Paul Willemen, 1944-2012

Passionate film theorist and champion of oppositional forms of cinema; 17 August 1944–13 May 2012.

Geoffrey Nowell-Smith
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Willemen, who died last month after a long struggle with cancer, was a pioneering figure in the revolution in thinking about the cinema that began in the 1970s.

Born and brought up in the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, he came to London in 1968. There he became part of the group of people centred around the BFI Education Department and the Society for Education in Film and Television who were exploring new approaches to the cinema and teaching about film.

Teaching film didn’t interest Paul that much but the cinema did, as did theorising about it. A passionate cinephile (unlike some of his fellow theorists), his canon of tastes was broad, stretching from Jesús Franco’s exploitation eurotrash, Hammer Horror and the comedy of Frank Tashlin to Max Ophuls, Pier Paolo Pasolini and the melodramas of Douglas Sirk. The respectable side of Hollywood didn’t appeal to him; nor on the whole did European art cinema. He was a fierce champion of oppositional forms of cinema, starting with the radical British independent film groups in the 1970s and 80s.

But he never saw things in a narrowly British or even European frame. He was quick to adopt the term ‘Third Cinema’, coined by the Argentinians Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas to designate an area of practice opposed both to Hollywood and European art cinema, and extended it from its original third-world application to cover oppositional filmmaking in the capitalist metropoles, notably that of the African diaspora.

The complex phenomenon of Indian cinema (never, in his mind, reducible to ‘Bollywood’) also fascinated him. His collaboration with Jim Pines on Questions of Third Cinema (1989) was followed by one with Ashish Rajadhyaksha which lead to their joint Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema (1994).

In matters of film theory, he shared with his 70s colleagues on the journal Screen an interest in the Russian formalists of the 1920s, notably Roman Jakobson and Boris Eikhenbaum. This was followed by a tortuous relationship with the psychoanalysis of Jacques Lacan most evident in his 1974 study of Raoul Walsh’s 1947 western Pursued.

The relationship became less tortuous in later years but it left him with an abiding sense that theories are most valuable when practised in a broadly Lacanian way to open up important problems to which there is no easy solution. By the time ‘theory’ became institutionalised in Anglo-American academia in the 1980s his interest had whittled down to a handful of issues that seemed to him politically important. What seemed to him important, and why, at different points in his career can be gleaned from his collected essays, published under the title Looks and Frictions in 1994.

In the 1980s Paul separated himself from Screen to devote himself to Framework, a more theoretically open-minded magazine where he could develop his internationalist political agenda. From 1976 onwards he held various posts at the BFI, where he earned a proper salary and was able to continue with writing and editing. But he never felt comfortable in an institutional setting and  compared himself to Scheherazade in the Arabian Nights, spinning yarn after yarn to delay his execution.89

Enough Already Paul Willemen (1999, 7 mins), directed by his daughter Nikki.

When the axe fell in 1995, he succumbed to the lure of academia, occupying posts first at Napier University in Edinburgh, then at the University of Ulster in Coleraine, returning to London in 2008. He was still the familiar black-bearded figure in a black leather jacket, with black tobacco (Gauloises or Gitanes) always to hand. But he had mellowed slightly, his beard was going grey and eventually he even gave up cigarettes.

He remained a committed contrarian. The last time I saw him was shortly after his return to London, when he publicly laid into me for some insipid judgements in my book on the cinemas of the 1960s. I would not have had it otherwise. Paul will be sorely missed, first and foremost by his wife Roma and daughter Nikki, and his close friends and colleagues, but also by all those who value strongly dissident voices in a conformist world.

This piece was previously published on the online forum of the British Association of Film, Television and Screen Studies.

Also in the March 2013 issue of Sight & Sound

Obituaries 2012

Bob Mastrangelo’s survey of the film greats and lesser-knowns who left us during 2012, with new obituaries of Herbert Lom, Sylvia Kristel, Yamada Isuzu, Seyfi Teoman and child actors of the silent era.

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