Bordwell's little secrets

Even if you don’t agree with David Bordwell, or you simply hate him, for obvious or unspeakable reasons, one thing we must admit is, his academic output is well above the average, and it is this, more than anything else, gives him the indestructible status of being one of the major figures of film studies. How did he do this? There must be, I mean, highly probable, something we need to learn about his method. The following article, which I only discovered lately, can be useful to this purpose. What is also of interest to grad students is what to read, what not to read, although I guess we cannot fully follow his example, not right now. All underlines mine.

The full article, which is an interview by cinemascope, can be accessed through:

(I hope nobody will sue me for quoting it)

Scope: Though the “publish or perish” imperative still holds sway over academic careers everywhere, the extremely prolific nature of your own publishing—some 15 full-length volumes (both as author and co-author) on a wide range of film-related topics, along with countless articles in books and periodicals the planet over—goes well beyond that of the average academic. How have you managed, especially when you where still teaching on a full-time basis, to produce so many books?

Bordwell: I wanted to be a writer when I was in high school and wrote several stories and a lame, unfinished novel. (Some of my critics think I’ve been writing fiction ever since.) I’ve been lucky to have an energetic temperament, and teaching never really interfered with my writing. I would come home from a day in the classroom or in meetings and still want to write something. I worked weekends and vacations too, as all my colleagues do. As I published more, I did get some time off teaching through grants, although even during leaves I tried to stay involved with my department.

Scope: Can you give us a little insight into your writing habits? From start to finish, how long does it typically take you to complete a new book?

Bordwell: Sometimes I’m writing an article and that will seem to need more fleshing out. The idea of On the History of Film Style came out of an article I wrote on the historiography of film style for a journal. It seemed obvious to expand that piece to three chapters, to add an introduction and an update, and then a case study. That case study, on the history of depth staging, in turn led me to do articles on two directors who have distinctive depth strategies, Feuillade and Angelopoulos. Once I had those articles, I realized I could make a book by exploring other directors, and Mizoguchi and Hou seemed like natural examples. That was how Figures Traced in Light came about. But more often I think in book-sized chunks, mapping the whole thing out beforehand, as with the collaborative project Classical Hollywood Cinema and the book I wrote at about the same time as that, Narration in the Fiction Film.

As for time: there’s time writing and time researching. Most of the books have been written over about two-three years, but that doesn’t count the research time, which adds another two-three years. I wrote The Way Hollywood Tells It in about four months, but it drew on research I’d been doing over about ten years. Often I’m researching a couple of books at the same time, or some of the same research will yield two books.

Scope: How, generally, do you begin each new book-length project? Do you have a broad of sense of things that you feel need to be more carefully thought and written about—certain areas/topics that you’re certain could reward a more sustained and systematic focus? Is new book an attempt to fill some gap that you’ve identified and have become determined to ameliorate? How organic is the process?

Bordwell: I think of a book as a cluster of questions or problems I want to illuminate, and usually those are ones I think have been neglected by other scholars. Fortunately or unfortunately, not many people are interested in most of the topics I write about, so I always have fresh material. Even subjects that people have written a lot about, like Eisenstein or Hou or Hong Kong cinema, haven’t been studied from the angle I favour, so I always seem to have a lot to study. For example, in The Way Hollywood Tells It, I try to talk about script structure and visual style in ways congruent with the way the creative people seem to handle those matters, even if I also try to maintain some critical distance on their conceptions of their craft. This is something that most academics just aren’t interested in. Same thing with the CinemaScope talk you heard; there’s been a lot written about Scope, but academics haven’t much tried to figure out the various approaches directors and crews took toward Scope composition.

One way to frame this more broadly is to say that most film scholars aren’t interested in film as a creative art. I know it sounds odd to say that, but I think it’s true. Most scholars are interested in film as an expression of cultural trends, interests, processes, etc. or of political moods, tendencies, etc. More specifically, those who are interested in film as an art seldom try to find out the craft traditions—the work processes, the technologies, etc.—that give artists the menus they work with. The approach I try to develop is commonplace in art history and the history of music, but not very developed in film studies.

