Rediscovering 1940s American Film culture: An Interview With David Bordwell (Part Three)

It will not be a great surprise that I was especially interested in the links you draw here between film evolution and what was happening in other media during this same period -- particularly literature and radio drama, but also theater. What accounts for these parallel developments across media?  This is not simply cinema absorbing influences from the other arts but also the other arts catching up with cinematic devices and practices. What models might you offer us for thinking about the logics shaping exchanges of practices across media? How might we apply such models to think about the relations between games, film, comics and television at the current moment?


I don’t think there’s a single broad explanation for what I call the “media swap meet” that grew intense in the 1940s. There were close institutional/economic ties among film, radio, theatre, and publishing, so that properties and schemas could pass pretty quickly across platforms. Writers went to Hollywood and sold book rights as well; I discovered a real treasure trove in a weekly column in PUBLISHERS’ WEEKLY devoted to sales to studios, as well as studio competitions for new novels. Magazines, which we tend to overlook, weren’t just part of book publishing but also furnished many stories and writers to Hollywood. Many film people did moonlighting jobs in radio, which was in a way what TV became—a vast torrent of narrative material drawn from all manner of sources. LUX RADIO THEATRE featured stories drawn from films and was even hosted by DeMille. I thought of your trans-media storytelling idea when I learned that SORRY, WRONG NUMBER became an annual event (starring Wisconsin’s own Agnes Moorhead); people huddled around their radios to hear it again and again, which in turn posed problems when a feature film had to be made from it. (So it had to be padded out with a plotline involving a young actor named Burt Lancaster.) And of course Hollywood invested in Broadway plays so as to get the film rights. Interestingly, the influence went both ways: I point to novels obviously influenced by Hollywood, and plays (GLASS MENAGERIE, DEATH OF A SALESMAN) openly modeled on film techniques.

The give-and-take is not so different from the system now, I think. Conglomerates openly own various entertainment venues, but there’s still a lot of prowling and snapping-up of free-standing IP. I don’t know of general models, but I think that heuristically we need to trace out the local, fine-grained relations among media creators, so that we might be able to build models of “creative networks” among these media artists.

Your use the term, “middlebrow modernism,” to describe some of the experimentation taking place across popular culture during this period. The word, “middlebrow,” originally carried some degree of disdain or distaste. Does it do so for you? How might we relate this “middlebrow modernism” to the kinds of experiments in the low or popular arts in the following decade which J. Hoberman called “vulgar modernism”? Are we watching the modernist impulse work its way down the cultural hierarchy as its influence on the culture is more fully absorbed?


I didn’t mean “middlebrow” to be taken as disdainful, and one of the luckier consequences of the reviews REINVENTING has gotten is that readers don’t seem to have taken it that way. To me, there is important and valuable art that many consider middlebrow—OUR TOWN, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, etc. Arguably, most of Hollywood’s prestige output is middlebrow. My chief claim was a neutral one: that narrative techniques from turn-of-the-century writers like James and Conrad, amped up by High Modernists like Woolf and Faulkner, were visible on the cultural horizon of ambitious American and English writers. But those writers also realized that High Modernism was difficult, so they set about making those techniques user-friendly. My prototypes are people like Thornton Wilder, Rumer Godden, Maxwell Anderson, etc. Indeed, even Welles and Hitchcock could be considered middlebrow. I trace some of the 1940s innovations to this vein of literary culture.

At the same time, mystery fiction was changing and becoming more formally complex, and those works fed into Hollywood’s increasingly dense narrative experiments. In general, both “literary fiction” that makes High Modernism more user-friendly and “popular fiction” that mixes those elements with the inheritance of older conventions (e.g., the C19 novel) seem to me primary sources for narrative strategies we find in the 40s. Actually, I’m digging into this area more right now, and trying to compare it with the present—particularly the recent cycle of female thrillers centering on women’s culture (e.g., GONE GIRL, THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, and corresponding novels). 

Hoberman’s concept of “vulgar modernism” seems to me very specific to certain figures (Fuller, Chester Gould, Weegee) and depends on Brecht as a prototype of modernism. I’d locate Fuller and most comics in a more purely popular tradition of eccentric storytelling.

About video games, I know nothing. I do find it interesting that films like HARDCORE HENRY and WRECK-IT RALPH (excellent movie) derive some of their technique from videogames; but then the first-person camera is an old cinematic device, so I suppose first-person video games are indebted to that.

Your book, The Rhapsodes, works in parallel to Reinventing Hollywood to describe shifts in the critical language around film during this period. You discuss an exceptional group of critics -- Otis Ferguson, James Agee, Manny Farber, and Parker Tyler. Were these critics lucky to have such a rich and innovative set of films to write about? Was Hollywood lucky to have such intelligent and innovative critics to help sort through the experiments which were taking place during this key period? In what ways did shifts in critical practice impact film culture more generally during this period?

THE RHAPSODES was a chip from the workbench. In starting my research on the 40s I read the critics you mention, and I wanted to use them as a way of registering the innovations I tried to track. But interestingly, I found that they didn’t have much to say about them. They weren’t especially attuned to the new conventions of the period, which suggests that general audiences may not have registered them much either. This might be a good example of a historian discovering novelty that the audience wasn’t particularly aware of—that is, that the novelty appears as such only in a historical perspective.

I’ve said at various points that for me ideal film criticism includes not only opinions but information and ideas, all of the above to be delivered in engaging prose. For me, my four critics accomplished this, and the book tries to make that case.

Apart from their remarkable writing skills, what struck me about my quartet was their willingness to take Hollywood seriously as an artistic endeavor, a popular form that shouldn’t be judged by the standards of high art. They seemed to me to be forging, in different ways, a perspective on Hollywood that showed its peculiar artistic value. That meant paying attention to detail, noticing technique, trying to see films as expressive vehicles (and not the reflection of a cultural zeitgeist). In short, and given the limits of their resources (no access to prints, let alone video), they were analyzing and interpreting films to a depth not previously seen in American film criticism.

I think they mostly had no influence on the industry, but they did establish a tradition of the film critic as a literary figure. Agee was the most prominent example, but by the 1960s, when US film culture was ready, they were prototypes of the “celebrity critic” (Kael, Sarris, John Simon). They never had the power of that later generation, but for me they formed the start of a powerful tradition that persists in strong, knowledgeable writers such as Sara Imogen Smith, Manohla Dargis, Michael Phillips, Geoffrey O’Brien, Matt Zoller Seitz,Peter Debruge, Todd McCarthy, and Phillip Lopate.) But I wanted to introduce readers to these extraordinary writers and their ideas about the films of their period.

David Bordwell 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). His most recent works are The Rhapsodies: How 1940s Critics Changed American Film Culture (2016) and Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling (2017).

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.

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. He and Thompson maintain the blog "Observations on film art" for their recent ruminations on cinema.