David Bordwell's website on cinema   click for CV




Perplexing Plots: Popular Storytelling and the Poetics of Murder

On the History of Film Style pdf online

Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling

Film Art: An Introduction

Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages pdf online

Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies pdf online

Planet Hong Kong, second edition pdf online

The Way Hollywood Tells It pdf online

Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Figures Traced In Light

Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Exporting Entertainment: America in the World Film Market 1907–1934 pdf online


Hou Hsiao-hsien: A new video lecture!

CinemaScope: The Modern Miracle You See Without Glasses

How Motion Pictures Became the Movies

Constructive editing in Pickpocket: A video essay


Rex Stout: Logomachizing

Lessons with Bazin: Six Paths to a Poetics

A Celestial Cinémathèque? or, Film Archives and Me: A Semi-Personal History

Shklovsky and His “Monument to a Scientific Error”

Murder Culture: Adventures in 1940s Suspense

The Viewer’s Share: Models of Mind in Explaining Film

Common Sense + Film Theory = Common-Sense Film Theory?

Mad Detective: Doubling Down

The Classical Hollywood Cinema Twenty-Five Years Along

Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic

William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea

Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong

Paolo Gioli’s Vertical Cinema

(Re)Discovering Charles Dekeukeleire

Doing Film History

The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema

Anatomy of the Action Picture

Hearing Voices

Preface, Croatian edition, On the History of Film Style

Slavoj Žižek: Say Anything

Film and the Historical Return

Studying Cinema


Book Reports

Observations on film art

The Shock Troops: Never Trumpers and right-wing agitprop

Wednesday | July 15, 2020

DB here:

To my usual morning news mix, I’ve lately added Twitter feeds. I don’t like Twitter and don’t participate myself, but I enjoy checking the streams issuing from Never Trumpers, particularly those allied with the Lincoln Project. Should I join Twitter? Nah. That would take away the small pleasure of typing into Google: Rick Wilson twit, George Conway twit, David Frum twit

These streams have many virtues. For one thing, they often tip me to scandalous stories before the august papers have caught on. For another, the Never Trumpers attract the sort of disrespectful exchanges that represent the spontaneous genius of the American people. Viz:

Just as attractive to me is the cast of characters. Rick Wilson, striving to become the Dr. Hunter S. Thompson of the 2010s, can write good polemic. His most scabrous stuff is reserved for his Daily Beast column but can be glimpsed in tweet-size doses and heard on the New Abnormal podcast (liberally salted with the f-word, so you know he’s damn sincere). George Conway, mysteriously still cohabiting with the Kraken Queen of the Trump regime, strives for a modicum of dignity. He pursued, with a fervor that he never lets you forget, the startling thesis that Trump is deeply nuts. Steve Schmidt, he of the orotund tones and rolling parallel syntax, wants to come off as a Roman senator daring the barbarians to fling a spear his way.

They all like dogs.

David Frum, who accurately predicted the Trump coronavirus policy (“Take the punch”), has written A Very Serious Book and when not pushing his latest podcast appearance, offers free autographed bookplates. The very conceit that people want books, let alone want sticky paper to paste in them, carries a certain charm. But then Frum comes from Canada.

Wisconsin’s Rush Limbaugh Charlie Sykes, waking up to realize that his listeners were just waiting for him to go full Trump, has left our verdant COVID landscape to run The Bulwark, the newest outpost of desperate neocon hopes. Jennifer Rubin has been a traveler on the anti-Trump train ever since Mitt (Quiet Rooms) Romney fizzled out. Her current WaPo columns make her sound like a 60s protest marcher. A “small-l liberal party” must

defend democratic institutions, address yawning gaps in wealth and opportunity, integrate into a global economy, tackle systemic problems such as climate change and racism, root out corruption and cronyism, and exercise leadership in a world in which illiberal regimes are increasingly aggressive and confident.

No mention of women, LBGQT, or global warming, but give her time. Those columns don’t write themselves. Actually, come to think of it, they do.

