In Confidence: Sam Rohdie

Sam Rohdie – Photograph by Margaret Lam

[This act of mourning has as its origin a letter of reference, itself updated and revised over 13 years. Because the letter was always truly “in confidence”, Sam never read what it said, and I want to use it here partly because I am sorry now that he never did. On the other hand, the letter was always intended to deceive. I never intended – and nor, I am sure, did Sam – that I would tell everything I knew, or thought I knew, of him. I still do not have that intention, but it seems right that if I am to breach confidence by showing this to you, I should also tell you other things that are confidential and that a letter of reference, a text governed by rules of probity and deceit, never would have told.

[So this letter has been written over and through in order to make it even more fictional, in order to figure what I sense of Sam in a shape more apparent to all of us, mes semblables.

[In so doing I have betrayed Sam and myself and you. For this is not a tribute, nor a funeral oration – and it is only a celebration of life inasmuch as life is understood as not always a place one would want to be.]

First we have to get by the issue of my nonentity. Sam Rohdie once asked me to write a reference for him, which I am now using as the basis of a piece about what I want to understand about Sam, and it is reasonable that you will know something of Sam, and equally reasonable that you know little or nothing of me. Usually people of eminence stand witness for people of eminence. In this case it was in Sam’s mind that I could tell more of his teaching and the scope of his professional interests than more eminent people can or, perhaps, would; and this is because we were colleagues at the same institution in Australia for twenty years. That is, of course, not what is in my mind at all.

I can remember, early in our acquaintance, sitting in a car outside my house with a Marxist colleague from History, asking what I ought to do. I knew, or thought I knew, that I might be asked whether Sam would make any trouble at another Australian institution of higher learning to which he had applied; and, of course, I was pretty sure he would make trouble if he wanted. I also knew that if I supplied an anodyne, evasive answer to that question, I would be pressed for another response – and that I would not be able to lie convincingly. My friend and colleague took the principled stand that such matters were not the business of academic departments and I ought to remain silent about them. In the event I wrote nothing about Sam and was not called (or so I recall). Sam’s application did not succeed, which made me extremely happy because I knew very well that there was much more to learn from him.

Some time later in a School seminar, Sam pointed out that the speaker, a politically engaged guest from abroad, was not making a principled case for freedom of speech in the paper he had given, but rather a case for placing the kinds of political positions of which that academic approved under the rubric of permitted speech, and I thought of the principled advice I had been given about the possible request for a reference, and of my somewhat unprincipled, opportunistic, application of that advice.

You must read what is written here with the irony of Sam’s insight in mind. One speech displaces, silences, another. A hundred flowers blooming is cacophony, not harmony – except, of course, if it is Beethoven or Monet. Is it wrong for an institution to want to know whether this or that person will “cause trouble”? Or, to put in terms I prefer, why is it wrong for an institution to want to know whether this or that person will “cause trouble”? And, what kind of trouble matters?

What drove Sam during the time he taught at La Trobe University was intellectual ambition. Others of my colleagues have been impelled by their careers. The motivation of yet others, myself included, is probably curiosity (no one would call what I have done a career). Sam shared the intensity of the one and the disinterestedness of the other. One way to characterise the focus, or lure, of his passion is to say that he was fixed upon “elementary cinema”. I would argue that an interest in what is elemental or elementary in the cinema – what is simplest in the sense of most basic – must be what initially drew him to structuralism, and then to Lacanian theory in the seventies, just as it surely prompted his renunciation of the complicated dogmatism of those approaches some years after he arrived here.

In Australia his fascination with the elementary qualities of the cinema directed him to the avant-garde early on, and he was among the first academics here to insist on the significance of films for which there were no words, no concepts, and no methods of analysis – and even to insist on the significance of those lacunae in film theory. At about that same time he taught a course in film narrative using only Griffith’s Biograph films as examples – not as a gimmick, but as an exercise combining history and theory, with Griffith’s work condensing multiple futures for cinematic narrative, only some of which have been realised.

Sam completed a doctorate here, and I acted as an adjunct supervisor. The writing dealt with the elementary narrative of one sequence, just 43 shots, from Roma, città aperta (Rome, Open City, 1945), but it was also about neo-realism’s attempt to renew the cinema in a return to its elements. The doctorate was written with extraordinary lucidity and brevity. It was the first time I was made aware of Sam’s passion for the Italian cinema, which was a self-defining intellectual interest.