Scope: I first began to develop an awareness of your writing as grad student in the Cinema Studies department at NYU, where your Film Art: An Introduction (co-authored by your longtime partner, Kristin Thompson) was the basic text in all Intro to Film Studies courses. At the time, I shared (quite prematurely) with the undergrads I was instructing the feeling that your approach to film (from a writer’s perspective) was an extremely dry one—though I’ve come to feel entirely differently about your writing today. The strange thing is, I’m not really sure if my changed impression is mainly a result of changes in your writing, or changes in my reading of it. How would you plot the evolution of your style as a writer—perhaps taking Film Art, your book on Ozu, your book on Hong Kong cinema, and your newest book, The Way Hollywood Sees It, as the major milestones?

Bordwell: Film Art presented unique writing problems. We envisioned it as a comprehensive look at the expressive possibilities of the film medium, and I do think we largely got that right. It was the first wide-ranging aesthetic survey of what film could do. But we were aware that most of the previous surveys, even by very great thinkers like Rudolf Arnheim, were biased by the preferences and value judgments of the theorist. Bazin, for instance, opened up a huge area of inquiry into how directors could use the long take, but his account was somewhat one-sided, not really exploring the possibilities that montage offered. I think that some of the dryness of our survey came from our suspending our judgments about what the best uses of film techniques were, or what the essence of cinema was. We’ve tried to make Film Art more lively in successive editions, but I think that some of the dryness you note comes from the textbook genre, and some from our decision not to be very evaluative.

As for other books, I try to find a style for each project. I write an academic style at bottom—I don’t think I could write any other way—but I’ve try to vary the tone sometimes. I suppose Planet Hong Kong and The Way Hollywood Tells It have the jauntiest tone, and the others are less so. Across time, I’ve also tried to loosen up my style, though I’m so averse to glibness and the offhand cuteness of post-structuralism that I probably will never develop a really conversational voice.

Scope: Was Planet Hong Kong a conscious effort on your part to expand your readership, and to publish what seems to be the closest you’ve ever come to a mainstream work of film history? How did your interest in HK cinema develop—and why HK, rather than, say, India or Indonesia ?

Bordwell: To take the second part: I loved HK film when I first saw the early ‘70s imports to America , and I watched what films I could in the ‘70s and ‘80s. When we got 35mm equipment in my department, I began booking films like The Killer (1989) and some Jackie Chan titles, and students found them enjoyable, and so I started to read and watch more. I went to the HK Film Festival in spring of 1995 when I was on leave, and seeing more films and meeting some filmmakers made me realize that one could study this filmmaking community as similar to and different from Hollywood. So it was a combination of personal taste and opportunity.

Scope: One of the signature components across so much of your work—which is, in general, nothing if not extremely methodical, painstaking, and carefully organized on all levels—is the concept of the ASL, or “average shot length,” of feature films. How did you come to rely on this unit of measure, and why? Did you “invent” this methodology? And how do you obtain it—by watching films with stopwatch and calculator in hand? On the face of it, such a methodology suggests an extremely chilly approach to what so many recognize as one our most emotion-charged art forms, and yet the specificities and historical consistencies your insistence on keeping ASLs in mind have revealed have challenged, and toppled, a number of intuitive and erroneous assumptions about, among other things, the so-called hyper-acceleration of the medium in the post-MTV age.

Bordwell: The ASL as a measure was devised by a British film historian, Barry Salt, in the ‘70s. Like him, I count the shots (I use a hand-clicker) and then divide that total into the total running time of the film. Yuri Tsivian has set up a website about these matters, including a piece of software that helps us to count ASLs: I think ASL is a useful instrument, if sometimes a fairly blunt one. I do think that it has to be supplemented by other, more qualitative dimensions, such as elements of narrative construction, etc. For instance, if films are being cut fast before the advent of MTV, we’re left with the question of why that speedy cutting went largely unnoticed by viewers and critics. I have a hunch it’s because MTV-style cutting isn’t just fast but it’s also quite discontinuous, emphasizing graphic contrasts and sudden spatial breakups. A more ordinary shot/reverse-shot handling of a conversation can be edited very fast, but we don’t notice it so much because it’s quite standardized. Most of the films with short ASLs achieve their rapid rate by accelerating the pace of fairly standard editing. So the ASL measure has to be supplemented by matters of context, the sort of other techniques the filmmakers use, etc.

