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

Archive for October 2006

Movies on Demand—at 39,000 Feet

Kristin here—

As David has mentioned, I made a short trip to England to deal with inventorying the latest additions to the P. G. Wodehouse Archive. I got back last night to resume work on The Frodo Franchise and to hold up my end of the blog.

Having been in a lovely old farmhouse in the rolling hills of southern England the whole time, I don’t have any film-related experiences from the trip to report. Going and coming, however, was another matter.

For years now we’ve been hearing about the airlines installing these wonderful new systems that will allow bored travelers to choose from a long list of films (or music or video games) to view on personal monitors. It’s finally happening, and for the first time I was on a new plane that had these systems.

I have to say, they’re pretty neat. Definitely a big improvement on the old ways of watching movies on airplanes. When I started flying, movies were shown on 16mm, projected on screens at the front of each cabin. Naturally from most positions, you had to stretch your neck to see over the seats in front of you, and if you were way on the side at the front of the cabin, it was a lost cause.

Eventually video projection replaced 16mm, but that only made the picture fuzzier. The airlines then went for quantity, showing old sit-coms, documentaries, and, naturally, ads.

Business class cabins came to feature personal monitors, which emerged on a swiveling pole from a chamber under one armrest. These offered a choice of maybe half a dozen films on different channels. The screen was small, and these films were playing on a loop, on at the same time for everyone in business class. If you missed the beginning, you could wait a couple of hours until it started again, or just watch the beginning after seeing the rest of the film first. The movie rolled merrily along even while announcements were made or dinners served.

These new systems are somewhat like watching movies on a small laptop that doesn’t have quite all the controls that we’re used to. A remote stored in the arm of the chair navigates you through various help screens and menus. I didn’t count how many movies were on offer, but it must have been more than 30, ranging from The Devil Wore Prada to Fight Club to Sideways, with a sampling for kids as well.

You watch the film (or whatever) on a small screen imbedded in the seat in front of you. It’s a fairly decent size, given the circumstances, maybe six inches wide. (Didn’t happen to have my ruler handy.) Bigger than the little screens on the typical business-class monitor, anyway. The picture seemed sharper, though there was a tendency for ambient light to wash out the dark parts of the image.

The main thing, though, is that you have lots more control over the film. You start it when you want, and if there are interruptions, you can pause it. Meal service and other distractions don’t make you miss bits. I even could stare out the window as we passed over Greenland and then go back to watching Meryl Streep bullying Anne Hathaway.

I wouldn’t exactly recommend this new system for close film analysis, but apart from pausing, the remote does let you go fast backward or forward. I couldn’t find a way to go in slow motion or frame-by-frame, but I suspect there’s not a lot of demand for that sort of thing.

So, after years of not watching movies on airplanes—even on those lovely, rare occasions when I got to go business class—I now have that option again. I even watched Cars again. I enjoyed its narrative and wit, but it made me very glad I had seen it on the big screen already. Clearly one would do well to choose films to watch on this new system carefully. I feel fairly confident that The Devil Wears Prada didn’t suffer all that much, but I can’t imagine seeing Fight Club for the first time under such circumstances.

One other cautionary note: the films I watched weren’t letterboxed, and I suspect the others on offer weren’t, either.

I was traveling via Northwest on an A330. NW also has these systems on its 747-400s, and I presume other airlines have them on their newer planes. I don’t know if it would be possible to retro-fit older planes with systems this elaborate. It will probably be a long time before every flight will let us summon up movies according to whim.

Now, if they could only do something about those little headphones!

Two talks

For over twenty years, our Film Studies program here at the University of Wisconsin–Madison has held weekly colloquia. Faculty, grad students, and anyone else who’s interested gather on Thursday afternoon to hear lectures or participate in panel discussions or sometimes just watch a film together.

The colloquium speakers are often guests. They might be scholars from other campuses; Rick Altman from Iowa kicked off this semester with a fine talk on sound in the silent era. Sometimes we get visiting filmmakers with new work, or archivists showing a restoration. Mike Pogorzelski of the Academy and Schawn Belston of Fox are frequent visitors, bringing some of their wonderful discoveries. Often as well grad students present a talk based on a seminar paper or their dissertation work, and sometimes faculty try out a new paper. My ‘transitions’ talk last week was a colloq presentation.

This week our colleague Jeff Smith gave a very intriguing paper on new ways of thinking about movie soundtracks. Jeff is the author of a major study of film music in the 1960s, and how it relates to the record industry of the time.