What attracted him most in the Italian cinema were the films and filmmakers that exemplify neo-realism’s elementary side. Rossellini can be considered the forerunner of this tradition. In their own ways, Antonioni and Pasolini may be seen as Rossellini’s principal formal disciples. In preparation for his books on these two, Sam taught courses on their work, but he also taught a course on the Japanese cinema as background for the book on Antonioni and prepared one on ethnographic film as background to Pasolini.

From the beginning, as I hope I have suggested, Sam’s understanding of what might be elementary about the cinema included more than its form. His forays into the Australian avant-garde were counterpoised by attempts to understand the emerging Australian commercial industry underpinned by his contempt for the feature films made here. The first fruits of his interest in neo-realism were attempts to understand what it was that prompted Italian fascism to encourage the development of what was to become for a time the preferred cinematic mode of the left.

Sam left it to me to introduce (and lead a discussion on) a conference paper on neo-realism and Italian fascism. This was during a period in which he would almost always say of me that I was “a nice guy”. Sam wasn’t a nice guy a lot of the time, and I don’t think he was being a nice guy when he said I was either, no matter that he believed it. (Much later another colleague who knew us both would taunt me when describing members of her staff as “nice guys”; she hated Sam, of course). At any rate, being a nice guy worked both for me and for the paper. I could stand back and say, as though I were principled, that we must discuss the paper on its merits – thus achieving something that Sam himself probably could not have done. It was a good session.

[Perhaps this is the place to point out that what you read here was not written by the Bill Routt who did the things in the previous paragraph. It is being written by William D. Routt, an identity with which Bill should be intimately acquainted but who is by no means me. Diane is afraid that you will mistake me here, but that will only happen when you mistake William D. for Bill.]

I am sure that everyone who has been serious about learning within a university remembers certain people as extraordinary teachers. These are not always the “most effective” teachers, or the friendliest, or the ones that encouraged the most discussion, or the ones who taught the courses in which we got the best marks. Since I have been employed by universities I have gauged myself and my colleagues by my memories of such extraordinary teachers as Joseph Schwab, Marshall Hodgson, David Grene and Hannah Arendt. Of the people with whom I have worked closely over a period of years, I can truthfully say that the only contemporary who approached my (coloured) memories of those models was Sam Rohdie. He was ready to take great risks as a teacher (he began a course in Japanese cinema with three weeks of Antonioni’s films), and he was ready to make sacrifices too (for a time he asked 30 students in two subjects for a short essay a week each of which he returned marked by the following week; get this, he volunteered to do this, no one asked him to, much less required it of him). He worked as hard teaching as anyone I know. But those good qualities were not what made his teaching good, nor did his sometimes appalling classroom performance make him bad. What made Sam extraordinary as a teacher was, again, his intellectual passion: the intensity and the clarity of his vision and of his commitment to it (I would say the same of Schwab and Grene and Arendt). One was not so much convinced by him that what he said was true as one was enthralled by the possibility of being able to see what he saw.

What was it like to work with Sam in Australia? It was exciting. The Department of Cinema Studies at La Trobe became appreciably duller when he left. We were no longer challenged as Sam had challenged us. We no longer had a colleague who appeared to work actively to alienate us from himself, a radical model that had insisted on looking differently and looking again and on seeing only his way was no longer constantly before and behind us. And we were no longer as united as we had been when we had Sam to kick around, Sam to complain about, Sam to analyse and diagnose, Sam in our secrets. We began to repeat ourselves and to look to others to fault. We did things in more ordinary and acceptable ways.

For Sam believed, or professed to believe, that as a staff we held absolutely nothing intellectually in common, nothing worth talking about, nothing inter-est. For him, I think this was a matter of principal. He had already frightened our senior and postgraduate students so much that they appealed to the rest of the staff to discontinue all seminars in which they might have to face Sam’s criticism. And the rest of us accepted this change and what it implied far more readily than we ought to have, doubtless because we were at least as afraid of public humiliation, wrangling, schoolboy debates as our students. In accepting these strictures – or in loosening these chains – we effectively killed off what institutionalised departmental culture we had had and isolated ourselves and our students behind glass walls and within conspiratorial bubbles that were sometimes penetrated, but never popped, precisely at the time when the department was at its most interesting and productive and expansive.

