What the Media Literacy Movement Can Learn from David Bordwell...

The following conversation with Tessa Jolls about the work of David Bordwell has been developed and cross-posted with CML Connections.


David Bordwell (born July 23, 1947) is an American film theorist and film historian. Since receiving his PhD from the University of Iowa in 1974, he has written more than fifteen volumes on the subject of cinema including Narration in the Fiction Film (1985), Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema (1988), Making Meaning (1989), and On the History of Film Style (1997).

With his wife Kristin Thompson, Bordwell wrote the introductory textbooks Film Art (1979) and Film History (1994). With aesthetic philosopher Noël Carroll, Bordwell edited the anthology Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies(1996), a polemic on the state of contemporary film theory. His largest work to date remains The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (1985), written in collaboration with Thompson and Janet Staiger. Several of his more influential articles on theory, narrative, and style were collected in Poetics of Cinema (2007), named in homage after the famous anthology of Russian formalist film theory Poetika Kino, edited by Boris Eikhenbaum in 1927.

Bordwell spent nearly the entirety of his career as a professor of film at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he is currently the Jacques Ledoux Professor of Film Studies, Emeritus in the Department of Communication Arts.                                                         *********** 

This series of exchanges is inspired by Henry Jenkins’ wish to acknowledge David Bordwell as a leading influence on his own career and thinking.  Tessa Jolls joined Henry in a dialogue to understand Bordwell’s impact and to make connections about his work to media literacy education.

Henry Jenkins

Renee Hobbs had asked me to contribute an essay for her recent anthology, Exploring the Roots of Digital and Media Literacy through Personal Narrative, where I wrote about my relationship with my mentor, John Fiske, and explained how his work had touched indirectly our project for the Digital Media and Learning initiative. Along the way, I ended up writing about Fiske’s mentor, Raymond Williams, as well as my own grandfather.

But the account felt incomplete to me because I did not write about my other key mentor in graduate scholar, David Bordwell. As I do media literacy work, or indeed, any scholarship, I find myself trying to reconcile the voice of these two intellectuals, who rarely got asked to serve on the same dissertation committees because their focuses were so different from each other. There are really two Bordwells, both of which have something to contribute to this field. The first is a formalist, someone who is interested in mapping how cinema works as a medium and the ways that films reflect the different aesthetic traditions from which they emerged.

This Bordwell co-authored Film Art, one of the most widely used textbooks for introductory film, with his wife and writing partner, Kristen Thompson, and they have continued to update the book, generating rich reflections on contemporary and historical film topics through their blog. The other David Bordwell is a cognitivist — that is, he has drawn insights from cognitive psychology to help us to better understand the mental processes by which we perceive and interpret cinematic images. The cognitive movement was a response to strands of media theory which saw spectators as in the thrawl of media texts, as susceptible to their ideological messages; this work was often informed by psychoanalysis, seeing cinema as reflecting the scopophilic desire (the desire to look and possess others with your eyes.) In some ways, a more grassroots version of these ideas helped to shape the more protectionist side of Media Literacy, and so, for those of us looking for a more empowered view of the spectator, Bordwell’s “A Case for Cognitivism” may be a good place to start.

Here’s a quote from A Case For Cognitivism:  “My concern is to show that the cognitivist approach, apart from its propensity for naturalistic explanation, shares with contemporary film theory a commitment to constructivist explanations, in terms of mental representations functioning in the context of social action.”  This statement certainly puts an explanation behind much of the work that we’re doing now, individually and collectively.

So, let’s break this down. In educational terms, constructivism is a pedagogical approach which stresses the ways people form mental models of the world through their experiences acting on the physical world. Bordwell is interested in how something similar occurs as we watch movies. We start with some basic mental template -- some model of the world, some understanding of genres as particular kinds of films, some grasp of the mode of production from which the film emerged, some sense of the social world around us and thus how the film fits into current political and social debates.

A cognitivist would call such templates schemata or above, mental representations. The more experienced we are at watching films of a certain kind, the more nuanced our schemata is. But the schemata becomes the starting point for making sense of what takes place on screen. We form speculations about what is going to take place, who the characters are, what motivates their actions, what their goals are, and what might constitute a satisfying resolution of this narrative. We are moving from sometimes limited information presented on the screen towards fuller understandings of the action as the film progresses. This requires a process of going beyond the information given, to use a term from Jerome Bruner, and thus, our suppositions can be frustrated or corrected by whatever passes on the screen next. Our schemata tell us what to pay attention to, but in turn, the film’s information gets added to our ongoing mental models. The key point here is that the process is active — one of hypothesis formation, testing, and refinement which does not stop when the film is over. We draw on these same schemata when we talk with our friends over sodas after the screening. Part of what media educators do is to help students develop more nuanced schemata to better understand and critically engage with the media they consume. In that sense, we might see Bordwell’s work as a formalist as mapping the norms and practices surrounding particular kinds of cinema and his work as a cognitivist in refining our understanding of the spectator’s processing of the cinematic experience.

