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

David Bordwell has been a hyper-productive film scholar since his early 20s and now, more than a decade into his retirement, he is still running strong. He is blogging, updating his old books, writing new ones, and jetting off to film festivals around the world. In the past few years, he has published two new books — The Rhapsodies: How 1940s Critics Changed American Film Culture (2016) and Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling (2017). — which give us fresh takes on American film culture in the 1940s, a period that seems all the more innovative and transformative through his characteristically close analysis.

I was lucky enough to be have Bordwell as my dissertation advisor in the late 1980s at the peak of the so-called “Wisconsin” project. He was a breathtaking presence in the classroom — we routinely stayed an hour or more after class until he felt his lecture was complete — and he was generous as a mentor — making sure each student found their own voice even if or especially if they disagreed with his premises. It is hard to imagine writing my first book, What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic, without his influence and I draw on things he taught me regularly even if my work has taken me far from cinema studies in recent years.

I am proud to be able to share with you a bit of our lifelong conversation together. Here, he situates his new books on the 1940s in relation to concerns which run throughout his career. His responses are, as always, substantive and probing, showing the continued evolution of his thinking on some core issues.

If I look across your body of work, there are books dealing with exceptional filmmakers (Ozu, Eisenstein, Dreyer, not to mention recent writing about Wes Anderson and Christopher Nolan) as well as books which adopt a more normative approach looking at samples of typical or average films (such as The Classical Hollywood Cinema, The Way Hollywood Tells It, and Reinventing Hollywood). What do you see as the relationship between these two approaches? How do they fit together in your conception of film studies as a field?

I should say at the start that I try to proceed from questions that intrigue me and that seem to me to remain unanswered (or not satisfactorily answered). The questions tend to come within three broad areas: (1) The history and creative resources of film forms (especially narrative); The history and creative resources of film techniques (i.e., style); and The principles governing activities of spectators who respond to films. As you know, I approach all those within a framework I’ve called a poetics of cinema—the probing of princples that filmmakers develop and that viewers learn to apprehend.

So the filmmakers you mention are those who seem to me to occupy niches in those areas. To take the recent examples you mention: Nolan seems to me to have developed a distinct “formal project” in his handling of narrative—essentially testing how crosscutting can create different temporal zones—while Anderson works both at the level of narrative and a distinct pictorial style. But because I’m interested in principles of narrative and style, I see those as shared and spread through a community of creators, so that norms are created that more or less shape what’s possible (or discouraged, or encouraged) in different contexts. The norms, I’ve stressed from the beginning, aren’t single mandated rules but rather range of more or less permitted options.

 In the books on Hollywood, I’ve tried to spell out the principles shaping form and style within that powerful community. The most recent book on the 1940s goes the farthest, I suppose, in trying to construct the “menu” from which filmmakers work. But the innovative filmmakers expand the menu by showing possibilities in the norms that others haven’t realized. Sometimes those possibilities themselves become normative, as, say, complex flashback construction became normative in the 40s. The same sort of process, I think, went on in Hong Kong cinema from the 1980s through the 2000s.

As for Ozu, Dreyer, and Eisenstein: In all those cases, I tried to show how the individual filmmaker worked both within and against emerging norms of form and style in their most proximate context. For Ozu, the context was Japanese studio cinema; for Eisenstein, the emerging Soviet avant-garde; for Dreyer, the “language” of international European cinema (though from my perspective today, I think I missed many chances to relate him to important trends—I just didn’t know enough!).

Auteur filmmakers such as Hitchcock, Capra, Wyler, Welles, or Sturges do make appearances in Reinventing Hollywood but often to show how their practices were in conversation with those of less well remembered films and filmmakers of the same period. You write, “To a greater extent than their contemporaries, they carved out new formal options. But their very originality created problems of competition. Once the new schema are out there, anyone could imagine telling a story through multiple flashbacks, embedding a film within a film, restricting our knowledge to a single character, or ringing changes on thriller premises. To stay prominent, Welles and Hitchcock had to outrun their imitators and themselves.” One of your very first widely read essays dealt with Citizen Kane. What does this more robust map of this cycle of innovation during the 1940s help us to see within this film you would not have seen before?