Another WaPo fixture, fedora-wearing Max Boot, has seen the light too, and of course produced a book about it. Bringing up the rear is the smirking, reliably ineffectual William Kristol, whose latest hand-wringing column ponders whether the Republican Party should be crushed to powder. Result: Maybe? Maybe not! Who knows?

Many of these Never Trumpers have gained media purchase through the green rooms (now green screens) of CNN and MSNBC. In this last venue, perpetually pert Nicolle Wallace, former fixture of the Bush White House and now surrogate for COVID Moms, blasts fire at the GOP.

Those of us who think that the biggest threats to civilization are guns, religion, and Republicans might believe that we have true allies in this swaggering brigade of old GOP buccaneers. Seeing them Zooming in from luxurious quarters (check Schmidt’s ocean view) paid for in the blood of losing Democratic candidates might be unsettling, but perhaps they deserve the benefit of the doubt. Have they not put their very particular set of skills to the task of unseating Trump? Haven’t they reconciled themselves to installing Biden? Have not some committed their energies to wiping the current version of the Republican Party from the public sphere altogether?


Non-Soviet montage

When not writing columns and filling podcast hours, some are becoming media renegades, launching guerrilla raids through video broadsides. They have joined progressive groups like VoteVets in assailing Trump’s failure. Here the Lincoln Project is the leader, although it’s joined by initiatives from less self-publicizing cadres: Republican Voters Against Trump, The Meidas Touch, and other groups.

I suspect that what has rallied Never Trumpers to Black Lives Matter and the turmoil in the streets are the waves of irrefutable evidence of systematic police brutality. Spinmeisters trying to be public intellectuals, they are supersensitive to the power of images and sounds. They have created viral ads for decades, and now history is giving them a mountain of material to play with. Even if they’re genuinely revulsed by what their former party has done to our society, there’s the itch of  tradecraft: time to try out new blades for shiv-in-the-ribs politics.

What’s fascinating to me as a film researcher is how those efforts exploit the conventions of left-wing agitprop from the silent era onward. True, sometimes they resort to classic documentary techniques, such as the hammering voice-over that instructs you what to think. Here’s one of the most spine-tingling, a Lincoln Project spot going after Trump’s legislative bootlickers.

And here’s the Lincoln Project’s “Mourning in America.”

At the visual level, the slamming cuts and pounding titles recall Soviet Montage techniques. Thanks to these devices, often there’s no need for voice-over at all. The image/ sound juxtapositions do the work, in the manner displayed in Emile de Antonio’s In the Year of the Pig. An instance is the way  the Meidas Touch wields the First Daughter’s voice-over against her.

Sometimes just parallel editing does the trick. In Kino-Eye (1924), Dziga Vertov juxtaposed a sequence showing mental patients with one showing petty criminals working outside the interests of the state. The same tactic of side-by-side comparison can  be repurposed for Internet skirmishes.

Nice to see people who hate Leninism using dialectical montage.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say I enjoy this spray of media shrapnel. Democrats have not understood the nature of the threat posed by Republicans, going way back. The 1964 “daisy ad” was the last time I remember them playing hardball. (Was Hillary, then a Goldwater Girl, traumatized by it?) Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high.” The Never Trumper agitki reply: When they go low, we press their cheek into the pavement, jam our knee on their throat, and glare at the camera, as if to say, “You’re next.”

But let’s remember some things. The Never Trumpers were loyal Republicans through the years of Agnew, Haldeman, Erlichman, Mitchell, Atwater, Luntz, Rove, Ailes, Buchanan, Gingrich,  the two Bushes, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Boehner, Graham, the “Young Guns,” the Tea Party, and early McConnell. They ceaselessly upbraided Obama for golfing and wearing a tan suit, while introducing the public to a word seldom used before.

Wilson worked on the detestable campaign against Max Cleland. While writing hilariously mistaken columns for the Times, Kristol was key in giving us Sarah Palin, the proto-Trump. Another Palin fan, Steve Schmidt was a close ally of Cheney’s and helped install Alito and Roberts on the Supreme Court. Frum’s stint in the Bush White House included vigorous commitment to the Iraq war.

