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

Film and the Historical Return

March 2005

An assembly of position papers in Cinema Journal, “In Focus: Film History, or a Baedeker Guide to the Historical Turn” (Cinema Journal 44, 1 [Fall 2004], 94–143) raises issues of continuing interest around how historical research might be pursued. It seems to me, however, that the collection offers as many grounds for discouragement as for hope.endnote1

The letdown can partly be attributed to the contributors’ embrace of fairly fixed conventions of the symposium genre. The essays carry an unhappy cargo of truisms. We should “construct interdisciplinary discourse” (97); linear narrative is bad; we should encourage non-westerners to write histories of their cinemas; collaboration between scholars would be good (but it carries risks). And, in case anyone has forgotten, “history matters” (124). There’s also the usual call to get with it, the announcement that we’re tired of one thing and need a fresh departure (in particular, what the writer is currently working on). It’s time to discard old habits. For Richard Abel, the primary question of historical research is, “Where next?” (107). “An exclusive focus on gender should be passé,” the collection’s editor Sumiko Higashi warns (97). Those who believe that academic work in the humanities is driven by fashion and a search for novelty at any cost will find some evidence here.

Present as well is the normal amount of retrospective righteousness. When Higashi started to study women in early film, she tells us, her ambitions aroused little interest: “In an interdisciplinary foray I experienced eclipse, interruption, and postponement simultaneously” (96). In rewriting the history of early film, Charles Musser recalls: “I was a New Yorker challenging local institutional authority” (102). The Historical Turn has evidently come at no little cost.

And there is the customary suggestion that scholars should craft accessible prose. Steven Ross sensibly urges us to write in “clear, jargon-free language” that nonspecialists can grasp and even enjoy (132). Admittedly, what counts as jargon he doesn’t tell us. (Wouldn’t an economic history, a history of science, or a history of verse have to use professional lingo and specialized terminology? Are these argots different from jargon?) Higashi notes (twice) that cultural historians tend to “eschew jargon” (95, 96), and she seems to agree with this aversion, since she counts herself a cultural historian. Yet her style isn’t eschewal-free. She produces phrases like “Assuming that polyphony is orchestrated in a postmodern moment” (98) and passages like this:

A number of film historians who began academic life as theoreticians, for example, are still deductive and in a dispersal of historical agency reify cinema, apparatuses, narration, discourses, and texts (95).

Such a sentence will send Ross’s civilian reader back to Entertainment Weekly, and even a veteran of theory skirmishes like myself can find it confusing, not to mention vague.

Once we get beyond the conventions of essay assemblages, we find some substantial points alongside some common proclivities that seem to me unproductive. I’ll focus on three of the latter. And since my own work is characterized in one of the essays, I want to engage with some of those comments too.

First proclivity: Many of the essays assume the standard view that intellectual work is a matter of applying doctrines rather than trying to solve puzzles or answer questions. Again and again we are told to be aware of this or that body of work—social history, cultural history, histories of subcultures or periods or minorities—but without any sense that the reason to explore those histories is grounded in what the historian is specifically trying to explain. “Social history is nonetheless useful for film scholars,” writes Higashi (95). Yes, but only in the light of particular questions. Some social history in this sense is likely to be irrelevant to some historical questions. If I want to understand why Carl Dreyer took work in several Scandinavian countries after his debut films in Denmark, I’m likely to investigate the state of the Danish film industry, his relations with the major companies, his personal life, and the structural opportunities offered in adjacent filmmaking nations. These are on the face of it better candidates for causal inputs than, for instance, the Danish class system. If I want to know how Herbert Kalmus developed Technicolor, it’s not clear that investigating the class demographics of MIT graduates will offer the most straightforward explanatory options. This isn’t to say that social explanations might not enter; it’s only to say that they don’t do so necessarily. And if historians want to explain unique cases, like artist’s careers, they would do well to remember Sartre’s dictum that class analysis goes only so far: Flaubert was a bourgeois, but not every bourgeois becomes a Flaubert.

Of course one could argue that all historical explanations are necessarily social (or cultural) at the end of the day. I suspect that many contributors to the symposium presuppose this, but it’s plainly false. Geologists offer historical explanations about the formation of land masses and the oceans, and evolutionary biologists explain mating habits of species in ways that don’t invoke subcultures. I find it hard to imagine a convincing sociocultural explanation for why film stock was standardized at a width of 35mm.