Because of its length, REINVENTING HOLLYWOOD allowed me to deal with changes within norms to a degree I couldn’t before. Both THE CLASSICAL HOLLYWOOD CINEMA and THE WAY HOLLYWOOD TELLS IT build up a general picture of norms of storytelling and style. They do address some local changes—e.g., early sound shooting style, deep-focus cinematography in CHC and the emergence of “network narratives” and “worldmaking” in THE WAY. But the 1940s book let me dig more into the dynamic of how narrative strategies develop in a short time span. 


Once I conceived Hollywood as a community built on “cooperative competition,” I was able to sense the extent to which a film like KANE did two things: It assimilated several storytelling strategies that had emerged in films and other media; and it provided a template for further revision, by Welles and by others. Again, it came down to different questions. That very early essay on KANE, and the better analysis I wrote for the editions of FILM ART: AN INTRODUCTION, were concerned with functional explanations—providing an analysis of how the film worked. The 40s book was more concerned with causal explanation, asking what narrative schemas were available to be synthesized by Welles and his collaborators, and how those in turn became available to others. 

I came to appreciate the notion that filmmakers were making films not only for audiences but for other filmmakers, as part of a give-and-take of influence and, perhaps, rivalry. Certainly I think that the great number of “Hitchcockian” thrillers that followed Hitchcock’s emigration to the states shaped a sense of competition in him: he had to outrun his imitators. He did this with some very outré projects, like LIFEBOAT, SPELLBOUND, ROPE, and UNDER CAPRICORN, but he also managed to perfect the “Hitchcock touch” in NOTORIOUS. Filmmakers, I’m convinced, can be quite aware of the pressure to innovate, especially when they become famous.


You write: “The collective nature of the Hollywood enterprise yielded remarkable achievements, and the results were never perfectly controllable or predictable. When collective effort was blended with individual abilities and fresh opportunities, new forms -- not formulas -- could emerge, expand, and mingle. We’re confronted with two levels of artistry: tried-and-true conventions executed with more or less skill, and innovations that open up new possibilities.”  So, what are some of the “new forms” and “new possibilities” that emerge during this period?

Broadly, the 1940s sees a crystallization of several narrative options (as well as stylistic ones, which I try to deal with in other work). There’s the flashback narrative, in all its myriad forms; the multiple-protagonist film (probably seen best in the combat picture); the  “psychological” film (e.g., THE LOST WEEKEND, THE SNAKE PIT); the social-comment film; the “new realist” film (e.g., INTRUDER IN THE DUST); the film relying on subjective imagery and voice-over; and the self-consciously stylized film, which acknowledges its ties to or breaks with earlier film history (e.g., HELLZAPOPPIN, THE PERILS OF PAULINE). I also place a lot of emphasis on the emergence of the psychological thriller, either based on the man-on-the-run or the woman-in-peril; in the 1940s, the thriller became central to mainstream cinema, as it remains today. None of these options was absolutely new at the period, but in the 1940s they coalesced and developed in new variants very rapidly.


In a sense, I tried to do for narrative strategies what genre critics have long done. A critic studying the musical or the Western or whatever casts a wide net, looking for basic conventions and less-common innovations that are taken up, or not. I tried to do the same for narrative devices. For example, in 1940-1941 every studio makes at least one prestigious picture based on flashbacks. This was an uncommon option in the 1930s. By the end of the 1940s, flashback films are a mainstay of Hollywood storytelling, and some films—eg, BACKFIRE—have flashbacks of an intricacy that no one in 1941 would have attempted. This is the sort of “expansion and mingling” that I tried to capture.

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.