Conway, a Federalist Society stalwart, lived in Trump Tower and with Ann Coulter scrutinized Bill Clinton’s groin anatomy. Choking up in the forthcoming A Duty to Warn documentary Unfit, he says that only recently did he realize that Trump is a racist. Cheerleading Republicans from the ramparts of WaPo in 2015, Jennifer Rubin suspended her support for Mitt (Binders Full of Women) Romney long enough to praise Wisconsin’s own Scott Walker  as presidential timber:

Whether he’s successful or not, the potential addition of Walker to the race is a plus for the GOP and a sign that the party has a new generation of stars ready for the national stage.

True, Max Boot was among the first to use the F-word (no, not that one) in describing candidate Trump.

Trump is a fascist. And that’s not a term I use loosely or often. But he’s earned it.

Yet this assessment didn’t stop Boot from hoping that Trump would correct the Middle East errors of the Obama years. Praising Trump’s choice of  “the thoughtful new secretary of defense, General Jim Mattis”–now long gone–Boot has his fingers crossed:

Let’s hope that the Trump team carefully studies—and with an open mind—what went wrong under Obama.

It’s those open-minded fascists we need.


Coming off the bench

©Steve Sack, at The Week (2017).

A large part of what irks the Never Trumpers is the career criminal’s bodacious bad manners, what the base loves and what the more discreet call his “character.” Run the tape of history backward, though, and delete Trump. If we had President Kasich or President Rubio or President Haley or even President Cruz, we would have the same rollback of regulations, the same planting of incompetent judges, the same tax windfalls for the wealthiest, the same efforts to wipe out DACA and Obamacare, and the same rise in inequality. How many Never Trumpers would object? Trump just brought a machete and noise to the amputations the GOP would have preferred to conduct more surgically in quiet rooms.

Proof of their intransigence is the ceaseless veneration of Reagan. I have yet to find among the Never Trumpers’ voluminous output a single repudiation of this disastrous president. If he came back from the grave, they would be right alongside him, castigating “welfare queens” and declaring, in the midst of tens of thousands of deaths, that “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”  Cute enough to recruit college Republicans, but not a motto for managing a pandemic and a depression.

As for Trump’s criminal conduct, do we need to be reminded of Iran-Contra, or the S & L fiasco, or the 2008 economic collapse? Trump is a gangster, but the GOP has never shied away from the grift. As Brecht puts it: What is robbing a bank compared to founding a bank? And yes, Trump commuted the sentence of Roger Stone–in the grand tradition of Gerald Ford pardoning Nixon and George W. Bush commuting the sentence of Scooter Libby.

I suggest that the Never Trumpers hose themselves down and stop using the “pure conservative” excuse. They should stop bemoaning the loss of the sort of civil debate they never fostered. They should admit that for sixty years the Republican party has been a home to reaction and repression.

In defending their support of conservative “principles,” the Never Trumpers want us to forget that they ignored the practical consequences of putting the GOP in power: the ransacking of civil society undertaken by corporations, lobbyists, and enterprising bandits. The party’s assault on Obama made little sense in terms of principle; he was practically the last Rockefeller Republican left in DC. Moreover, the GOP attacks displayed flagrant racism long before Trump came on the scene.

In the light of this, it’s implausible to think that all those Representatives and Senators suddenly turned pusillanimous on 6 November 2016. Trump’s dialing of everything up to 11 forced his acolytes in the House and Senate to reveal what they have always been, and what they managed to coat with bland politesse for decades.

So the Never Trumpers should stop chattering about rebuilding that infested party or creating something fresh and pure, and admit that all the diversity they claim to prize can be found within the Democratic party and outside it in a range of liberal, radical, and centrist organizations. Right now, in the world we inhabit, the US Republican party is simply an indulgence that no civilization can afford.

More broadly, since they claim to be interested in Big Ideas, the Never Trumpers should admit that conservatism is at bottom simply a defensive reaction to dispossessed and exploited people coming forward to demand equality and a measure of humanity. Blather about “limited government” and “sane fiscal policy” has always been simply cover for the exercise of power–and now everybody but The Bulwark admits it. Trump is not a betrayal of neoconservatism. He came to fulfill it. He embodies the Reagan mandate: “Government doesn’t work. Elect us and we’ll prove it.”

