Some Things You Never Learn: An Interview with Sam Rohdie

Sam Rohdie interviewed by Deane Williams

Sam Rohdie is currently Professor of Cinema Studies in the Department of Film at the University of Central Florida. He has held the Chair in Film Studies at The Queen’s University of Belfast and before that was Professor of Film Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University. He has held academic posts in universities in England, Ghana, Italy and the United States and was an original member of the Cinema Studies Program at La Trobe University, Melbourne. He has published widely on film in academic journals and books. Sam was the editor of Screen in the United Kingdom from 1971 to 1974. He is the author of Antonioni (1990), Rocco and His Brothers (1993), The Passion of Pier Paolo Pasolini (1996), Promised Lands: Cinema, Geography, Modernism(2001), Fellini Lexicon (2002) and Montage (2006). Sam is presently co-editor of the Cinema Aesthetics book series for Manchester University Press. He is working on a study of the films of Jean-Luc Godard.

DW: Can we talk about how you got into film studies?

SR: I was in Ghana in charge of extra-mural teaching for the University of Ghana in the Brong-Ahafo region. That work turned out to be difficult in part because Ghana had recently become independent, was politically insecure and especially sensitive to non-Africans working outside the confines of the University. Extra mural teaching eventually proved impossible for political reasons and I was assigned to teach Russian and Soviet history instead within the University in Accra. The Americans had dumped American films on Africa from the 1940s through to the 1960s. In Accra I was able to see most American films made during those three decades, though the reels were not always in order.

DW:When was this?

SR: This was the 1960s. Ghana, because it was ostensibly a Socialist country, attracted members of the British New Left connected to the New Left Review [NLF], which was as much interested in cultural and artistic matters – for example, the cinema – as it was in political questions. This was especially true in the 1960s. On the one hand I had the opportunity to see a vast number of American films, and on the other the New Left introduced me to Cahiers du cinéma. I became interested in films that I would otherwise have not been able to see and was helped to see them through the lens of the early positions in Cahiers du cinéma, a cinéphilie centred on American films and that were crucially important for the French Nouvelle Vague.

The reason I went to Ghana was that I had been studying social anthropology at Oxford where I did a diploma course at the Institute of Social Anthropology [now the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology]. The Institute was divided between an empirical British Anthropology represented by Evans Pritchard and a structural anthropology influenced by a French tradition. Rodney Needham, who translated [Claude] Levi- Strauss’ work into English, was on the faculty at the Institute. I became interested in structural anthropology, in particular the study of narrative and the structure of myth. The anthropology, American genre films and the positions of Cahiers du cinéma in the early ’60s filtered by the British New Left, came together for me in Ghana. I returned to England from Ghana and secured a teaching position at Sheffield Art College, which eventually became part of Sheffield Polytechnic and then Sheffield-Hallam University. I taught Social Anthropology and Film at the College concentrating on the American cinema, taking positions largely derivative of Cahiers and the Nouvelle Vague. It was then that I became interested in both French cinema – the Nouvelle Vague plus Jean Renoir – and the films of Roberto Rossellini.

Ghana was very important for me. I made friends there with Roger Murray who was on the editorial board on New Left Review. When I was back in England, he introduced me to members of the Review and of the New Left, many of them, such as Peter Wollen, Jon Halliday and Ben Brewster had written on Douglas Sirk, John Ford, Rossellini and Howard Hawks. Peter was working in the education department of the British Film Institute. I was hired by the BFI to become the General Secretary of the Society for Education in Film and Television [SEFT], which was a grant-in-aid body for the BFI. The post included the editorship of Screen, the journal of the Society.

