A Celestial Cinémathèque? or, Film Archives and Me: A Semi-Personal History
[September 2014] : David Bordwell : Baby boomers who think that they lived in the best of times can find evidence in my relation to film archives. I started studying cinema in the late 1960s, when university film programs began and archives were starting to open up to university researchers. Over my forty-plus years of visits, archives have undergone many changes and confronted many challenges. I feel privileged to have watched these difficulties rise and be met—the need for preservation and restoration, the debate about rescuing nitrate-based copies, the rise of home video and cable television, and the pressures of digital media. What I hope to offer in the essay that follows are some sketchy answers to questions that arise from my own, admittedly limited, encounter with the archive world. [read the essay]
Shklovsky and His “Monument to a Scientific Error”
[March 2014] : David Bordwell : Viktor Shklovsky was one of the foremost literary theorists and critics of the twentieth century. In becoming a leader of the school of thought called “Russian Formalism,” he exercised immense influence on modern conceptions of literature. He was also a journalist, a screenwriter, an experimental novelist, and a powerful voice against Stalinist oppression of literary culture. [read the essay]
Murder Culture: Adventures in 1940s Suspense
[March 2013] : David Bordwell : In 1947, novelist Mitchell Wilson proclaimed: “Within the past ten years, we have been witnessing a new form of popular fiction—the story of suspense.” We are so used to this genre—many of our bestsellers are suspense thrillers—that it’s a little surprising to recall that once it was quite a new thing. On reflection, though, we might wonder: Was it really so new? Don’t all novels and short stories, indeed all narratives in popular media, depend on suspense? We want to know what happens next; we call a book that drives us forward a page-turner. But writers of the period began to distinguish this general sort of suspense from something more specific. [read the essay]
The Viewer’s Share: Models of Mind in Explaining Film
[May 2012] : David Bordwell : We watch films with our eyes and ears, but we experience films with our minds and bodies. Films do things to us, but we also do things with them. A film pulls a surprise; we jump. It sets up scenes; we follow them. It plants hints; we remember them. It prompts us to feel emotions; we feel them. If we want to know morethe how, the secrets of the craftit would seem logical to ask the filmmakers. What enables them to get us to respond so precisely? [read the essay]
Common Sense + Film Theory = Common-Sense Film Theory?
[May 2011] : David Bordwell : Start with this question, which I think is one of the most fascinating we can ask: What enables us to understand films? All films? Well, set aside some hard cases, like Brakhage abstractions and transmissions of the Crab Nebula from the Hubble telescope (above). Let’s start with a prototype: a film whose moving images present more or less recognizable persons, places, and things caught up in what we intuitively call stories. In other words, an ordinary movie shown in theatres and on video. [read the essay]
Mad Detective: Doubling Down
[November 2010] : David Bordwell : The camera tracks along a fearsome array of knives and cleavers. Cut to a young man, seen from behind, entering an office at Kowloon West police headquarters. Cut to a slow tracking shot that reveals a bulky, swaying shadow. A man backs into the frame holding a knife. The camera continues to glide until it provides a full view: a gigantic pig is hanging from the ceiling, and detective Bun lunges forward to stab it. Cut to show the young man, the novice cop Ho, staring at the spectacle along with other officers. The Mad Detective is tackling another case. [read the essay]
The Classical Hollywood Cinema Twenty-Five Years Along
[September 2010] : David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson : This is a look back at a book that we wrote in the early 1980s and that was published in 1985. For more on the book, and our rationale for posting this essay, see the blog entry here. … Here is the opening of our book proposal: “What we propose is not another study of an outstanding individual, a trend, or a genre. The Classical Hollywood Cinema analyzes the broad and basic conditions of American cinema as a historical institution. This project explores the common idea that Hollywood filmmaking constitutes both an art and an industry. We examine the artistic uniqueness and the mass-production aspects of the American studio cinema.” [read the essay]
William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea
[March 2010] : David Bordwell : William Cameron Menzies was a wunderkind. He started working on films in 1919 when he was twenty-three; ten years later he won an Academy Award. By the time he died in 1956, he had participated in over seventy films. Why has nobody written a book about him? Don’t look at me. After several years sporadically tracking his career, I’m aware that this is a mammoth task. Here I want just to float some ideas about a filmmaker as distinctive, and sometimes as delirious, as Busby Berkeley. Like Berkeley, Menzies shows that a strong imagination can yank the screen away from weak directors. Like Berkeley, he shows that the studio system gave considerable leeway to flamboyant, even peculiar imagery, as long as it could be somehow motivated by story and genre. Just as important, he shows how exceeding the limits of that sort of motivation can seem daring, or maybe just cockeyed. [read the essay]
Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong
[October 2009] : David Bordwell : What did teenage viewers think when Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003) opened with the logo for Shawscope? Could they possibly have shared the frisson felt by baby-boomers who had haunted inner-city theatres thirty years before? Or by viewers who had watched “Kung-Fu Theatre” on 1980s television? Or by fanboys like Tarantino, freeze-framing cropped and trembling VHS tapes? For all those generations, the Shawscope blazon opens onto a world of one-armed swordfighters, beautiful woman warriors, and kung-fu masters with very long white eyebrows. Without denying the peculiar pleasures of these sagas, we can peer behind the logo and study this widescreen format’s place in a broader dynamic. The Shaw mystique arose out of creative innovations of the studio’s personnel, guided by the business policies of an all-powerful producer. We can as well analyze how Shaw directors forged a distinct widescreen aesthetic—one that still, as Tarantino seems to realize, has much to teach us about the ways movies can seize spectators. Hong Kong took tutorials in widescreen from its neighbors, but eventually it could offer lessons, and exhilarating ones, to the world. [read the essay]
Paolo Gioli’s Vertical Cinema
[August 2009] : David Bordwell : The film image has always been biased toward the horizontal. The classic 4:3 rectangle has been the worldwide standard, and when it has varied, it has stretched lengthwise (CinemaScope, Panavision). Within a shot, figures usually move laterally and the camera swivels or travels accordingly. Apologists in the 1920s argued that this horizontality was simply natural. Our eyes are mounted side by side, and we have more eye muscles devoted to tracking objects on that axis than on the vertical one. Further, the commentators argued, painters and other graphic artists had long preferred the horizontal. [read the essay]
(Re)Discovering Charles Dekeukeleire
[June 2009] : Kristin Thompson : The parentheses in my title arise from the fact that Charles Dekeukeleire, a largely forgotten Belgian experiment filmmaker of the late 1920s, had only small recognition in his own day. Hans Scheugl and Ernst Schmidt, Jr., in their admirable reference book, Eine Subgeschichte des Films: Lexicon des Avantgarde-, Experimental-, und Undergroundfilms, say of his films: “They were so advanced in their formal means, so far ahead of their time, that they left behind the puzzled contemporary critics.” There were in fact a few contemporary Belgian writers who discussed Dekeukeleire’s films with insight, but certainly this minority response was not enough to insure his work a place in cinema history after he turned to documentary filmmaking in the 1930s. [read the essay]
Doing Film History
[September 2008] : Nearly everybody loves movies. We aren’t surprised that people rush to see the latest hit or rent a cult favorite from the video store. But there are some people who seek out old movies. And among those fans there’s a still smaller group studying them. Let’s call “old movies” anything older than twenty years. This of course creates a moving target. Baby boomers like us don’t really consider The Godfather or M*A*S*H to be old movies, but many twentysomethings today will probably consider Pulp Fiction (1994) to be old — maybe because they saw it when they were in their teens. Our twenty-year cutoff is arbitrary, but in many cases that won’t matter. Everybody agrees that La Grande Illusion from 1935 is an old movie, though it still seems fresh and vital. Now for the real question. Why would anyone be interested in watching and studying old movies? [read the essay]
The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema
[January 2008] : How do movies carry us from scene to scene? The question is simple, but not many people have explored it. I’m especially interested in how transitions are managed in mainstream, mass-audience movies, but I’ll have some things to say about other traditions too. I’ll also be talking a lot about unity, which can make the whole exercise seem fairly old-fashioned and Aristotelian. Yet examining how films create internal patterns reminds us that those patterns are almost always aimed at the audience. We’re supposed to register those patterns, consciously or not, and they prompt us to react in particular ways. As so often, when we talk about form we’re actually talking about the psychology of spectators. [read the essay]
Anatomy of the Action Picture
[January 2007] : For a long time Kristin Thompson and I have been interested in how films tell stories. We’re fascinated by the principles that govern different storytelling traditions. For the sake of simplicity, we’ve called the principles norms. The term implies a standard of craft competence, along with a dimension of collective decision-making. Norms are preferred alternatives within a tradition. A norm isn’t a single and inflexible law; it’s best seen as a roughly bounded set of options. Within any cluster of norms, there are always different ways to do anything. [read the essay]
