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Peter Wollen. Photo: Teri Bond Michael, courtesy of Leslie Dick.
Peter Wollen. Photo: Teri Bond Michael, courtesy of Leslie Dick.

Peter Wollen (1938–2019)

Filmmaker and theorist Peter Wollen, among a small group of British scholars who crystallized a new aesthetic paradigm that revitalized cinema studies in the late twentieth century, has died at age eighty-one. Breaking from prevailing auteurist theories to forge more cooperative models of thinking about movies, Wollen engaged psychoanalysis, radical politics, modernism, and fashion in a structuralism first advanced in Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (1969). That book, as well as “The Two Avant Gardes,” a 1975 essay published in Studio International, are among several texts by Wollen considered pioneering contributions to film theory.

Born in London in 1938, Wollen studied English at Oxford University before beginning his career as a political journalist and film theorist, publishing in the New Left Review and later the London Review of Books. With Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, Wollen augured a methodological shift in film criticism, incorporating the French-inflected insights of structuralism and semiotics. “My guiding principle,” he wrote in its introduction, “has been that the study of film does not necessarily have to take place in a world of its own, a closed and idiosyncratic universe of discourse from which all alien concepts and methods are expelled. The study of film must keep pace with and be responsive to changes and developments in the study of other media, other arts, other modes of communication and expression.” His ideas found further footing in Screen, the quintessential British Film Institute–backed journal he refounded in 1971 with feminist filmmaker and theorist Laura Mulvey, to whom he was married between 1968 and 1993.

In 1974, Wollen made his directorial debut with Penthesilea: Queen of the Amazons, inspired in part by Heinrich von Kleist’s play and the first of six films cowritten and codirected with Mulvey. In 1975, he coscripted Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger. He was chair of the film department at the University of California, Los Angeles, and also taught at Brown University, New York University, Columbia University, Northwestern University, and Vassar College. He directed or codirected Riddles of the Sphinx (1977), Amy! (1980), Crystal Gazing (1982), The Bad Sister (1983), Friendship's Death (1987), and Frida Kahlo and Tina Modotti (1983). 

Wollen also curated Nan Goldin’s “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh (1985); “Frida Kahlo and Tina Modotti” at Grey Art Gallery, New York, and the Museo Nacional de Arte, Mexico City (1982–83); “On the passage of a few people through a rather brief period of time: the Situationist International, 1957–72” at the Centre Pompidou, Paris (1989); and “Addressing the Century: Art and Fashion” at Southbank Centre, London (1998); among other exhibitions. He is survived by his first wife and their son Chad, and by his second wife, artist and writer Leslie Dick, and their daughter Audrey.