BFI Education, headed by Paddy Whannel, was somewhat at odds with the BFI largely because BFI Education fostered intellectual and theoretical positions regarding film rather than simply fulfilling an advisory role to teachers in secondary and primary education. There were other problems as well. The Education Department, for example, began to publish film books through Secker & Warburg, whose critical positions were at odds with the BFI house journal, Sight and Sound. That I was hired by BFI Education to direct SEFT and Screen belonged to changes in film education that BFI Education initiated and supported. For example, Screen, which had been a journal for film teachers, became a theoretical journal directed largely to universities. I formed an editorial group for Screen made up of some members of BFI Education, such as Peter Wollen and Alan Lovell, and others at the BFI, like Paul Willemen, and some members of the editorial board of New Left Review, Ben Brewster and Jon Halliday, who in turn recruited Colin MacCabe and …

DW:Stephen Heath?

SR: Yes. Like the NLRScreen had decidedly European and French loyalties politically and culturally.

DW: In what way were these people drawn to Screen?

SR: I don’t know whether they were drawn to Screen. I asked them to come onto the editorial board because I felt an accord with their views and these, in turn, were current in the early 1970s in the wake of various intellectual strands – structuralism, semiotics – and artistic ones – Pop Art, for example – and a desire to find a new critical language combined with the fact that this new found theoretical seriousness was directed to a traditionally despised area, not simply film, but the industrialised, commercialised and popular American cinema. There was something outrageous if not scandalous about this taking of position.

It occurred also in the wake of what seemed at the time revolutionary, the May events in France in 1968. These strands and impulses came together I think in Screen which at the time seemed a radical departure and innovation not only with regard to film, but more generally. It was a combination of serious criticism and American popular culture. Cahiers du cinéma was a model for Screen, certainly an intellectual source.

None of this was generally accepted by the board of Screen. For example, Alan Lovell, who joined the board, was suspicious of its intellectual and political orientation and the implications it might have for not only film education, but a populist politics that prevailed at BFI Education alongside its other positions (those of Peter Wollen). SEFT too presented a difference. It was a teachers’ organisation and, like BFI Education of an earlier period, it saw itself primarily to represent the interests of teachers, to give help and advice and information. For example, the SEFT governing committee of which I was General Secretary had only a bare, largely formal presence on the editorial board of Screen. Many in SEFT complained. They felt that what was going on in Screen had nothing to do with what was going on in the classroom and was not relevant to their needs. The tensions were more general than simply that between teachers and intellectuals. It had to do with a suspicion that the ideas being pursued by Screen – and in France – were more modish than substantial and tended to be obscure and unnecessarily difficult, and foreign, in short, not British. The attitude related to an empirical English critical tradition represented by F.R. Leavis, William Empson and I.A. Richards of close textual analysis which was applied to film by Robin Wood, Ian Cameron and Victor Perkins and the journal Movie, to which Alan Lovell and Jim Hillier had strong ties. That tension could have been productive but as it turned out, became divisive and as things often go when that happens, personal and sometimes unpleasant.

DW:This was when the term ‘screen theory’ was used. Was that something that just evolved from when you began the editorship or did you have a kind of vision for what you wanted to do with Screen.

SR: No, that was there from the beginning. It was like a manifesto by Charles Foster Kane or someone: ‘We promise to do this …’ I wrote a manifesto-like article in the first issue I edited of Screen on education and criticism. It was a plea for theory but there was no clear idea about what theory was and that was its weak point, a kind of confusion. I guess it was a plea in general for serious intellectual work in film but there was something else behind it too because it really did have its derivatives in France, in Cahiers du cinéma and, as I mentioned, the events of May ’68. It was an attempt shared with the NLR perhaps to define the role of intellectuals on the Left, particularly with regard to criticism in the arts, literature and language. The figures of reference at NLR included Walter Benjamin, Antonio Gramsci, Herbert Marcuse and Louis Althusser, in effect a revised Marxism focused on theoretical and cultural issues.

I was a bit intimidated; I was a rather raw and naive American and though I recognised the names, I did not have the requisite culture to be fully appreciative

DW:How old were you?