Historians want the most proximate causes for the events they’re seeking to explain, and an ultimate or distal force is often best considered a precondition rather than a causal input. For human activities like filmmaking or scientific inquiry, cultural forces are often preconditions, while more proximate factors—the state of technology, the mandates of tradition or custom, the structural opportunities furnished by institutions, the intentions of individuals—may well provide the most relevant and precise explanations. Ross puts this point in a slightly different but not incompatible way: “Understanding context is a difficult task for it means understanding both the general climate of a society and the specific pressures within its film industry at a particular moment in time. Movies are made by real men and women who face myriad pressures every day” (131). I’d argue that there probably is no single “climate” at work in a given society, and that the pressures filmmakers face are as much aesthetic as industrial, but Ross is surely right to emphasize both macro- and micro-level causal factors.

The key methodological questions, it seems to me, are: What phenomenon is the historian trying to explain? What are candidates for an approximately adequate proximate explanation? What rival answers to the questions are on the table, and what are some other possibilities? And then, from a comparative perspective, what explanations are most plausible? It would be naïve to assume that we would come up with only one candidate, but our efforts should be to weigh the pluses and minuses of each alternative. Just as important, we should recognize that many research programs are simply distinct and nonoverlapping: different questions, different perspectives, and different bodies of evidence and patterns of reasoning—which may never intersect. When two explanatory frameworks converge on the same question, we have genuine alternatives, but at least as often two historians working on the same subject are trying to solve quite different puzzles, and the scholars have no quarrel with one another.

In general, this seems to be the way historians in more mature disciplines often work. But much of film studies has consisted of assembling and reassembling abstract doctrines and “discourses” in order to arrive at a preordained conclusion. There isn’t a systematic move from the question’s presuppositions to data to inference. The result, as Sartre once remarked of “lazy Marxists,” is that the writer has the answer before she has asked the question. Certainly historians may ask “interested questions”; they may have biases and hunches they’re trying to prove. Still, even partisan scholars, including great ones like E.P. Thompson, adhere to the standards of their professional community, submitting their work to the dialectic of proposal, refutation, and rethinking. Of all the essays here assembled, only those by Ross, Charles Musser, and Jane Gaines take seriously the premise that historical inquiry is a matter of asking questions.

More specifically, and despite the Historical Turn, many contributors to the discussion still seem enthralled by theory. Robert Sklar invokes Michel de Certeau and Paul Veyne as measures of what film historians have accomplished (135–136). Unsurprisingly, he wishes for “a discourse on metahistorical perspectives that might pull together multiple strands and reorient the field” (136). Janet Staiger remarks that “contemporary identity theory asserts the significance of intersectionality: no specific identity is separable from the complex configuration of identity markers” (129). (Take that, Rossian reader!) Neither Sklar nor Staiger probes the theoretical claims they endorse; there is no shred of skepticism; they simply cite authority. And I confess to a twinge of 1960s nostalgia when Charlie Musser insists that our method should be “at once materialist and historical” (102). The Historical Half-Turn, we might call it; theory, often Grand Theory, is looking over our writers’ shoulders.

Second proclivity: Forgetting some institutional history. For a Baedeker’s guide, this one overlooks the fact that several historical turns took place before the current wave of social and cultural histories broke. Granted, some of the essays invoke the new surge of interest in pre-1920 film during the 1970s, and they’re right to do so. But no one invokes another initiative of the same era, the study of the history of the U.S. film industry.

I was an eyewitness to this research agenda. Coming to the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1973, I was introduced to the work of Tino Balio and Douglas Gomery, who approached Hollywood as a modern business enterprise and asked commensurate questions. How best to explain Warner Bros.’ innovation of sound movies? What business strategies and market responses enabled United Artists to sustain itself through several decades? By interrogating studio history from the standpoint of neoclassical economic analysis (Gomery) and from the standpoint of business culture and executive decision-making (Balio), these scholars fundamentally reshaped our understanding of Hollywood. The concepts they introduced to the field, such as vertical integration and oligopoly, are now deeply embedded in historians’ practices. Many of the recent writers who are proud to have just plunged into the archive were memorizing the Grande Syntagmatique and trying to understand the Mirror Stage when Balio and Gomery were cranking microfilm and turning over dusty papers page by page. Needless to say (although the symposium participants don’t say it), Balio, Gomery, and many other scholars have continued to examine film industries from kindred standpoints.

