding postmodernism, Donald concluded that Wollen "is best at deciphering the intricate surfaces of modern culture, and at showing how threadbare rags like 'postmodernism' have become."
A number of Wollen's projects in the 1990s were edited books, such as Visual Display: Culture beyond Appearances, a collection of essays about the production of spectacle that he edited with Lynne Cooke. Afterimage reviewer Kenneth L. Ames, who found the book generally lacking in coherence and sometimes marred by an "aggressive display of academic jargon," gave Wollen credit for his introduction, which helped place the essays in context and outlined their intent. Russell T. Clement praised the book in Library Journal as "lively" and readable. Among other edited works about movies, Wollen has also edited Autopia: Cars and Culture with Joe Kerr, a book that, while still concerning culture, steers clear of Wollen's usual works on film. "The collection," explained Ralph Harrington in the Journal of Transport History, "is one of the first substantial works to approach the automobile in culture not as wholly good or . . . wholly bad but as a cultural product located in and expressing the preoccupations and perceptions of the society that produces and uses it." Critics of Autopia appreciated the balanced perspectives of the essays. For example, Independent reviewer Stephen Bayley asserted that "the editors have made a real attempt to be evenhanded in their treatment of the car."
More recently, Wollen completed another work of film criticism, Paris Hollywood: Writings on Film. The release of this collection of essays and lectures provided Jonathan Rosenbaum an opportunity to comment on Wollen's contributions as a whole to film criticism, as well as a chance to remark on his style. In a Cineaste article, Rosenbaum observed, "One of the more interesting paradoxes of Peter Wollen's writing career is that he was perceived as an academic well before he had a long-term teaching post whereas today, with a seemingly permanent berth in the critical studies program at UCLA's film department, he's more apt to come across as a journalist." Rosenbaum went on to express his opinion that Wollen has a tendency to generalize when he is writing about film, and this has both an advantage and a disadvantage: the disadvantage is that Wollen "falls too readily into certain easy generalizations"; but the "advantage of this approach when it works is its invitation to rethink whole clusters of films in meaningful ways." Despite having some criticism for Paris Hollywood, Rosenbaum concluded that this addition to Wollen's oeuvre is evidence that the film scholar "may finally matter more as a historian than as a critic."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Afterimage, November-December, 1996, Kenneth L. Ames, review of Visual Display: Culture beyond Appearance, pp. 14-16.
American Film, December, 1980, Jeanine Basinger, review of Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, p. 65; July-August, 1983, Seymour Chatman, review of Readings and Writings: Semiotic Counter-Strategies, pp. 56-57.
Choice, September, 1993, J. Belton, review of Singin' in the Rain, p. 132; November, 1993, W. B. Holmes, review of Raiding the Icebox: Reflections on Twentieth-Century Culture, p. 448; July-August, 2003, C. J. Myers, review of Autopia: Cars and Culture, p. 1946.
Cineaste, fall, 2003, Jonathan Rosenbaum, review of Paris Hollywood: Writings on Film, p. 63.
Film Comment, January-February, 1980, Richard T. Jameson, review of Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, p. 45.
Film Quarterly, fall, 1983, Lulu McCarroll and Fabrice Ziolkowski, review of Readings and Writings, pp. 49-51; summer, 1993, John Fell, review of Singin' in the Rain, p. 61.
Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, August, 1997, Graham Roberts, review of Howard Hawks, American Master, p. 418.
Independent (London, England), December 28, 2002, Stephen Bayley, "Books Interview: 'No Dignity without Chromium,'" p. 18.
Journal of Transport History, September, 2003, Ralph Harrington, review of Autopia, pp. 283-284.
Library Journal, July, 1995, Russell T. Clement, review of Visual Display, p. 79; February 15, 2003, Eric C. Shoaf, review of Autopia, p. 158.
London Review of Books, July 7, 1983, Christopher Norris, review of Readings and Writings, pp. 21-22, 24; July 2, 1998, Michael Wood, review of Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, pp. 14-16.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 10, 1983, Irwin R. Blacker, review of Readings and Writings, p. 8.
Nation, May 28, 1988, Edward W. Said, review of Friendship's Death, p. 766.
New Statesman, June 20, 1980, John Coleman, review of Amy!, p. 944; November 20, 1987, Judith Williamson, review of Friendship's Death, p. 26.
New York Review of Books, November 20, 1997, Michael Wood, review of Howard Hawks, p. 30.
New York Times, March 25, 1988, Caryn James, review of Friendship's Death, p. N14.
People, January 23, 1989, Peter Travers, review of Friendship's Death, p. 18.
Sight and Sound, June, 1993, James Donald, review of Raiding the Icebox, p. 42, 44.
Spectator, April 10, 1993, Bryan Appleyard, review of Raiding the Icebox, pp. 34-35.
Times Higher Education Supplement, September 3, 1993, Graham McCann, review of Raiding the Icebox, p. 17; March 26, 1999, Philip Kemp, review of Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, p. 26; August 1, 2003, John Higgins, "Lovers Who Look beyond Thrills," p. 26.
Times Literary Supplement, June 12, 1969, review of Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, p. 637; May 25, 1984, Colin MacCabe, review of Readings and Writings, p. 581; May 28, 1993, Roger Cardinal, review of Reading the Icebox, p. 14; April 4, 1997, Richard Combs, review of Howard Hawks, p. 31.
Virginia Quarterly Review, spring, 1998, Jeffrey Meyers, review of Howard Hawks, p. 362.
World Literature Today, summer, 1994, Marcel Cornis-Pope, review of Raiding the Icebox, p. 647.*