SR: I was young, just a boy. The British New Left figures were mostly Oxbridge – with what all of that means in manners, gestures and education. They were, from my point of view, exceptionally well educated and elegant, a dandyish quality, and that I adopted. I felt I had a lot to learn and the thing that troubled me most was that they were all fluent in French and some, like Jon Halliday, in Italian as well. My real education began then in the early 1970s. I was very much the American abroad, overseas, and thinking of it now, I cringe.

DW: You’ve spoken about how the theoretical bias of Screen caused problems for secondary teachers, but it also seemed to be an issue that arose with filmmakers, or the relationship between Screen and a film culture that included filmmakers and not just educators. Was that something that was around then or something you were aware of?

SR: It is appalling really to have a film magazine with little or no contact with practising filmmakers and that was virtually the case, partly because it was Britain. Who would you contact? Who would you deal with? The interesting British filmmakers then were avant-garde and – for various reasons, part of which were political – were altogether too removed from the experience of most people, while critical categories for dealing with an avant-garde weren’t really there. We had little interest in British film, the work of Lindsay Anderson or Karel Reisz, for example. Most of our attention was directed towards the American cinema and to those filmmakers who, though still making mainstream films, did so in a different way, such that the cinema was not only a means but an object of questioning. The Italians became particularly important in this regard – Rossellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Pier Paolo Pasolini – and of course the French directors.

I think where the American cinema was interesting for us was in its experimentation, not for what it represented, its subjects and drama, but more for its forms, a sort of self-consciousness and self-awareness in which film was being reflected upon and its conventions challenged. I am thinking of Otto Preminger, Nick Ray, Sam Fuller and of course Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles.

DW: So part of the issue with Screen’s relationship with British film culture is that the journal was looking to Hollywood through Cahiers du cinéma and through French theory.

SR: Yes, perhaps. The interest in the American cinema became disruptive in Britain, as in France, with regard to the official culture which despised the popular cinema and therefore ‘Hollywood’. It was this cultural challenge that became important in the combination of the most advanced and complex theoretical discourses applied to the most vulgar objects and, to make matters worse, American objects at a time of a militant Leftism.

This is also the period of Pop Art with its use of the banal, the popular and the vulgar and its challenges not only to existing art but to the notion of what art is, since much of Pop is a collage of found images, an art that imitates more than it invents, that cites and serialises with techniques derived not from high art, but from advertising, marketing and industrial processes, like film, for example. The juxtaposition in Pop of high art and low was characteristic of some filmmakers, Fuller, Antonioni, Pasolini, Alain Resnais, and Jean-Luc Godard especially, who I think is a Pop artist with roots in Surrealism and Dada. To speak of Jean Racine and Pierre Corneille alongside Howard Hawks, as Godard did, is as scandalous as it is to deface the Mona Lisa or to produce portraits of Marilyn Monroe in serialised screen prints.

DW: So how did it finish at Screen for you?

SR: The rearguard triumphed and I was thrown out, purged by the SEFT Central Committee. I left England then and went back to the United States to a position teaching film at Hunter College in New York, adrift and lost on Park Avenue. It was terrible.

DW: How so?

SR: It was terrible because I’d lost that direct contact with things that had been so stimulating for me – Britain, Europe, whatever – and I was in New York and it was a different scene that I found difficult to adjust to. I didn’t find it that interesting and I had to try to find a place, and somehow I only recovered from that loss […] not when I was in Australia but just recently when I was in Northern Ireland because in Northern Ireland I was back in a European university and a good one. The Queen’s University of Belfast was a wonderful place and I felt kind of renewed returning to where I had left off. Now I am back in America where I’ve felt and still feel myself an alien, and am in fact an alien having renounced my American citizenship when I was in Australia in the 1980s and, as the condition of alienation, uncomfortable. That period between leaving England in the mid 1970s, living in Australia, then Hong Kong, then going to Belfast, back to Europe, after a 20 year gap, was a way to find something I felt I had lost, an intellectual stimulus and excitement and generosity that only Europe, I think, can provide.