[September 2006] : If you want your movie to fail, be sure to have an independent journalist publish a day-by-day account of its making. History is on your side. In Picture (1952), the founding entry in the genre, Lillian Ross followed the making of Huston’s Red Badge of Courage; the movie sank. Theodore Gershunny’s Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture (1980) expended 340 pages on Rosebud, one of Preminger’s biggest embarrassments. In The Devil’s Candy (1991), Julie Salamon chronicled the fiasco that was The Bonfire of the Vanities. Clearly, an outsider’s making-of book portends a flop. [read the essay]
Preface to the Croatian edition of On the History of Film Style
[August 2005] : Visual style was a major preoccupation of critics, theorists, and filmmakers in the 1920s and thereafter, yet the study of it unaccountably went out of favor at just the moment when it should have been in full flower. As film studies entered the Western academy in the 1970s, most scholars turned away from such “aesthetic” concerns. Instead they promoted a cultural/political framework for examining cinema, emphasizing a symptomatic method of interpretation and a metapsychology derived from psychoanalysis. The influence of this framework is still being felt: Slavoj Žižek is continuing it, more playfully but no less dogmatically. Today’s most influential frame of reference, cultural studies, has continued the anti-aesthetic tradition, replacing questions of artistic design and effect with questions about audiences and broad cultural processes. [read the essay]
Slavoj Žižek: Say Anything
[April 2005] : In The Fright of Real Tears: Krzysztof Kieslowski between Theory and Post‑Theory (London: BFI, 2001), Slavoj Žižek makes some criticisms of my arguments bearing on the history of film style. I reply to those criticisms in the last chapter of Figures Traced in Light (pp. 260–264). But there is much more to say about FRT, and this online essay supplements my remarks in Figures. [read the essay]
Film and the Historical Return
[March 2005] : An assembly of position papers in Cinema Journal, “In Focus: Film History, or a Baedeker Guide to the Historical Turn” (Cinema Journal 44, 1 [Fall 2004], 94–143) raises issues of continuing interest around how historical research might be pursued. It seems to me, however, that the collection offers as many grounds for discouragement as for hope.
The letdown can partly be attributed to the contributors’ embrace of fairly fixed conventions of the symposium genre. The essays carry an unhappy cargo of truisms. We should “construct interdisciplinary discourse” (97); linear narrative is bad; we should encourage non-westerners to write histories of their cinemas; collaboration between scholars would be good (but it carries risks). And, in case anyone has forgotten, “history matters” (124). There’s also the usual call to get with it, the announcement that we’re tired of one thing and need a fresh departure (in particular, what the writer is currently working on). It’s time to discard old habits. For Richard Abel, the primary question of historical research is, “Where next?” (107). “An exclusive focus on gender should be passé,” the collection’s editor Sumiko Higashi warns (97). Those who believe that academic work in the humanities is driven by fashion and a search for novelty at any cost will find some evidence here. [read the essay]
 : People talk about the movies they see, and some people write about those movies for newspapers and magazines. How does film studies, as an academic discipline, accord with these more common ways of talking and thinking about films? The two ways of thinking about film aren’t completely distinct, I think, but some differences are worth noting.
First, ordinary discourse about cinema centers on evaluative talk. “That movie was great! I loved it!” “Really? I didn’t think it was very good.” Likewise film reviewers take as their primary goal the evaluation of films, giving thumbs up or thumbs down, saying whether they regard them as worth the ticket price or not. Academic film studies can involve evaluation, but for most film scholars evaluating a particular movie isn’t, or isn’t always, the goal. [read the essay]
Annotated List of Principal Essays
Walk into just about any introductory film studies class in the United States and you are bound to find students holding a copy of David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s Film Art: An Introduction as part of the syllabus. Since it first came out in 1979, the film has been an essential film studies resource, as well as an innovative one: it was the first intro level film textbook to use actual frames from movies rather than publicity stills in order to give an accurate illustration of film technique on screen. For the new tenth edition, Bordwell and Thompson have taken the book into the new dimension of online video.
Through a partnership with the Criterion Collection, Bordwell and Thompson, with the help of filmmaker Erik Gunneson, have produced an hour-long series of twenty online videos called Connect Film. The videos, meant as companions to the Film Art textbook, explore major concepts of mise-en-scene, cinematography, editing and sound, through films mostly from the Criterion Collection: Breathless, Seven Samurai, Shaun of the Dead, M. Hulot’s Holiday, M and several others. They also explore concepts in computer animation through a couple of independently produced animated films, My Dog Tulip and Sita Sings the Blues. A full list of the videos can be found on Bordwell and Thompson’s blog.