I can’t refrain from noting as well that in the 1970s and early 1980s there began to emerge new research programs studying the aesthetic history of cinema. These centered on questions of forms, styles, and genres. Some of this work took place at Wisconsin, but it also emerged in Iowa (Rick Altman) and New York (P. Adams Sitney, Roberta Pearson, and Tom Gunning). A great deal of early cinema research pointed in this direction too; I think of Charles Musser’s and André Gaudreault’s work on cutting in Porter as an influential early debate. And of course aesthetic history continues, albeit as a minority practice.

This leads me to the third common proclivity that strikes me in the Cinema Journal essays. Like business history, the history of film as art is almost completely ignored in the symposium. No historian studying form, technique, or genre contributed an essay. Indeed, throughout the collection, there’s a persistent assumption that the only type of history worthy of the name is social or cultural, in both the first and last instance. Even Ross, who claims that “deconstructing” film “texts” taught him how to look at images, mentions social stereotypes (e.g., African-American drug dealers) as examples of how cinematic imagery must be taken into account (130). An accurate observation, no doubt, but not exactly the height of film analysis either.

The odd thing is that in disciplines that study other media, it’s perfectly normal to pose formal and stylistic questions. Musicologists give us histories of tonality and sonata form. Historians of art and architecture trace the development of styles across periods. Historians of theatre explore plot conventions and traditions of staging and costuming. There are histories of Japanese verse forms, of Egyptian funerary sculpture, of African maskmaking. The study of an artform’s forms and styles occupies whole departments on some university campuses. Scholars in these disciplines conduct archival research (an important litmus test, according to many contributors to the symposium) and number among themselves many celebrated humanists: Riegl, Panofsky, and Gombrich in art history, Maynard Solomon and Leonard Meyer in musicology, Leo Spitzer and René Wellek in literary history. Yet in her survey of “history proper” (95) Higashi nowhere mentions such enterprises; she presumes that the only real history is socio-political history. Similarly, and with brief exceptions, her contributors ignore the possibility of writing the history of cinema as an artform. It’s as if film could never be studied as a historical artistic practice.

I’m not claiming that aesthetic history offers the only approach to understanding the multifarious phenomenon we call cinema. Richard Abel makes a slip when he says in a footnote that “Bordwell also argues for the centrality of stylistic history in On the History of Film Style” (111). Once more it depends on the questions we ask; certain questions, particularly about effects of films on spectators, should in my view consider aesthetic strategies as potentially important factors. My premise, nowhere argued against in the symposium or indeed anywhere in the literature I know, is that form and style aren’t neutral conduits of messages; they play a central role in our experience of a film. Anyone who wants to understand that experience should be ready to consider aesthetic factors. Nonetheless, many researchers aren’t interested in questions of how films are designed to shape experiences, and so for them art legitimately isn’t on the agenda. If the UA or Warners films hadn’t survived, Balio and Gomery’s research projects wouldn’t be hurt one jot.

Ignoring the art-centered research programs isn’t a new habit. As late as 1985, Gomery and Bobby Allen, in their Film History: Theory and Practice treated the aesthetic history of film as a relic, disparaging it as “the masterpieces tradition.” Allen and Gomery’s worry seemed to be that one couldn’t study film as art without injecting evaluations about the great works. Now I’m not wholly convinced that evaluation should be purged from stylistic history, any more than I think that political histories shouldn’t pass judgment on the actions of individuals or groups. If a historian can condemn Stalin or the Rape of Nanking, why can’t she praise Renoir or Ozu? Be that as it may, many research projects have shown that one need not focus on canonized works in order to understand the history of film art. For instance, The Classical Hollywood Cinema tries to trace out normalized formal practices as revealed in ordinary films.

