Michael Wood is Professor of English at Princeton University. Before taking up his position at Princeton he taught at the University of Columbia, New York and at the University of Exeter in England. In addition to writing the books discussed in the interview below he has published books on Stendhal, Nabokov (The Magician's Doubts) and a collection of essays on everything from Stephen King novels to contemporary Latin-American writing; Children of Silence. For thirty years or so he has also reviewed regularly for journals such as: New York Review of Books, London Review of Books, more occasionally in Raritan (where his review of Stanley Cavell appeared) and very occasionally, in Sight and Sound (where an early discussion of Bunuel was published).
To read anything by him is to encounter writing which is both wonderfully expressed and which exhibits a great generosity towards an admirably wide variety of artistic-cultural texts. Wood moves happily between discussions of film and literature because what interests him is 'the specificity of any medium'. He says he is drawn to 'writers or film-makers who are doing something with the medium' and he likes 'to feel the medium is being tested, or pushed, or stretched.' One possible explanation of the broad 'readability' of Wood's critical writing is that it manages to be highly theoretically informed without allowing the theoretical dimension to dominate the discussion at hand. For example, his current research and writing is directed towards a book on oracles, in which he discusses 'the syntax of the oracle' as 'a specific formula for serial ambiguity'. Wood's examples for the book on oracles are drawn from ancient oracles, pre-Hispanic Mexico, Africa, through to Shakespeare's writing (Macbeth), and works by Kafka and Yeats, and finishes by analysing contemporary medical consultations. He says that his work on oracles has been enabled by Derrida's notion of the trace. 'The trace is the thing which allows you to construct the notion of the origin but all you've got is the trace. Or what you call the trace.' In the following interview he discusses a wide range of issues concerning his ongoing interest in all kinds of film and literary texts.
NK: Could we begin by talking about the BFI Classic you wrote on Bunuel's Belle de Jour (1967). What were you wanting to do with it? Given that one can select any film from whatever now survives from the original list of 365, how did you come to pick Belle de Jour?
MW: At the end of the 70s I started writing a book about Bunuel and went to Mexico, got to know him, talked to him a lot and saw all the films again and again. But the book later stalled--I felt it was turning into pure literary criticism, just readings of one film after another, so I shelved it. With 2000 being the Bunuel centenary lots of things were coming up, and I was very glad to do the BFI book. It was like returning to that earlier project but also doing something contemporary. I knew I wanted to do a late Bunuel film, and I would have been happy to do The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), or Tristana (1970) or Phantom of Liberty (1974). I'm less fond of That Obscure Object of Desire (1977). Belle de Jour was the one they had the best print of and that also suited me very well.
I think the attraction of that BFI series is that you can really do one thing or maybe two things in the allotted space. I'm very interested in the difference that actors make to meanings. The same lines uttered by a different actor or actress would mean something quite different. Robert Warshow said ages ago that actors are the language of cinema. Well, if the actors are the language of cinema, how is this language spoken, and what difference does it make? I thought I could say something about that in the allotted space, and the rest would consist in giving some account of the film's production history, its relation to the Joseph Kessel novel, so that it would match the rest of the series. …