So, yes, savor along with me powerful videos eviscerating Trump and his sycophants. Hope, as I do, that mockery and indignation and sheer fatigue will sway some of those voters who might admit that they were abysmally stupid in 2016. (Those of us who despise the Clintons still saw the difference between herpes and cancer.) And continue to work, however we can, to keep our society from spiraling into despair.

Just don’t treat the Never Trumpers as anything but what they are. They are our Hessians, our Blackwater special ops, our Shock Troops of Death. Eager to crawl to the front lines and slit throats at nightfall, to become relevant once more, they should be praised for coming to our aid. But when we really needed their particular skills was in the decades leading up to our current catastrophe. Then they failed us.

They’re willing to be cannon fodder, and I’m glad. But assuming we come through this, they should be sent back to their beachfronts. The dogs are waiting.

This blog entry was written early in the day of President™ Trump’s 14 July News conference. After that gibbering display, which ought to provide enough lunacy for a dozen opposition ads, I have to say that he may self-destruct before the Never Trumper brigades get the final boot in.

The one Never Trumper I know who has shrieved himself properly appears to be another cashiered GOP hack, Stuart Stevens. He has a forthcoming book (of course) with the intriguingly frank title It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump. I reserve judgment until I’ve read it, but it could point the way toward some truth-and-reconciliation confessionals to come.

Other comments related to the Trump regime are here, here, and here.

P.s. 17 July 2020: In a similar, but nastier vein, there’s this interview with Rick Wilson and some cartoon characters. Thanks to Diane Verma for the link.

P.P.S. 21 July 2020: In the same spirit, from the never-surrendering Elie Mystal.

P.P.P.P.S 22 July: A WaPo interview with a Lincoln project leader in which he “concedes complicity” in bringing us to this state of affairs.

P.P.P.P.P.S 29 July: Stuart Stevens tells all in NYT, as teaser for the book mentioned above.

P.P.P.P.P.P.S. 11 February 2021: Lincoln Project news: $$$, sexual harassment, beachfront home prices. No dog coverage.

P.P.P.P.P.P.P.S. 8 March 2021: I told you they were mercenaries. Dogs not mentioned.

The Lincoln Project National Virtual Town Hall, 9 July 2020.

Ozu’s silent talkie: PASSING FANCY on the Criterion Channel

Sunday | July 12, 2020

DB here:

Our  newest installment of Observations is now up on The Criterion Channel. In it I consider how Ozu’s Passing Fancy (1933) exhibits his distinctive methods for treating a scene’s space. Now, here’s a preview for a little bonus that will show up there next week. It’s a short on how Ozu sometimes relied on sound in a silent film.

You probably know about Japan’s katsuben, or benshi. He or she stood alongside the screen and accompanied the film–explaining the action, commenting on it, and imitating the characters’ voices while reciting the intertitles. The benshi were usually given scripts for the titles’ texts, but they were also expected to expand on them.

Benshi became celebrities, as strong an attraction as the movies, and they wielded power over some production companies. Benshi might reedit films to suit the performance they wanted to give. One reason that talking pictures came only gradually to Japan was the resistance of the benshi associations to being put out of work.

Filmmakers who resented the benshi’s power seemed to have sought to make the films as free-standing as possible. One strategy was to have many intertitles, which served to anchor the meaning of a scene. More positively, in Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema I argue that the presence of a benshi gave filmmakers new storytelling opportunities.

Knowing that the benshi would be speaking the lines in the intertitles, filmmakers could make those titles quite short, creating a swift rhythm. (Contrary to some impressions, Japanese silent movies aren’t slow; even dialogue scenes are likely to be cut fast.) Moreover, the benshi could make conversations more compact than what we find in American films. Instead of a pattern of speaker/title/speaker/listener, your shots could run: speaker/title/listener.

Just as important, filmmakers could count on the benshi to fill in things not shown onscreen. That could allow for some unusual interaction between images and speech.

