Pickin’ a bone with Bordwell

Apropos of recent discussions in the blogosphere concerning the contemporary state of film criticism—as a 21-year-old blog-writer, I hope the irony of the fact that I’ve intervened at all in these debates isn’t lost on y’all—David Bordwell has a very worthwhile post in which he spells out a handful of positions he personally holds regarding critical practice and discourse and whatnot.

Being both a cinemaddict and a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Bordwell has had a significant influence on how I think about movies. This is largely due to the fact that the specter of Bordwell (who’s far from dead, don’t get me wrong) looms large in classes offered by the film studies wing of UW’s Communication Arts department. Nevertheless, my relationship to cinema, at least on a conceptual level, is deeply indebted to D.B.’s work. I include this caveat only to clarify that I’m no hater.

I was really taken aback when, in the post I linked to earlier, he writes the following: “Many people think that good reviewing amounts to personal opinions whipped up in frothy prose. Perhaps the snazzy styles of Farber and Kael have led people to weight style too much.”

No way, José. The measure of a film’s strength (and what is “excellence” if not a kind of strength, that is to say, a work’s ability, demonstrated over time, to outlast its historical moment and exert considerable effects in other historical moments, in other situations, be they social, economic, cultural, aesthetic, philosophical or whatever?) is the response it provokes. A critic’s style is, in a sense, the aspect of her writing most symptomatic of her reaction to her subject. Right now, Manny Farber is indeed a patron saint of film criticism; yet, can it really be said that Farber’s reviews and essays emanate from a single voice? I think not.

Every Farber piece flows and twists, stutters, stops completely and starts up again according to the specific rhythms of the film(s) he’s rapping about; his style in each piece mirrors the energies he harvested from the film, energies that fueled his response and enabled him to produce an object—whether it be a capsule review of a nostalgia-laden painting—that stands up as a work of art in its own right. In other words, for each film a different writing style was born of necessity.

Re: writing style, Bordwell also says “Although lively writing is always welcome, though, it gets heft and endurance through its arguments, and that comes back to ideas and information as much as opinion.” I’m on-board with this to an extent, but the notion that ideas are more important than style doesn’t sit well with me. These two aspects of criticism are on the same footing as far as I’m concerned: both are essential for a work of criticism to be a work of art in-itself.

Why should criticism aspire to be art (aside from the fact that art is already a kind of criticism)? For the answer to this question I’ve got to cop-out and refer you to Walter Benjamin’s “The Author as Producer,” because I really oughta get to class.

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One Response to “Pickin’ a bone with Bordwell”

  1. Slane Says:

    Snap. Never thought I’d see the ‘critic-on-critic’ tag paired with the ‘David Bordwell’ one. Nevertheless, I think I mostly agree with you in this instance, despite my absolute reverence of Bordwell and his work. He gave what I rank as my favorite Comm. Arts lecture of all time for my American Cinema since 1970 class this semester on ‘Die Hard.’

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