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


Film Art: An Introduction

Textbook written in collaboration with Kristin Thompson and Jeff Smith. Twelfth edition, New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2019.

Film Art: An IntroductionThis book, first published in 1979, was an effort to give undergraduates an orientation to film aesthetics. It offers, I think, the most detailed outline of the various techniques of the medium. Just as important, and the main reason we wrote the book, it places an emphasis on the film as a whole.

Many film primers don’t go beyond itemizing techniques. We try to show how the whole film is the most pertinent and proximate context for understanding how the techniques work. It isn’t enough just to recognize low angles or a match-on-action; we have to understand what they’re doing in the scene, and the roles they play across the entire movie. The book also introduces some doses of film history, in the belief that all techniques gain their significance in particular historical circumstances.

The book is available in various translations:
Brazilian Portuguese (São Paulo: Unicamp and the University of São Paulo, 2014);
Chinese (pirated: Taipei: Yuan Liou, 1992; Shanghai: Wen Yi Chubanshe, 1992; authorized: Taiwan: McGraw‑Hill International Ltd., 1996; Beijing: Peking University Press, 2014);
Czech (Prague: Akademie múzických umění v Praze, 2012);
Turkish (Ankara: Deki Basım Yayım Ltd., 2012);
Polish (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Wojciech Marzec, 2010);
Vietnamese (NXB Giáo Dục, 2008);
Greek (Athens: National Bank Cultural Foundation, 2006).
Spanish (Barcelona: Paidós, 2006);
Persian (Tehran: Markaz, 2000);
French (Brussels: De Boeck,1999);
Hungarian (Budapest: Hungarian Film Institute, 1997);
Korean (Seoul: Irongua Shilchon, 1994);
Italian, Slovenian, and Japanese translations are in progress.

February 2019 • McGraw-Hill Education
paperback ISBN 1260485129

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[more on Film Art, including essays from past editions]

Film History: An Introduction

Textbook written with Kristin Thompson (first-named author). Fourth edition. New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2018.

Film History: An Introduction
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Kristin Thompson and I grew concerned that film history textbooks didn’t reflect the growing scholarship in the field, particularly on early film and non-Western film. Too often U.S. books relied chiefly on films which had distribution here, forgetting that many outstanding films don’t get access to American audiences. Most textbooks also tended to ignore the primary sources, both print and film. (For example, most books didn’t use frame enlargements to illustrate the films but relied instead upon production stills.) So we decided to write a history text. It couldn’t be comprehensive or definitive, but we thought we could offer something different.

Just as Film Art tried to present systematic ways to analyze films, Film History suggested how historians did their work, providing an introduction on historiography and sidebars on discoveries and revisionist work. And we tried to get outside the canon and look at films and filmmakers not previously discussed. (Before the current wave of interest in Kiarostami and Hou Hsiao‑hsien, for instance, we tried to signal their importance.) Over several years we traveled to archives around the world to watch films and gather materials. It was by far the most draining book we have written, and we nearly gave up. We’re pleased, though, that some people find it useful. It’s been translated into Italian (Milan: Castoro, 1998), Chinese (Taiwan: McGraw-Hill International Ltd.), Korean (Seoul: Vision and Language, 2000), Persian (unauthorized: Tehran: Markaz), and Czech.

May 2018 • McGraw-Hill Education
paperback ISBN 1259870359

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Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment

Second edition. 2011.

Planet Hong Kong
This is a revised and updated version of the 2000 edition mentioned below. It adds a chapter on the recent history of the Hong Kong film industry and a chapter on artistic trends over the same period—genres, stylistic options, and the emerging importance of three filmmakers: Wong Kar-wai, Stephen Chow, and Johnnie To. There are also two more “interludes,” one devoted to the Infernal Affairs trilogy, the other to Johnnie To’s crime films as carrying forward particular traditions in local filmmaking. The pdf file includes over 440 illustrations, nearly all in color.

299 pages, black & white and color photographs
January 2011 • Irvington Way Institute Press
PDF ISBN 978-0-9832440-0-4

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Poetics of Cinema

The Way Hollywood Tells It
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This is a collection of fifteen essays, some already published and others I’ve written for the volume. The old items (all revised at least a little) include essays on silent film, Japanese cinema, Hong Kong film, European film, and classic and contemporary Hollywood. The new pieces include a survey of film poetics as a research tradition and research program, an essay on what I call “network narratives,” and an essay on staging in early CinemaScope films. The volume will run about 500 book pages, with 500 illustrations. From Routledge.

