It was 1978. I was a student in the Media course at Melbourne State College (a training institution for secondary school teachers) in Australia, and that semester we had (thanks to his friend Tom Ryan) an illustrious guest lecturer: Sam Rohdie.
At that time, Sam was completing his PhD, a minute analysis – written somewhat in the manner of Roland Barthes or Jacques Derrida – of a segment from Rossellini’s Rome, Open City. We worked through this same segment in class, for three weeks, with a 16mm print and projector (those were the days!). The course also included Renoir: Rules of the Game, I remember.
Sam’s goal was to show, intensively, that what history had taken for ‘realism’ (or even neo-realism) was entirely fabricated, shot for shot, cut for cut. That what happened apparently ‘incidentally’ in the scene was connected, by numerous narrative and semantic chains, to every other moment in the film. There was the thrill – de rigueur at the time – of the micro-analytic exposure of common sense and transparency, an almost paranoiac ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ as it came to be called.
But there was also a sensual joy in this analysis, and that quickly came to mean more for Sam, in all the work that followed this doctoral culmination of what we might think of as his ‘Screen years’ – i.e., his time as editor, contributor, instigator and agitator at that (now august) cinema studies journal.
Almost at the second the ink was dry on that thesis, Sam got into the habit of downplaying the Screen legacy in his life – and he was still doing so when Deane Williams interviewed him in 2010 for a history of film theory in Australia. He had developed a marked aversion to the ‘dry taxonomies’ of Christian Metz, as he told me, and indeed with the entire dream of structuralist-semiotic film analysis. (In 1978, he was still setting chapters from Metz’s first two books for close class reading.) He was through with the pretension to scientific rigour and certainty. He was heading somewhere else, and now in a more post-structuralist spirit, but without all the lengthy citations and footnotes of the then-recent academic past: into paradox, into pleasure, and above all into writing as a creative as well as critical art.
In 1978, Sam had given me the draft of his PhD to read – and he curtly dismissed me from his presence on the day I handed it back without any particularly searing critical comment to offer on it. That’s how he was: like Godard, Sam was always in search of an interlocutor, and so rarely found one who he deemed worthy. It was his personal style, and it infused his singularly disconcerting teaching method. Sam could be aggressive and provocative inside the classroom, just as he could be more than a little sociopathic and monstrous outside it; he was impatient with having to be ‘the teacher’ (let alone an administrator). This seems to have remained his teaching mode, more or less, to the end of his life (he was about to retire from the game in May 2015 – a cycle of financial gambles, bad investments and disasters throughout his life had prevented him from leaving any earlier).
In 1978, at least, he was in the habit of identifying the ‘gifted’ students – this was to be my role, alas – and, when he got bored, giving the signal for that chosen delegate to keep the class going by yapping on without missing the beat, as he looked off and thought of more pleasant things, such as what he would cook that evening (Sam was a true foodie).
Rossellini: Sam came to love him, not to expose him – as his essay on India eventually showed. I came to see, by the early 1990s, when he launched his personal book-writing crusade with the brilliant Antonioni – and after articles he had written in various Australian magazines like Cinema Papers and Filmviews – that Sam now grasped every film he liked (in deep-dish Derrida style) as a conceptual paradox: a statement or position always undoing itself, implying its opposite term.
This idea tracks through all of his writing on the great auteurs of Italian cinema. Fellini, for instance, may make films that, on the surface decry a world of artifice and superficiality – but, in their very being, they celebrate this artifice, and invite us to (as he once wrote) “join the party”. Rocco and His Brothers may seem to be groping toward a stern moral statement about the “conflicting claims of passion and duty, art and reason”, but Visconti is forever fascinated by the decadence that he dramatises. Pasolini longed for a destroyed, prelapsarian, sub-proletarian past for Italy, but that was never anything other than a chimera that he himself willed into being through this art.
Sam was no longer out to expose or correct these wayward, paradoxical expressions. On the contrary, he took them for constitutive paradoxes, generating the most agonised, soulful and beautiful of films.
I don’t pretend to have really known Sam, or to know now what ever made him tick. It was bruising (or worse) to float too close inside his orbit, as so many (including thesis-writing candidates) found out – myself, for instance, during the week of the 1987 financial crash, when he spontaneously decided to humiliate me in front of a large seminar audience as (presumably) a means of therapeutically exorcising his bad vibes. I have the impression that Sam was someone who constantly reinvented himself and his life, in terms of the places he lived (and taught), the languages he learnt, the people he knew and loved, the books he read and the films he saw (and re-saw). I shall never forget the exasperated, puzzled remark of one who (reluctantly) worked with him: “He keeps telling everybody he’s Italian – but he’s a Brooklyn Jew!” Just like some of the richly paradoxical movies he loved, Sam was always erasing his personal past, and yet returning to the same, obsessive turf, such as the classic Hollywood directors he had discovered in the heat of 1960s cinephilia.
In Australia in the 1970s and ‘80s, Sam hurled himself into the public works of film culture: he appeared on radio (very memorably), chaired feisty public discussions at the National Film Theatre, and contributed to curriculum committees for screen education at tertiary and secondary levels. The most remarkable sign of this intense desire to ‘assimilate’ was in his finding and championing of Australian avant-garde work – work that has rarely been approached with such theoretical zest ever since.
But I think that, in later times and places – in Hong Kong or Belfast or Florida, by which time I had totally lost touch with him – he no longer longed to fuse himself with local scenes in the same way. Rather, he preferred to look backward (and yet forward) into history, histories of film and culture, particularly drawn to archival research in Italy (his homeland!) and France; and it was writing that sustained his interest and his passion, as we see in his final essay collections, Montage and Intersections, and no doubt the posthumous Film Modernism.
I spotted him at the Godard conference at the Tate in 2001 – a rather lonely, sullen figure, he seemed to me, and unaccountably silent at each session’s question time, where once he would have been so vociferous – and again in 2006 on the streets of Paris, once more on a rendez-vous with Godard, this time the astonishing Pompidou exhibition Voyage(s) en utopie. And it is Godard and his Histoire(s) du cinéma that, judging from the essays he would regularly send the editors of Screening the Past in his last years, form the spine of Film Modernism.
I am back in that classroom of 1978. Sam gives me ‘the sign’ to speak – I am utterly terrified, but kind-of used to this sadomasochistic ritual by now – and he looks away from the sea of students, indifferent to either their delight or their dismay. I remember one day, when he did this, just about everyone present could forgive his perennial tactic, because he was concentrated by something that formed a quite lovely spectacle: his very young daughter Clare had fallen asleep in his lap at the front of the classroom, and he caressed her very gently and tenderly, soothing her dreams.
This is the image of Sam Rohdie I choose to remember today.
© Adrian Martin 14 April 2015