In going back to Northern Ireland not only did I find what I had been missing, I found it with substance, a richness. What kept me alive in what seemed to me a kind of exile for two decades were books and languages. I’ve become relatively fluent in French and am fluent in Italian. That makes a huge difference. I can connect up to elsewhere, socially and intellectually and linguistically. It gives you other homes to be in. Perhaps exile is a permanent state, but in America the exile I feel is acute.

DW: Was the acquisition of language a conscious thing?

SR: It was conscious that I had to learn French and it was sentimental that I wanted to learn Italian. French seemed necessary whereas the Italian was more truly desire. I thought Italy was a great scene in the sense of being scenic and a spectacle, as if I had entered a theatre or a fête. I loved the smells and sights of Italy, the chaos, the colours and the lack of apparent order. I felt at home there almost for the first time whereas I’ve never felt at home anywhere else including the United States, though born and educated there, and where I am not only officially an alien, but spiritually I am one.

DW: Can we go back to Hunter College? How long were you there for?

SR: Not too long, a few years. I can’t remember exactly. When I was at Hunter, New York City experienced an economic crisis and I lost my job and then I went to Australia.

DW: Can we talk about how the Australian job came about?

SR: It was advertised; I think it was advertised or someone told me about it […] someone might have told me about it.

DW: Did you know anything about Australia?

SR: No, just that it was a long way away and it certainly was. I stopped off in Fiji, where I got terribly sunburned. I mean roasted. Just the sight of sun was so compelling that I stretched out and was duly seared. I loved being in Australia. I didn’t feel any less isolated there but somehow there was something about the rhythm of life that I enjoyed and I liked Australians because I didn’t feel so intimidated in Australia. I didn’t feel that I had so much of a cultural lack. I felt that I was with other people who also had cultural lacks and so it was easier to be with them, and it was a nice life quite apart from that. I was a bit troubled I have to admit, by a certain combination of cultural aggression and cultural defensiveness in Australia. I never could quite get used to it.

DW: And when you arrived at La Trobe, Lesley Stern was there?

SR: I can’t remember if she was there or not. I think she probably was. Bill Routt was there; I can’t remember who else, possibly Rolando Caputo and Anna Dzenis.

DW: And you had to set about constructing a Cinema Studies department or a Cinema Studies major?

SR: There wasn’t a Cinema Studies department. Film was part of Media Studies. I wasn’t constructing a thing. I wasn’t the Head of anything; I was just an employee. I was told I had to teach certain courses and I started teaching them, film history or something like that. I can’t remember what I taught, though eventually I had a pretty free hand. With people like Rick Thompson, Bill Routt, and Lesley, even if there were intellectual differences, there was a degree of seriousness about film that you respected and that everyone in their different ways defended or fought for. The struggle was for independence from within the Media Studies unit that we found ourselves in and [we] felt the need to establish a proper film curriculum and a way of looking at films that would be serious and diverse. So there were no struggles about ‘What? You’re dealing with John Ford? Or Antonioni?’ There was none of that and I think, personalities aside, everyone appreciated what everyone else was doing and everyone was supportive, so I’m not sure it was exciting but it certainly was very pleasant. Nobody was torturing you administratively or harassing you in any other way. It wasn’t onerous to be at La Trobe, to the contrary.

I don’t know now if that aspect at La Trobe (and at Queen’s) was peculiar to it, or that universities now have become different. I feel a lot of universities are managerial and corporate in the worst sense and very unpleasant. Rather than encouraging learning and knowledge, they hamper and distort, and you are constantly pressured, under surveillance and under stress. That has a corrupting, negative influence on what universities ought to be about – learning and knowledge. La Trobe in most respects was idyllic and its values, I think, correct and productive. I’ve not experienced that anywhere else since, except in Northern Ireland.

DW:That period of La Trobe was a pretty extraordinary moment given who was there; I mean it was kind of a legendary grouping of people, I would think.