A more recent, equally groundless worry is reflected in the symposium’s recurring conception that to study film art condemns one to media-specificity claims. Staiger writes that “While I believe fully that the concept of media specificity exists, being sheltered by studying only film is to work with blinders on” (127). Staiger cites no examples, so we’re thrown back on syntax. The first clause seems to suggest that the concept of medium specificity exists as a real historical force; people (e.g., Bazin?) have acted as if film had distinct or unique properties. True, no doubt. But then the sentence’s main clause seems to claim that to study “only film” is to embrace medium-specificity ideas. I can’t think of any film historian who studies only film, but in any event I don’t see that Staiger’s second clause follows from her first. One can focus on matters filmic without presupposing that those matters are specific or unique to cinema. To study film lighting is not to presume that only cinema utilizes lighting.

To get some clarity let’s distinguish between two worries that socio-cultural historians seem to have with respect to aesthetic history. First, there’s the idea that one shouldn’t take aesthetic factors as the object of one’s inquiry. Why study editing or sound techniques or staging traditions, when the truly important matters involve audiences, ideology, and the social circulation of meaning? This premise seems behind the general neglect of aesthetic history in most of the “In Focus” essays. Yet this isn’t a tenable position. For one thing, we don’t know where our inquiries into any matter will lead, and so we shouldn’t limit our explorations at the outset. Insisting on studying only certain things is blatantly dogmatic and makes the field’s proclamations of pluralism ring hollow. For another thing, no other mature fields would limit things this way. In the study of painting, architecture, music, and the other arts, posing questions focused on matters of technique is considered of paramount importance—indeed, it constitutes a good part of the core knowledge demanded of every professional. Film studies may be rare in encouraging historians of an art medium to ignore matters of form and style.

A second concern runs this way: One can legitimately ask questions concerning aesthetic resources or strategies, but the answers will ultimately rest upon broader social, political, or cultural processes (law, economics, identity politics, etc.). As I’ve suggested earlier, this isn’t a self-evident truth; it’s a presupposition that will need to be argued for in relation to the particular case. The contributor that engages with this idea most directly is Lee Grieveson, and he develops his argument in relation to the sort of historical poetics I’ve proposed on this website and in various publications.

Grieveson’s argument runs as follows. He starts with an illustrative anecdote, whereby a 1908 Illinois court case defined film as an entertainment medium to which concepts of historical accuracy didn’t necessarily pertain. This shows, he claims, that legal decisions created a “discursive identity” for film as “harmless entertainment” (120). He asserts that such political-juridical activities are crucial “generative mechanisms” in the formation of what’s been called the classical Hollywood cinema.

This concept provides a segue to a consideration of the book, The Classical Hollywood Cinema (1985), by Janet Staiger, Kristin Thompson, and myself. He claims that that volume showed the interdependence of aesthetic and industrial processes, captured in the concept of a “mode of film practice” (120; our phrase). That mode, we asserted, was the “most pertinent and proximate” causal input to the narrative form and visual/ auditory style of studio films. (121; our phrase). Grieveson then links this conclusion to my own formulation of a historical poetics of cinema. But he suggests that this formulation doesn’t fully explore “the possibility of the social affecting textuality” (122). Tom Gunning’s work is advanced as instantiating this possibility, with Gunning’s essay “Weaving a Narrative” as an exemplary instance. Gunning finds that early cinema’s “subdivision and linearization of plot lines” (122) has links to contemporary literary practice and served as well “to articulate a moral discourse and thus to divert reform anxieties about cinema” (123). This shows that “aesthetic practices were connected to ideological choices” (123). Grieveson goes on to list other writers who have shown “the social embeddedness of textual practices” (123), including William Uricchio and Roberta Pearson, Sumiko Higashi, Richard Maltby, and others. Grieveson mentions his own work in this line of inquiry, which focuses chiefly on content and the social function of cinema (123).

All this work “makes clear the complex connections between [sic] aesthetics, commercial goals, and practices of politics and power” (124). It obliges historical poetics to go further in “situating institutional and textual pressures in a broader social, political, and cultural history” (124). Grieveson concludes that we must “push at the borders of texts and of aesthetic histories” (124), at least partly because a focus on the films’ form and style itself replicates the separation of cinema from the realm of “social, political, and cultural histories” (124).