The complete set of videos will be released this summer along with the publication of the new edition of Film Art. They have made one video available, an analysis of eliptical editing in Agnes Varda’s Vagabond, embedded at the top of this entry.
It’s worth noting how they adopt a simple, modular approach to the video. It opens with a brief synopsis of the story illustrated with still images instead of moving film footage. As a video essayist who generally prefers to use moving rather than still images, I was struck by this decision to go the opposite direction. It’s notable how the montage of still images moves briskly alongside Thompson’s narration, with specific images accompanying the points being made in her voiceover. To do this with moving footage would have required more length and spacing out of the narration, in order to let the moments play out.
But this introduction is really intended to set up the central section in which eliptical editing is featured and analyzed in a sequence lasting a little over two minutes. It’s worth noting how the sequence is left intact without editing, commentary or annotation, a contrast to most online video essays I’ve seen. The commentary on the sequence is saved for the final third of the video, where Thompson’s commentary is again accompanied by still images, this time from the sequence. Here it’s particularly interesting that stills are used in place of footage as Thompson describes actions rather than having the footage illustrate them. This approach benefits Thompson’s analysis as some of her obsrevations are underscored by the expressive qualities of a freeze frame: the quality of Mona’s smile while in the tent, the “No Tresspassing” sign, the friendly expression of the supposedly vicious dog. This approach also seems carried over from Bordwell and Thompson’s extensive use of still images in textbooks; in this sense, longstanding techniques are made anew in the video medium.
To see how differently one can approach the format, watch the video essays I produced with Thompson on La Roue and Variety back in 2009 as part of my Shooting Down Pictures project. In these videos her voiceover runs through footage of the films. In those instances the technique I used, which one could term “interwoven”, “immersive” or “invasive” (depending on how positive or negative a connotation you want to append to it). could be more justified as the commentary is directed more towards the film in general rather than focusing on a specific sequence. The approach used in the Vagabond video has an admirable cleanness and precision that preserves the audiovisual integrity of the scene and also establishes an observational distance between the narrator and the work.
The exciting subtext that lies beneath the analysis above, and beneath the very fact that two leading film scholars have produced a formidable body of video work, is that the line dividing filmmaking and film analysis is collapsed and the areas of theory and practice are integrated as never before. This perspective, that film students and enthusiasts are filmmakers and vice versa, is espoused in vivid terms by Bordwell and Thompson themselves, in the first chapter of the new edition of Film Art, as quoted from their blog:
Films are designed to create experiences for viewers. To gain an understanding of film as an art, we should ask why a film is designed the way it is. When a scene frightens or excites us, when an ending makes us laugh or cry, we can ask how the filmmakers have achieved those effects.
It helps to imagine that we’re filmmakers too. Throughout this book, we’ll be asking you to put yourself in the filmmaker’s shoes. This shouldn’t be a great stretch. You’ve taken still photos with a camera or a mobile phone. Very likely you’ve made some videos, perhaps just to record a moment in your life—a party, a wedding, your cat creeping into a paper bag. And central to filmmaking is the act of choice. You may not have realized it at the moment, but every time you framed a shot, shifted your position, told people not to blink, or tried to keep up with a dog chasing a Frisbee, you were making choices.
If you take the next step and make a more ambitious, more controlled film, you’re doing the same thing. You might compile clips into a YouTube video, or document your friend’s musical performance. Again, at every stage you make design decisions, based on how you think this image or that sound will affect your viewers’ experience. What if you start your music video with a black screen that gradually brightens as the music fades in? That will have a different effect than starting it with a sudden cut to a bright screen and a blast of music.
At each instant, the filmmaker can’t avoid making creative decisions about how viewers will respond. Every moviemaker is also a movie viewer, and the choices are considered from the standpoint of the end user. Filmmakers constantly ask themselves: If I do this, as opposed to that, how will viewers react?
These are words well keeping in mind for all the video essayists, film scholars and movie fans out there.
In addition to the videos I made with Kristin Thompson, you can also watch a video essay I produced based on David Bordwell’s review of Oxhide II.
Kevin B. Lee is Editor in Chief of IndieWire’s PressPlay Video Blog and contributor to Roger Ebert.com. Follow him on Twitter.