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The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies

The Way Hollywood Tells It
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This book consists of two essays focused on contemporary American cinema. The first essay considers the extent to which films of the last thirty years or so have diverged from storytelling models formulated during Hollywood’s studio era. The second essay analyzes visual style and is an expansion of the essay, “Intensified Continuity,” which appeared in Film Quarterly some years ago. Both essays tackle more general issues of continuity and change in Hollywood, try to dispute the idea of a “post-classical” Hollywood, and consider the role played by independent filmmaking. Films analyzed include Jerry Maguire, Memento, JFK, A Beautiful Mind, The Two Towers, and Two Weeks Notice. The Way Hollywood Tells It can be considered an essayistic sequel to some of my sections oof The Classical Hollywood Cinema (1985).

Read the online supplement to The Way Hollywood Tells It.

309 pages, 6 x 9 inches, 157 b/w photographs
April 2006 • The University of California Press
hardcover ISBN 0520232275 • paperback ISBN 0520246225 • downloadable eBook
download PDF of introduction

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Figures Traced in Light

Figures Traced in Light
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This book develops and extends some of the arguments in the sixth chapter of On the History of Film Style. I consider how we might study cinematic staging, particularly ensemble staging, and take four major directors as examples of various staging strategies. The work of Louis Feuillade, Mizoguchi Kenji, Theo Angelopoulos, and Hou Hsiao‑hsien allows me to trace some staging devices across about 100 years of film history. More generally, Figures Traced in Light argues that we can profitably explain a lot about film style by considering the craft context within which filmmakers work, and the last chapter defends this argument against some criticisms it has received elsewhere.

I’ve added online supplements to the published chapters, with the advantage of color illustrations.

327 pages, 7 x 10 inches, 16 color illustrations, 536 b/w photographs
March 2005 • The University of California Press
hardcover ISBN 0520232267 • paperback ISBN 0520241975

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Visual Style in Cinema: Vier Kapitel Filmgeshichte

Ed. Andreas Rost. Frankfurt: Verlag der Autoren, 2001.

Visual Style in CinemaIn June 1999, I was invited by the Cultural Office of Munich to present a series of lectures at the splendid Arri Kino. Each lecture drew upon a wide array of examples and concluded by concentrating on one or two films as exemplary of a trend in cinematic style: Griffith’s Battle of Elderbush Gulch, Sjöström’s Ingeborg Holm, Hawks’ His Girl Friday, Mizoguchi’s Life of Oharu, and Tykwer’s Run Lola Run.

Andreas Rost was host and organizer, and he went on, with the cooperation of Ingo Fliess of Verlag der Autoren, to edit and publish the talks in German. This little volume has a nifty design, with lovely pictures and a user-friendly layout.

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Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment

Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Planet Hong Kong
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An effort to propose a poetics of popular film, while also celebrating a tradition I love. It’s also a mix of academic film history and film analysis with a looser, more informal writing style. Writing it was quite hard, since the subject kept changing from week to week: new films, a fresh crisis in the industry, another batch of books and articles, a new wave of information bursting off the Net. But I hope both fans and nonspecialists find some of it worthwhile. Other Hong Kong pieces are noted in the articles section.

Translated into long form Chinese (Hong Kong: Arts Council Film Critics Society, 2001) and simplified Chinese (Beijing: Hainan, 2003). Italian readers might be interested in a journalistic essay, “Senza Inibizioni: Introduzione al cinema di Hong Kong,” Segno cinema no. 80 (July/ August 1996), pp. 12–14.

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On the History of Film Style

Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.

On the History of Film Style
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Another venture into poetics, this time concentrating on international stylistics. It’s a book of historiography, reviewing three major trends in understanding the history of film style: the orthodox position that emerged in the 1920s (and still governs most history-writing); a counter-position that emerged with André Bazin’s generation in France during the 1940s and 1950s; and a modernist wave that emerged during the 1960s and 1970s, epitomized by the work of Noël Burch. A fourth chapter brings the story up to date, concentrating on “revisionist” work in early cinema (Charles Musser, Tom Gunning, Kristin Thompson, Ben Brewster, et al.). Each chapter offers some criticisms. The fifth chapter suggests studying the history of style as linked problems and solutions, and the approach is illustrated through a history of depth staging.

This is my most straightforward book, both in outline and writing style. (Michael Wood kindly remarked that it was “often funny.”) It could have drawn more explicitly on concepts I broached elsewhere, chiefly ideas of narration and poetics; but I left the connections in the footnotes for interested parties to follow up. On the History of Film Style was selected as a Choice Outstanding Academic Book of 1998. An early version was “The Power of a Research Tradition: Prospects for Progress in the Study of Film Style.“ Film History 5, 4 (1994): 59–79. The book has been translated into Korean (Seoul: Hanul, 2002) and Croatian (Zagreb: Croatian Film Clubs Association, 2005). The Preface to the Croatian edition is online here.

