PRINT March 2020



Peter Wollen, August 1984.

ON DECEMBER 17, 2019, Peter Wollen died from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, a slow, debilitating illness, a cruel death. He had been in a care home in England for fourteen years. Alzheimer’s denied Peter—and us—the life of his brilliant mind. Death may be a writer’s subject—the subject—but it is awful and very sad to write about a good friend’s. I know this will be inadequate to Peter.

Peter thrived on ideas, adventures, and had many of both. He held strong views and was very knowledgeable. Peter wrote on film, art, politics, fashion, on culture generally. He wrote poems, curated art exhibitions, and directed films. He loved researching, discovering the coincidences that were never credited: who met whom when and what happened. He found the stories behind the official versions. To say Peter Wollen was preternaturally and uniquely gifted is not adequate. 

I met Peter through a mutual friend, Karyn Kay, coeditor of the first feminist film anthology, Women and the Cinema (1977). It was 1978 or ’79, and we three were walking down Broadway into SoHo. Peter took long strides; Karyn and I half jogged to keep up. We were talking about film, when suddenly Peter asserted, “All narratives are Oedipal.” I was struck, and began thinking about it. Peter’s mind excited mine.

By that time, he had already written (and I’d read) his classic Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (1969/1972); it changed the field of cinema studies. With film theorist Laura Mulvey, his collaborator and first wife, he cowrote and codirected Riddles of the Sphinx (1977) and other films seminal for feminist filmmaking. Peter’s essay “The Two Avant-Gardes,” published in 1975 in Studio International, delineated the divisions between the experimental and independent traditions in the work of, say, Stan Brakhage and Jean-Luc Godard. 

Born on June 29, 1938, in Woodford, England, Peter knew the world differently from an American like me; World War II was not my lived history—and recognizing its place in Peter’s life was crucial to my understanding of him. Peter would come to fuse, to my mind, a world citizen who was a British subject. His geopolitics were shaped by British history, by its former empire, by its role in the Middle East, by his also being a European, and by living through World War II. We once discussed the origin of the word Europe and its root, Europa.

Peter wrote and directed Friendship’s Death (1987), based on a story he had written in 1975, and set it in Amman, Jordan, during Black September in 1970. In the 1960s and early ’70s, Peter had worked as a journalist and spent time in the Middle East, living in Iran, which he called Persia, for almost a year. He traveled home by train through many of the then Soviet Republics: Estonia, Lithuania, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, etc. He once recited all their names to me, very fast, the way he ate. (Because of boarding school, he told me.)

Friendship’s Death was his most intimate and realpolitik film, both. It starred a young Tilda Swinton in her first leading role, playing an extraterrestrial creature named Friendship who comes to Earth to promote peace and engages in intense conversation with a British journalist. They discuss love and politics, everything, and by the end of the film, Friendship has joined the Palestinians.

To say Peter Wollen was preternaturally and uniquely gifted is not adequate.

In 1988, Peter and writer Leslie Dick—they married in 1993—moved from London to Los Angeles, where Peter would teach at UCLA until 2005. In the mid-1990s, the American Film Institute (I believe it was) invited Peter and filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin to present a horror film. Gorin chose The Honeymoon Killers (1970), an indie cult favorite. Peter chose Bambi (1942). Peter had first seen Bambi when it appeared in England in 1943. He was five.

When a bomb drops, Peter explained, it explodes on impact, and destroys buildings, kills people. Then fires start, spread, and devastate. During the war, the British government separated children from their parents and sent them out of London to escape the blitz. In Bambi, the fawn’s mother is killed by hunters, so he is eternally separated from her; then a horrific forest fire spreads, and he is separated from his girlfriend. Peter declared Bambi “a war film.” I watched Gorin startle—a children’s movie turned deftly and profoundly into a product of war.

Peter could and did turn things on their head. When he wrote about Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain in 1992 for the British Film Institute, he brilliantly transformed Kelly from a great dancer to a great director/choreographer, an auteur who revolutionized dance in film.

Peter liked expensive restaurants. In the late ’80s, we were in London, and I suggested we eat somewhere not so pricey. He recommended a pub on the Portobello Road, which the Daily Mail, I learned later, had called “the worst pub in England.” A dreary place it was, with drunk men at the bar or lining the walls, drinking up pints before the 11 pm closing time, eating chips and Scotch eggs: poor fare for poor people.

“This isn’t an expensive restaurant,” he said. Making his point, Peter revealed another aspect of himself—he was an extremist, carrying logic to its end. There were no in-betweens in anything, and with him you knew where you stood.

There are so many coincidences in life and art that Peter appreciated and wrote about. One of the very best, in my view, might be this: I was staying at Leslie’s house in August 1984. Peter had eaten dinner nearby, and came over to see me at Leslie’s. So they met. Inadvertently, I’d introduced them, and, as we talked at Leslie’s kitchen table, I saw it—saw them fall in love. 

After Peter became sick, through Leslie and their daughter, Audrey, I witnessed the ravaging, savage effects this terrible disease had on them and on Chad, Peter’s son with Laura. All have, in actuality, missed Peter for a very long time. As his friend, among other friends, I have also. At least now, Leslie said, “now he’s been released.” 

Lynne Tillman's most recent novel is Men and Apparitions (Soft Skull Press, 2018).