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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Jean-Luc 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).
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).
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
is the image of Sam Rohdie I choose to remember
© Adrian Martin 14 April 2015