David Bordwell Interview

Bordwell at Fantasia 2012

by David Hanley Volume 17, Issue 5 / May 2013 31 minutes (7565 words)

Click here for the full-length video version of this print interview with David Bordwell.

David Bordwell is an influential contemporary film historian and theorist. His texts Film Art and Film History (both co-written with prominent film scholar Kristin Thompson, who is also his wife) are widely used in film schools across North America and the world. Both books have gone through multiple editions and been translated into an unlikely number of languages. Bordwell has written 14 other books, including important studies of Eisenstein, Dreyer and Ozu, and several analyses of film style, notably The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies , Figures Traced in Light: On Cinematic Staging, and film theory, notably Making Meaning. He has also written a large number of scholarly articles on a variety of topics and since his retirement from teaching at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, he has (again with Kristin Thompson) authored a lively and provocative blog, Observations on Film Art. Another of Bordwell’s books, Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment, his classic study of Hong Kong cinema, is in a way what brought him to Montreal, as his longstanding interest in Asian genre cinema was rewarded with Fantasia film festival’s “Lifetime Excellence” prize. While in town, he also provided a festival highlight by giving a master class on Hong Kong action cinema. It was during a break in his festival schedule that he sat down for a conversation on several film-related topics.

Fantasia and the role of film festivals

Offscreen: This is your first trip to Fantasia. Do you have any general impressions?

David Bordwell: Well, yeah, I do. I think it’s a really well-run festival. Everything is very meticulously programmed. It’s carefully timed. Everything starts when it says it’s going to start. But also the impression I have is real devotion on the part of the audiences. They know the routine, they know the drill, they come in and they’re already primed to participate at a very high level in the film experience. It’s fascinating to me because much of the material that attracts them could be seen as kind of camp. They could take it in kind of condescendingly, but they actually don’t. There’s a very respectful and admiring attitude towards this crazy cinema that people are programming that is that of the real otaku, the real fan person who can laugh in pleasure at the outrageousness of it rather than laugh mockingly at it. And that’s striking to me. My experience of genre festivals isn’t that strong, but my sense is that the kind of films that are being shown, to another audience in another city or to another context, would be treated with pleasureful disdain. But here, it’s really quite an amazing audience, so that’s added a lot to the experience. And plus the choice of films. There’s something interesting to see at every time slot. It’s well programmed. I’m sorry I came late. I noticed going through the catalogue, there’s plenty of interesting stuff that was shown earlier in the festival. It’s a very long festival, three weeks long, and so a lot of things, I know, can’t be held over or played again at later phases, but it’s still a remarkably rich selection.

Offscreen: What you said about the audience is interesting. Do you think there’s a learning process that happens? Because it’s in the 16th year, that the audience now understands the kind of films [that will be shown]?

DB: It’s probably that. I think that you get, probably, a segment of the audience that’s sort of reverential fan persons, boys and girls who really would never think of laughing disdainfully at this material. Then there’s another segment of the audience that comes out of curiosity, but kind of understands that you’re supposed to appreciate it for what it is. And there’s probably another set of people who are just newly recruited for this and want to have a good time, and they realize that the rest of the audience is receiving it a certain way and they pick up their cues. But as you say, probably it’s also the tradition because this is, my understanding, the most famous genre festival in North America. It’s the one I’ve always been most aware of, because I have so many friends who are associated with it.

OFFSCREEN: There’s also, I think, an interesting relationship between the programmers and the audience.

DB: In a way, film festivals are functioning as curatorial activities. That essentially it’s not just dumping a bunch of film on people, but actually saying: “No, there are these threads. People with different tastes have combined together to create a team of selecting the films that we’re seeing, and it doesn’t hurt for you to be aware of the mix of tastes that’s at play there, so you can understand why these films might attract or appeal to you.” And that’s interesting because the borderline between programmers and critics has always been a soft one. I mean, a lot of critics function as programmers at festivals, and indeed function as judges at festivals. So there’s this whole zone of film culture where writing the program note, choosing the film, writing the critique in the newspaper or the magazine or whatever journal you’re writing for and so on, all those things are multiple facets of a single person’s activity and so are going to be imbued with that person’s temperament.

OFFSCREEN: Film festivals make certain kinds of cinema available. You can say the otakus will always know about these films, but a lot of people are exposed to these films only because of this type of festival. So do genre festivals have a different function than mainstream international film festivals?

