David Bordwell's website on cinema   click for CV
    %62or%64%77e%6cl%40%77%69%73c%2e%65%64%75

Home

Blog

Books

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

Chapter 3 | Three Dimensions of Film Narrative new pdf!

Figures Traced In Light

Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema pdf online

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

Video

CinemaScope: The Modern Miracle You See Without Glasses

How Motion Pictures Became the Movies

Constructive editing in Pickpocket: A video essay

Essays

Shklovsky and His “Monument to a Scientific Error” new!

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

Articles

Book Reports

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 more—the how, the secrets of the craft—it 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]

Hearing Voices

[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]

Studying Cinema

[2000] : 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

 
   
David Bordwell
top of page

comments about the state of this website go to Meg Hamel.