For example, Iwami Jutaro (1937), a swordplay comedy, treats one scene with “offscreen” sound. A bully is watching a kendo match. Cut to the rack of kendo swords, followed by a cry from one fighter, given in an intertitle: “Fool, you’ll be fighting me!”


Cut back to the rack collapsing, as if shaken by the fight. Another title: “I give up!” is followed by a shot of a fallen fighter, beaten.


The shot of the fallen bully anchors the title, but in the flurry of shots we’re invited to imagine the skirmish. Very likely the benshi was shouting the lines while the accompanying music whipped up a burst of excitement. This elliptical treatment of the match suggests that Kurosawa’s Sugata Sanshiro, made only a few years later, was heir to a tradition of off-center rendering of martial-arts combat.

Ozu recruits the benshi for something more ambitious, as I try to show in this bonus. Regrettably, we couldn’t find usable stills of benshi performances from the period, so the stills illustrate modern revivals. Also, I still haven’t seen Suo Masyuki‘s recent Talking the Pictures (Katusben!, 2019), a comedy about benshi culture.

Anyhow, a little analysis of what we have enables us to appreciate how Ozu uses the benshi to emphasize character reactions. The highlight comes in an emotional climax, when the benshi’s sobs would have filled in offscreen action.

Ozu, a fan of Western cinema, would have seen talkies and realized the power of offscreen sound. But I suspect he didn’t need external influences to understand that the benshi’s patter gave directors great freedom in visual narration.


Passing Fancy is one of three masterpieces Ozu released in 1933. (The other two, Dragnet Girl and Woman of Tokyo, are also on the Channel.) The Japanese cinema of this period was one of the glories of world filmmaking, with talent at all levels. Still, very few directors anywhere matched Ozu’s quietly outrageous innovations in form and style, his urge to show us cinema, and so the world, in a poignant, exhilarating way.

Thanks to Kim Hendricksen, Peter Becker, Grant Delin, Erik Gunneson, and the team at Criterion for enabling me to include this clip on our site. Thanks also to Komatsu Hiroshi for information on Iwami Jutaro and Steve Ridgely for correction of one of the intertitles.

For more on the benshi, see the comprehensive study Benshi, Japanese Silent Film Narration, and the Forgotten Narrative Art of Setsumei: A History of Japanese Silent Film Narration, by Jeffrey A. Dym (Edwin Mellon Press, 2003). Fascinating background on the struggles between the benshi and other sectors of  Japanese film culture can be found in Joanne Bernardi, Writing in Light: The Silent Scenario and the Japanese Pure Film Movement (Wayne State University Press, 2001) and Aaron Gerow, Visions of Japanese Modernity: Articulations of Cinema, Nation, and Spectatorship, 1895-1925 (University of California Press, 2010).

Another intriguing review of Talking the Pictures is Jessica Klang’s in Variety.

Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema is available for free download here. (Be patient; the file is big.) An earlier Observations segment considered Kurosawa’s cutting of martial-arts action, and a blog entry developed that a bit more.

Another way to make a silent talkie is discussed in this entry on The Donovan Affair.

Passing Fancy (1933).

Homage to Hong Kong

Sunday | July 5, 2020

Yellowing (2014).

DB here:

Since forever, or so it seems, reports in the US media have been dominated by the struggles against the domestic fascism incarnated in the Republican Party and its leader Donald Trump. Every day, we’ve been subject to fusillades of stories about our collapsing economy, the pervasive corruption of the federal government and the judiciary, Trump’s frenzied efforts to whip up his racist supporters, and his failure to contain the coronavirus. In this churn, one world-altering event has gotten little attention: Mainland China’s swift and brutal takeover of the civil society of Hong Kong.

This spring, a new law–one that makes a mockery of lawfulness–was shoved through. Drafted in secret, its provisions were not made public to Hong Kong citizens or representatives before the central authorities in Beijing ratified it. It went into effect on 30 June. A good overview of timeline is on the BBC site.

While claiming to be within the One-Country/Two-Systems provision of the 1997 handover, the bill actually violates that, placing ultimate power in Beijing. The law devotes considerable attention to the purposes of

safeguarding national security;  preventing, suppressing and imposing punishment for the offences of secession, subversion, organisation and perpetration of terrorist activities, and collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security in relation to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. . . .