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Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies

Anthology, co-edited with Noël Carroll. Madison:University of Wisconsin Press, 1996.

Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies
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It was inevitable, once my old friend Noël Carroll came to Madison’s philosophy department in 1991, that we’d wind up collaborating. This anthology was an effort to gather a range of work in film theory, film analysis, film history, and the philosophy of film which seemed not to fit into the agenda canonized in academic cinema studies. The field had become defined by anthologies claimed that poststructuralism, postmodernism, cultural studies, and multiculturalism was where the action was—a Big Theory that was best qualified to explain cinema. So this book tries to suggest that there are alternatives: analytic philosophy, cognitive theory, close analysis of films, social theory that recognizes transcultural affinities, and empirical history. We hoped to open a dialogue with what the discipline took as its leading edge. Several essays in Post-Theory have been translated into various Eeuropean languages.

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The Cinema of Eisenstein

Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993. 2nd edition, Routledge, 2005.

The Cinema of Eisenstein
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My third book-length director study, again seeking to do several things at once. First, it gives an overview of Eisenstein’s cinematic work—the films he made, the theories he generated. Taking him as a director trying to fuse theory and practice, I analyze his theoretical writings and all of his films. Secondly, as usual, the book tries to put the director into a pertinent context. Traditionally he is thought of as Comrade Film Constructivist, cinema’s Rodchenko or Mayakovsky. But this doesn’t allow for what he did after 1930, except to consider it a sad decline into official art.

As with Ozu, I try to challenge received opinion. I treat Eisenstein as seeking to synthesize many artistic traditions, both avant-garde and academic. In my account, he becomes a “conservative Constructivist” and an avant-garde Socialist Realist. The “poetics of cinema” theme enters too, but in a different key. Eisenstein himself set out to create a poetics of cinema, particularly of film style, and so the book tries to delineate that and show how it still has value for us. The Cinema of Eisenstein is my only book to win an award; it won the 1993 Theatre Library Association Award for the outstanding book in film, broadcasting, or recorded performance. It has been translated into Chinese (Taipei: Yuan-Liou, 1995) and Spanish (Barcelona: Ediciones Paidós Ibérica, 1999). The second edition contains a new preface. Italian readers may wish to consult “La stilistica della scenografia nel tardo Ejzenstejn,” in Sergej Ejzenstejn: Oltre il cinema, ed. Pietro Montani (Venice: La Biennale diVenezia/ Edizioni Biblioteca dell’Immagine, 1991), pp. 138–145.

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Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema

Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Making Meaning
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This ought to have been the most controversial book I produced, but although many have dismissed what they take to be its conclusions, I’m aware of only one sustained critique (by V.F. Perkins). Making Meaning is about how we interpret films. (I thought about calling it Making Movies Mean, except Kristin pointed out to me that it might be taken as a manual for producing raw-edged action films.) How do we assign abstract significance to films, going beyond the “obvious” meanings and proposing ones that are “deeper”? The argument advances in three stages.

First, the book sketches a history of film interpretation, from the work of early critics through the rise of academic film studies in the 1960s and 1970s, ending in the great quantity of interpretive work that emerged in the 1980s. The second part of the book tries to answer the question of how interpretation works, treating it as a skill which can be mastered. I argue that meaning is indeed made, through a constructive process. Critics build up inferences and deploy the persuasive powers of language to arrive at conclusions permitted within the institution of criticism. My approach, then, tries to be at once psychological (drawing on cognitive psychology), social (treating cognitive schemata as socially approved meaning-making processes), and rhetorical.

The last stretch of the book is more polemical, arguing that by now we have all mastered these skills and we ought to move toward cultivating others—chiefly those of scrutinizing form and style. I argue that the most robust impulse in this direction is the tradition of film poetics. Put another way: interpretation has become easy, but analysis is still hard. This conclusion was misunderstood in a remarkable variety of ways: I wasn’t saying that a complete approach to film could do without interpretation, nor that it wasn’t worth doing (just that it has become predictable). Given all the things we might study in films, contemporary discourse seems very narrow.

The book has been translated into Chinese (Taipei: Yuan-Liou, 1995) and Spanish (Barcelona: Paidós Ibérica, 1995). Excerpts are available in Polish in Interpretacja dziela filmowego, ed. Wieslawa Godzica. (Cracow: Jagiellonian University Press, 1993), pp. 13–32.

