"Like Light":
The Movie Theory of W. R. Robinson
David Lavery
English Department, Middle Tennessee State University
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This essay was presented at the South Atlantic Modern Language Association annual convention in Baltimore, MD, November 1994.

Wallace Stevens, The Necessary Angel
W. R. Robinson

The year is 1978. The scene: a lecture hall on the campus of the University of Florida. The occasion: a forum on film studies, hosted by Florida's English Department. Three UF faculty were to speak. The first was a professor of philosophy who began his remarks by insisting that he was hardly an expert on film theory, and then went on to lay out some prolegomena to the future of the discipline, speaking in a jargon which would become only too commonplace in the decades since. Next was a junior faculty member in English who would in the '80s make a name for himself as paracritic par excellence; he prefaced his talk by explaining that he, too, was an amateur. The third speaker was William R. Robinson. Walking slowly to the podium, he paused dramatically to take out his reading glasses, surveyed slowly the two hundred or so in attendance, and then announced with a wicked smile that "amateur night" was over.

It was not over, of course; the amateurs would have their night and their day. The very American, very 1960s movie theory of W. R. Robinson would become passé as we went on to decode signifiers, demarcate the diegesis, deconstruct the gaze, dismember the suture, foreground the enunciation, track the syntagmatic. But, etymologically speaking, I have, in playing off of Robinson's joke, mixed my metaphors: for it was, in fact, W. R. Robinson who was the "amateur": the lover, unrequited, of the movies. His movie theory was a product of that love.

Twenty years ago, during the Fall Quarter of 1974, I enrolled in a graduate seminar on the films of Federico Fellini at the University of Florida. Though I was not, at the time, terribly interested in film, and my prior experience of Fellini was limited to a freshman-year-in-college late-night-screening of La Dolce Vita (which my then still vivid memory of its Legion of Decency rating led me to suspect, deliciously, might guarantee my eternal damnation) and a required-for-class junior year screening of an incomprehensible, boring, and pretentious (or so it seemed at the time) 8 1/2, the professor's reputation among the TA's with whom I shared an office was so high that I took the risk. His name was Dr. W. R. Robinson.

The seminar was a watershed, the metanoia of my own intellectual life. My rationality, under the influence of Carlos Castaneda and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Wallace Stevens, was rapidly dissolving: I had developed an intense dislike for some of my earlier heroes. I found Alexander Pope nasty, brutish, and short. I no longer believed that criticism was, as Eliot thought, "the correction of taste." I was becoming an adherent of the imagination, and I would remain one, always.

W. R. Robinson, "Bill," was unlike any teacher I had ever had. He was, indeed, the teacher I had always been looking for. I was in the mood for a guru, and though, as he later explained, nothing scared him as much as people who took him seriously, he nevertheless taught in a style guaranteed to acquire disciples. That semester he gained a dozen. We listened worshipfully in class, staying one night (if memory serves correct--for it seems incredible now) an hour and a half after the class was supposed to be over, so involved in the discussion that we did not even notice the time. After class, we went to the Red Lion bar on South 13th to listen to our visionary hold forth over beers. I remember discussions of the genius of Mickey Mouse, of Robinson's earlier, pre-college career as a truck driver, his love of handball, his dislike for the designation "film" (a "film" covers and obscures things; movies reveal). I remember his vaunting insistence that if he had not come to Florida (whose heat sapped his energy) he might have been "the Aristotle of the 20th Century." I remember his admonition, in response to a personal question I asked about my continued obsession with an old girl friend, that "light doesn't go backwards" and thinking it was the most profound thing I had ever heard.

We explored, too, in greater detail, the ideas we were hearing about in class. We mastered the Robinsonian vernacular, easier to pronounce than the semiotic/Lacanian/post-structuralist discourse that was to come, but in its own very American way, Gnostic to the core. I learned to distinguish character and genius, educated myself to differentiate between the Old Story and the New, verified the proper way to "get right with the light," trained myself to distrust the binary and love the trinary. I took pride that I was in the know, part of the inner circle.