Jeff talked about how film theorists of the 1910s and 1920s had tried to draw analogies between a film and a musical piece. For these thinkers, cinema was less tied to theatre and literature than to music. This allowed them to repudiate the photographic realism that seemed to limit the camera to reproducing what was put before it. Theorists like Germaine Dulac, Jean Epstein, and Dziga Vertov wanted to push film beyond realism and so looked to the abstract art of music.

Jeff suggested that this analogy failed because the theorists’ conception of music was too limited to art music and nineteenth-century models. He proposed that a better analogy would be the more expansive conception of music that many musicologists hold now. Music now commonly includes spoken language, sound effects, electronically generated material, and purely ambient passages….all of which are much closer to the sort of mixtures we get in a film soundtrack.

He played examples from Brian Eno, Stevie Wonder, and other artists to back up the idea, and he also suggested that now a lot of musical composition was becoming more and more like a movie track. (John Zorn and Steve Reich come to mind.) It was a provocative idea and stimulated a good discussion, including comments from PhD students in music theory. Then we went to our bar, the Red Shed, for more fun.

Following a quick dinner, Jeff and I attended a packed lecture given by Philip Kitcher, the distinguished philosopher of science. The talk was called “Science, Religion, and the Difficulties of Democracy.” It was a thorough and careful treatment of larger issues behind the evolution vs. creationism conflict.

Kitcher distinguished three sorts of religious belief (providentialism, supernaturalism, and spiritualism) and traced out the extent to which scientific inquiry challenged each one. He argued that if scientific inquiry was to become the gold standard for reasoning–a belief he holds–then democracies are faced with the possibility of narrowing the freedom that they traditionally grant to unscientific systems of belief. That is, if the theory of evolution meets the highest standards of scientific accuracy, as it does, then a local community doesn’t really have full power to curtail its teaching in the classroom.

It was a compelling lecture, but the question period was even more riveting. Kitcher is a master of thinking on his feet, and he gave courteous, clear, and subtle responses to objections from the floor.

Days like this make me glad, and proud, to be part of a university. Eloquent and smart speakers addressing alert audiences are an irreplaceable part of higher education. Now that I spend more time in front of a computer monitor, it’s good to be reminded that colloquia and public lectures yield a unique pleasure: People meeting face to face to think together.

Great Danes in the morning

This morning I received my author’s copies of a superb book published by the Danish Film Institute, 100 Years of Nordisk Film. Nordisk was one of the world’s top producing and distributing companies in the 1900s and 1910s, and it continues today. This volume, edited by Lispeth Richter Larsen and Dan Nissen, is now the fullest account in English of this extraordinary firm.

There are essays by top scholars like Isak Thorsen, Marguerite Engberg, Stephan Michael Schroder, Niels Jorgen Dinnesen, Edvin Kau, Thomas Christensen, Casper Tybjerg, Ib Bondebjerg, and Peter Schelpern, and the illustrations are eye-popping. I contribute an essay on the aesthetics of Nordisk’s 1910s films, and my stills came out beautifully.

Many of the silent films discussed are available on DVD from the Institute, and they are extraordinary. If you want a sample, try the Asta Nielsen or Benjamin Christensen collection. These are amazing movies, and the Christensens offer remarkably inventive uses of cutting, lighting, and camera movement–very unusual for their day.
I don’t yet find a source for ordering the book online, but it will probably be available soon from the Institute’s bookstore. Danish cinema is one of the most exciting national cinemas in Europe right now; for coverage, have a look at their new homepage.

Addendum to an earlier post: Industry sage and entertaining skeptic David Poland of The Hot Button calls foul on Gladwell’s New Yorker piece on the Epagogix software–you know, the one purporting to predict hit movies. Thanks to Sean Weitner of Flak Magazine (itself highly recommended).

Akihabara mon amour

During our first visit to Tokyo in summer 1988, Kristin and I were sitting with a friend in a park. I remarked that for library research I’d like a scanner that could run over the surface of a book and store the text or print it out somehow. Our Japanese friend Komatsu Hiroshi said brightly, “I know where they sell that.”

He took us to Akihabara, and in one store a bored salesgirl stood at a table routinely running a handset over Japanese text. The gadget spit out a strip of characters, like a cash-register sales receipt. I didn’t buy one, largely because it was doubtful that I could ever get replacement print cartridges, but ever since then, Akihabara has stood as my emblem of geek paradise. There, the future is on sale today, and everybody becomes an otaku.

So what a pleasure to get Mark Schiling’s report on the neighborhood, and its relation to the anime on view in the Tokyo Film Festival. I haven’t been back in several years, but this article makes me want to book a flight tomorrow.

David Bordwell
top of page

have comments about the state of this website? go here