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Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema

London: British Film Institute; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988. Available as online PDF.

Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema
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Another study of a director I love. Every time I write a book on a director, I try to give it at least two strata: one for readers interested in that director, and another addressing broader issues. For Dreyer, the plan was to understand the history of international film style through the work of a director who went his own way. For Ozu I was more ambitious: I went for three layers.

First, I wanted to do a thorough study of a director’s use of the medium, tracing the way narrative form and film style interact to create the particular quality of his films. This meant arguing against many received opinions: that Ozu is a highly conservative filmmaker, using a simple style and slice-of-life plotting; that his camera represents a seated Japanese observer; that he forged his style apart from norms circulating in international film culture. Here, as with Dreyer, I tried to capture the experimental aspects of this “traditional” director. (I often find myself looking for the traditional aspects of experimentalists and the experimental aspects of traditionalists.) I also sought to show how Ozu was a keen observer of Western cinema and borrowed freely from it, if only to end up doing things very differently.

Secondly, I tried to provide a historical explanation for Ozu’s work. I brought in the obvious sociopolitical history, which is very important, but (again, as with Dreyer) I tried to insert him into the aesthetic history of the medium, considering how he worked with and against its norms. Finally, and perhaps most ambitiously, the book tries to illustrate how a systematic “poetics of cinema”—a theory of how films are made to achieve certain effects—could shed light on a single director; hence the title.

Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema consists of two parts. The first provides overviews of Ozu’s career from several different angles. It looks at his biography, his place in the Japanese film industry, his methods of storytelling, his use of film techniques, and his films’ social and ideological implications, all the while trying to illustrate how an approach grounded in poetics can help us understand him in ways different from earlier accounts. The second part discusses each film singly, taking up one or two issues raised by the movie but also trying to pick up and develop strands stated in the first part.

Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema has been translated into Japanese (Tokyo: Seido, 1992).

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Narration in the Fiction Film

Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

Narration in the Fiction Film
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How do films tell stories? This book argues that the best way to answer this question is not to assume that they are simply novels or plays on celluloid. Although film borrows from other media, it has distinctive tools for telling tales.

The first part of the book criticizes “mimetic” theories (which liken film to plays or paintings) and “diegetic” theories (which treat cinema as a language or a literary medium). The second part of the book lays out key concepts for analyzing narration in any medium (fabula, syuzhet, style). This part also argues that a cognitive approach to narrative best captures the main features of filmic narration. The third part of the book argues that across the history of cinema several traditions (“norms”) of storytelling have emerged, and viewers who have mastered those norms are able to understand and enjoy films in those modes. The norms discussed are “classical” narration, “art-cinema” narration, and “historical-materialist” narration. The book concludes by examining the ways in which Jean‑Luc Godard challenges these norms, and indeed many of the concepts in the book as a whole. Narration in the Fiction Film has been translated into Spanish (Barcelona: Ediciones Paidós Ibérica, 1996); Hungarian (Budapest: Hungarian Film Institute, 1996); Persian (Tehran: Farabi Cinema Institute, 1998); and Chinese (Taipei: Yuan Liou, 1999).

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The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960

Written in collaboration with Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul; New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

The Classical Hollywood Cinema
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During the 1970s and early 1980s film scholars of various stripes were referring to a “classic” or“classical” cinema, centered in the U.S. studio system. In this very long, densely printed, heavily footnoted book, two colleagues and I tried to describe, analyze, and explain what this concept might mean. The book traces the emergence of a distinct film style, based on principles of staging, editing (the “continuity” system), and storytelling, that soon became just “normal” moviemaking. According to the book, a range of technological and institutional factors shaped this style and maintained it over the decades. We stop our coverage in 1960, but the style is still in place today (with some modifications). Thompson’s sections concentrated on silent film; Staiger’s on the film industry, treated as a mode of production; mine range from narrative theory and stylistics to technology.

It was selected as a Choice Outstanding Academic Book of 1985 and has been translated into Spanish (Barcelona: Ediciones Paidós Ibérica, 1997).

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The Films of Carl-Theodor Dreyer

Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981. Out of print.

The Films of Carl-Theodor Dreyer
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This was an effort to understand a director I admire by placing him within the history of film style and form. The book argues that Dreyer explored several avenues of film technique in a way that has affinities with filmic modernism and modernism in adjacent arts. I also suggest that his methods of storytelling involve transformations of techniques he inherited from Scandinavian silent cinema and from the theatre. Using a comparative method, and much influenced by narratologists like Roland Barthes, the book tries to track Dreyer in relation to the development of mainstream film style.

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