The law goes on to indicate what counts as subversion:

(3) seriously interfering in, disrupting, or undermining the performance of duties and functions in accordance with the law by the body of central power of the People’s Republic of China or the body of power of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region; or (4) attacking or damaging the premises and facilities used by the body of power of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region to perform its duties and functions, rendering it incapable of performing its normal duties and functions.

Obviously street demonstrations could “interfere in” or “disrupt” the activities of the territory’s “body of power”–as it resides in the bureaucracy, the police, and other realms of society. The penalties are severe:

A person who is a principal offender or a person who commits an offence of a grave nature shall be sentenced to life imprisonment or fixed-term imprisonment of not less than ten years; a person who actively participates in the offence shall be sentenced to fixed-term imprisonment of not less than three years but not more than ten years; and other participants shall be sentenced to fixed-term imprisonment of not more than three years, short-term detention or restriction.

The Economist explains:

The bill could result in far more serious charges being laid against protesters should they engage in activities that were common during the recent upheaval. Vandalising public transport could now be treated as terrorism. Breaking into the legislature or throwing eggs at the central government’s liaison office, as demonstrators did last year, could be considered subversive. Calling for Hong Kong’s independence, as some protesters have, could invoke a charge of secession. Encouraging foreign countries to impose sanctions on China could result in prosecution for collusion. The maximum sentence for all four of these categories of crime is life in prison.

How tightly will these provisions be enforced? The answer comes in a story in today’s New York Times. The day after the bill was enacted, a man was arrested for flying the Hong Kong flag during a demonstration. Police also arrested a 15-year-old girl for “inciting subversion” and a young man who carried in his bag a banner urging Hong Kong independence.

Other provisions lay out punishment for “terrorist activities” and, not least, “collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security.” Possible offenders include international companies or non-governmental agencies that

provoke by unlawful means hatred among Hong Kong residents towards the Central People’s Government or the Government of the Region, which is likely to cause serious consequences.

A firm that participated in sanctions against China, or an NGO objecting to human-rights treatment could be charged with “fostering hatred.” The boundary between “lawful” and “unlawful” provocations will be left up to administrators such as the Secretary of Justice.

Hong Kongers saw clearly what might come. Such films as Yellowing and Ten Years foresaw just these strictures on free speech and free thought. Thanks partly to the 2014 Umbrella Movement, and the recent effort to pass a “Fugitive Offenders” bill, Hong Kongers’ support for an open society has been peaking. That surge was expressed last fall not only in more rounds of street activism but in the election of democratic representatives to 90 per cent of district seats.

Like Trumpists, Hong Kong’s business interests treat the behavior of the stock market as an index of prosperity. And it’s true that the market has bumped up at the prospect of “stability” under the new law. Yet, as in the US, this has proven a weak indicator. In 2013, the markets crashed and China had to inject money and conceal the sources of the failure.

During my first visit in 1995, a Dutch businessman who was already planning to take his gains and depart told me that in twenty years Hong Kong would be “just another city on the China coast.” He foresaw the mainland’s plan to build up Shanghai, to shrink Hong Kong as a business center, and to gut its quasi-democracy.

In the runup to 1997, Britain could have offered passports to all its former subjects, if only as a gesture to restrain Beijing’s hand. But of course that would have meant Margaret Thatcher acknowledging that there was something called “society,” which she explicitly denied. (That is, we owe no collective obligations to one another.) Now, in an encouraging sign some three million “overseas nationals” (i.e. Hong Kongers born before 1997) may be allowed to emigrate to the UK and seek citizenship there. As for the US, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Congress have proposed measures to retaliate against Chinese officials. Given Trump’s fear of offending Xi, I would not bank on his supporting the effort.

In all, the Dutchman’s prediction was off only in its timing. China has squeezed Hong Kong ever since the takeover, but its citizens–long and mistakenly thought of as indifferent to politics–have fought back with shining commitment. They are as much a vessel of strategic, patient political energy as the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements.