(my comment: so the quantitative approach does not account for yet another big thing: the spatial orientation)

Scope: Correct me if I’m mistaken in this, but weren’t you at some point involved in challenging copyright laws regarding the use of frame enlargements from films in your publications? Historically, the use of studio production stills from films has been zealously guarded by those studios, making the use of illustrations in film studies books a costly and complicated matter. You eventually found a way around this, by using the “fair use” exceptions in copyright laws to “quote” from films by grabbing frames and enlarging them, rather than by using production stills and the like. Could you briefly you discuss this issue, the history of this battle, and the various vagaries involved?

Bordwell: Kristin was the leader in this. A committee of our professional organization inquired into the legality of frame enlargements and, aided by a Washington copyright attorney, concluded that academic use of them constituted fair use. Kristin wrote the committee’s report. Most academic publishers have accepted the committee’s findings. There hasn’t been, so far as I’m aware, any effort on the part of the film industry to contest such usage, so there hasn’t really been any battle.

Scope: Which of your books do you personally value the most, and why? Are there books that you began but never finished?

Bordwell: I’ve never started a book that I didn’t finish. It’s hard for me to appraise my work, because I very seldom reread the books, and when I do I’m struck mostly by gaucheries, missed opportunities, and things I no longer agree with. I think that the book on which I thought longest and hardest is Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema; it’s also my tribute to my favourite filmmaker. If I’d done no other book but this, I’d feel satisfied. Though it’s now out of print, I hope to bring it back to life on the web.

Scope: The book that most changed my perception of your work, and to which I’ve returned most often, is Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema, in which you take a hard look at the state of film criticism (in the broadest sense of the term), and argued for a new “meta-poetics” of film interpretation in both popular and specialist discourses. Could you briefly explain what such a “meta-poetical” film criticism might consist of—and do you think, some 15 years after that book was published, we’re any closer to seeing it at work in film criticism today?

Bordwell: This book is an orphan, meant to challenge the way my profession conducts business as usual. It met with, by and large, silence. I think it tried to do too much—offer a brief history of academic film criticism, show how a cognitive perspective could explain why critics reason as they do, and polemicize for a different kind of criticism. I do think that what it pointed toward, a “poetics” of film, has emerged as a distinct, if minority, research tradition in film studies.

Maybe this is the place to say something about the research program I work within. Basically, I want to know how films work and work upon audiences. I focus on film form (mostly narrative form) and style (mostly visual style). So the point of departure is critical analysis of features of narrative form and visual style that characterize the movie. Then I try to reconstruct, as best I can, the place of a film or group of films in their historical tradition—what proximate factors shaped the movies’ form and style. These factors include not only the director, who is quite important as a shaping force, but also the institutional context that the filmmaker works in—the technology available, the mode of film production in force, the state of play in the filmmaking community, the place of cinema in relation to the other arts.

I’m also interested in how movies are “engineered” to have effects on audiences. Filmmakers are first of all film viewers, and they often have an intuitive idea of how others will react to what they’ve done. So I’m interested in how films are designed in ways that try to affect audiences. That also leads me to think about what skills audiences have that enable them to understand and respond to films. I tackle this most explicitly in Narration in the Fiction Film.

This amounts, I think, to a poetics of film—a systematic study of the principles by which films are made and experienced. It sounds very abstract and theoretical, but I think that it can shed light on particular films and filmmakers if we bring the categories down to earth. Going back to the 1910s, how did Feuillade and his contemporaries seem to think of staging, and what craft practices sustained the tradition they developed? How does Mizoguchi innovate within the Japanese cinema’s rich array of stylistic options? How does someone who comes late to a tradition, like Angelopoulos, synthesize staging strategies available to him? What are Hou Hsiao-hsien’s characteristic staging strategies, and how can we explain them in the light of the traditions he inherits—or rediscovers? These are the sorts of questions I try to answer in Figures Traced in Light. But we can study traditions, craft practices, the role of technology, and so on in contemporary US feature filmmaking too; that’s what The Way Hollywood Tells It is up to.

Scope: Which writers, if any—academic or otherwise—do you currently enjoy reading on film?

Bordwell: It may sound odd, but I don’t really read film essays or books regularly. For film subjects I’m studying, I read relevant articles and books, both academic and non-academic, but if I have free time I’m unlikely to pick up a film book. For general edification, I mostly read nonfiction on current affairs, the history of the arts, and debates in the sciences (Darwinian biology, psychology, social science). The film books I read for pleasure tend to be biographies, especially of moguls or stars (e.g., the new bio of Peter Lorre, or McBride’s book on Ford).

