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 Art: An Introduction
by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson

Film Art
about the book
Film Art: An Introduction is a survey of film as an art form. It’s aimed at undergraduate students and general readers who want a comprehensive and systematic introduction to film aesthetics. It considers common types of films, principles of narrative and non-narrative form, basic film techniques, and strategies of writing about films. It also puts film art in the context of changes across history. Film Art first appeared in 1979 and is currently in its eleventh edition, published by McGraw-Hill. For more on our purposes in writing it, go here on this site.

Film analyses from earlier editions of Film Art

As Film Art went through various editions, we developed analyses of various films that might be used in an introductory course. But as space grew tight or certain films dropped out of circulation, we cut those analyses and replaced them with others. The Internet allows us to revive these old pieces. Many of the films are now available on DVD, and we invite students and professors to use these analyses in examining the movies.

The essays here are taken from the edition featuring their last revision.

10th edition

Functions of Film Sound: The Prestige
dir. Christopher Nolan, 2006. From Film Art, 10th edition, McGraw-Hill (2012): 298–306.

In London around 1900, two magicians are locked in desperate competition, each searching for ever more baffling illusions. As they deceive each other and their audiences, the film about them tries to deceive us as well.
     A story of crime, professional rivalry, personal jealousy, and grand aspirations, The Prestige sets itself a difficult task. The film tries to be as tantalizing as a magic trick, but one that can eventually be explained. As a result, director Christopher Nolan and his screenwriter (and brother) Jonathan Nolan must both reveal and conceal information. The film must present us just enough of the story to keep us engaged, while holding back the answers to the puzzles—and sometimes, like a magician, distracting us from what is really going on. Throughout The Prestige, sound is crucial to an elaborate choreography of misdirection.
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9th edition

An Example of Associational Form: A Movie
dir. Bruce Conner, 1958. From Film Art, 9th edition, McGraw-Hill (2010): 376–381.

Bruce Conner’s film A Movie illustrates how associational form can confront us with evocative and mysterious juxtapositions, yet can at the same time create a coherent film that has an intense impact on the viewer.
     Conner made A Movie, his first film, in 1958. Like Léger, he worked in the visual and plastic arts and was noted for his assemblage pieces—collages built up of miscellaneous found objects. Conner took a comparable approach to filmmaking. He typically used footage from old newsreels, Hollywood movies, soft-core pornography, and the like. By working in the found-footage genre, Conner juxtaposed two shots from widely different sources. When we see the two shots together, we strive to find some connection between them. From a series of juxtapositions, our activity can create an overall emotion or concept.
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An Example of Experimental Animation: Fuji
dir. Robert Breer, 1974. From Film Art, 9th edition, McGraw-Hill (2010): 388–390.

In contrast to smooth Hollywood narrative animation, Robert Breer’s 1974 film Fuji looks disjointed and crudely drawn. It doesn’t involve a narrative but instead, like Ballet mécanique, develops according to principles of abstract form.
     Fuji begins without a title or credits, as a bell rings three times over blackness. A cut leads not to animated footage but to a shaky, fuzzy shot through a train window, with someone’s face and eyeglasses partially visible at the side in the extreme foreground. In the distance, what might be rice paddies slide by. This shot and most of the rest of the film are accompanied by the clacking, rhythmic sound of a train. More black leader creates a transition to a very different image. Against a white background, two flat shapes, like keystones with rounded corners, alternate frame by frame, one red, the other green. The effect is a rapid flicker as the two colored shapes drift about the frame in a seemingly random pattern. Another stretch of black introduces a brief, fuzzy shot of a man in a dark suit running across the shot in a strange corridor.
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8th edition

A Man Escaped
dir. Robert Bresson, 1956. From Film Art, 8th edition, McGraw-Hill (2006): 293–300.

Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (Un Condamné à mort c’est échappé) illustrates how a variety of sound techniques can function throughout an entire film. The story takes place in France in 1943. Fontaine, a Resistance fighter arrested by the Germans, has been put in prison and condemned to die. But while awaiting his execution, he works at an escape plan, loosening the boards of his cell door and making ropes. Just as he is ready to put his plan in action, a boy named Jost is put into his cell. Deciding to trust that Jost is not a spy, Fontaine reveals his plan to him, and they are both able to escape.
     Throughout the film, sound has many important functions. As in all of his films, Bresson emphasizes the sound track, rightly believing that sound may be just as cinematic as images. At certain points in A Man Escaped, Bresson even lets his sound technique dominate the image; throughout the film, we are compelled to listen. Indeed, Bresson is one of a handful of directors who create a complete interplay between sound and image.
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5th edition

High School
dir. Frederick Wiseman, 1968. From Film Art, 5th edition, McGraw-Hill (1996): 409–415.

Frederick Wiseman’s High School is a good example of the cinéma-vérité approach. Wiseman received permission to film at Philadelphia’s Northeast High School, and he acted as sound recordist while his cameraman shot footage in the hallways, classrooms, cafeteria, and auditorium of the institution. The film that resulted uses no voice-over narration and almost no nondiegetic music. Wiseman uses none of the facing-the-reporter interviews that television news coverage employs. In these ways, High School might seem to approach the cinéma-vérité ideal of simply presenting a slice of life. Yet if we analyze the film’s form and style, we find that it still aims to achieve particular effects on the spectator, and it still suggests a specific range of meaning. Far from being a neutral transmission of reality, High School shows how film form and style, even in cinéma-vérité, shape the event we see on film.
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4th edition

dir. John Ford, 1939. From Film Art, 4th edition, McGraw-Hill (1992): 366–370.