SR: Well there was but there wasn’t either. When I spoke about the experience I had in Britain on Screen and not only on Screen, where because there was a struggle going on which was political and cultural, it really was truly exciting to be there. Issues were always coming up and we had very lengthy, smoke-filled editorial board meetings which were frequent. They were meetings about strategy, of what we as intellectuals with regard to film should do, what do we publish, why do we publish this rather than something else. It was exciting because sometimes it placed you on the defensive in relationship to other people and to other ideas. You had to learn things in order to survive. You had to study in order to make sense to yourself and not only to other people. That did not prevail at La Trobe. There wasn’t that kind of intensity and intellectual exchange and I think [when I arrived at La Trobe] we were already in a situation where film was being institutionalised at universities, whereas the situation in Britain, when I was there in the early 1970s, such institutionalisation was just beginning to happen and though the BFI was instrumental in that process, it was within a context of genuine intellectual excitement, debate, conflict and discussion.

The late 1960s and early 1970s everywhere, I think, in Europe and perhaps also in the United States, were exciting. We are talking about La Trobe in the 1980s. These are much more conservative periods and they are conservative in the way in which universities are structured too. But, you know, it was very nice; we got left alone and had long holidays. It was great, I loved being there but it wasn’t exactly stimulating. Personally, I felt wonderfully comfortable at La Trobe but almost too comfortable; and I wrote some things when I was there but I think much of what I’d written came from the experience I had before I’d come to Australia, it wasn’t something in Australia itself. I tried to ‘Australianise’ myself in the sense that I felt ‘I’m here in another country, I like it here, I think I’m going to stay here, I don’t like being a foreigner, and I don’t feel particularly tied to the United States.’ If I was going to talk about anything having to do with Australia – and that would mean everything – I felt that I needed some legitimacy in making those statements and so I became an Australian and I became interested in Australian films and Australian culture, such as it was in Melbourne, and with avant-garde filmmakers and so on and so forth. It was a real commitment to being in Australia from that point of view. I didn’t want to be a foreigner and I couldn’t honestly speak in classrooms let alone speak about Australian films or Australian culture that I was then part of. I have no complaints, regrets or bad feeling about the experience. Sometimes I feel sorry I’m not there or sorry that I am here. When I am asked where I am from, because my accent is so mixed, I always say Australia, even though that is not exactly true, but then, like fiction, it has a truth.

DW: One thing I am interested in about that period is that it seemed both yourself and Lesley brought not just to La Trobe but to Melbourne and to Australia, a very strong theoretical approach to film studies …

SR: I think that’s an exaggeration.

DW: Okay, but I was also going to say that Paul Willemen commented that he was surprised when he came to Australia that everybody in film studies seemed to be reading Screen, more so than in Britain and he thought this was characteristic of Australian film studies that people were ravenous for overseas things.

SR: A hungry hoard!

DW: Yes. Is that something you were conscious of?

SR: Sometimes I felt I was placed in a situation of being ‘important’ but I didn’t feel that importance and I didn’t like being put in that position. It didn’t give me any pleasure and I don’t think I deserved it.

DW: Because you were the editor of Screen?

SR: No, because I think I’m more interested in learning things than teaching things and I have an awareness of how shaky one’s foundations really are and how questionable one’s positions are even when you’re writing away on a roll and you think ‘Isn’t this wonderful!’ It made me uncomfortable being accorded more merit or even attention than I would give myself, and certainly I had no narrative in which I was the star. Obviously if someone asks me about myself, I will give a narrative about myself as I am doing now, but it’s not because I think I’m important or was important or that influential. I don’t think any of those things. Particularly, for example, as I was telling you privately, I’ve been working for much too long a period of time trying to deal with Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinema [1988-1998]. Usually I can write pretty well and quickly but not with the Godard film. The film has done two things to me: it has made clear to me – which perhaps has always been clear to me – about how little I know about things. Histoire(s) du cinéma goes everywhere, into philosophy and painting and music and politics and memory, and much of the time I’ve spent here in the United States has been scrambling to see and read in areas where I am extraordinarily deficient. Godard has not only pointed out to me my deficiencies, partly because his works are so full of citations, but has provoked my desire to learn. He seems to me to be a model teacher without trying.