My heart goes out to my friends in Hong Kong, and all their fellow citizens. They have been, and I expect will continue to be, a model of tenacity and resilience for the rest of us. We are all Hong Kong now. We face new authoritarian policies emerging, it seems, in every news cycle.

P. S. 6 July 2020: Yvonne Teh’s Webs of Significance blogsite offers a wealth of commentary on the changing culture and politics of Hong Kong. See especially her thoughts about Evans Chan’s latest film We Have Boots.

P.P.S. 6 July 2020: I should have included this photo (from Lam Yik Fei of the Times) as a sign of tenacity and resilience.  HK demonstrators hold up blank signs. When will the PRC declare a blank piece of cardboard to bear “an intent such as secession or subversion”?

P.P.P.S. 13 July: Well, my answer came fast. The police are indeed arresting people for holding up blank sheets of paper.  From the Los Angeles Times:

Hundreds of people have been arrested for unlawful assembly since the law came into effect, some charged with violations including carrying items bearing protest slogans and Bible verses. No one knows what is safe. Even the word “conscience” printed on a sticker can get you into trouble in an atmosphere that is scary and increasingly surreal.

The first blank-paper protester on July 1 was a young woman who told reporters she held up white paper because she wasn’t sure what would be illegal under the new law.

She had remembered a joke she’d read from the Soviet Union: an officer once arrested a person handing out fliers on Red Square, only to find that the fliers were blank. Undeterred, the officer shouted: “You don’t think I know what you wanted to write?”. . . .

Cartoonists drew protesters with empty speech bubbles, made emoji versions of their slogans and wrote out the tune to “Glory to Hong Kong” in numbers signifying the notes. A new graffiti theme appeared across the city: eight blank squares, each one holding space for a slogan whose absence seemed to speak out loud.

A cartoon depicts a protester speaking in blank speech bubbles.

Two days after the white-paper protest, one of the arrested women was photographed walking out of the police station. She had been charged with illegal assembly and obstruction of police, according to local news reports.

She paused, her belongings slung over each shoulder, her eyes steady between a face mask and cap, and raised the blank paper once again.

A banner carried by Hong Kong police facing demonstrators “conducting themselves with an intent such as secession or subversion.”

Nero, Archie, and me: Preface to a new web essay

Sunday | June 28, 2020

“Frame-Up for Murder” (“Murder Is No Joke”), Saturday Evening Post (21 June 1958).

DB here:

“It is impossible to say which is the more interesting and admirable of the two.” Thus Jacques Barzun on Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, the characters created by Rex Stout. I’d go farther. For me they are among the outstanding figures of American fiction, and Stout is one of the finest American writers of the twentieth century.

Wolfe and Archie are detectives, and Stout wrote mystery fiction. But that just goes to prove that genre work isn’t just good “of its kind.” It’s often good, period.

Stout started as a pulp novelist. He moved to what we now call literary fiction before pursuing a variety of more mainstream genres. He wrote quasi-experimental novels (one is told backward), comic romances, lost-world sagas, and a political thriller, The President Vanishes. (Stout admitted that Wellman’s film version was better than the book.) He introduced several other detective protagonists, but he wisely concentrated on Wolfe and Archie, whom he launched in 1934 and traced through dozens of adventures until his death in 1975.

Here is Stout with his wife Pola and daughter Barbara in 1935.

Are these stories still read? I hope so. When I quizzed the grad students in my seminar this spring, most seemed unaware of what for me–and, I think, other baby boomers–were major figures in popular culture. It’s partly because the ancillary media never did a good job spreading the word. The film Meet Nero Wolfe (1936) was weak, in keeping with the general failure of 1930s films to capture the strengths of supersleuths like Philo Vance and Ellery Queen. (Better were the Mr. Moto and Charlie Chan vehicles.) During the late 1990s, Bantam reprinted the books in quality paperback editions, with introductions by other writers (Westlake, Lippman et al.). There was a solid cable-TV series (A Nero Wolfe Mystery) back in the early 2000s, with a trying-a-bit-too-hard Timothy Hutton as Archie but a near-definitive Wolfe in the form of Maury Chaykin. But that’s all pretty far back now.