DB: I would say they do, although again my experience of pure genre festivals is pretty limited. Usually what I experience are genre strains or threads within film festivals. And that was an important phase in the history of film festivals. There were periods when certain festivals began including more popular genre-based films as Midnight shows or subsidiary programs, and that’s how Hong Kong cinema got out to the European radars, through programmers like Marco Müller at Locarno programming Midnight shows of Hong Kong films. In a way they weren’t “dignified enough” for the main program, but they were fun and they were programmed in off-hours, Midnight and so on, and they drew a clientele. Gradually those films were introduced to European film gatekeepers and taste-makers and people began to realize that these things really could play in more mainstream venues.

There are people who come to festivals for different reasons. One is that they come to see the best. There is some conception of “the best.” So, for instance, the Palm Springs film festival shows all the Academy Award nominees from every country that participates in that process. So you get to see what each country or nominating agency thinks is the best work that year. And people come for that, and they also want to see the top-flight American films that are selected for the program. So there’s a sense some festivals really emphasize, “we’re about quality,” regardless of authorship, regardless of nationality, regardless of genre.

Then there are other festivals where it’s hard to say quality in the abstract sense is the same thing. I would say for a lot of genre festivals, none of these films are going to win Academy Awards in all probability, although it might happen. Inglorious Basterds was shown here one year and it was a candidate. But on the whole, what you’re after here is really a different kind of taste. In that case, the quality factor is relative to its kind. These are excellent examples of their kind. If you don’t like their kind, you won’t like even the good examples of their kind. So that’s a different level of activity.

Then, of course, other festivals are about certain kinds of exploration. For instance, avant-garde cinema is about saying, “look, we’re not even saying this is among the greatest, but you wouldn’t see these films otherwise if we didn’t bring them.” Or the same kind of thing holds for the silent film festival like Pordenone, or the restoration film festival that’s at Bologna. There’s certainly a quality factor, there’s no doubt about it that these are carefully chosen, but even there, a lot of people will say: “I want to see every Joseph von Sternberg film, even his bad ones, I want to see them.” What’s driving that is another kind of taste, the taste of directorial authorship. And then of course, there are festivals where it’s partly about the identity of the audience. So if you have LGBT festivals, where people are saying, look, there’s all this, this whole side of the media that you never see and which speaks strongly to a certain constituency, maybe LGBT, maybe an ethnic group, maybe a political group. Those things that are suppressed by the mainstream or dominant cinema are given a showcase occasionally. And there, although the films can be, of course, very good, or they may be not so good, but they’re there to remind you that there is a zone or slice of the real world and your participation in the real world that’s not shown through the mainstream media. That becomes a part of the audience’s experience. The experiential bond between the audience and what they’re seeing on the screen, and the people who have made the films. That becomes the central attraction. So I think there are these different layers or registers of appeal. And one of the most striking things about post-World War II film culture is that all those things blossom. All those things came about, particularly in the ‘80s and thereafter, with the advent of video. All those possible kinds of festivals could be held, which makes for a remarkably decentralized and multi-faceted world film culture.

OFFSCREEN: Isn’t a shared identity common with just about any film festival these days, because you have the mainstream and then you have the festivals?

DB: Well, that’s true. There is a kind of identity appeal in any of these kinds of exhibition situations. So if you’re going to a festival with the top Academy Award contenders, you feel yourself to be a discerning person, a person who has a certain kind of taste. That’s true. I think it’s more strongly accented, though, when you have minority or subculture kinds of based films.

OFFSCREEN: I think genre festivals could fit in that definition.

DB: Yeah, I think so too. One of the striking things, though, is that festivals are really important, and this has now become a commonplace, as distribution mechanisms, because most of these films would not be shown in commercial theatres at all. So these are really the only opportunity people have to see these films. And that’s a very powerful thing. Otherwise people wouldn’t necessarily know about the films or certainly not see the films. And so festivals also become a promotional device for alternative cinemas.

So they come in, maybe they exhaust the local audience. They think everybody who wants to see this film will show up on that day to see it once, and that’s why the local theatres won’t book it and distributors won’t try to keep it for a while, because they’ve exhausted the audience in that area. But then that film playing that festival becomes a kind of promotional device for that film in ancillary venues. Now that people are aware of the film through even one screening at a festival, there’s a chance that it will be seen on DVD or the person will learn it’s on VOD and will watch it that way. So that, in a way, festivals still participate in that kind of runs and clearance and zone system that classic studio cinema, Hollywood cinema specifically, has developed, only the first run of the film is the festival screening. And then, after that, it might have a chance in ancillary exposure.

OFFSCREEN: There’s also an educational function. That is, you see these types of films at a festival, you’re more open to seeing that type of film later on.

