David Bordwell's website on cinema   click for CV




Perplexing Plots: Popular Storytelling and the Poetics of Murder

On the History of Film Style pdf online

Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling

Film Art: An Introduction

Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages pdf online

Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies pdf online

Planet Hong Kong, second edition pdf online

The Way Hollywood Tells It pdf online

Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Figures Traced In Light

Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Exporting Entertainment: America in the World Film Market 1907–1934 pdf online


Hou Hsiao-hsien: A new video lecture!

CinemaScope: The Modern Miracle You See Without Glasses

How Motion Pictures Became the Movies

Constructive editing in Pickpocket: A video essay


Rex Stout: Logomachizing

Lessons with Bazin: Six Paths to a Poetics

A Celestial Cinémathèque? or, Film Archives and Me: A Semi-Personal History

Shklovsky and His “Monument to a Scientific Error”

Murder Culture: Adventures in 1940s Suspense

The Viewer’s Share: Models of Mind in Explaining Film

Common Sense + Film Theory = Common-Sense Film Theory?

Mad Detective: Doubling Down

The Classical Hollywood Cinema Twenty-Five Years Along

Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic

William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea

Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong

Paolo Gioli’s Vertical Cinema

(Re)Discovering Charles Dekeukeleire

Doing Film History

The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema

Anatomy of the Action Picture

Hearing Voices

Preface, Croatian edition, On the History of Film Style

Slavoj Žižek: Say Anything

Film and the Historical Return

Studying Cinema


Book Reports

Poetics of Cinema

Film Art

Poetics of Cinema
by David Bordwell. Routledge, 2007.
512 pages, 7 × 10 inches. Illustrations.
[go to Amazon]

[Introduction / 112 kb pdf]

[Chapter 3 | Three Dimensions of Film Narrative / 2 mb pdf]

[Chapter 4 | Cognition and Comprehension: Viewing and Forgetting in Mildred Pierce / 2 mb pdf]

[Chapter 6 | Film Futures / 1.2 mb pdf]

[Chapter 10 | CinemaScope: The Modern Miracle You See Without Glasses / 1.7 mb pdf]

[Chapter 11 | Who Blinked First? / 149 kb pdf]

Poetics of Cinema (2007) gathers several published articles, one going back as far as the 1970s, and several new ones. They move in many different directions, across the history of film, but they do conveniently highlight several areas of my research. Most important, all of these areas of inquiry put a film or batch of films at the center of the process.

This automatically sets me off from some of my peers. Today there are many scholars studying the film industry and probably many more seeking to understand filmic reception by studying audiences in their sociocultural contexts. For those researchers, all the films on earth could dissolve into nothingness tonight, and they’d get up next morning and keep going without losing a beat. Film history without films doesn’t work for me. I need my movies!

Some people think of me as a theorist, and I suppose I am to some extent, but I have always tried to keep theoretical reflection tied to the concrete facts of cinema—as films, as experiences, as part of a historical process. The first section of Poetics of Cinema is the most evidently theoretical. The introductory essay introduces the idea of poetics, a frame of reference that helps me study the things that matter to me most.

One of these things is the aesthetic dimensions of cinema, particularly the ways in which form and style shape meanings and effects. This goes back to my youth, when I fell under the spell of literary and art criticism. My earliest publications were in the area of film criticism, and my starting point for almost any project is an analysis of how the films in question are put together at the broadest level and how they work on a moment-by-moment basis. I suppose an art critic would speak of structure and facture; a literary critic might speak of architectonics and texture. Less grandiosely, I’d say I study large-scale cinematic forms, typically narrative ones, and small-scale cinematic texture.

A second area of concern for me involves the historical circumstances that create aesthetic traditions, such as classical Hollywood storytelling. Once we bring formal principles to light, how shall we explain them? How do we think they arose in history? What factors in culture or the film community can we invoke to explain how these films took the shapes they did? This has led me to examine national cinema traditions (in my work on Dreyer, Ozu, and Eisenstein) as well as technological and production conditions (in The Classical Hollywood Cinema and The Way Hollywood Tells It). I’ve also posited some historical continuities that are transnational, such as the tradition of depth staging (in On the History of Film Style and Figures Traced in Light).

I’m also interested in explaining how the aesthetic dynamics of films are designed to elicit effects from spectators. In the mid-1980s, I found that the most satisfying explanations for why films had the forms and styles they did involved the ways in which these aesthetic elements engaged our minds. Every gesture, every cut, every camera movement is designed to shape our uptake. Our experience—perceptual, cognitive, emotional—is guided by form and style. It seemed to me then, and still does, that a broadly cognitive conception of how our minds mesh with movies is well suited to explain many aspects of cinematic design.

These three areas of inquiry—film aesthetics, the causes of aesthetic traditions, and cognitive explanations for artistic design—are reviewed in the volume’s introductory essay, “Poetics of Cinema.” Ideas from these domains are put to use in the following essay, “Convention, Construction, and Cinematic Vision.” There I analyze some functions, sources, and effects of shot/reverse-shot editing.