Tessa Jolls

Thanks, Henry, for bringing David Bordwell’s insightful film theory to informing our media literacy work.  I can see where the links to media literacy are strong:  Bordwell's ideas about constructivism, about mental representations, and social action — which you explain in more detail — all inform an empowered approach to media literacy education.  As I was delving more into Bordwell’s writings, I came across one of his essays called “Studying Cinema” from 2009,  and he said,

“…I think that film studies is best defined as a process of posing and trying to answer questions (Bordwell’s emphasis). Most ordinary conversation about films serves other purposes — to share information, to have social exchanges with people, to learn more about others’ tastes.  Film studies certainly has these aims, too, but like other academic disciplines, it seeks to answer questions in a systematic way, one that is open to discussion and criticism. So film studies centers on certain sorts of questions: those that require explanations as answer.”

Certainly, this quote also relates to one of the central tenets of media literacy education:  that media literacy offers a systematic way of critically analyzing global media systems through a process of inquiry that is rooted in basic principles of how media operate as a system.  Using an open process of inquiry — asking questions — is the opposite of a protectionist approach that is directive and that is closed.  

You mentioned earlier that some interpretations of cognitive theory spawned some protectionist approaches to media literacy. Do you see protectionism as a continuing presence today, and how do you see that Bordwell has helped us move beyond the limiting nature of protectionism towards empowerment?

Henry Jenkins

In this passage, Bordwell is arguing for a middle ground perspective against two other common approaches to film analysis. The first would take a totalizing approach — for example, seeing all Hollywood films as the product of a capitalist mode of production where the demands of the marketplace over-ride any space for artistic expression or predetermine ideological message. The second would be a more interpretive approach which is interested in what the film means but not how the film works. Bordwell has criticized the limited range of meanings ascribed to films (in Making Meaning) and the tendency to read works as reflecting their zeitgeist rather than being shaped by larger genre traditions (see http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2014/08/24/zip-zero-zeitgeist/).

Instead, he wants us to take a historical approach which asks questions that require us to move beyond the individual film to look at the system of norms, institutional practices, technological infrastructures, and cultural influences that shaped how movies get made at a particular moment in time. I agree that this approach is a particularly valuable one for media literacy educators. It helps young people acquire a vocabulary they can use to ask analytic questions about a much broader range of media texts without moving too quickly to dismiss them as the work of the culture industries or as attempts to manipulate our minds. So, for sure, I prefer Bordwell’s middle-level approach to the more totalizing view.

I am less certain  that I — and perhaps even Bordwell — would argue against the importance of interpretation within media literacy classrooms. We certainly do not want interpretation to be imposed on students by the teacher — although I think teachers can legitimately participate in the process — but we do want students to explore what media texts mean to them. We want them to be able to explain why certain texts are meaningful without being required to justify and defend their tastes in an adversarial context. And we want them to be attentive to the fact that the same work might generate different meanings for different viewers under different circumstances (a move which is very much prefigured by Bordwell’s turn towards a cognitive model of the film experience).

The debates Bordwell faced were between psychoanalytic approaches (which tend to see films as working upon our unconscious) and cognitive approaches (which focus on the conscious and preconscious levels of our engagement with media texts). Cognitive approaches proved particularly compatible with arguments for a more active audience where-as the psychoanalytic model, at least the one that Bordwell was pushing back against, tended to see media spectators as dupes. In both film studies and media literacy, the tide has turned decisively towards a more empowered perspective, but protectionist impulses linger not far beneath the surface.

If we do not keep consciously fighting for a more empowered conception, protectionism becomes the default. In the academic world, protectionism comes hand in hand with the eltism that is the negative undercurrent of intellectualism: a sense that our formal education allows us to see through things to which others are susceptible. In the world of secondary school education, a paternalism is often built into the power differential between adults and youth. For that reason, it remains vital that we keep sharpening our conceptual models to respect and value the cognitive work that goes into the processing of media texts.

Tessa Jolls

Henry, your point about how “if we do not keep consciously fighting for a more empowered conception, protectionism becomes the default" is a caution that we as educators need to constantly heed. Citizens need the skills, the vocabulary and the dispositions to explore and articulate their thinking as well as their feelings — and from my observations in the classrooms, students are often much more adept and practiced at expressing their feelings than their thinking.  To be empowered means to be intellectually curious and expressive as well as emotionally available, to be knowledgable yet humble, to be capable of challenging while being respectful, to be able to distinguish between fact and opinion, description and inference, and thinking and feelings. 

As we’ve been delving into Bordwell’s approach to film analysis, I’ve been seeing that he offers a deeply informed, empowered approach to understanding film.  His essay “Common Sense + Film Theory = Common Sense Film Theory?” is a case in point (see: http://www.davidbordwell.net/essays/commonsense.php).

