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

Preface to the Croatian edition of On the History of Film Style

On the History of Film Style, (O povijesti filmskoga stila. Zagreb: Croatian Film Clubs Association, 2005).

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.

Even in the 1970s, however, there were some exceptions. In Film as Film (1972), V.F. Perkins proposed a theory of style as narratively motivated expressivity. A group of scholars in my department at the University of Wisconsin–Madison (Kristin Thompson, Edward Branigan, and myself) explored stylistic organization in films by Ozu, Dreyer, and others. Avant-garde uses of style were examined by P. Adams Sitney, Noël Carroll, Fred Camper, Paul Arthur, and other scholars clustered at New York University. Most numerous were scholars of early cinema; thanks to the new availability of prints, a generation of researchers tested many traditional claims about the origins of editing, lighting, point-of-view framings, and the like. Although many of those scholars would eventually shift their concerns to cultural matters, they showed that the “birth of film language” was a far more complicated affair than we had believed.

I am of this generation, and On the History of Film Style bears witness to my stubborn insistence that style matters a great deal. At one level, the book is an effort to mount a historiography of one strand of film studies: the ways in which Western thinkers have told a story about the continuity and change in one aspect of cinematic art. I organize the major trends into three “research programs” and try to show how later ones built upon their predecessors. I also suggest that in order to explain how style functions in films, and how it has changed over time, these programs presuppose some solidly existing cinematic practices. That is, regardless of the differences among the three research programs, they are obliged to work with descriptive tools bequeathed us by filmmakers (editing, camera movement, etc.) and earlier writers (alternating editing, “deep-focus” staging). Historians of film style have agreed to a very large extent about what phenomena are to be explained; they have disagreed about the best ways to explain them.

One theme of the book is the belief that historians of style have sought to sculpt patterns of change and continuity into a large-scale narrative. The first such story is the silent era’s “evolution of film language,” utilizing a birth/maturity/decline metaphor. A somewhat different tale relies upon the dialectical dynamic proposed by Bazin, whereby the silent cinema’s stylistic tradition splits apart and reunifies itself at a higher level. A third narrative is that of long-term running opposition, with a dominant practice—mainstream entertainment filmmaking—constantly “deconstructed” by avant-garde practices (the model suggested by Noël Burch). I argue that such grand arcs are too simple, sacrificing nuance and variety to sweeping, quasi-Hegelian patterns. (Such, I suggest, is the problem as well with the historical assumptions underlying the film theory of Gilles Deleuze.) Better to think of continuity and change in film style as presenting no grand narrative but rather a linked set of problems and solutions, with each problem producing several solutions, each solution posing a new cluster of opportunities and obstacles. There is a certain unity to this exfoliating process—some problems persist, some solutions become canonical-but filmmakers will constantly experiment with new ways to fulfill old needs, in the process generating new needs. I try to illustrate this process in the last and longest chapter by tracing a history of depth staging as a linked set of problems and solutions.

Upon its original publication, this book encountered objections of several sorts. Since I’ve tried to answer several of those in a forthcoming study, Figures Traced in Light: On Cinematic Staging (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), I will just indicate here that many of these rebuttals proposed no alternative answer to the questions I have posed. Some critics suggested that the very study of style was negligible when there were more important things, like political ideology, to be studied. But this is no objection to the conduct of my inquiry, only a desire that I do something else. I confess as well that I have never much trusted what film academics say about politics; most of it looks deeply naïve if compared to work in genuine political science.

Other critics claimed that the failings of my argument were those of “cognitive film studies”; but this objection rested on a misunderstanding. There is nothing distinctively “cognitive” about the claims I make here. For instance, my assumptions about rational agency are minimal. I assume that filmmakers make choices, are responsible for them, but may see those choices eventuate in unforeseen consequences. Academics certainly claim agency for themselves in exactly these dimensions; why should we deny them to filmmakers?

Still other critics remarked that the problem I tackle in the last chapter—that of how the viewer could be brought to notice salient narrative information—is conceived too narrowly. While I agree that narrative denotation is not the sole function of style, it is a central one; it’s hard to imagination a filmmaker working in the narrative tradition who did not want us to notice certain story information. (Even if he or she is misdirecting our attention, steering us to negligible items to distract us from other things, the filmmaker is still coaxing us to notice some things and not others.) Of course I state that this is not the only problem of visual design facing the filmmaker, and in Figures Traced in Light I propose some other problems that are no less important.

Critics launched some more abstract objections as well, such as reservations about rational agency tout court, or ruminations that perhaps only Western narrative wants to make story information salient (Žižek again), but these were floated in such speculative fashion that they remain, as stated by my critics, idle. This breed of casual, ad hoc reply is a sign that film studies is still far from being in the mainstream of empirical inquiry, where argument from evidence, not ideology, is the principal means of advancing knowledge. We have learned, I hope, from the collapse of 1970s Grand Theory that theorizing without data, or by inflating an emblematic example, is a barren enterprise.

Not that On the History of Film Style is invulnerable to critique. I’m probably more aware of its shortcomings than any of my critics. Still, if it spurs other researchers to test its conceptual framework, the range of its evidence, and my argumentative conclusions, I shall be content.

Finally, I am grateful to my Croatian colleagues for making this book available to readers in their country. I look forward to continuing the conversation in the years ahead.

David Bordwell
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