It was in the Red Lion that I became a disciple. I am not one now. I fell away from the flock within a few years. By the time I wrote my dissertation, To Discover That There is Nothing to Discover: Imagination, the Open, and the Movies of Federico Fellini, a phenomenological approach which owed as much to the Geneva school and Merleau-Ponty as it did to Robinson, I was already considered a heretic. I was finding many of the pronouncements from on high difficult if not impossible to swallow. I recall the exchange where I mentioned to the master my interest in seeing the new Woody Allen film Interiors, only to be told that such a title was antithetical to the very nature of the movies (movies being superficial, concerned with the surface of things). I remember his dismissal of a new book on phenomenology which I excitedly shared with him because it was divided into two parts and must, therefore have been mired in binary thinking. I remember Robinson's loving description (in a class I was auditing) of the shotgun blast that kills the gangster in Bullitt--his insistence that such supreme violence had to be seen in purely formal term as "an eruption of vital powers," because movies do not refer. It is a characteristic of the modern, Karl Stern has observed, that "methods become mentalities." Inevitably, I grew weary (and wary) of the Robinsonian mentality.

Half way though the Big D, I explained to the master with a trembling voice that "I must create a system or be enslaved by another man's," and his only response was his characteristic Olympian laugh. At the defense, as he coordinated the questions of my committee seated around a round conference table, he quipped with good natured sarcasm, "We'll proceed counter-clockwise as Lavery goes backwards." (But light doesn't go backwards . . .) The final falling, my excommunication, out came later that year, not at the hands of Robinson himself but his disciples, when I refused to acknowledge to other Robinsonians the imaginative genius of Sam Peckinpah's Convoy. The break was fairly clean. I did not even need de-programming.

For a time, though, W. R. Robinson's theory of film was, quite literally, enthralling. I was under its spell, a True Believer in its powerful, liberating vision of the medium. So, too, were the many other students who became his disciples in the 1970s, some of whom may be in this room, where our topic is film theory in the 90s. The very titles of his essays promised so much: "The Movies, Too, Will Make You Free," "The Movies as a Revolutionary Moral Force." And the theory promulgated in these and other essays--on "Making Sense of the Movies," on 2001: A Space Odyssey and Fellini's Juliet of the Spirits and Resnais' Hiroshima Mon Amour, on the "movies as strip tease"--confirmed the promise. In their pages we learned to understand "the special assignment" of the movies as an art, these "products of the age of the image . . .":

We accepted the faith that W. R. Robinson was born in 1927 in Steubenville, Ohio. He received his BA (1952), MA (1956), and PhD (1962) at Ohio State University, where he worked under Roy Harvey Pearce. He went on to teach at the University of Virginia (1962-67), and since 1967 at the University of Florida, where he recently retired. His Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Poetry of the Act was published by Case Western Reserve Press in 1967. That same year, an anthology of essays on film by various hands, Man and the Movies, edited by Robinson, was published by Louisiana State University Press. (It was later reissued by Penguin.) His own essay in the volume, "The Movies, Too, Will Make You Free" remains perhaps the best single statement of his ideas on the movies. In subsequent years he published a series of essays on the movies in journals like Georgia Review and the now defunct Contempora and was a regular attendee and participant at SAMLA. During the 1970s and 1980s he was, as I have already described, an influential professor of literature and film at the University of Florida, teaching courses on Movies as a Narrative Art, The Metaphysics of Modern Literature, and seminars on Ernest Hemingway, the western and the detective movie, Antonioni, Fellini, and Sam Peckinpah.

"Bad artists borrow, and great artists steal," Stravinsky once admitted. The same might be said of theorists. W. R. Robinson seldom cited his critical sources, infrequently acknowledged his philosophical influences. He had, he would admit, been much affected by the precepts of John Crowe Ransom, and not surprisingly his formalistic movie theory remained at its core new critical. In his book on Robinson he had insisted that

and Replace the word "poem" with "movie" in both these passages and you have the germ of Robinson's movie theory. Thus "the movie maker," as he would later insist, "does not imitate, refer to, or symbolically represent a value but gives body to it there in the movie" ("The Movies, Too" 121), and "body" here is Ransom's "world's body."