Of the film essayists, I read anything by Tony Rayns and Donald Richie. Of the daily and weekly critics, I enjoy Ebert, Hoberman, David Chute, Manohla Dargis, and a few others. Probably the writer I read most regularly is Todd McCarthy. In fact, although I’ve dropped my subscriptions to virtually all academic and quasi-academic journals, I read weekly Variety cover to cover. I find Variety’s critics sensitive and subtle writers.

Scope: After a long and extremely distinguished career in academia, you’ve recently retired from your teaching position at Madison . Could you comment generally on what you see as the state of Film Studies today, specifically in relation to the state of Film Studies when you began your teaching career? And more broadly, how would you characterize the evolution of Film Studies over the last 25 years generally? Did you leave the discipline (to the extent that you have) healthier than you found it? Or is it currently beset by challenges on all sides, or in a state of atrophy—or somewhere in between?

Bordwell: I think that Film Studies has made progress on many fronts toward becoming a mature academic discipline. I think particularly of the work of film historians, working in all periods and on many national cinemas. We are much better informed now about the shape of world cinema history than we have been. Early cinema has been a triumph of historical research, as is shown by first-rate reference books like Richard Abel’s Encyclopedia of Early Cinema. I’m less impressed by most of the research in cultural studies, which seems to me rather weak theoretically, and I worry—as usual—that film as an art form gets short shrift. Nevertheless, on the whole Film Studies is in much better shape than it was in the ‘70s.

Scope: At the beginning of this interview, I asked, not entirely without ulterior motive, if perhaps you had studied film production at any stage in your early education, since while your books contain a wide range of engagements with, and resistances to, the “deep academics” of classical and post-classical Film Theory, there is also an expressly practical and practicable aspect to many of them. Even in as academically inclined and formally elegant a book as your recent Figures Traced In Light, you asserted that a part of your aim in writing it was “to coax young filmmakers into exploring” modes of cinematic staging outside those typically utilized by the vast majority of today’s young American filmmaking professionals. Two related follow-up questions: (1) Do you really think, or perhaps hope, that young film production students will pay sufficient attention to Film Studies volumes such yours as to alter their future aesthetic decisions? (2) Do you, or did you, ever think of yourself—regardless of the slur typically implicit in such an appellation—as a wanna-be filmmaker? Indeed, have you ever made films yourself?

Bordwell: (2) I made amateur films in high school and college, then shot a little 16mm in grad school, but my work was uniformly terrible. I have no filmmaking talent. Once I realized that, I’ve never had an urge to be a filmmaker. (1) I think that academic film study is too divorced from the realities of production, and that’s why we begin our book Film Art by introducing students to the mechanics and production processes of filmmaking—just as we might study the tools and techniques of painting or music-making. The idea of film poetics, as I conceive it, tries to find out the practices that create films and to discover a tacit logic in those practices, so I do want to make explicit the kinds of practical choices that filmmakers face. While it’s unlikely that many young filmmakers will stumble over my books, a few have; I get emails occasionally from production students all over the world who have gotten ideas from my writing, and some of our Wisconsin students have been influenced by ideas I’ve discussed with them.

Scope: What can we expect from the post-retirement David Bordwell? Even more books, at an even greater rate of production? Personally speaking, I can only hope you’ve got more in-depth studies of specific filmmakers waiting in the wings—and in particular, knowing your particular enthusiasm for his work, a neo-post-formalist account of the aesthetics of Dragnet creator Jack Webb. What’s next?

Bordwell: I might do more work on particular filmmakers, perhaps another book on Hong Kong directors. I’d like to write more on Lau Kar-leong, Tsui Hark, and Johnnie To. Right now I’m working on a collection of essays, some revised from their publication format, others—like one on CinemaScope—that will be new. After that, my immediate hope is to spruce up my website and start a blog. I’m considering publishing my next book, whatever the subject, on the web directly. The prospect of having lots of pictures, free access, and readers all over the world is very tempting, and it’s not like you make so much money from a university press book. Probably most academic books should be published on the web, with print on-demand copies available for a small fee.

As for Jack Webb, a director we share an admiration for, I think he could be considered in relation to Fuller (The D.I. [1957] is distinctly Fullerian, and -30- [1959] would be interesting to compare with Park Row). Both are aggressive, nearly self-parodying stylists, carried by their laconic conviction. But I think you’re the man for that job!


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