He addresses an overview of film integrating many schools of thought: semiology, perceptive research, logical fallacies, heuristics and social intelligence.  Yet at the same time, he elucidates ways of teaching practical skills — “thinking skills” —  in an accessible way.  For example, there is a difference between saying that someone “looks angry” and “his eyebrows were furrowed,” “his gaze was intent,” or “he narrowed his eyes.”  In the first case, saying that someone “looks angry,” assumptions and inferences are being made.  But what is the evidence? What description can support such a conclusion? Bordwell addresses these distinctions in a direct way that enables a cognitive analysis. Bordwell says:

"Mind-reading requires us to detect, sometimes on very faint cues, what people are expressing or signaling through their behavior. Elsewhere I’ve talked about this in cases involving eye behavior—blinking and eyebrows, in particular. But there’s much more to be done with the ways in which cinema mobilizes our social intelligence in order to track a narrative. Sometimes the narrative eases our task by making things redundant and clear; sometimes the film throws up problems, making it hard to understand characters’ intentions or reactions, as in the enigmatic veteran played by Henry Fonda in Daisy Kenyon.”

One of the qualities I’m appreciating about David Bordwell is that he is both a highly respected theorist and a caring teacher who is committed to help people make meaning from their own lives, using film analysis as a pathway.  How do you see Bordwell's empowering approach to education contributing to positive action by individuals and in communities?

Henry Jenkins

This particular essay (above) reflects Bordwell’s ongoing interest in understanding the processes of perception and comprehension. What kinds of skill and knowledge do we need to comprehend a film narrative?  Here, his core question may be: “We speak of 'reading' an image, but do certain kinds of images—those that common sense declares 'realistic'—demand anything like the deciphering that printed language does? How much does grasping an image depend on learned conventions of representation?” For us, this might boil down to the question of whether “media literacy” is a “literacy” in the sense that it involves “deciphering” a coded text or whether it constitutes a social skill?

Thinking of media literacy as a social skill might allow us to move from our understanding of everyday communication situations — such as distinguishing between a blink and a wink (an issue the anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote about in The Interpetation of Cultures) — to the more formalized communication that occurs through various kinds of mass media?  Bordwell clearly recognizes complex formal norms that shape the processes of representation (as in his example here of Daisy Kenyon, a Hollywood film which has notably unscrutable characters due to its performance style and visual strategies) but he also recognizes that we often read film characters through the same lens as we read people in our everyday life through bodily signs, gestures, etc. that suggest, but do not tell, what they are thinking. Some acting styles are more naturalistic than others, but all of them depend on certain kinds of social knowledge as a basis for our comprehension.

Bordwell is, for sure, asking “what is the evidence?” and as a teacher, let me tell you, he demands that his student anchor every claim with reference to specific moments in the text: he is a master of close reading. But, he also is pushing back against theories that would isolate cinematic experience from other kinds of real world experiences, which is why he is describing his approach in terms of “common sense.” I was very lucky to have him as my graduate school mentor. While my own work has generally pulled more in a cultural studies rather than a cinema studies direction, I still use the skills in critical analysis he taught me on a regular basis.

My own current book project, Comics and Stuff, takes seriously the idea that we draw on social knowledge to process media representations, looking at the relationships in contemporary graphic novels between characters and their possessions (the ways they make meaning of their lives by way of their stuff). I am interested in representational strategies but I am also interested in reading the background of panels the ways many of us read the objects on someone’s desk or the books on their shelves or the decorations of their living room.  This project represents an attempt to meld cultural studies of material culture with a visual studies approach to formal practices, one very much shaped by what I learned from Bordwell.

As for Bordwell’s approach being empowering, I think that is right.  I have certainly found it so.  By the way, I love your definition of “empowering” above! In Cinema Studies, which has a strong tradition of work critiquing ideology, Bordwell has often been viewed as “apolitical” or even “conservative” because he does not bring his personal political commitments into his work very much.

Yet, the focus here on the active process of comprehension stresses choices made by both filmmakers and filmgoers in ways that paves the way for a more empowered conception of our relationship to media. He does not accept the premise that we simply absorb uncritically what passes across the screen, that we are susceptible to ideological manipulations, but rather, he sees the spectator as always actively making sense of films and thus, potentially at least, critically engaging with the representations being constructed. What we do with those skills is up to us. He has no explicit social change agenda, but his models can be used by media literacy educators in ways that help us to take greater responsibility of the choices we make, what insights we take from media, what accountability we have over our own representational and curatorial choices, etc. And to me, those issues are at the heart of the contemporary media literacy movement.

Readings from David Bordwell’s work:







Other resources:

Voices of Media Literacy


Grandparents of Media Literacy