It is with sadness that SCMS notes the death of Professor Paul Willemen, retired Research Professor at the Centre for Media Research at the University of Ulster at Coleraine.
Paul Willemen embraced academic life relatively late, arriving at the University of Ulster at Coleraine in 1999 after a short spell at Napier University in Edinburgh. He had already built a formidable reputation within film studies. While working for the British Film Institute, he played a key role in the 1970s and 1980s, helping define the subject area in the UK and also helping to shape and mould the subject's theoretical terrain and institutional structures. These earlier years were characterized by his dual commitment to promoting a "cinephiliac” understanding of popular cinema – especially mainstream American cinema – and to promoting an understanding of alternative cinema in all its formal and political diversity. He is particularly remembered for proposing the notion of "Third Cinema” as a way of understanding political cinema.
Paul Willemen helped to illuminate a range of other theoretical pathways as well, including the concept of comparative film studies and the pleasures of and political contexts of the action film, especially in its heroic classical mode. He was vexed and intrigued by the concept of national cinema and his dissatisfaction with the "national” was the spur to his interest in comparative film studies. During this time he co-edited the influential collection Theorizing National Cinema, which joined prior seminal interventions including Questions of Third Cinema (1990) and Looks and Frictions: Essays in Cultural Studies and Film Theory (1994). Paul Willemen's death has deprived us of one of the most accomplished and challenging intellects in our field.
Nowell-Smith (part 5) - 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.
6 June 2012
Nowell-Smith (part 4) - In the 1980s Paul separated himself from Screen to devote himself to Framework, a magazine which was more theoretically open minded and 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. When the axe fell in 1995, he succumbed to the lure of academia, occupying posts first at Napier University in Edinburgh and then at the University of Ulster in Coleraine, returning to London in 2008. He was still the familiar figure in black leather jacket with a black beard and black tobacco (Gauloises or Gitanes) always to hand. But he had mellowed slightly, his beard was going grey and eventually he gave up cigarettes, causing him to put on weight.
Nowell-Smith (part 3) - In matters of film theory, he shared with his colleagues on the journal Screen in the 1970 an early 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 in film theory had become 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.
Nowell-Smith (part 2) - The respectable side of Hollywood did not 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 1980s. 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 film-making 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).
Obituary by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (part 1)
1944 – 2012
Paul 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, and so did theorising about it. A passionate
cinephile (unlike some of his fellow theorists), his canon of tastes was
broad, stretching from the exploitation eurotrash of Jesús Franco to
Hammer Horror to the comedy of Frank Tashlin to the melodramas of Douglas
Sirk to Max Ophuls and Pier Paolo Pasolini.
Yes, indeed. As a graduate student in the US in 1994-95, I remember visiting India one summer and coming upon Willemen's and Ashish Rajyadhyaksha's Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema, and being simply awed by it. So many languages, so many regional cinemas, hundreds and thousands of actors, directors, cinematographers, studios, writers, musicians--the capitalist post-industrial paraphernalia of cinema rationally and systematically explicated. It was a form of a sublime, really. Willemen's Preface was also remarkable in its insistence on the constructionist and essentialist approach to discussing national cinemas and how contested that really is in the Indian context. In India we are emotionally and aesthetically vested in our regional cinemas and language cinemas; national cinema does not really speak to us. Willemen was one of the early theorists of this phenomenon. It is a remarkable book and for me it has withstood the passage of time and advances in film studies really well. Thanks.