Peter wollen died in December last year in West Sussex, having lived with Alzheimer’s for seventeen years.footnote1 Prior to this long winter, as writer, theorist, director, curator and editor, he was a heroic figure of the intellectual counterculture in Britain. His career followed a sinuous path. Viktor Shklovsky’s image of the ‘knight’s move’, often invoked by Wollen to describe the oblique, unpredictable advance of the avant-garde, could well be applied to his biography. A prime mover of journals, institutions and collectives throughout his life, nlr among them, he is perhaps best remembered as a pioneer of auteur criticism and film theory, a co-director of experimental films and an importer of intellectual ferment. An avant-gardist disdain for the division of art and politics, theory and practice, was also discernible at a lower register in Wollen’s flouting of disciplinary and professional boundaries, in his conception of his multifarious work (‘I don’t see my books or my lectures as separate activities from my screen-writing or my film-making’).footnote2 As a writer, he was by disposition an essayist, the six books he published, beginning with Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (1969), all to some degree assemblages. His oeuvre, which ranges across the artistic and intellectual life of the twentieth century, resembles an archipelago rather than a continent.
Such a nomadic orientation may in part be accounted for by family background. Wollen was born in 1938, in the London suburb of Walthamstow, into a socialist, pacifist household. His father was a Methodist minister and the family lived a committed, peripatetic life, moving every few years to a new parish as the job required.footnote3 Later writings register a few lasting memories of these years: the bombs falling during the Blitz, a visit to the Festival of Britain in the war’s aftermath, a formative first film experience, the dazzling world of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights in his father’s Phaidon library. Attitudes to money, possessions, roots were all assimilated by the oldest son. Spending much of his working life without stable income or headquarters, Wollen was unusually footloose, readily turning himself to new endeavours and phases of life. Such an inheritance was however tempered by a more libertine spirit. Rejecting religion wholesale, Wollen absorbed the household’s political affiliations and aesthetic interests in his own fashion. He read prodigiously in the library of his Methodist boarding school, working his way through the shelves; a revelatory encounter with Kropotkin’s Memoirs of a Revolutionist provided a cosmopolitan contrast to low-church socialism. Here, too, nascent enthusiasm for Dada, surrealism, existentialism, developed. A school report warning that the boy was ‘in danger of becoming an intellectual’ first gave him the idea that this was what he wished to be.footnote4
In 1956, a scholarship took him to Oxford, where he studied English Literature at Christ Church.footnote5 Wollen, however, recalled learning more from his milieu than any official education; he was known as a poet and moved in a beatnik-inclined crowd. Intellectually, his attention was captured by what was happening in Paris—a friend, Patrick Bauchau, had brought back copies of Cahiers du Cinéma. Amongst the spires and quads, the iconoclasm of the critics gathered around André Bazin’s journal (Godard, Rivette, Chabrol, Rohmer, Truffaut)—who championed Hollywood directors of westerns and gangster films as auteurs, their stature equal to the great shades of art and literature—had an electrifying effect. Years later, describing the critical outlook this fostered, Wollen drew a sharp contrast with his immediate forebears in English criticism, Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart, both for their conception of culture as the way of life of a community, and the apprehension that in Britain’s case this was threatened by the influx of American mass culture.footnote6 By contrast, as a critic Wollen was engaged with art and aesthetics rather than culture in any more holistic sense, something that was only emboldened by the productions of Hollywood. From his vantage point British culture was stultifying, and in need of invigoration from beyond its shores.
Wollen was unconcerned with Oxbridge rankings and scraped through his Finals with a third-class degree. Eng. Lit. turned out not to be a passion; he wrote his Milton paper on Elvis Presley. Caught by National Service conscription just before it ended, he made a botched attempt to qualify as a conscientious objector. Refusing officer status out of solidarity, Wollen cut an isolated figure, and soon absconded from his barracks. As the sixties dawned, Wollen therefore found himself in a precarious situation—poor qualifications, no immediate prospects nor resources to fall back on, non-conformist by temperament, and on the run from the military police.
Where else but Paris? By his arrival in August 1959, the Young Turks of Cahiers were having their first directorial triumphs. Wollen recalled going to see Godard’s À bout de souffle every day the week it came out in March 1960, captivated by its worship and desecration of cinematic tradition, by its collision of B-movies and modernism which made it seem ‘as if you could love both of them at the same time’.footnote7 Habitué of the Beat Hotel, Wollen worked at Le Mistral bookshop to pay his way. In the screening rooms of the Cinémathèque Française, where the nouvelle vague had gained their own cinematic education, he began to develop ‘from cultist to critic to theorist’.footnote8 Two other cinephiles, Eugene Archer and Andrew Sarris—several years Wollen’s senior and already making their way as film critics in New York—also made pilgrimages to the Left Bank during this period. The trio would be instrumental to disseminating the ethos of the politique des auteurs throughout the anglophone world.footnote9 Wollen retained a fidelity to this formation, his ‘obsessive love’ for classic Hollywood undiminished by later avant-garde commitments (in this regard he followed a similar path to Godard). ‘I am still an auteurist. I still give priority to the avant-garde’, he insisted in 1997.footnote10 The distance was not as vast as it might appear: auteurism could be considered ‘the last of a series of twentieth-century critical revolutions in the name of “modernism” and against the ancien régime of artistic values’.footnote11 The wider backdrop to Wollen’s intellectual formation was, in fact, the afterglow of modernism in the post-war period, which saw its flourishing in the cinema, and a last round of avant-garde activity.