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

Studying Cinema


People talk about the movies they see, and some people write about those movies for newspapers and magazines. How does film studies, as an academic discipline, accord with these more common ways of talking and thinking about films? The two ways of thinking about film aren’t completely distinct, I think, but some differences are worth noting.

First, ordinary discourse about cinema centers on evaluative talk. “That movie was great! I loved it!” “Really? I didn’t think it was very good.” Likewise film reviewers take as their primary goal the evaluation of films, giving thumbs up or thumbs down, saying whether they regard them as worth the ticket price or not. Academic film studies can involve evaluation, but for most film scholars evaluating a particular movie isn’t, or isn’t always, the goal.

Secondly, ordinary conversation tends to be ahistorical, in the sense that this or that movie is not seen as part of a tradition or long-range trend. Most reviewers follow this tendency; they typically don’t have the space or the mind-set to put a film in the context of film history. When a reviewer does invoke a historical context, it’s usually the present: a reviewer often treats a film as reflecting current social trends.

Third, and most important, typical talk about movies isn’t very analytical. It doesn’t explore how the parts of the film relate to one another in systematic ways; it doesn’t dissect strategies of plotting or aspects of style; it doesn’t examine the ideological maneuvers the film might execute. A reviewer might mention such factors, described more or less evocatively (“jagged montage,” “incoherent motivation,” etc.) but again, there is seldom the space, or the inclination, to probe such matters.

Film studies, it seems to me, is an effort to understand films and the processes through which they’re made and consumed. Film scholars mount explanations for why films are the way they are, why they were made the way they were, why they are consumed the way they are. Most ordinary talk about movies, and most film journalism, doesn’t ask “Why…?” questions, or pursue them very far.

Explaining anything involves analyzing it, at least to some degree. Analysis is a matter of breaking up whole phenomena into relevant parts and showing how they work together. Thus a film historian interested in how a particular studio worked in 1930 will distinguish among the studio’s operations (studio departments, say, or phases of the moviemaking process). An academic film critic will divide a film into parts (scenes, sequences, “acts”) to see how the overall architecture works. Explaining something also involves describing it. A film historian trying to explain how a studio functioned in 1930 will describe the work routines; that’s a necessary part of the explanation. An academic film critic will describe a scene in detail, for that’s necessary to understanding why it carries a particular meaning or achieves a particular effect. Analysis and description are rare in ordinary conversation and in film reviewing because of limits of time and space, but also because the film scholar is interested in something that isn’t so pressing for other parties: explanations.

There are different types of explanation. Historians often look for causal explanations, the way that events or circumstances x and y shaped event z over time. Film analysts and theorists often seek functional explanations—how x and y work together, at any given moment, to create the whole z. Again, these are concerns that typically don’t arise in ordinary conversation or film reviewing.

When film scholars talk about movies, they usually also offer interpretations: claims about the nonobvious meanings that we can find in films. Interpretations can be thought of as particular sorts of functional explanations. An interpretation presupposes that aspects of the film (style, structure, dialogue, plot) contribute to its overall significance. I argue this in more detail in Making Meaning.

Finally, I think that film studies is best defined as a process of posing and trying to answer questions. Most ordinary conversation about films serves other purposes—to share information, to have social exchanges with people, to learn more about others’ tastes. Film studies certainly has these aims too, but like other academic disciplines, it seeks to answer questions in a systematic way, one that is open to discussion and criticism. So film studies centers on certain sorts of questions: those that require explanations as answers.

One type of talk about movies resembles academic film studies quite a lot, though: the talk of fans. Fan subcultures love to describe their favorite scenes, often in great detail, and sometimes they engage in analysis. Fans are also highly evaluative in their talk (“Wasn’t the lightsabre duel cool?”), but in intriguing ways the specialized discourse of fans runs parallel to that of academics. The arguments mounted elsewhere on this website presume that theories, historical arguments, and film analyses are efforts to mount persuasive explanations which are, in turn, answers to particular questions.

David Bordwell
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