Several of Grieveson’s points illustrate objections I’ve made earlier in these reflections. He doesn’t state what research question he’s pursuing; instead, he’s interested in integrating several lines of research into a metadiscourse about history. His primary interest is methodological: the only question he poses explicitly is that of “the divisions and possible connections between formalist historiography and the practices of cultural history” (122). But he doesn’t consider the possibility that the divisions aren’t differences of principle and the connections just might not exist. Once you consider the particular questions that the researchers are pursuing, it’s not clear that the lines of inquiry intersect in any enlightening way.endnote2

Moreover, the connections that Grieveson proposes ignore the concrete questions and nuanced answers that are the stuff of the historical research he traces. To go back to the book that launches his case: The Classical Hollywood Cinema contains hundred, perhaps thousands, of empirical claims, and these form many strands of argument. At times, to give a sense of the contours of our general position, we encapsulate those factors as aesthetic and industrial ones. But Grieveson ignores the range and depth of empirical generalizations on which our summary labels rest. Instead he takes “the aesthetic” and “the industrial” as themselves historical forces. This abstraction (Higashi might call it reification) of a variety of particular claims functions strategically in Grieveson’s argument: it makes it possible for him to say that many scholars have also talked about “aesthetic” factors. But the contributions of Uricchio, Pearson, et al., whatever their virtues, don’t talk about the aesthetic issues broached in CHC. They don’t consider those norms of composition, lighting, cutting, sound and color practices, narrative structure, narration, and the like that are at the core of our book. Nor do they trace the development of the mode of production—the division of labor, the chain of command, the development of the script as blueprint, and so on. The scholars itemized are for the most part simply asking other questions.

Gunning’s inquiry, it’s true, intersects with ours, but his concept of linearity is far broader than the particular narrative strategies we trace. Grieveson could have usefully compared Gunning’s rather broad account of “linearity” with Thompson’s section of CHC, which explores in a more detailed way the debt of early film’s storytelling strategies to particular literary and theatrical practices (e.g., the short story and the skit). But this wouldn’t have enabled him to make the simpler, starker contrast (aesthetics/ culture) on which his essay rests.

If Grieveson wants to press at the boundaries of “aesthetics and textuality” he should be prepared to show how the focus of his concern—regulation—affects any of the factors that we trace out in CHC. Does regulation, or response to “reform anxieties” (a force that will have to do a lot of explanatory work), tell us why we have dialogue hooks, montage sequences, goal-oriented protagonists, and a switch from orthochromatic to panchromatic film stock? It seems unlikely. Consider the counterfactual: Wouldn’t Hollywood cinema remain just as much a zone of “harmless entertainment” if the “tableau style” of the 1910s persisted through the 1980s? It seems to me that the “generative mechanism” Grieveson postulates is a distal cause, or precondition, for phenomena that need finer-grained explanation. When someone suggests that we must go beyond aesthetics, I want to reply: Please show me that you’ve gotten to aesthetics in the first place.

Of course not all the phenomena we consider in CHC are far removed from the sort of explanatory factors some historians prefer. Many factors we delineate, particularly those bearing on the division of labor and order of production, are plainly tied to the economic practices of U.S. capitalism—a point made repeatedly by Staiger in the book. But I’d insist that there may well be no cultural reason, of any perspicuity, why filmmakers switched from orthochromatic to panchromatic stock; it may be that the “most pertinent and proximate” explanations are wholly industrial and aesthetic. I suspect that many of the norms we trace, at various levels of generality, are satisfactorily explained without invoking modernity, reform anxieties, moral discourse, or other factors—simply because every explanation must stop somewhere, and it’s impossible to spell out all the preconditions for any historical event. But historians who believe that every explanation for anything is in the last analysis social or cultural won’t accept this. So if it makes anyone sleep better at night, I’d suggest that she or he tack onto every explanation that CHC ascribes to the “mode of film practice” the clause “and this mode exists because of bourgeois ideology/ reform anxieties/ juridical intervention/ modernity/ all of the above.”

Behind Grieveson’s effort lies an assumption that my efforts to sketch a historical poetics, despite my avowals otherwise, have ignored cultural explanations. “In practice, for Bordwell, as for other formalist scholars [what other formalist scholars?], cultural causes are relegated [sic] in importance, and the methods for connecting culture and aesthetics are subject to critical scrutiny” (122). This is revealing, implying that cultural historians of film don’t subject their methods to critical scrutiny. (On the whole, I think this assumption holds good.) But in my case the objection falls wide of the mark. I’ve criticized certain sorts of cultural explanation of form and style, but not all. Grieveson wants to find how aesthetic inquiry can be integrated with cultural explanation—fair enough—but he looks only at cultural histories that have touched on aesthetic matters. He doesn’t, however, look at aesthetic work that invokes cultural matters, e.g., my own.