Film theorist André Bazin has written of John Ford’s Stagecoach: “Stagecoach is the ideal example of the maturity of a style brought to classic perfection…Stagecoach is like a wheel, so perfectly made that it remains in equilibrium on its axis in any position.” This effect results from the film’s concentration on the creation of a tight narrative unity, with all of its elements serving that goal.
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Hannah and Her Sisters
dir. Woody Allen, 1985. From Film Art, 4th edition, McGraw-Hill (1992): 376–381.

It’s a typical approach that one person or a couple function as the protagonists of a film. Yet many Hollywood films use multiple protagonists. Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters examines the psychological traits and interactions among a group of characters. We shall see that creating several protagonists does not necessarily make a film any less “classical” in its form and style.
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Desperately Seeking Susan
dir. Susan Seidelman, 1985. From Film Art, 4th edition, McGraw-Hill (1992): 381–387.

In many classical films, groups of characters interact to create causes and motivations. Their actions, added together, steadily push the action forward. In Desperately Seeking Susan, however, the two protagonists, the staid New Jersey housewife Roberta and the wild, streetwise Susan, initially seem to have little connection to each other. The early portion of the plot alternates sequences involving the two women, but, although Roberta reads about Susan in the personals column and becomes fascinated with her, they do not interact directly. Yet the two women’s lives gradually begin to intertwine, until they finally meet at the end. The form of the film depends on devices of parallelism that point up how the women are actually somewhat alike.
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Day of Wrath
dir. Carl Dreyer, 1943. From Film Art, 4th edition, McGraw-Hill (1992): 387–391.

Many films pose few difficulties for viewers who like their movies straightforward and easy to digest. But not all films are so clear in their form and style. In films like Day of Wrath, the questions we ask often do not get definite answers; endings do not tie everything up; film technique does not always function invisibily to advance the narrative. When analyzing such films, we should restrain ourselves from trying to answer all of the film’s questions and to create neatly satisfying endings. Instead of ignoring peculiarities of technique, we should seek to examine how film form and style create uncertainty — seek to understand the cinematic conditions that produce ambiguity. Day of Wrath, a tale of witchcraft and murder set in seventeenth-century Denmark, offers a good test case.
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Last Year at Marienbad
dir. Alain Resnais, 1961. From Film Art, 4th edition, McGraw-Hill (1992): 391–396.

When Last Year at Marienbad was first shown in 1961, many critics offered widely varying interpretations of it. When faced with most films, these critics would have been looking for implicit meanings behind the plot. But, faced with Marienbad, their interpretations were attempts simply to describe the events that take place in the film’s story. These proved difficult to agree on. Did the couple really meet last year? If not, what really happened? Is the film a character’s dream or hallucination?
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Innocence Unprotected
dir. Dušan Makavejev, 1968. From Film Art, 4th edition, McGraw-Hill (1992): 401–406.

Like Last Year at Marienbad, Dušan Makavejev’s Innocence Unprotected (more correctly translated as Innocent Unprotected) diverges markedly from the norms of classical narrative filmmaking. In analyzing the film, it is useful to think of its form as a collage, an assemblage of materials taken from widely different sources. By playing up the disparities among the film’s materials, the collage principle permits Makavejev to use film techniques and film form in fresh and provocative ways. The result is a film that examines the nature of cinema — particularly, cinema in a social and historical context.
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Clock Cleaners
dir. Walt Disney, 1937. From Film Art, 4th edition, McGraw-Hill (1992): 418–420.

Clock Cleaners is a narrative, but it does not adhere to the typical patterns of narrative development that are frequently at work in feature-length Hollywood films. Employing a strategy common in slapstick shorts, it sets up a situation and then has the characters perform a series of nearly self-contained skits or gags, building up as the film goes along. In this case, three familiar stars, Mickey Mouse, Goofy and Donald Duck, all appear, each working in a different part of the huge clock tower. They do not interact until near the end of the film. No overall pattern like a search or a journey helps the plot develop; although the characters could be said to share a general goal of cleaning the clock, they have not accomplished it by the end of the film, and our sense of narrative progression has more to do with their mishaps than with any work they may get done.
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Tout va bien
dir. Jean-Luc Godard, 1972. From Film Art, 4th edition, McGraw-Hill (1992): 436–442.

If Meet Me in St. Louis uncritically affirms the value of family life and Raging Bull offers an ambivalent critique of violence in American society, Tout va bien strongly attacks certain features of the state of French society in 1972. We shall use it as an example of how a film may present an ideological viewpoint explicitly and drastically opposed to that of most viewers.
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2nd edition

The Man Who Knew Too Much
dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1934. From Film Art, 2nd edition, McGraw-Hill (1988): 292–295.

Like His Girl Friday, The Man Who Knew Too Much presents us with a model of narrative construction. Its plot composition and its motivations for action contribute to making the film what a scriptwriter would call “tight.” Moreover, the film also offers an object lesson in the use of cinematic style for narrative purposes. Finally, the film illustrates how narration can manipulate the audience’s knowledge, sometimes making drastic shifts from moment to moment.
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