O well .  . . . If Perry Mason can come back, maybe Wolfe and Archie can too. And they won’t be scruffy and unshaven. Archie explains: “I was born neat.” So was his prose.

Today, I’m posting a long (22,000 words!) essay on Wolfe and Archie in an effort to show some reasons they and their creator matter. Background follows below.


Research? Say rather, obsession

Like most academics, I try to pour my obsessions into my research. My interest in mystery stories (fiction, film, even theatre and TV) is surfacing in my current project, a book studying principles of popular narrative as they emerge in thrillers and detective stories. In a way, the book turns inside out what I tried to do in Reinventing Hollywood. There I traced film techniques to sources in adjacent media. Now I’m looking directly at those media to consider their formal and stylistic strategies, with some consideration of how film shaped and was shaped by them.

My survey covers familiar ground. I consider the classic detective story (the so-called “Golden Age” of Christie, Sayers, Queen, Carr et al.), the hardboiled writers, the suspense thriller, and the crystallization of major techniques in the 1940s (a polemical point with me). Later chapters analyze the heist plot, the police procedural, and particular writers (e.g., Cornell Woolrich, Ed McBain, Richard Stark, Patricia Highsmith). As presently planned, the book ends with an odd-couple pair of chapters: the “puzzle film” trend of the 1990s, and the domestic thriller of recent years (Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train). Some chips from the workbench have littered this blog, as the links indicate.

One of my key questions is: What has enabled readers and viewers to welcome the sort of extreme complexity that we find in movies like Pulp Fiction or Memento? We’re all now connoisseurs of narrative intricacy, in not only crime plots but science-fiction and fantasy ones (which actually often rest on mysery premises; see Devs).

Another theme of the book is one I pitched in Reinventing Hollywood. I argued that very quickly “modernist” innovations in fictional technique were channeled into something more moderate and middlebrow. It’s there that wider audiences gained proficiency in handling flashbacks, ellipses, plunges into subjectivity, opaque exposition, and other challenges to linear storytelling. At the end of the 1920s, while Joyce and Woolf and Faulkner were pushing modernism into ever more recondite byways (Finnegans Wake, The Waves, The Sound and the Fury), other writers were adapting advanced techniques to traditional ends.

And traditional genres. I’ll argue that modernist experiments provided some strategies that mystery writers could recast within the bounds of their tradition. Stout’s first two serious novels, How Like a God (1929) and Seed on the Wind (1930) joined the trend toward mainstreaming modernism. By 1930 he had fully absorbed what the 1910s-1920s writers had achieved. What’s less obvious is the mark of modernist writing on his reader-friendly detective stories. Yet one lesson of modernism, I think, is the need to play with language, to “defamiliarize” literary texture. That, I think, is one of the tasks Stout took on in the Wolfe saga.

I had planned to include a chapter on the Wolfe/Archie series, but what resulted was far too long in comparison with its mates. So I’m posting it online as an essay. A shorter version will show up, somehow, in the finished book.

Luckily, thanks to the Internetz, the essay’s web incarnation can include some illustrations from magazine publication of the stories. Since most of the books’ drama takes place in Wolfe’s office, artists are challenged to find nifty ways to show people grouped around a desk.

I hope, then, that fans of the series will find some ideas and information of interest. Above all, I hope what I’ve said here and there will stimulate novices to venture on one of the great exercises in American popular storytelling. If you don’t care for it, all I have to say is: Pfui.

There are many good websites devoted to mystery fiction. The most comprehensive is Mike Grost’s. You should also look into Martin Edwards’ fine blog Do You Write Under Your Own Name? See also the official Wolfe Pack site, full of links and assorted Stoutiana. John McAleer’s biography Rex Stout (Little, Brown, 1977) is vastly informative. Stout was not only a great writer but also a fascinating man.

P.S. 8 July 2020: I’ve just learned that jazz pianist Ethan Iverson has posted on his site “Comfort Food,”  a superb appreciation of Nero and Archie’s world. He discusses all the books, and even includes a page of Stout’s FBI file!

Fer-de-Lance, serialized as “Point of Death” in American Magazine (November 1934).

David Bordwell
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