With Godard what you don’t know seems infinite. I think only the arrogant and therefore stupid don’t like him. He makes them feel uncomfortable. Histoire(s) represents and depends upon a particular tradition not limited to the cinema, while you can’t conclude either from the film that the citations are what influenced the film. I became aware of my ignorance of that tradition out of which a film like that emerged because it doesn’t simply emerge out of his other works. You can’t give an ‘auteurist’ view, it seems to me, of Histoire(s) du cinema. It would be too reductive, and the film forces you to rethink not only every shot and sequence in it but the whole of the cinema and its history including the history of Godard’s own films. Nothing is the same again after Histoire(s) du cinéma. The film is four and one half hours long but vast, even infinite since it evokes a huge outside. And since the outside is, of necessity, always changing, subject to History, the film is never still, is always becoming, is always alive. It is this kind of thing in its complexity and range that makes me reluctant to give any particular importance to myself […] it’s not exactly modesty; I’m not modest.

DW: What about that notion of bringing with you a certain theoretical approach to film studies?

SR: I don’t know if it was theoretical; I mean, there was a lot of theoretical baggage. There was, given that time, structural ideas and semiotics and a bit of Marxism and a bit of Freud but it was a kind of jumble, a hodge-podge, evidence of a need and an ambition. I think the more correct word is seriousness or intent and that engaging with a film or a group of films is always a risk and exciting and you need to do it seriously – that is, carefully – and whatever will help you should be employed. Anything, anything would do, but there certainly wasn’t a ‘film theory’ that I had particular loyalty towards. You used ideas when they seemed appropriate and you went to things when they seemed appropriate and if certain structures of ideas helped you to see things, you used them. They were instruments. I don’t know if I brought theory on my back to Australia, to hungry-for-theory, starved Australians, with a delight for picking up Screen.

Screen had a lot of defects to it and some of those defects related to the notion of theory that informed it. If you look at Cahiers du cinéma in the early 1970s, which is the same period of my involvement on Screen, and you bring them together, one of the things you see – and this makes me now, on reflection, rather more sympathetic to the SEFT committee that sacked me – is these journals no longer talking about film directly. What they are talking about instead is Althusser or whatever or whoever. A kind of theoretical, somewhat political discourse is displacing or trying to turn itself into a substitute for an aesthetic one, and rather than this being a glorious period I think it’s an inglorious one. It might have been a necessary step but it was also a backward one; and much of what it has spawned is Cultural Studies, or Cultural Studies was part of it, and I think much of that is a disaster. Ideas were instrumentalised in the worst kind of way. Cahiers du cinéma of the period was often talking about philosophy and not film. Certainly in the early 1970s, there was a division in Cahiers about that policy and practice. I think the good side won but I’m not sure, whereas of course what’s happened to Screen and journals like it, is that they have become institutionalised within an academic framework, have lost an edge, whereas before it had been a magazine of left intellectuals interested, indeed passionate about film, but more interested possibly in the roots of that philosophically (“What is the cinema?”), rather than dealing with film textually. I think a lot of that experience is one that I’ve tried to get rid of, not, however, in order to come over to Sight & Sound and journals like it.

DW: But I’m just trying to connect up that time at La Trobe with your work in more recent years and I’m thinking of Promised Lands and Fellini Lexicon and the Antonioni book. All of those works seem to be less theorised in a Screensense …

SR: Yes, you are right and the difference was conscious and intentional.