Sam’s principal was one of withdrawal, of retreat – from the political, from the commune, the soviets – although that is not what he would have said. Sam’s allies dwindled, which left him apparently alone to write, and thus to commit. He was showing by example how it must be done, certainly how it can be done, perhaps if it is to be done at all.

The fact is, we all wanted to withdraw in some sense and Sam made the most drastically effective retreat. He demonstrated by example how to arrange one’s surroundings for one’s self, how to leave all others alone by becoming acutely visible to everyone’s imagination. It seems to me that we must have seen this, at least vaguely understood it, as we re-enacted each in our own limited ways, his withdrawal. We did our “fair share”, more and less well, of the work he said he would share (but often could not). We worked with the students he rejected or discarded or never saw. We left him the “space” (which is to say, the time) he wanted in exchange for a semblance of the revelatory walls he made for himself.

Then Sam withdrew from Australia entirely. He went to places in which, as he said much later, he was much less happy, much less at ease. And, eventually, he really fell in love and he really found a friend – that is, if you will excuse, as he would not, a wild, sentimental, and inappropriate metaphor, there was a pack of sorts, a virtual pack, a small pack. And the walls were made of rock and he really was happier than he let on.

And once he left, even before the walls changed their substance, he began to write and write, better and better.


Sam thought and taught the cinema as an integral element of the culture around it, just one way of writing. The Passion of Pier Paolo Pasolini is one culmination of this approach: the best book on Pasolini’s films precisely because it does not confine itself to the cinema. In this too, I believe he was prompted by the urge to seek what is most basic, elementary, and driven by that urge to the recognition that what is most basic is not always what is easiest. I know he told me that the writing was painful – not difficult: painful.

To a large extent Sam’s monograph on Rocco e i suoi fratelli (Rocco and His Brothers, 1960) is also an attempt to apprehend cinema at an elementary level. In it he confronted, or was driven to confront, affect in the guise of melodrama and opera. Rather than deal with affect operationally, that is, rather than adopt the quasi-scientific stance of so much film writing, Sam writes from the experience of affect in the work and the position of the work within culture. In that sense, the essay is an attempt to understand feeling without the alibis offered by manipulation.

In another sense Sam’s book was itself an alibi and an instance of the ways in which one may manipulate the events of one’s life within the context of another kind of writing. During its composition he had himself been involved in what he called “a melodrama” which, he believed, had given him an insight into Visconti’s work that he would otherwise never have had. It is not too much to say that the writing of it was a more or less conscious, if distorted, projection of himself in an extended sense of the projection/identification dialectic that informs some of Edgar Morin’s writing on the cinema (and the writing and thinking of others, of course).

And all I have written to this point emphasises another, specific and crucial, element of my (and your) relation to Sam: Sam as a distorted reflection among distorted reflections. In 1989 I, the one who writes this, once dedicated an essay about cinema and architecture to “Sam – miroir insolite”, a pretty up itself way of telling him (if he ever read it or understood the secret message) that I was writing about this topic because he had been teaching and thinking and occasionally talking about Antonioni and architecture, and that I was also conscious of having taken other cues from what he had done. Of course, as it turned out, my dedication was much more than that.

I had taken a lot of pleasure in the disturbance Sam caused when he initially arrived in the same batch of media faculty as I and another, at La Trobe’s School of Education. There had been a raucous, pointed exchange with other members of the School on matters of history in which Sam was the Big Dog and I was the Small Dog. (And which probably played a tiny part in his thinking I was a “nice guy”, good dog.) Even when he scared me, I thought it probably did me some good – because he could not shut up, because he had to say what he thought (or, rather, felt), because he was a bully, because he liked to embarrass and destroy. And because I also thought that there was no particular, no specific malice in what he did and said. There was malice towards all, not malice towards one. He wanted no part of anyone (he wanted us all, all of us). Don’t you wish you were like that? I did.

