Essays (book reviews)

David Bordwell's On the History of Film Style
(Harvard University Press, 1997)


Critical Disallowance


The annals of film history, theory and criticism are full of woolly, wild-eyed ideas. Many of these fix – in a rather dramatic way – on what we soberly call the periodisation of cinema. But, even in the driest of texts, this medium has a history fairly bursting with sudden renunciations and reversals, bloody battles and palace revolutions … not to mention multiple crises, deaths and re-birthings.


The historical schemas pile up in books and articles, and on classroom blackboards: the talkie sabotaged the aesthetic development of silent pictures; Modernism killed Classicism; the post World War Two period introduced a crisis of the action-image and a pass-over from movement to temporality; Postmodernity marked an end to history and a random shuffling of all available cards. Commentators, hooked up on a regular basis to the lure of novelty, feel the first tremblings of a New Cinema in everything from hi-tech action movies and Titanic (1997) to the jittery camera moves of a Wong Kar-wai film or an ephemeral program of local Super-8 shorts.


This is surely a mad, makeshift methodology, but – speaking as one who has often experienced a roughly similar thrill of presentiment at the movies, even during something as garish and ham-fisted as The Crow: City of Angels (1996) – I feel that it deserves a defence. Is not part of cinema’s attractiveness precisely this minute, almost hallucinatory sense of an audio-visual texture shifting dramatically from one key movie event to the next?


David Bordwell is a theorist and historian of film not given to wild and woolly ideas of this sort. Indeed, much of his project these days seems devoted to the patient, hyper-rational debunking of such ridiculous flights of fancy. Like his colleague Noël Carroll, Bordwell has an extremely low tolerance for what he calls unverifiable speculation on the cinema. His perfectly reasoned and reasonable injunction is to stick to the facts – or, as he puts it, to formulate only those research questions to which one can eventually supply real answers. Lesley Stern has referred (quite accurately, in my view) to Bordwell’s “characteristically deflationary mode” of argument: one by one, he ticks off and “disallows” all lines of discourse which he judges as rhetorical rather than practical.


Bordwell’s On the History of Film Style poses a delicate problem for a reviewer because, while it is not an especially exciting or inspiring book, it is also, within its own terms, exquisitely logical and virtually inarguable. The book’s title is precise and just: it is neither a manual on film style nor a synoptic history of formal properties of the medium (despite the inaccurate enticements of the back cover blurb), but a critical re-reading of the available cinema histories and their methodologies. This finally leads to a proposal about how we might best research the history of film style today, and a careful case study (on deep focus and staging in depth).


There is so much that is helpful, useful, illuminating and superbly presented here: the explication of André Bazin’s ‘dialectical’ view of film history and the unity of Noël Burch’s 35 year long ‘oppositional program’; the account of how archives, libraries and travelling collections of prints have decisively shaped the canon of film histories; and – most decisively – the rebutting of several highly influential, grand, neo-Hegelian scenarios of the cinema as a medium that slowly unfolds, evolving towards its essence.


The anti-essentialist flavour of Bordwell’s historical project is captured in a statement crowning the final chapter. “A technique does not rise and fall, reach fruition or decay. There are only prevalent and secondary norms, preferred and unlikely options, rival alternatives, provisional syntheses, overlapping tendencies, factors promoting stability and change”. Time and again he warns us not to make too much of the innovations of the present moment, or to blow out of proportion the apparent radicality of one aspect of a film: there will always be far more convention than newness present, and we must grasp the modest economy of this balance.


All of this is interesting and even salutary, but one does, at times, wish that Bordwell would abandon himself to the repressed demons of poetic imagination and fanciful, even irrational speculation. Bordwell’s habitual disallowances put a brake on what he is willing to make of his many specific examples from cinema history (beautifully illustrated and annotated). He considers, for instance, meaning (as in thematic/semantic interpretation or, worse, any kind of free-associative reading) to be a kind of second order abstraction, almost entirely a creation of deluded, projective critics and theorists – rather than part of the stuff that artists actually work with.


So, in this willfully restricted vein, he can conclude with evident self-satisfaction: “In many national cinemas between 1930 and 1960, mise en scène was a demonstration of pacing and poise, a sustained choreography of vivid foregrounds, apposite and neatly timed background action, precisely synchronized camera movements, and discreet découpage, the whole leading the viewer gracefully and unobtrusively from one point of interest to another”. Peggy Lee’s ghost is now singing in my ear: is that all there is to mise en scène?


For Bordwell, the answer seems to be: yes. Mise en scène is not about mood or tone or atmosphere or a dozen other variables difficult (but not impossible) to grasp or quantify empirically; it is not about acting or performance within the frame; it is not much about emotion (beyond a few functional notations: fear, intrigue, open-air joy); and it is certainly never about what Thierry Kuntzel called the other film forming and deforming in our conscious, pre-conscious and unconscious heads as we watch, in that dreamlike state of absorption characteristic of moviegoing.


Cultural theory (and its post-’68 predecessor, materialist-ideological analysis) is the biggest irritant buzzing under Bordwell’s bonnet. He resists, in every chapter, the received wisdom that large-scale cultural factors can be deployed to explain the fine-grain intricacies of style. But it is not merely the mismatch of scale that bugs him. Bordwell baulks, from a clearly implied (if never entirely spelt-out) philosophical and political position, at the rampant constructivism of much contemporary theory – the notion that nothing is given or natural, that everything is assembled and created.


Instead, Bordwell prefers to speak of our hard-wired perceptual and cognitive capacities, and of universal, cross-cultural understandings; he tries to stage a welcome comeback for old-fashioned, lovely things like individual agency and creativity. As a response to the constructivist excesses of contemporary theory, this is fair enough. But it leads Bordwell to an odd, almost perverse kind of degree zero: human culture is all about – seemingly only about – telling clear stories and getting nice picture frames cleverly balanced up. Which is all just a bit too prosaic for me.


I plunged into this book around the same moment that I read, in the Internet magazine Postmodern Culture, William D. Routt’s 1998 text “The Madness of Cinema and of Thinking Images”. (1) Many of the tendencies that Bordwell disparages are flaunted in Routt’s magnificent piece: a ‘wheels within wheels’ logic (based on an opportune resonance between the theoretical catagories advanced by Vachel Lindsay in the ‘20s, Gilles Deleuze in the ‘80s, and the classic semiotician Charles Peirce); the happy acceptance of a famous ‘first’ in early cinema history; and, above all, the speculative positing of a cinematic essence that needs to be explicated and also celebrated. Routt’s writing is persuasive to me in a deep, satisfying way that Bordwell’s researches militantly refuse to entertain. And the key to that difference is precisely a kind of fine madness – especially the intellectual creativity and inspired poetry that such madness can allow.

For a later, kinder account of David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s work in the era of their popular blog, see this 2011 review of their Minding Movies.

© Adrian Martin March 1998



1. This text by Routt is now available in its original complete text-and-image form only on the author’s website: http://www.routt.net/bill/madness/index.html.


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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