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

How Motion Pictures Became the Movies

David Bordwell

January 2013

Butterfly Theatre

Postcard image of Milwaukee’s Butterfly Theatre. It opened in 1911 and was given this facade in 1916. For more on the Butterfly, go here.

This video lecture (embedded below) looks at the artistic choices and changes that emerged in feature filmmaking from 1908–1920. It was originally a PowerPoint talk that I took on the road, but thanks to Erik Gunneson it has become a video that you can play with my voice-over lecture. For more on the background to the lecture, go to this blog post.

The lecture is aimed at general audiences—people interested in film history and students studying the subject. Its primary focus is a general account of the changes in film style across this exciting period. Studying those changes obliges us to analyze sequences, which I do in a series of stills. The secondary focus of the talk is an effort to trace three ways in which historians have sought to describe and explain those changes. This historiographic dimension was only sketched in because it had to get short shrift in the talk; I didn’t want to get bogged down in the literature, or even a welter of citations.

But thanks to the wonders of the Web, I can post the lecture on this page and supplement it with a bibliography and filmography cued to it. If you want to follow up any of the arguments and schools of thought I mention, the publications and links below are good starting points. As for the films: Many that afford neat examples aren’t famous, and many aren’t available on video. For those which are, I include a filmography.

The lecture runs about 70 minutes. Instructors are welcome to use all or part of it in courses. For in-class screenings, if you need to split it in two, there’s a convenient breaking point at about 35:42.

Finally, this lecture couldn’t have been accomplished without the assistance of many film archives over a couple of decades of my research. In particular I want to thank the Danish Film Archive and its curator Thomas Christensen, and above all the Royal Film Archive of Belgium and its successive curators Jacques Ledoux, Gabrielle Claes, and Nicola Mazzanti.

For more in-depth consideration of issues in the talk, you can go to my books On the History of Film Style and Figures Traced in Light: On Cinematic Staging. For broader context, see chapters 1–3 of Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell, Film History: An Introduction, third ed.

(timecode) 2:58: The critics alluded to are among the very earliest in film history. Riccioto Canudo wrote a series of articles collected as Usine aux images (1927, “Image Factory”), and the prolific Louis Delluc became the most famous critic in France through such books as Photogénie. Extracts from their work are available in Richard Abel, ed. French Film Theory and Criticism: A History/Anthology, 1907–1939, vol. I. A key Canudo essay is here. Frank Woods wrote criticism and commentary for the New York Dramatic Mirror before moving into film production, initially with D. W. Griffith. Hugo Münsterberg is widely considered the first film theorist, and his 1915 book The Photoplay: A Psychological Study is still read and analyzed today.

Of the films mentioned, The Birth of a Nation (1915) and The Battleship Potemkin are available in many DVD versions. Such is the power of the editing-based canon!

5:24: In this section I allude to what I’ve called the Standard Version of stylistic history. The filmmaker-heroes of this generation include Louis Lumière, Georges Méliès, Edwin S. Porter, and D. W. Griffith. Surprisingly, none of the many historical surveys by Georges Sadoul, France’s premiere film historian, has been translated into English. For readers of French, the place to start is his Histoire du cinema mondial. Paul Rotha’s central contribution to this debate is The Film Till Now. Lewis Jacobs’ Rise of the American Film remains a monumental account of the film business and film artistry. On the Russians, many of Sergei Eisenstein’s essays have been translated into English, and the screen-filling quotation about cinema as not theatre comes from another director, V. I. Pudovkin, who wrote this in his book Film Technique, pp. 83–84, 23.

11:12: More name-dropping, but it’s important. This Revisionist school of historical research has been, for me, the most exciting development in film studies during my lifetime. Some key references are Noël Burch, Life to Those Shadows; Barry Salt, Film Style and Technology: History and Analysis; Ben Brewster and Lea Jacobs, Theatre to Cinema: Stage Pictorialism and the Early Feature Film; Tom Gunning, D. W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film: The Early Years at Biograph; and Charles Keil, Early American Cinema in Transition: Story, Style, and Filmmaking, 1907–1913. Other major contributions to the debate include Charles Musser, The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907 and Eileen Bowser, The Transformation of Cinema: 1907–1915. The anthology Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative, ed. Thomas Elsaesser and Adam Barker, is a good introduction to several arguments launched by the Revisionist research tradition. See as well in this collection Tom Gunning’s essay, “The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde,” pp. 56–60. For more on the development of editing in the 1910s, see our blog entries here and here and here and here.

Of the films mentioned, Fantômas (1913), Roman d’un mousse (1914), The Woman in White (1917; also streaming here), Hearts and Diamonds (1914), and Muriel (1963) are available in video versions.

35:05: For more on the idea of “intensified continuity” see my book The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies. There is no caption identifying the shots of Joan Allen and Matt Damon, but I thought everyone would recognize The Bourne Supremacy.

35:45: To characterize the third strand of thought, I’d pick out the work of Yuri Tsivian, especially his essays “Portraits, Mirrors, Death: On Some Decadent Clichés in Early Russian Films,” Iris no. 14–15 (Autumn 1992): 70–78 and “Two ‘Stylists’ of the Teens: Franz Hofer and Evgenii Bauer,” in A Second Life: German Cinema’s First Decades, ed. Thomas Elsaesser, pp. 264–276;  Brewster and Jacobs, Theatre to Cinema, mentioned above; and Kristin Thompson’s essay “The International Exploration of Cinematic Expressivity” in Film and the First World War, ed. Karel Dibbets and Bert Hogenkam. pp. 65–85. In this same volume, see also John Fullerton’s “Contextualizing the Innovation of Deep Staging in Swedish Film,” pp. 86–95. My own work on the staging tradition can be found in the books mentioned at the start and in this cluster of blog entries.

My examples available on video include Life of an Evangelist (1915), The Ballet Dancer (1911), The Watermelon Patch (1905), A Corner in Wheat (1909), From the Manger to the Cross (1914), The Vicar of Wakefield (1917), Ingeborg Holm (1913), and Island in the Sun (1957).

43:52: This illustration of the visual pyramid is from E. G. Lutz, The Motion-Picture Cameraman (Scribner’s, 1927), p. 79.

David Bordwell
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