Rediscovering 1940s American Cinema: An Interview with David Bordwell (Part Four)

Knowing you to always care deeply about the quality of academic prose, I was struck by your close attention to stylistic issues in looking at these writers. What might contemporary film studies scholars learn from a closer rhetorical engagement with the expressive practices of these writers? You write in your introduction, “They remain far more provocative and penetrating than nearly anyone writing film criticism today.”

I do think that film scholars, like most academics, could try to write more crisply. Of course I read things I’ve written over the years and cringe: Did I really have to say things so clumsily? I struggle first to achieve clarity and then, I hope, for a certain neatness, even felicity. I think I had a fairly cogent academic style, but I think writing our blog entries over the last dozen years has made me a more conversational, and I hope, user-friendly writer. I would urge people not to try to imitate any of those critics (especially Farber) but to concentrate on developing fresh, defensible ideas about cinema and putting them forward with nuance. After all, we academics have the luxury of more space than reviewers can command, so there’s no reason we can’t go into more depth.

Developing our blogsite after retirement has given me a forum for long-form para-academic essays, and the ease of putting color stills and clips into an online platform have allowed me to follow my wayward interests (even some on politics). I don’t know that any journal would have published most of what I’ve written there, but I think the informal tone of the work did help me find publishers for our books, two of which (MINDING MOVIES and THE RHAPSODES) were revised blog entries. I think every academic researcher in the humanities should find some admirable writers of haute journalism (for me, Shaw, Hitchens, Robert Hughes, Susan Sontag, Kenneth Tynan, Elizabeth Hardwick) and study how they do it.


As we read these critics, one has a sense of their passionate love for cinema as a medium. There has been a contemporary discourse which talks about the loss of cinephilia within contemporary culture. Do you agree with this assessment or is this just grumpy old people not recognizing the same faces and perspectives dominating the conversation? Do you still find things to love in contemporary cinema?

I do feel myself split. Almost every year brings several films I straightforwardly love. This year, that list includes THE GREATEST SHOWMAN, GAME NIGHT, and THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS. I look forward to films from directors I admire: Spielberg, Panahi, Kore-eda, Kitano, Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, Nolan, Wes Anderson, the Coens, Burton (only the weird projects like BIG EYES), Damien Chazelle, Spike Lee, Agnès Varda, David Koepp, Steven Soderbergh, Lucrezia Martel, Lynch, Wong Kar-wai, Johnnie To, Jaime Collet-Serra, etc. I also enjoy genre items like entries in the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY series, and I’m a sucker for anything that strays into my research zone (A SIMPLE FAVOR, SEARCHING, etc.). But the Star Wars cult leaves me scratching my head, and the superhero films I mostly don’t get, which is odd because I read Batman and Superman (and MAD) as a kid. (Though like everybody else, I loved GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY.) Kristin and I go to film festivals to catch up with current work; at Venice and Vancouver this year I think I saw over fifty new titles.


Still while, preparing entries in our FilmStruck/Criterion Channel  series, I was reminded of how uniquely rich classic cinema is. Studying Duvivier’s LYDIA (1941), which I also write about in the 40s book, HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR, and Mizoguchi’s STREET OF SHAME, brought home to me how tight, economical, and “dense” or “thick” a film could be. In less than two hours—in the Mizoguchi, less than ninety minutes—we have an intense, “saturated’ experience of cinema, not to mention life. Appreciating this requires concentration, though, and I do believe that people’s devotion to “multitasking” has led to a loss of one aspect of film geekery, the ability to shut off everything else and sink yourself into a circumscribed experience. For me, the early films of Kiarostami and Hou Hsiao-hsien approach this quality.

I guess I really do believe there’s a difference of some sort between silent cinema and classic studio cinema (in many countries, including Japan and India), “modern” cinema (say 1950s-1970s), and contemporary cinema. I like all of those periods, but I do sense a difference.

On the whole, though, I think “cinephilia” has become more or less a taste marker (and a branding device for film festivals). I think the idea in its recent form emerge from CAHIERS of the 1980s, when video was starting to take hold of consumers, and film fans felt the need to justify their attraction. Let’s just admit that nearly everybody loves some kinds of cinema, as they do some kinds of music or literature.

Earlier this year, I shared some thoughts with media literacy advocate Tessa Jolls about why the media literacy movement should pay more attention to the cognitive side of your work, and I’d love to get your reactions to that exchange. To what degree do you see your work as contributing to media literacy? Clearly Film Art is widely taught at the undergraduate level, but as film becomes less central to the ways media literacy is taught in high schools, say, are there more general principles for teaching media we might extract from your work? Do you think of media comprehension as a form of “literacy”? Or are there better metaphors for thinking about what we do when we make sense of a media text?

I think I’m out of my depth here, but I’ll try. 

If media literacy means making people aware of how they interact with media, then I’m wholly in the game. Everything I’ve done takes for granted that form and style shape viewers’ experience to some degree.  In terms of a cognitive perspective, you and Tessa clearly understood the interactive side of my interests. Films don’t totalistically demand a single response; but also they can’t mean any old thing we want. 

In POETICS OF CINEMA I floated a cognitive model that suggested that at as we move up three levels, from perception through comprehension to appropriation, the filmmaker’s power wanes as the viewer’s power increases. The filmmaker “structures the stimulus,” as some might say; at the level of comprehension, there’s a kind of collaboration, in which there are prompts for inference-making powers (we collaborate in making the narrative cohere); and at the level of appropriation (including interpretation, but also any use we might put a film to, including in a classroom discussion), we as viewers can build off the film in many directions completely unforeseen by its makers. (Emotional response operates at all three levels, I think.) This still seems to me a decent first approximation of how to think about the dynamic of control and freedom posed by media texts.

On the pedagogical front, I think that what we tried to lay out in FILM ART may hold good in several respects. First, all moving-image media involve the basic techniques we surveyed, from mise-en-scene to sound. Second, the idea of analyzing a media text’s form and style still seems appropriate. Just this morning I read a review of the Netflix MANIAC that suggested that the style of director Corey Fukunaga is so striking that it’s an aesthetic appeal in its own right. Writers like Jason Mittell and Jeremy Butler have shown how these ideas can invigorate analysis of televsion. 

Concepts of narrative and stylistic strategies seem totally applicable to comics too; I tried my hand at applying them in a few blog entries (  and I hope to do more. The newish book HOW TO READ NANCY does this sort of analysis at great length, and of course Scott McCloud’s books have a lot in common with FILM ART.

Third, I think FILM ART’s application of Wölfflin’s idea that “not everything is possible at all times” could nudge media scholars into considering the historical norms at play in various periods and places. Finally, in our most recent editions, we observed that most of our readers would be image-makers. This is a fairly new development in film history. Kids are growing up shooting photos and films on cellphones, editing on computer, posting them for a public. So as teachers we introduced the angle that students of cinema should try to think like a filmmaker. Our book tries to suggest that the creative response to a choice situation isn’t just what Big Filmmakers Out There are doing, but rather something that the readers would confront every time they use a camera. That’s media literacy too, I suppose: reminding readers that they too have the power to make images and tell stories. To do that effectively involves knowing what the creative options are and thinking about the alternative effects that they can generate. I think this is in harmony with what Tessa and you are up to, yes?

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.