Posts Tagged ‘David Bordwell’

You will watch a lot of movies alone.

April 26, 2010

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.

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Spotlight on Bordwell

April 24, 2010

Kudos to my dear mudda for alerting me to an article in this weekend’s NY Times Arts & Leisure section: a profile written by Manohla Dargis of retired UW professor and hall-of-fame film scholar David Bordwell. For those who are unfamiliar with Bordwell’s work or his personality, the article is a very informative read.

I’ve had the privilege of talking with Bordwell on a handful of occasions—once with Dargis present, in fact—and each time it’s been something of an overwhelming experience for me. Bordwell’s got cinematic knowledge pouring out of his ears, and yet he’s still maintained an unprofessorial lucidity that allows him to do things like declare that UW film professor Vance Kepley is dressed like Bertolt Brecht as he walks into the screening theater at Vilas Hall.

I’m not an enormous fan of Bordwell’s approach to film theory—for one, I’m ambivalent about how much his focus on the cognitive/neurological dimension of cinema effectively privileges the correlationist link between the human mind and the world it’s situated in, thereby placing him in the big ol’ post-Kantian paradigm that the contemporary philosophers known as the Speculative Realists are trying so admirably to help us escape; however, I’ve never put down a book by Bordwell without feeling as though I’d gained a great many insights into the way that cinema works its magic. (My personal favorite writings by him: the chapters in Narration in the Fiction Film about European art cinema and parametric cinema; his essay on Sergei Eisenstein, “Eisenstein’s Epistemological Shift”; and just about all of Film History.) Do check out Dargis’s article.

Add me to your blogroll, D.B.!

Pickin’ a bone with Bordwell

March 18, 2010

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.

One post, one measly post

February 17, 2010

I owe you guys something, anything—and “something, anything” is precisely what ye shall receive: Head on over to David Bordwell’s blog and read his latest post about the perfectly imperfect science of preserving and restoring avant-garde films. Bordwell’s post is partly inspired by “Things Are Always Going Wrong,” the excellent program of experimental shorts made by L.A.-based filmmakers in the 60s and 70s that screened at the Cinematheque last Saturday night. Not coincidentally, a portion of my column in the DC this week is devoted to discussing/raving about “Things Are Always Going Wrong,” which may prove to have been the semester’s most remarkable cinematic event. Now get out of here and let me do my work.