Robinson on Robinson reveals many other early influences as well: the Romantic theory of organicism, the heuristics of Lancelot Law Whyte, the pragmatism of William James and John Dewey, the aesthetics of George Santayana, the existentialism of Nicolai Berdyaev and Miquel de Unamuno, Wallace Stevens' theory of the imagination, the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. Of these, the latter was of central importance to a man who once taught a graduate seminar on the medium using five of Whitehead's books as the only texts. In the late sixties and seventies, the discoveries of 20th century physics began to inform his metaphors in a powerful way. The movie theory of W. R. Robinson, was the product of a collision between New Critical sensibility, process philosophy, and the new physics. It had nothing whatsoever too say about the site of production, nothing about what happens "when the woman looks," nothing about the mirror stage, nothing about the post structuralist agenda.

Robinson was passionate about theorizing. He lamented that "most of what passes for film theory is not, strictly speaking film theory at all; or, rather, it is applied, not pure, theory, for in it the theorizing faculty is made to defend personal causes or taste" ("The Movies, Too" 112). He castigated the tendency in theorists for "one aspect of the movies" to be "singled out as definitive and assigned ontological dominance" ("The Movies, Too" 113). He criticized the "naturalistic fallacy"--the tendency to judge as valuable that which makes film "real." While noting that "most theorizing stems from a hunger for substance or weightiness" and "serves to anchor an airy moral entity to solid intellectual earth" ("The Movies, Too" 113) and observing that most critics "don't look closely at movies because they distrust them" ("Making Sense" 158), his own theory, the method he developed, and the criticism he undertook based on the principles he sought to lay down originated in a love for the medium in all its superficiality.

At the heart of W. R. Robinson's movie theory is a virtual mysticism concerning "the light." In his book on Edwin Arlington Robinson, Robinson had quoted, as epigraph to a chapter on "The Light of Poetry," the following vatic utterance from Ralph Waldo Emerson:

Emerson's verbal medium, however, could do no more than testify to this visionary truth. The movies, however, have become a primary means--the primary artistic means--of "getting right with the light," of "aligning man's vital powers with their source and the medium of human life." "The ultimate motion in our universe," Robinson, amateur student of 20th Century physics, insists "is light, which is the source of vision. All narration today seeks to tell the story of the light, but the movies, a medium of light, are best equipped to do so" ("Propositions")

In Robinson's system, "light" is the paradigm: "the source and model of unity, simultaneously particle, wave, and quantum; an excess or overflow that breaks out in energy exchanges; has zero mass, no electrical charge, and an infinite life time; [it] is the offspring of interactions." "Art," the electronic composer Edgard Varesé once noted, "mean keeping up with the speed of light." Only the movies--"the most powerful visionary instrument at man's disposal today" ("The Movies as a Revolutionary" I 15) keep up.

Hence the extreme importance Robinson places on sight, on physical vision. In "2001 and the Literary Sensibility" he quotes with emphatic approval Teilhard de Chardin's evolutionary dictum

"We have reached the stage in the development of our culture," Robinson writes in an essay characteristically entitled "If You Don't See You're Dead: The Immediate Encounter with the Image in Hiroshima Mon Amour and Juliet of the Spirits," "where the eyes and images are in a position to overthrow the rule of reason" ("If You Don't See" 22). Robinson remained the strongest possible advocate for that revolution.

As an art of light, the movies make possible the narration of the "New Story." The Old Story had been, simply, "a narrative in which the old defeats the new, keeping it from breaking on through in a completely successful creation." The New Story, on the other hand, is "a narrative in which the new frees itself from the old." When, many years ago, we stayed long after the Fellini seminar was over, the evening's film had been Nights of Cabiria (1955), the third movie in three years (following La Strada [1954] and Il Bidone [1955]), the third movie in three weeks, in which Fellini's narrative imagination had taken his characters to the same dead end, the third, stuck-record story in which the main character had ended up prostrate on the earth, defeated, a failure. But Cabiria the unlikely prostitute had, after a cut which Robinson had convinced us was miraculous, arisen; Cabiria had returned to the road, to "la strada," to be joined by a band of revelers who restore her to life's procession, who bring to her angelic face, seen in extreme close-up in the movie's final shot, the slightest smile, Fellini's greatest affirmation. Zampano, wailing in grief on the beach in La Strada, Augusto, dying by the road at the end of Il Bidone--their stories were the Old Story, the story of defeat, of the impossibility of growth. Nights of Cabiria told the New Story.