DW: And I wonder, because my memory of you working on those books began at La Trobe …

SR: I think there were two motives on my part, though I don’t think they were conscious. One, faced with Stephen Heath, for example, and a certain kind of derivative French writing, though in English, I didn’t actually enjoy reading him and I found his writing quite obscure and unnecessarily contrived without being illuminating or stimulating. That was one thing, and also I found the writing exceedingly inelegant and even if it argued a certain indefiniteness, it itself was assertive and I don’t like that. There is no hesitancy or tentativeness or delicacy to it. When I was talking to you personally about not feeling terribly important and feeling insecure or whatever, I think part of it is just a feeling that things are very uncertain and the kind of writing that I like doing, first of all, has to be clear and, secondly, essentially essayist; that is, tentative, searching for something rather than describing something already found, which is often a kind of dead writing. I don’t know exactly why I think that. I can rationalise it but I don’t really know why; but if I read something that is beautifully written, I recognise it. What I mean by ‘beautifully written’ is writing that is clear and whose clarity produces paradoxes, things that are in themselves difficult to grasp and are complex not because they are obscure but because they’re complicated and such complexity – questions not answers; doubts not conclusions – essentially needs to be well articulated. That’s what I enjoy, but I found that period of the early 1970s terrifying, the terror of certainties and proscriptions, even if I subscribed to such terror at the time. I now regret it. It was stupid and immature. Fundamentally, I didn’t like it; part of me just didn’t like it. It’s not that I rejected the ideas but rather the manner of their address and imposition, an ethical position on my part perhaps.

DW: You ran classes on Italian Cinema and Antonioni and so were those books, Antonioni and Passion of Pier Paolo Pasolini and so on, reflections on teaching those films or a reaction to teaching those films?

SR: No, they’re no different from the way I teach now. I have classes here with the same titles year after year – Film History, Documentary – but they’re never the same courses and the reason they’re never the same courses is that I want to use the course to find out something I don’t know rather than to deliver to my students what I already know. If I already know it, it has no interest for me any longer. Or my course could be on something that I think I already know but I’m not sure of and I want to revise it or look at it again. There’s always a degree of teaching-as-finding-out rather than teaching-as-telling the students something. But a lot of students don’t like that because they don’t know where they are, they’re a bit confused and uncomfortable. They don’t like that degree of responsibility as if they don’t really like having to learn. A lot of students especially want to be taught and I can’t do that. I think what happened at La Trobe was that, for whatever reason, I was interested in Antonioni, I was interested in the Italian cinema and, sure, it was a way to get to Italy on money from the government and eat lots of pasta and chase girls and do whatever, but it also was something I loved and something I actually knew very little about and so the classes were not for me to teach Antonioni, the classes were for me to learn something about Antonioni. The students, unfortunately or not, were taken along with that process. It also meant that some classes – and this inevitably happens no matter how you organise things – were very good because they were fresh, but also not good because, though fresh, confused, and then I would go home extremely depressed and thinking ‘How could I have done that?’

DW:And presumably you would go home exhausted as well because you would have to work hard …

SR: Nobody exhausts themselves in Australia. No, I think one of the really lovely things about being in Australia is that the line between work and not work wasn’t always that finely drawn.

DW: For you, or more generally?

SR: I don’t know about other people. I had a great life there and I loved it, and teaching and being at the university was a part of it. It wasn’t separate from my life, nor did it dominate my life. What’s happening now, I think, is that the university takes over your life as if you have no other, and what is offered to you aside from the salary is not very much. There is little or no time to do research properly, to pursue ideas, to imagine, to create. But being at La Trobe University was not that way. La Trobe left you alone, trusted you, supported you, and my colleagues were respectful and I respected them. It was a collegial university and immensely so, whereas many universities are currently managerial and intolerant. And what is important to the managers are productivity, accountability, marketability, not learning, certainly not knowledge. What can be counted by the university is all that really counts. It is a poor environment for fostering good work, but an excellent one for mediocrity.

