As an undergraduate, struggling on my dissertation about queer cinema, the work of Richard Dyer was such a tremendous help to me. Some 18 years later, he accepted my invitation to visit the University of Antwerp and on March 6th, 2013, he will give a talk about The Sissiness of Music in Rope and Tea and Sympathy.
This takes me back. To the times when, as a student, I devoured films and books about films. When I discovered a whole new approach to the analysis of media, quite distinct from the social science approach I had been taught before. When I made mad plans to get an MA abroad, my film studies professor suggested to apply to the University of Warwick. I did go to the UK and Richard Dyer eventually became the supervisor of my MA dissertation. It was the most intense year of my life: watching films over and over again, reading even more, discussing as I never had before. It was bewildering and confusing, but in retrospect it was the most formative period of my intellectual life.
After the MA, first looking for a job then getting the chance to work on a PhD, I gradually moved to other media (TV), themes (national identity) and methods (audience research). Still, traces of Richard’s work and thinking remained important, both in my teaching and in my research. His visit is a good occasion to commemorate his person and his work. I will not even attempt to do justice to the breadth and richness of his work, but offer some reflections on why I think he is so important. This is a very personal account, nostalgic at times and probably overly sentimental – but I think this tone is appropriate, both in the context of a blog post and when thinking about Richard.
To start with the title of this post: one of the first things that struck me when I arrived at the University of Warwick, meeting Richard Dyer and other distinguished professors such as Victor Perkins and Ginette Vincendeau, is how they insisted on being addressed by their first name. This was quite a change, having spent five years addressing any teacher as ‘professor’. It reflected an open, personal and supportive attitude to students. In the case of Richard, it also reflected his modesty: while clearly successful and respected, as an author and intellectual, he was also friendly and approachable, a quality I both admire and try to take as an example.
Then there is the title of his talk. It is quite thrilling and slightly subversive to have one of the guests in our ‘respected international guest lecture series’ (the PSW lectures), dealing mostly with Serious Politics or Social Topics, talk about something as seemingly frivolous as effeminacy in the musical choices of some old Hollywood movies. Of course, this topic may be music to the ears of cinephiles, but I am quite sure some eyebrows were raised when the announcement was sent around. This talk reflects some of the issues Richard’s work is dealing with (such as music and sexuality in film) and it is good to remember that he has often been one of the first to do so.
While many of his books are now canonic, they surely did open up new fields in the past. In a discipline seeking to establish its seriousness, Richard wrote about ‘light’ entertainment (Light Entertainment, 1973; Only Entertainment, 1982) and ‘popular’ aspects of cinema such as stars (Stars, 1979; Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society, 1987). He was among the first to seriously analyse popular genres like musicals and the soap opera(Coronation Street, 1981), also drawing attention to popular – rather than ‘art’ – European cinema (Popular European Cinema, 1992).
Yet, his work on these topics isn’t a mere celebration of the pleasures of the popular. Having been trained at the Centre of Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham, his work is concerned with issues of meaning and ideology, reflecting on the social context and importance of films. Movies do matter, particularly in the ways they represent reality (The Matter of Images: Essays on Representation, 1993). This is an issue he developed in particular in relation to sexuality (Gays and Film, 1977; Now You See It, 1990; The Culture of Queers, 2002)and race (White, 1997).
But then again there’s the pleasures and admiration of great movies (Brief Encounter, 1993; Seven, 1999), of pastiche (Pastiche, 1997) and music (Nino Rota, Music, Film and Feeling, 2010; In the Space of a Song, 2011). Richard’s work is never frivolous, yet it consistently deals with the joys of cinema and popular culture, expressing his tastes and interests, exuding a very personal tone of enthusiasm and genuine love for the films and stars he writes about.
In this respect, I think his work and career are exemplary: following up on individual interests, combining admiration with serious analysis, contributing to a better understanding of cinema in all its multiple aspects, meanings and joys.