Zampano, Augusto were, in Robinsonian terms, "characters." Cabiria, however, was a "genius." Like Bakhtin, who argues in Rabelais and His World that a whole new, rigid conception of human being has arisen since the Renaissance under the reign of the "bodily canon," Robinson argues that "character" as we ordinarily use the term in the discussion of narrative art is time-bound and reactionary: "a 19th century idea of what a man should be." Characters, he writes in "The Movies as a Revolutionary Moral Force,"

Since "character is an abstraction, an inorganic fixation resulting from the conceptualizing powers of man's intelligence . . ." (II 27), it becomes a kind of exo-skeleton, curtailing and restricting motion and growth.

Characters in a movie thus "serve as the metaphorical vehicles by which the word is manifest." They carry the values of the word:

Products of words and rationality, characters, Robinson concludes, "have no existence in the world of the movie, as we have no existence in the world of movement, apart from appearances" ("The Movies as a Revolutionary" II 33).

The genius, however, is, literally, another story. "An organic individual," "disposed, not to remember, but to do as life does, to let go and go on, to be open and ready for growth, expansion, life now, the new" ("If You Don't See" II 11), the genius "saves and is saved by the inherent powers of light and life" ("Propositions"). In sharp etymological contrast to "character," "a genius" is, in keeping with the root meaning of the word, "a spirit of generation and birth" ("The Movies as a Revolutionary" II 30).

Robinson waxes eloquent when he tries to describe genius' nature. "Genius "repudiates the old humanistic claim that . . . humanity resides in suffering . . ." and "rejects the tragic sense of life and, beyond that, the notion that a valid human identity must be rooted in sin or guilt . . ." ("The Movies as a Revolutionary" II 30)."An agent of light" ("Propositions"), not an agent of words, the genius possesses "the capability . . . to abstract vital energy from its encumbering circumstances, enabling it to let go and go on" ("The Movies as a Revolutionary" II 30); it "seeks to grow continuously, to ever expand and enhance life" ("The Movies as a Revolutionary" II 31). Capable of "coordinat[ing] all . . . faculties, including . . . intelligence, toward performing life's quintessential task of creating greater life" ("The Movies as a Revolutionary" II 31), the genius "know[s] that evil is a place and that to do good they must elude being placed. Life is bad from the genius' point of view when it is at a standstill, when it has nothing going for it" ("The Movies as a Revolutionary" II 33). Willing to surrender "to seizure by a power greater than ego or character that momentarily depersonalizes" ("The Movies as a Revolutionary" II 33), the genius is "an artist of life" ("The Movies as a Revolutionary" II 33).

The genius "thrives on images" ("The Movies as a Revolutionary" II 33). Like them, the genius "is superficial, shallow, changeable, ephemeral" ("The Movies as a Revolutionary" II 34). Not restricted by names and words, the genius "antecedes and perpetually eludes the bondage of family, society, and culture, and without a past--no father and no institutional and ideological connections--. . . travels light" ("The Movies as a Revolutionary" II 34)

A genius, Robinson hastens to remind, is "not inhuman or a freak."

"Upsetting to the personal security of others and social order because he can't be stood in his niche and made to stay there" ("The Movies as a Revolutionary" II 34), the genius is "Always threatening to metamorphose into a strange new creature, to succumb to the temptation of any novel possibility that excites new dimensions of . . . existence" ("The Movies as a Revolutionary" II 34), the genius takes as motto Thom Gunn's pronouncement (oft quoted by Robinson) from "On the Move": "At worst, one is in motion, and at best /Reaching no absolute in which to rest,/One is always nearer by not keeping still" (Thom Gunn, "On the Move," quoted in "The Movies as a Revolutionary" I 20). Needless to say, the movie theory of W. R. Robinson had convinced all of us who fell under its sway that we were geniuses.

