Rediscovering 1940s American Film Culture: An Interview with David Bordwell (Part Two)

As you know, I have always been interested in the concept of the “bounds of difference” (from Classical Hollywood Cinema) which raises the question of how much elasticity there is within a system of norms and whether there are periods or genres that stretch against those bounds. For me, my original interest was the ways Hollywood absorbs performance practices from Vaudeville during the early sound era but we could see your recent work on the 1940s as potentially representing a similar moment in American film history, where there is a high amount of experimentation and innovation (a period of “reinvention”). (It was fun to read you writing here about Hellzapoppin and Crazy  House, by the way). So, building on the quote above, what factors opened up those “new possibilities”? Do some of these experiments prove too much for the studio system? Does a new stability eventually emerge or do we see the Hollywood system as always a bit unpredictable and uncontrollable?

Yes, this was a period of innovation not unlike the late 1920s-early 1930s, as your research shows. But there the innovation centered on technology, camera technique, performance, and genre, and these are important trends throughout the 1930s. I think filmmakers worked very hard on developing sound mixing, a fluent style (emphasizing camera movement), new genres (the gangster film, the musical), and performance styles for the sound cinema. (One of my favorite critics, Otis Ferguson, was very sensitive to some of these changes.) But the 1930s also saw a shift away from the narrative fluidity that had become canonical in silent film—the use of crosscutting, the willingness to employ subjective techniques, a freedom of time thanks to flashbacks. 

To put it too grossly, 1930s narration was “behavioral” and “theatrical” to a greater degree than earlier; we have to figure out characters' minds and hearts from externals, as in a play. (Here again, performance matters a lot.) Again to be heavy handed, in the late 1930s and the 1940s, we could say, Hollywood became somewhat more “novelistic”—willing to probe inner states, to shift time scales, etc. As Sara Imogen Smith pointed out to me in a FILM COMMENT podcast, this goes along with a more interiorized performance style (Mitchum, Lancaster, Widmark, even Crawford and Davis). The narration is giving us the psychology, so the actor can be more impassive.


But to get to your point about the boundaries: I think the boundaries are flexible. We don’t know how far we can go until someone tries. Who would have predicted the elaborate formal contraption that Sturges gives us in UNFAITHFULLY YOURS? Or the psychological intricacies of DAISY KENYON and SWELL GUY? Today, who would have thought we could have such an elaborate time machine as DUNKIRK? I do think that genre helps keep experimentation within bounds; but then again genre encourages experiment, exactly because we know the norms.

Daniel Mainwaring claimed that he wanted OUT OF THE PAST to be narrated by the deaf-mute boy at the beginning, but that was ruled out as too farfetched. Would it be today? And the peculiarities of THE CHASE, which I talk about in both the book and a series of blog posts, seem to have been taken in stride by both critics and audiences. It’s not that anything goes, but we don’t know what doesn’t until somebody tries.

I could not help but read Reinventing Hollywood in relation to the ongoing debates about the status of film noir, which is often treated as a particular genre, style or mode, operating on the fringe of American film practice. But, your book suggests that many of the narrative innovations, such as flashbacks, experiments with subjective camera, nonlinear stories, etc., associated with film noir are actually visible across a range of different genres -- melodrama or romantic comedy, say -- during this same period. So, to put it bluntly, how have people missed this? More generously, how might insights from your book force us to reconsider some of the claims that have been made about film noir?

I start from a historicist position on film noir: that is, I see it as a category invented by later critics to illuminate a range of films that have some common features. It wasn’t a term for Hollywood filmmakers of the period, and so they categorized films quite differently. In the book, I point out that what we’d call thrillers, as well as some detective stories, were lumped in with horror films. 

We can’t enter the historical agents’ minds, but we can get a sense of the norms they seem to hold. So, yes, many of the techniques I study were quite general across a range of genres. I don’t know why researchers haven’t emphasized this enough, but maybe because the power of the idea of film noir (and the glamor of it, I admit) steered people away from noting the strategies elsewhere.

Genre becomes increasingly important as we move deeper into the book and you discuss how the various “narrative schemas” you identify operate in relation to such tendencies in 1940s cinema as the pseudodocumentary procedural, the fantasy film, the psychodrama, the self-reflexive comedy  or the murder mystery. How might we think about the relations between narrative experimentation and the emergence of these genres? Do the genres motivate the formal experimentation? Do these genres emerge as filmmakers seek ways to motivate the devices you have identified?

You raise a fascinating point. Genre is crucial to both narrative norms and narrative innovations. In several cases, I tried to show how genres in other media shaped filmmaking; the most complete example is the rise of the literary and theatrical thriller. As you say, the process goes both ways: existing genres offer opportunities to try out storytelling techniques. This happens with “unreliable” narration in the thriller, for example—something that is rare in other genres. Once the family saga was established with FOUR DAUGHTERS, HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, etc., the possibility of downgrading the individual protagonist was there to be exploited further in war pictures. And comedy, as you know better than anyone, offers a huge range of options for playing with structure and style.


At the same time, I do think that the emergence of certain strategies favored the development of genres that could motivate them. Whatever the cultural appeal of Freudian subjects and themes was at the time, I don’t think the “psychoanalytical” would have appeared quite so strongly without the new armory of subjective techniques. I think the dynamic you point to is especially evident today with technology. The development of analog, then digital special effects from the 1970s onward surely stimulated the development of horror, fantasy, and SF films. They motivate the use of such techniques in a way that wouldn’t be as vivid in other genres.

You title your introduction, “How Hollywood Told It,” which invites comparison to your How Hollywood Tells It book. What parallels are you drawing, implicitly and explicitly, between contemporary Hollywood storytelling and the kinds of innovations you discuss during the 1940s?  How is your interest in new narrative and narrational forms in the 1940s linked to your interest on your blog and elsewhere regarding contemporary “puzzle films”? Does taking this larger historical perspective offer us any insights into the space for innovation in contemporary films?

At the very end of REINVENTING, I floated the idea that the much-vaunted “New Hollywood” of the 1970s emerged out of conditions similar to those that nurtured the 1940s innovations I tried to chart. The industry was regaining health after a period of deprivation, some blockbusters had put money into the system, a new generation of filmmakers emerged to take advantage of opportunities, and some ambitious filmmakers tried to make formal innovations. It’s simply a parallel, but it does suggest that there were periods of intense renewal in Hollywood that we haven’t taken sufficient measure of. 

The more proximate period, and the reason I evoked THE WAY HOLLYWOOD TELLS IT, was the post-1960s era, when many narrative innovations emerged. They emerged most intensely, I think, in the 1990s-2000s, and a lot of those involved revising the schemas at work in the 40s. The network narrative, from Altman and others in the 1970s, got further elaborated, and the play with time and subjectivity we saw in, say, PETULIA in the 1960s or THE CONVERSATION in the 1970s became much more generalized during the later decades. The saying became “Form is the new content,” and films like PULP FICTION, MEMENTO, MAGNOLIA, and seemed to me ambitious reworkings of the tendencies that had emerged in the 1940s. I floated that tentatively in THE WAY, but returning to the 40s—initially under the aegis of a series of lectures I gave for the Flemish Summer Film College in Belgium in 2011—allowed me to develop my hunch in detail.

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.