One-Way Street’s Richard Prouty weighs in here on Manohla Dargis’s profile of David Bordwell in this past weekend’s NY Times Arts & Leisure section. I agree with much of what Prouty says regarding Bordwell’s distinctive but almost impossible to pigeonhole approach to film analysis; I too disagree with anybody who thinks that positivist/empiricist/“scientific” approaches to film analysis are more important or more correct than the “loopy” (Prouty’s word) perspectives we get from practitioners of “SLAB” (“Saussure, Lacan, Althusser and Barthes”; Bordwell’s acronym) theory.
Bordwell, like the theorists who dogmatically bow at the altar of the Text, interrogates films as systems of aesthetic elements that are designed and assembled in a way that produces definite, intentional effects on a perceiving viewer; that Bordwell practices this mode of analysis with an air of scientism (thanks to both his reputation for being a cognitive film theorist and his incorporation of neuroscience and cognitive science in many posts on his blog) doesn’t make it any less textual or anthropocentric. I ain’t sayin’ there’s a problem with this, but I (a 21-year-old undergrad who has seen maybe 1/1000 as many films as Bordwell has) do think that film theory ought to address the non-human and metaphysical dimensions of cinema (and there are plenty) as well. I alluded to this position in my last Bordwell post, in which I cited the work of Graham Harman and the other Speculative Realists as perhaps offering us a theoretical framework for performing such an analysis. I’ve got much more reading and thinking to do before I can propose how it’d all work.
One thing Prouty’s wrong about, at least in my mind, is his point in the following passage:
If you’ve ever imagined what it would be like to do nothing else with your time but watch movies, David Bordwell is the person you would become. You will become, like him, rigorous, disciplined, and unsentimental. No one will be able to disagree with you. You will watch a lot of movies alone.
Having seen or otherwise encountered Bordwell at countless screenings here in Madison over the years, I can say for certain that he is seldom if ever alone; if his wife and collaborator Kristin Thompson isn’t present, his entourage of admiring grad students and former colleagues in the UW Communication Arts department is. I’ve always wondered/worried whether cinema is a means of isolating oneself, of sinking into the shadows of anonymity in order to momentarily lose sight of one’s ego and find other, more interesting personalities on the big screen. However, the figure of the viewer as an “underground man” hardly applies to Bordwell, who, in my experience, never hesitates to hold court before or after a screening. I’m sure I’m embarrassing him at this point, so I’ll stop.