DW: In other words, for you, in Australia and at La Trobe, it was easy to get along …

SR: Very easy. In America, there is a great deal of self-promotion, a striving for “success”, egotism as a value and modesty and reserve as impractical, dysfunctional. You have to sell yourself here, to be what others want of you, demand of you. It is easy to get lost. Some university departments have people concerned with marketing the departments, with publicity, with ‘counting’ achievements, promoting, advertising, pitching. It is very distasteful

DW: Apart from that time you were at La Trobe and travelling to Italy, did you travel to conferences in other countries at that time?

SR: No. I went to Italy frequently and for long periods and that was important to me. I felt at home there no matter how much I liked Australia.

DW: I guess that was part of the lack of any kind of academic imperative at that time…

SR: There was no academic imperative.

DW: Then you left La Trobe in 1990, or something like that?

SR: Yes, something like that. I went to Hong Kong. My personal situation in Melbourne had become difficult, if not intolerable and I felt I needed to escape. I took a leave of absence from La Trobe and eventually decided not to return. The salary in Hong Kong was extremely generous. I was given a Professorship. Had I returned to Australia, it would have been to a lesser salary and a lower academic rank. I missed Australia but not enough to go back, and somehow when you start moving on you keep on going. I didn’t want to return. I seldom do. The only place I’ve ever returned to is the United States. Twice! Some things you never learn.

DW: Hong Kong at the time must have been a pretty exciting place culturally. I was just thinking that the Promised Land book came out of that time.

SR:Hong Kong was great. I really loved it and I hated it too with equal intensity. I loved and loathed the chaos, the colour, the noise, the foreignness of everything, the food, the women and so on. The otherness of Hong Kong was so extreme that I didn’t always know where I was or why I was there. The teaching became difficult because I didn’t fully understand the culture I was in and it took me years to learn how to teach effectively in Hong Kong. I could not do things there as I would have done elsewhere.

DW: But did you have much engagement with, say, the film festival?

SR: I used to go to the film festival and I loved it. It presented a wide range of films and was truly international and yet it had the sense of a small town festival where everyone knew each other, real substance and genuine warmth.

DW: And from there to Queen’s University of Belfast and this is not Belfast of 2009 either.

SR: No it isn’t. The troubles had died down. I was the Head of the Film Department within a School of Languages and Literature. The School was well run. The Head of School, David Johnston, was shrewd, smart, tough, fair, persuasive, charming and a wonderful politician. He made you see that your interests and his and that of the university coincided.

DW: And did you write the Fellini book when you were in Belfast? So the space for research was still available?

SR: Absolutely. I was given time and space and funding. This kind of atmosphere at Belfast was stimulating and truly productive as opposed to a false productivity that seems to be the hallmark of current university regimes. It was a place, like La Trobe, where I worked hard and was satisfied. I made friends and attachments, the most important with Des O’Rawe.

DW: And you recruited him to Queen’s?

SR: He applied for a job and was appointed. Working with Des was a pleasure. We certainly got things done. I am still working with him on various projects all the more important to me for the isolation I feel at the moment.

Sam Rohdie Select Bibliography

Antonioni. British Film Institute, London, 1990.
Rocco and His Brothers. British Film Institute, London, 1993.
The Passion of Pier Paolo Pasolini. British Film Institute, London / Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, 1996.
Promised Lands: Cinema, Geography, Modernism. London: British Film Institute, London, 2001.
Fellini Lexicon. London, British Film Institute, London, 2002.
Montage. Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2006.
Translator and Preface: Cinema/Italy by Stefania Parigi. Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2010.

Created on: Saturday, 4 September 2010

About the Author

Deane Williams

About the Authors


Deane Williams

Deane Williams is associate professor of film and screen studies at Monash University. He is the editor of the journal Studies in Documentary Film, and his books include Australian Post-War Documentary Film: An Arc of Mirrors (2008), Michael Winterbottom (with Brian McFarlane, 2009) and the three-volume Australian Film Theory and Criticism (co-edited with Noel King and Constantine Verevis, 2013–2017). In 2016 his The Cinema of Sean Penn: In and Out of Place was published by Wallflower Press.View all posts by Deane Williams →