Wait! someone may say. Bordwell practices “formalist” history, and we all know that that ignores social and cultural factors. Wrong. If Grieveson had looked at my book Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema—presumably a text worth examining for someone trying to comment on my conception of a cinepoetics—he would find an effort to “connect culture and aesthetics”; except that the “culture” is conceived in far more specific terms than he lays out, and the “aesthetics” likewise. He could also turn to my accounts of Socialist Realism and government policy in The Cinema of Eisenstein, and to my proposal for a “dialogical” or conversational model of films’ relation to audiences, floated in Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment. In some essays, such as “Conventions, Construction, and Cinematic Vision,” I’ve discussed the prospect that some cinematic techniques fulfill cultural—indeed, cross-cultural—functions. (Contingent universals are the third rail of cultural history.)

Finally, just because I’ve criticized the modernity thesis as formulated by the Benjaminians, it doesn’t mean that I don’t think modernity is important. Many who think that I’m hostile to modernity explanations will probably be startled to discover that the Ozu book (published in 1988, well before most of the recent statements about Modernity) develops several arguments about modernity in 1920s and 1930s Japan. For instance, I suggest that modernization shaped the (ideologically constructed) conception of “everyday life” in Japanese films. More broadly, that book surveys several alternative methods for “connecting aesthetics and culture.”

Grieveson betrays no awareness of any of my arguments in this domain. Like many commentators, he seems to think that I do the same thing in every research project. Because I don’t invoke culture very much in my sections of the The Classical Hollywood Cinema—because I couldn’t determine its relevance to the questions at the center of that project—it doesn’t mean I don’t invoke culture in other projects, when the research makes that a plausible input for my explanation. Rather than declaring that “connecting culture to aesthetics” is alien to my version of historical poetics, Griveson could usefully analyze (critically, of course) my efforts to invoke cultural factors in answer to particular questions of form, style, and theme.

Before he undertakes this, though, Grieveson should get a firmer grasp of the concept of historical poetics of cinema as I’ve outlined it. Granted, he quotes me on this matter, but to trace his slips, I must go through his gloss. Bear with me. Here’s the relevant paragraph, sentence by sentence:

A critical practice of historical poetics, Bordwell has proposed, “produces knowledge in answer to two broad questions about cinema: (1) What are the principles according to which films are constructed and by means of which they achieve particular effects? And (2) How and why have these principles arisen and changed in particular empirical circumstances?” [footnote]

So far, so good. But note the emphasis on constructive principles, something that distinguishes poetics as a research perspective (Aristotle, to start with), from hermeneutics. We infer those principles from a wide array of evidence, including the record of artists’ creative decisions and the design features of the films. The culture-centered research programs Grieveson invokes as examples of “the aesthetic” don’t typically take constructive principles into account.

In proposing these questions, the project of historical poetics takes leave of interpretive criticism and theory, putting to one side questions about what films mean and how they resonate with cultural contexts to instead describe and explain formal norms. [footnote]

The project of historical poetics doesn’t take leave of interpretive criticism; it includes it. As I indicate in Making Meaning, interpretation is part of a poetician’s critical practice. Why? Because meanings are among the effects that have to be explained by constructive principles. Thus meanings are not “put to one side.” I emphasize in the article Grieveson cites that thematics is one domain of poetics, and in my studies of Ozu, Eisenstein, Dreyer, and others I try to show how form and style connect with theme by virtue of constructive principles. For example, the religious themes of Dreyer’s films are manifested in imagery of the prophetic book and the act of writing, and this imagery gives the narrative dynamic the quality of an already-achieved, even predestined series of actions. And as indicated above, in the Ozu book and elsewhere the historical poetics I practice doesn’t “put to one side” questions of how films “resonate with cultural contexts” (though that seems to me an imprecise way of putting the matter). Finally, although formal norms are at the center of many of my projects, I’m also concerned with how filmmakers creatively rework them, something that Grieveson’s account doesn’t mention.