For W. R. Robinson, the movies are an arena--the arena--for the final showdown of the word and the image. If the Old Story is the story of character, and the New Story the story of genius, it also follows that the Old Story narrates the story implicit in words, while the New Story represents the genetic narrative form of images: the story of the light. "The tension generated between images and words in an impure movie and our ambivalent response to their interaction," Robinson cautioned us to remember in "The Movies, Too, Will Make You Free," "begat a truth that would otherwise be lost. As literature is enriched by the tension between word and image, so too are the movies" (130)

The art of the word, literature, "testifies," according to the Robinsonian system, but the art of the image, the movies, "witness" ("The Movies, Too" 129). Movies are "empirical revelations lighting the thing itself and revealing change as nothing more than it appears to be. In their world there is no becoming, only being, or pointless change, no innate potential to be realized in time, no essence to be released from original darkness, no law to be learned and obeyed" ("The Movies, Too" 128) "Whereas the word is mysterious, the image is evident; everything it has is showing" ("The Movies, Too" 129)

The genius lives in the world of the image, "dwells in the present, in a world all surface, . . .without complexity--without irony, meaning, or necessity," in a world of "process, activity, energy." In the Robinsonian system, the image indeed possesses almost magical, talismanic powers, when seen through the eyes of a genius. The image, when seen correctly, "is alive, active, plastic, and one . . . . Seen by the eyes of Juliet after she frees her childhood self from its crucifixion and escapes the grand guignol of her dark night of the soul, seen by the about-to-give birth ancient-of-days David Bowman as he rises from his deathbed in recognition of the monolith at the end of 2001, seen by genius, an image, indeed any aspect of the visible world, "passes the creation, including its creative potency, through it intact" ("If You Don't See" II 22).

There is, of course, so much more to Robinson's movie theory than I am able to touch on here: his fascinating approach to color, his understanding of narration as both an art and a science of action, his emphasis on value and morality, "the study and rendering of change"; his views on technology, violence, method, his theory of the binary and trinary.

"The acute intelligence of the imagination, the illimitable resources of its memory, its power to possess the moment it perceives--if we were speaking of light itself, and thinking of the relationship between objects and light, no further demonstration would be necessary. Like light, it adds nothing, except itself." These words from Wallace Stevens' "The Figure of Youth as Virile Poet" W. R. Robinson quoted with proper veneration. But my excerption of Stevens' essay leaves out, of course, the words which immediately precede this passage, Stevens' epithet: "Poetry is the scholar's art." Movie theory was W. R. Robinson's "scholar's art." Its acute intelligence, its illimitable resources, its power to possess, its imagination seemed at one time "like light." As a teacher and as a lover of the movies, W. R. Robinson sought to add nothing, except himself, and in so doing he was and still remains for many of us who were, to use a word of which he was very fond, "moved" by him, the most liberating, most imaginative force in our life of the mind.

 

Works Cited
Gunn, Thom. Selected Poems: 1950-1975. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1979.
Robinson, W. R. "The Birth of Imaginative Man in Part III of 2001: A Space Odyssey (unpublished essay).
___. Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Poetry of the Act. Cleveland: Case Western, 1967.
___. "If You Don't See You're Dead: The Immediate Encounter with the Image in Hiroshima Mon Amour and Juliet of the Spirits, Part I." Contempora 2.3 (1973): 20-31..
___. "If You Don't See You're Dead: The Immediate Encounter with the Image in Hiroshima Mon Amour and Juliet of the Spirits, Part II." Contempora 2.4 (1973): 11-16, 18-19, 22.
___. "The Imagination of Skin: Some Observations on the Movies as Striptease" (unpublished essay).
___. "Juliet's Love of Life" (unpublished essay).
___. "Making Sense of the Movies." Georgia Review 23 (1969): 148-168.
___. "The Movies as a Revolutionary Moral Force, Part I." Contempora 1.6 (1971): 15-20.
___. "The Movies as a Revolutionary Moral Force, Part II." Contempora 2.1 (1972): 26-34.
___. "The Movies, Too, Will Make You Free."In Man and the Movies: 112-34.
___. "The Narrative Feats of Plato and Aristotle" (unpublished essay).
___ and Mary McDermott. "2001 and the Literary Sensibility." Georgia Review 26 (1972): 21-37.
___, ed. Man and the Movies. 1967; rpt. Baltimore: Penguin, 1971.
Stevens, Wallace. The Necessary Angel: Essays in Reality and the Imagination. New York: Knopf, 1951.
Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. The Phenomenon of Man. Trans. Bernard Wall. New York: Harper and Row, 1955.