Offscreen Notes

David Bordwell (1947-Feb 29, 2024)

March 2nd, 2024

One of the most important educators, teachers, and film academics of his generation, David Bordwell, has died at the age of 76. Along with being a great and motivational teacher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he taught in one of the most influential film studies departments in North America from 1973 to 2004, Bordwell wrote some of the most important film studies books in the field. Beginning with his seminal Film Art: An Introduction (1st ed., 1979), which he co-wrote with his wife Kristen Thompson, and in later editions, Jeff Smith. The latter book is probably the most widely adopted university textbook in the world and has shaped the way film is taught and thought about for generations (and I would add, for better or worse, as the book’s formalist approach has its virulent and in some cases excessively so, detractors). Many of his best books were fruits of exhaustive secondary research but his writing never steered far from a deep analysis of film at the historical, aesthetic, and contextual level (he innovated in the field of industry analysis with his groundbreaking 1985 The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960). Perhaps Bordwell was most passionate when he wrote about questions of film style, in such books as Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema (1988’s), Figures Traced in Light: On Cinematic Staging (2005); On the History of Film Style (1997), and The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies (2006).

Though Bordwell seemed to move farther away from film theory as he got older, he did write at least three key works of film theory, Narration in Fiction Film (1985), and his controversial Making Meaning Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (1991), and its sequel in spirit,  Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies, co-written with Noël Carroll in 1996. Collectively these two works challenged the then widespread approach to film modelled on what he and Carroll labelled as ‘Grand Theories’ , a school of interpretative approaches to film based on mainly Continental theory and philosophy (German Idealism, phenomenology, existentialism, structuralism, post-structuralism, Marxism, etc.). As you might expect, the books stirred endless debate and venom.  

In terms of his own methodological approach to film Bordwell is perhaps best remembered for his promotion of neoformalism, a return to the roots of Russian Formalism applied to cinema, most forcefully in Narration in Fiction Film, which he researched and practised along with his wife Kristen Thompson; and his notion of ‘historical poetics’, an approach which analyzes how broad cultural patterns influence the way films look and sound.

I was lucky enough to have met Bordwell on a few occasions and was struck by his boyish enthusiasm and boundless energy. He seemed like the kind of bloke that you would enjoy sitting down and chatting with about film. And from people who knew him much better than I, the one thing that Bordwell lived for more than anything, was watching and listening to film. Let’s hope wherever he is there is a projector or big screen TV not far away.

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