David Bordwell, the film historian, author and blogger, in an editing room on the campus of the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
Andy Manis for The New York Times
LAST Sunday the film historian David Bordwell watched movies from Spain, Denmark and Romania at the Wisconsin Film Festival here in Madison, where he has lived if rarely stayed still for four decades. He had just returned from the Hong Kong International Film Festival, after which he drove some 400 miles (and back) from Madison to Bloomington, Ind., to deliver a lecture. In between all this flying, driving and watching, he also posted some 14,000 words on his blog, davidbordwell.net. Then it was off to Ebertfest in Champaign, Ill., a film festival programmed by Roger Ebert, who has called Mr. Bordwell “our best writer on the cinema.”
He might be retired, and you might never have heard of him, but at 62 Mr. Bordwell remains extraordinarily prolific and perhaps more influential than ever. His blog is read by academics but also routinely featured on aggregate sites like moviecitynews.com next to industry dispatches from Variety. “Minding Movies,” an anthology of blog posts by him and Kristin Thompson, his wife and frequent collaborator, is due next spring. And new editions of their textbooks “Film Art” (ninth) and “Film History” (third) were issued last year. If an undergraduate takes a single film class, it’s a good bet that one of these books will be on the syllabus.
Outside of the academy (and sometimes in it too) film studies have long generated degrees of mirth, bafflement and hostility, which can happen when you mix polysyllabic words like intertextuality with high-concept producers like Jerry Bruckheimer. In 2003 The Los Angeles Times Magazine published a cover article, “Lights, Camera, Action. Marxism, Semiotics, Narratology,” by David Weddle, who was aghast at what his daughter, a film-studies major, was studying in her department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. It was the kind of freak-out that film studies people were used to (then and now) — after all, it’s only a movie.
Back in the mid-1980s, when I was a graduate student in cinema studies, psychoanalytic and feminist film theory, with their emphasis on the male gaze and female bodies (never as sexy as it might seem), were the rage. I read a lot of work influenced by the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, and while it was intellectually stimulating, I later decided that this wasn’t a fruitful approach for me. At the time it felt as if everyone was writing variations on the same issues (visual pleasure blah blah blah) while using the same almost ritualistically recycled theories with the same types of films that conveniently fit those theories. (Mr. Bordwell would later take direct aim at theory with a capital T, making a lot of people unhappy.)
That’s one reason why the 1985 publication of “The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960” — by him, Ms. Thompson and Janet Staiger, who read chapters aloud to one another during the writing — was so welcome. Dedicated to the actor Ralph Bellamy, the writer Anita Loos “and their many co-workers in the Hollywood cinema,” this magisterial work uses 300 movies from 1915 to 1960 (and a bit beyond) to trace changes in Hollywood’s production practices and in its technologies through, for instance, a history of cameras. It also identifies the conventions that helped constitute the classical style through devices like continuity editing; explaining how these devices work to create systems of cinematic narrative, time and space; and examining how these systems work together.
This was history with a vengeance: detailed, rigorous, monumental. Though well received, the book had its detractors and continues to draw criticism for, among other things, its cut-off dates and insistence on the coherence of the Hollywood style. The book alone certainly didn’t reintroduce history back into film studies, but its insistence on the historical conditions that control and shape “textual processes,” along with the depth and breadth it brought to writing film history, has been profound. The discipline’s new emphasis on cinema’s past has been rewarding, but it also suggests that film studies has entered a nostalgic, even elegiac stage: many scholars have turned back the clock to write about early and silent cinema at the very moment that others are theorizing about the end of cinema in the digital age.
The boundlessly enthusiastic Mr. Bordwell doesn’t come off as nostalgic, either in his writing or in person. He grew up on a farm outside the upstate New York town of Penn Yan, where there was only one movie theater. So he fed his cinephilia through early film books like Arthur Knight’s “Liveliest Art” and late-night television. By the time he started teaching at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, he was committed to the serious study of film. (“No soft arguments,” as he puts it.) Madison was an ideal spot partly because it housed a trove of research material, including the United Artists collection of more than 5,000 films, and more than 2,000 boxes of paper material. And the school was hopping, with 22 film societies and the influential journal The Velvet Light Trap. He got to work.
During a recent visit to Wisconsin I found him indefatigably energetic, fast talking and walking, as he ricocheted from idea to idea, film to film. It’s no wonder he titled one recent blog post “The Omnivoyeur’s dilemma.” (The equally prolific Ms. Thompson was in Egypt studying Amarna-period sculpture.) Unlike some film academics, who sometimes seem less interested in actual movies than the peripheries, he remains an enthusiast who likes to sit in the first row center. He was toting the book “Why We Cooperate,” in which the psychologist Michael Tomasello looks at why children are naturally cooperative. A practitioner of cognitive film theory, Mr. Bordwell is interested in the process of knowing through perception as when, for instance, we watch actors blinking in movies.
Why should anyone care, other than a Visine executive? As it happens, actors are often taught not to blink, and filmmakers will cut away from a scene before an actor blinks because it’s distracting. Eyes are an important expressive tool, imparting valuable information (joy, sorrow) that we register perceptually: blinking, in other words, is part of how a movie makes meaning. In “Jerry Maguire,” Mr. Bordwell writes in his 2005 book “Figures Traced in Light,” there are “fewer than 30 blinks among three characters in a passage of nearly three minutes,” which exaggerates and amplifies the interpersonal cues. Some filmmakers guide our attention to faces; others direct our attention to postures and gestures or even away from faces toward other expressive elements.
Eye blinks are part of a film’s expressive style, and movies are about style, not just stories. “Why should we inquire into style at all?” he asks rhetorically in “Figures Traced in Light.” Because “without performance and framing, lens length and lighting, composition and cutting, dialogue and music, we could not grasp the world of the story.” But Mr. Bordwell doesn’t just count eye blinks, he also discusses human physiology, specifically the region of the eye that has critical focus. Our eyes scan our environment through “visual search” (“active, fast and indebted to our biological heritage”), something intuited by the English painter Hogarth and that scene-stealer Katharine Hepburn, who wore a scarlet cardigan in “On Golden Pond” because, as the cinematographer said, “your eye goes straight to it.”
Counting blinks is just one of Mr. Bordwell’s strategies for understanding movies, the fundamental goal of the critic. Rather than just gassing on about his interpretations (as reviewers can do) or starting with a theory and finding a set of movies that support that theory (as scholars will do), he looks to the movies first, analyzing what is happening at the level of sight and sound, then extrapolating meaning. In his books and on his blog he also generously employs images taken from the movies, so that you can follow his line of reasoning and trace along with him how German Expressionist cinema influenced William Cameron Menzies, the production designer for “Gone With the Wind.”
You can see for yourself on that blog, which he started after he retired from teaching in 2004. He isn’t the only high-profile academic with a Web site — Henry Jenkins (henryjenkins.org), Yuri Tsivian (cinemetrics.lv\) — but the accessibility of his writing as well as his output make him a noteworthy contributor to our brave new world of moving-image discourse. (Mind you, discourse has its limits: the blog is closed to comments to keep out the noise.) It has recently become axiomatic that film criticism is in crisis. The truth is that outside of the mainstream media world, where reviewers are increasingly disposable, film criticism is doing fine. Academic programs continue to churn out professors who continue to assign books by Bordwell and Thompson that open eyes, ears and minds, and sometimes rock worlds.