Peter Wollen, Filmmaker and Author of 'Signs and Meaning in the Cinema,' Dies at 81

Teri Bond Michael
Peter Wollen

He also co-wrote Michelangelo Antonioni's 'The Passenger,' starring Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider.

Peter Wollen, who wrote and directed the early Tilda Swinton movie Friendship's Death and penned Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, an influential 1969 book about film theory, has died. He was 81.

Wollen died Tuesday in Haslemere, Surrey, after a long struggle with Alzheimer's, his son, Chad Wollen, announced.

Wollen also co-wrote with Mark Peploe the screenplay for Michelangelo Antonioni's The Passenger (1975), starring Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider, and collaborated with fellow film theorist Laura Mulvey, his first wife, on several projects, including the documentary Penthesilea: Queen of the Amazons (1974) and the features Riddles of the Sphinx (1977) and Crystal Gazing (1982).

As Samuel Wigley wrote for the British Film Institute in October, Signs and Meaning in the Cinema was a "canonical publication in the then-young field of film studies" and "a brilliantly original dissection of the art of film, bringing to bear intellectual ideas from the fields of semiotics and post-structuralism on the work of directors such as Sergei Eisenstein, John Ford and Howard Hawks."

Wollen embarked on Signs and Meaning because he "wanted to establish, first and foremost, that film was an art and therefore it should be studied for its own sake in the same way as the other arts — literature, painting, music, etc.," he said in an interview. "At that time, film was primarily seen in the context of the mass media, which led to a communications or sociological approach, rather than an aesthetic approach."

Friendship's Death (1987), financed by the BFI, starred Swinton as an extraterrestrial robot on a peace mission to Earth in the second film she ever made.

A London native and Oxford graduate, Wollen also worked for Channel 4 in England and curated significant art exhibitions, including one in 1982 that focused on painter Frida Kahlo and photographer Tina Modotti, which he once wrote was "an unintended launch-pad for all things Fridamania." 

Wollen also taught at UCLA and wrote essays for Sight and SoundSeven DaysBananasNew Left ReviewThe Nation and The London Review of Books.

His son said he battled Alzheimer's for almost two decades. He also is survived by his second wife, writer Leslie Dick; Mulvey; daughter Audrey Wollen; and granddaughter Zoe.