So Sam was my bizarre mirror, an inversion of what there is to look at as printing is an inversion of what has been written, in which I identified myself distorted, no good, and truly. Saw the Big Dog without ever being the big dog. My reflection, projection, introjection. The triumph of the finite nice guy in the Absolutely Other. I hope he was that for at least some of you as well because, I think, it may have been something of what he intended, if he ever intended, if we ever really intend.

After Sam left La Trobe and began so intently to write I liked him better too. When he was gone I came to know him only through writing rather than face to face. Before there was always something of a western showdown in talking with Sam. Go for your guns. Now (I think) I could see him without the mirror, transforming as the cinema image is constantly transforming what once was set before a cinema camera, what there is to look at, moving but no target. He had become what Bill Routt loves but is not: writing.

An article on Wong Kar-wei allowed Sam to write more directly on authorship, an element of the cinema, especially in the crisis of the cinema. If questions of form, of culture, and of feeling are elementary ones for the cinema, film theory has also tended to treat authorship as fundamental – not least because of film writing’s refusal to let go of such instrumental categories in general. Sam’s short article suggests that Wong Kar-wei’s films are not appropriate objects of auteurist analysis to the degree that they deny referentiality of any kind. They are just texts. Indeed.

Of course a text may deny referentiality, but it cannot escape it. To that extent one might call those texts Sam discerns in the work of Wong Kar-wei, “sociopathic”, meaning that they must be made to connect, to empathise with matters outside themselves through the isolated, circumstantial work of critics, viewers. They cannot do this in themselves, by themselves alone. There is nothing in them that connects directly, easily, productively, with “the real world”. There is no mirror embedded in such texts, no matter what reflections you think you see in them. (Apparently for Sam this may not be the case with what film studies would, I think, usually call “early”, “classical” and “modern” film texts – that is, those with which he preferred to engage.)

In another sense, of course, all writing is sociopathic. No writing makes any connection with “the real world” except through the willed act of reading. Reading is what “cures”, or, rather, transforms, writing’s sociopathy. Writing may always remain unread, but once read, it connects, like Ralph Ellison’s Hickman, it arrives.

At the same time Sam was writing about Wong Kar-wei, he was returning to those elementary impulses of the neo-realists, complicated even more these days by our increased understanding of the historical circumstances and of the results of those impulses. Each of the Italian filmmakers about whom he has written extensively transformed neo-realism quite consciously into something different and the same as its origin. It is no accident that Promised Lands, perhaps his most complex book has, like his classes on neo-realism, much on Rossellini, in whose films all of the pathos of the elementary impulses of neo-realism are so vulnerably laid open for our inspection.

This project began with research into Les Archives de la planète, Albert Kahn’s rather crazy variation on Giordano Bruno’s Memory Theatre. Kahn’s vision seems to have been, in part, the cinema as elementary documentation in the fashion first advocated by Boleslas Matuszewski. Scientific and what I suspect were occult impulses are blended by Kahn’s Archives in a project to make a cinematic formula of the world. The book that resulted from Sam’s research represents a vast expansion and complication of those interests which extend from neo-realism through ethnographic filmmaking to narrative, classificatory schema, the avant-garde, and modernism: another set of questions about the cinema as witness, about the relations between the image and ‘the real’, about memory and affect. In it, he blends a kind of personal history with personal fictions and a history of film into a text which seems to me to be finally about displacement. This is elementary cinema at its most complicated, the elements of self and cinema drawn apart from one another and then remapped according to a new set of coordinates. Geography, yes.

Almost to the measure that his later, post-La Trobe, work was not within a mainstream that he, as editor of Screen in the early seventies, did so much to establish, that work is a benchmark of the best a passionate, loving, and ambitious curiosity about the cinema can produce. What interests me most about Sam’s writing after Promised Lands, however, is its form. Fellini Lexicon, Montage, Intersections, and the forthcoming Film Modernism are all what I will call quilts, made of pieces that “stand alone”, related by colour and shape set in a certain relation to one another, a relation that might be another relation in another context, a relation that perhaps only seems to suggest a bounded whole – yes, each a small model of community that does nowork. In this sense, what he wrote in that period, and most especially the 2002 “Inaugural Lecture”, loops us back to his limpid La Trobe dissertation on just 43 shots of Rossellini’s.