The broad currency of this critical project and historiographic method is, of course, widely visible in contemporary cinema studies, underpinning important and justly influential work by Bordwell and Thompson, in particular, and, as a consequence of the jointly authored textbooks Film Art: An Introduction and Film History: An Introduction, having an impact on widely shared pedagogical practices [footnote].

It’s hard to know what to make of this rather woolly passage. Clearly something big is afoot—a “broad currency” is “widely visible” and has an impact on “widely shared” practices—but what exactly? If Grieveson means to say that film poetics is one major approach in the field of film studies, I’d ask him, as a practicing historian, to prove it. I don’t find any evidence that it has anything like the “broad currency” of multicultural studies, postcolonial studies, gender studies, or the like. I have yet to hear of any department deciding, “Well, we really must hire someone in historical poetics.” If anything, I have good evidence of the reverse: that anyone interested in pursuing these questions will not have an easy time finding a job in academic film studies. Significantly, while Grieveson offers a roll-call of names of culture-centered historians, he cites as practitioners of “formalist history” only Kristin Thompson and myself. Whom does he have in mind? What leads him to think that our “project and method” are “widely visible”? Maybe it’s just that we publish a lot.

Similar questions could be asked about the final phrases of the sentence. As a historian, Grieveson should point to some proof that Film Art and Film History have had the impact he claims. More crucially, he needs to buttress his assumption that they are informed by the historical poetics research program. I think that this is a hard case to make. Film Art seeks to introduce aspects of cinema that every approach, even the most culture-driven, recognizes as significant for understanding film as an artform. And with respect to Film History, it would surely be hard for Grieveson to make the case that we’ve failed to go beyond “the borders of texts and aesthetic histories” (124). Although the book concentrates on artistic and industrial trends across film history, it constantly brings in political, cultural, technological, and social causes.endnote3 To presume that these books rest centrally upon a conception of historical poetics, particularly Grieveson’s version of same, is just false.

It’s always salutary when film historians reflect on their practices, but the results of this symposium, despite some significant moments of thoughtful reflection, indicate that far too many historians still worship Grand Theory, still hope for a master reconciliation of all research programs, still view empirical research through cloudy generalities, still write in a style that encourages gaseous thinking, and still misconceive efforts to understand cinema as an artform. Above all, for too many historians “culture” is the one ring to rule them all, the answer to every question anyone might want to ask.

Back in the early 1960s Andrew Sarris launched his version of the auteur theory in response to two threats: the English teachers who wanted to claim cinema as a literary art, and the sociologists who took Hollywood movies as grist for observations about how the mass media promulgate distorted views of the world. In an ascending spiral, something similar seems to be happening today. True, our littérateurs approach film through the lens of Theory rather than the Great Tradition, while the culturalists write not in the language of Talcott Parsons but of Michel Foucault. Yet the neglect of things aesthetic remains constant. Not the Historical Turn, then, but the Historical Return.


1 : Since one essay in the collection makes frequent reference to my own arguments, you might ask why I haven’t sought to reply in the pages of Cinema Journal. Some years back, in trying to rebut some more severe criticisms in CJ’s pages, I learned that this journal doesn’t welcome debate, at least with respect to positions I’ve put forward. At that time, as I kept trying to reply, the editor delayed publication of my response for a year—partly in order to give the original author time to answer my rejoinder in the same issue. A former editor of the journal also wrote me pleading me not to reply, on the grounds that the original critique would not be taken seriously by readers anyhow. In all, pretty amazing. Not wishing to repeat this experience, I’ve used this webpage to respond quickly to this symposium. I expect to use this forum for the same purposes in the future.

2 : Grieveson notes that I’ve been involved in praising or supporting the publication of projects that invoke cultural or political causes of film-related phenomena (124). But he takes this to show that I support them because they fit an expanded definition of historical poetics. Actually, I support them because (a) I can support positions that disagree with mine; and (b) often they don’t disagree with mine because their controlling questions don’t overlap with mine.

3 : By the way, Grieveson errs in his footnote (no. 11, p. 125): He attributes authorship of Film History: An Introduction to “Bordwell and Thompson,” when in fact Thompson is the first-named author.

David Bordwell
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