After this pair of theoretical essays, Part II concentrates on problems of narrative. I offer a general theory of cinematic narrative, teased out along three dimensions. This overview is followed by some case studies: an analysis of narrative comprehension in Mildred Pierce, a discussion of the tradition of “art cinema,” and a discussion of “forking path” narratives like Run Lola Run and Sliding Doors. The last essay in the section is a new, long study of what I call “network narratives”—films with several protagonists whose actions both diverge and interlock. I discuss several films in this essay, but the most detailed analysis is reserved for Nashville, Magnolia, Favoris de la lune, and Les Passagers. This essay gives me the opportunity to test out several of the ideas floated in earlier pieces.

Part III is devoted to stylistics. It gathers essays on Andrew Sarris’s theory of style and the techniques of classic Japanese and Hong Kong films. Another essay examines the very distinctive style of the German director Robert Reinert. The longest and newest essay is devoted to the stylistics of CinemaScope. Here I try to trace how different principles of staging were manifested in the early anamorphic movies. Like Part II, this part doesn’t neglect the way aesthetic choices affect spectators. For instance, one essay proposes a cognitively flavored explanation of why actors so seldom blink.

The essays collected here don’t sample all areas that intrigue me. For example, I’ve written “meta-analyses” of the conventions of critical interpretation (Making Meaning) and of the historiography of style. Still, this anthology is a fair survey of the kind of research I’ve done over the last thirty years. Many of the topics in the book are taken up in entries on the blog maintained by Kristin Thompson and me.

The book’s main page on Amazon suggests that it’s available only in horrendously overpriced hardcover, but there is a more reasonably priced paperback here.

There are some errors in Routledge’s design of Poetics of Cinema. For reasons nobody would explain to me, some pages are more densely packed with text than others. More important, the designer didn’t lay out the chart accompanying the Mildred Pierce essay correctly. (It’s also inaccurate in the first printing of Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen’s Film Theory and Criticism of 2009, but in a different way: That version leaves off everything after shot 4. What is it about this harmless chart?)

But I made mistakes too, and here are the ones that have surfaced after the book’s first fifteen months of life.

p. 30: Not Spiderman but Spider-Man.

p. 35, lines 6–7: Mistaken repetition of clause referring to running time of introductory shot of Rope.

p. 126, second sentence from the top: Should be “All that matters is that a scene calls forth in us a mental schema—people tell one another about an event that has occurred—and that triggers only one relevant inference.”

p. 133, last sentence of first paragraph: Should be “If the implied author is the set of overarching principles of design governing the film, we can simply talk about said principles, even, or especially, when they create problems of unreliability for the spectator.”

p. 221, fourth line: Should be “Michael Haneke.” Thanks to Peter Parshall for the correction.

p. 243, third line: Should be “2:37 from Australia”. Thanks to Peter Hourigan for pointing this out.

p. 248, third line: Should be “Cesc Gay.”

p. 350: Not Oscar in The Little Foxes but Horace.

And here is the Mildred Pierce chart, currently on p. 144, as it should be rendered.

Mildred Pierce: The opening scene and its replay

Opening shots (A)


Replay shots (B)

1. 5 sec: (extreme long shot)
Beach house at night, car visible alongside (Fig. 4.3). Dissolve to:


1. 12 sec: (medium shot)
Mildred goes to the car and tries to start engine (Fig. 4.12).

2. 4 sec: (long shot)
House and car. Two pistol shots heard (Fig. 4.4).  


2. 4 sec: (medium close-up):
Mildred slumped over steering wheel. Two shots heard (Fig. 4.13).

3. 8 sec: (medium long shot)
Monte facing camera, looking off left (Fig. 4.5). Third and fourth pistol shots hit mirror.


3. 5 sec: (ms)
Veda fires four times (Fig. 4.14).

Monte is hit, staggers for­ward (4.6) and falls to floor. A pistol is tossed into the frame (Fig. 4.7).     


4. 6 sec: (ms)
Monte is staggering forward and falls to floor (4.15). A pistol is tossed into the frame (Fig. 4.16).

4. 13 sec: (ms):
Monte wobbles his head, opens his eyes, and says: "Mildred" (Fig. 4.8).


Monte wobbles his head, eyes open, and says: "Mildred" (Fig. 4.17).

Pan up to mirror; sound of door slamming (Fig 4.9).      


5. (ls)
Pan with Mildred coming in; sound of door slamming (Fig. 4.18).
She meets Veda in the parlor (Fig. 4.19).

In the parlor, Veda tells Mildred lies about shooting Monte. Near the doorway, she begs Mildred to protect her (Fig. 4.20).

5. (ls)
Empty parlor, with Monte's corpse in the firelight. Doorway empty (Fig. 4.10).



6. (ls)
Car outside pulls off (Fig. 4.11).



David Bordwell
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