Fourteen years ago (almost to the day that I heard about Sam’s death), he sent me an email asking what I knew about Primers. The wonderful, perfectly elementary Fellini Lexicon was about to come out and he was working on a short book about Godard along similar lines. Diane, who makes the actual quilts and to whom my writing is always (sometimes also) dedicated, collects children’s books and she and I began to talk about such books. I picked through what she said and I said and wrote back to Sam. Some time after that he told me that he might quote/use what I had sent him in his Godard book.

Two intriguing things have happened since then.

The first is that “the Godard book” no longer exists. Instead there is Film Modernism, which apparently is/will be something of a Primer on the topic of its title and on Godard and on Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-98), which Sam loved and lured me to love in a certain “round and round we go, down and down we go, into that old black magic” fashion. Now you must believe that I do not know what is in that book beyond love and black magic.
The second intriguing thing is that in sorting through my computerised files a couple of year ago, I came across a couple of pages about Primers which I thought must have been written by Sam – for what would I have to say on such a topic? Since they had been placed, clearly by mistake, among the files of my own writing, I conscientiously deleted them in order to avoid inadvertent plagiarism. Now I remember that I was keeping them because they belonged with my notes about The Fairy Spectator, a very interesting book about mirrors and morals – thus, like Lois Weber’s Hypocrites and other texts, about the cinema (only The Fairy Spectator was written in 1784). But now those pages are lost utterly because I was not able to distinguish myself from Sam. Or so it may be. There was no mirror left, no inversion. In writing, to my mind and for a couple of paragraphs, we were one.


I am thinking just now, intermittently, of Sergei Eisenstein’s glass house in which no one notices anymore that the walls are glass, that someone can see and be seen through them. Instead all behave as though they are invisible to others. And this is the cinema: we watch, we judge. In the end our judgement is delivered; the glass house is smashed, and with it everything else is destroyed. One reason I am thinking about this is that I was first drawn to Eisenstein’s glass house project while I was writing the essay dedicated to Sam.

I wrote a story about living in the city, you know, after the end of the world thing. Just glass, everywhere glass” (an Author).

For every image is a sememe, that is, an assertion, a speech act. Every image demands interpretation, that is, judgement. Every image in this way reflects its viewer; every image is a figure. Every figure cuts itself off from other figures, every figure foresees its own destruction and everyone knows the dice, like Lawson’s dog, are loaded.
Or at least this is what happens when one sees the thing in the mirror – a figure, a singularity, always already a monster. But this is also what happens when one stops looking, stops being distracted by the refractions of the light, the unending proliferation of sense. All that glass is, of course, already in the city before world’s end, but invisible. All those reflections refracting reflections. We have but to look (again).
There are more than a Viewer, or Viewers, and a Figure, or Figures, here. There is an Author. There are Authors. Histories, Memories, Texts, Secrets, Erasures, Lies, the Unnamable, the Unintended. And Futures, of course. There is a community there and here, an unworking or nowork community, lured by curiosity, and awakened by a touch.
The Big Dog – is it ambition? And the Little Dog – curiosity? What does ambition want – is it love? Surely curiosity wants only understanding? They lie there together in the hall, waiting for me (and others) to take them for a walk.
(But I would say that – about understanding and love – wouldn’t I?). As though one had to make a dichotomy here, as though this writing has been an act of separation instead of conjuncture. I am not writing about Sam. I cannot write about Sam, for there are no words of mine to replace his words which I make my own whenever I read them. I can write only about me, about the part of me that I sense as Sam. This is what I would write about you also. You know that.
And you would make of me.


William D. Routt 2015

(A shorter version of this piece appeared on 19 April 2015 on the Film Studies For Free: The Passion(s) of Sam Rohdie (1939-2015), alongside other tributes to Sam. I owe a great debt of thanks to Catherine Grant for encouraging me to write in this way about him.)

About the Author

Bill Routt

About the Author

Bill Routt

After more than 35 years teaching film, media and cultural studies, William D. Routt retired from academia in 1998. Since then he has published work on Australian film (including The Picture That Will Live Forever with Ina Bertrand), early cinema (including “Innuendo 1.5” in LOLA) and anime (including “De Anime” in The Illusion of Life 2).View all posts by Bill Routt →