DB: One of the key things that festivals do is create an occasion for excitement around cinema. We’ve noticed often in my city of Madison, Wisconsin, if we played the same films that are playing at our Wisconsin film festival, we’d play those films at the Cinematheque week after week, not that many people would come. We’ve been playing some films by the same director or something that comes to the festival, and it does much better at the festival screenings. And that’s because a festival creates this kind of packaged event where there’s a kind of raise in excitement. People think: “Okay, it’s the festival and I’ll take a chance on seeing this film.” Whereas if it’s just October and there’s a Friday night screening of this film, well, “I’ve got other things to do.” One of the striking things is that people concentrate their energies around festivals. That seems to me to have both a plus and a minus function. On the one hand, [there is] the festival excitement, the idea of it as an umbrella event that brings lots of things together. That’s great. It’s great for the community, it’s great for cinema and so forth. But the problem is a lot of people have generalized from that and think if we can get 20,000 people to come to a festival for a week, we can then get 20,000 people every week if we program things right. The idea that’s spreading in the festival community now of the year-round festival seems to me to misjudge film consumption. It’s a very intensive and short-term commitment that most civilians are willing to make to go see films at a festival. But the idea of them translating that energy they bring to seeing the films in the festival across the year, to it becoming regular, confirmed, hard-core movie geeks coming to these films every week, that’s not very likely to be happening. I think the festivals have to proceed very carefully with this sort of year-round strategy. I understand it’s very reasonable for them to want to do it and it’s laudable to want to do it, but I’m not sure that audiences in this day and age, on the whole, are ready to plunge into that kind of deep cinephilia. People see a lot of films, no doubt, and they watch them under all kinds of circumstances, but whether they’ll be going out to the cinema, to the festivals, on a very regular basis to me seems an unproven prospect. I don’t know of any hard data about it, and there probably is some, but I don’t get the sense that it’s as galvanizing an experience to have a festival on a monthly or even weekly basis as it is to have it in that one-off period.

Hong Kong action cinema and contemporary action films

OFFSCREEN: You gave a master class on Hong Kong action cinema which was a lot of fun. Let’s talk a bit about that. One thing you’ve been writing about recently is the idea of intensified action. How would you distinguish the Bourne films and so on from classic Hong Kong action?

DB: One of the things that struck me about Hong Kong film from the start, and which I was able to elaborate more as I began to think about it more, was the idea that they really aim at three things. They aim at clarity. That is, if it’s a kung fu fight or a gun fight or whatever, you have to be able to see all the manoeuvres that the figures execute. So there’s clarity. There’s also the condition of expressiveness, that this has a certain emotional feel to it. It has an emotional colouring to it. So it isn’t just endless punch, punch, punch. There’s always a sense of strain or pain or serenity or something, or comic confusion like with Jackie Chan. There’s always an overlay to the clear execution of the action, a kind of emotional expressiveness on the part of the executor of the action. The actor is actually giving it a kind of emotional colouration. And the third thing is aiming at a kind of physical or visceral impact on the spectators. So that there’s a blow, it’s very crisply communicated, it has a certain emotional quality or force to it, and it also impacts on the spectator in some way. The spectator feels the blow. And those three conditions, it seems to me, have defined what we might call the classic or hard-core centre of the Hong Kong action tradition. And it goes back to the 1960s and continues even still today in some respects.

What happened is that film-makers begin, in Hong Kong, to find ways specific to cinema or particular to cinema of enhancing these qualities. Clarification, say, through slow motion. Expressive qualities through performance styles or through close-ups of faces or through sound effects, so that you get the very strong slapping or whacking sounds. And then the impact, which kind of is the summation of some of these, is that the spectator, seeing the action clearly, responding to the emotional response or colouration of the action, and then feels it to some degree. That’s my hunch, anyway. In Planet Hong Kong I tried to analyse how that’s done, to see how, if we took certain sequences apart, we could separate out those things and see how they work. How cutting, for instance, accelerates the force of a blow by being only a certain number of frames long. Or how staging does this.

So that’s where I was exploring, and I think there was a kind of continuous tradition of this from the ‘60s up through the ‘80s and ‘90s. And Hong Kong really created, I would argue, a film school or style, a trend or movement, very comparable to Italian neo-realism or French impressionism or German expressionism, and it deserves as much attention, in my view, as those sort of high art oriented stylistic trends. Because this was done rather spontaneously by people who hadn’t studied the history of cinema, by and large, and so it arose very spontaneously and intuitively, but was still nonetheless very distinctive and influential on the history of cinema.

What I try to argue is that Hollywood didn’t learn those lessons very well. Hong Kong learned things from Hollywood, but Hollywood didn’t learn so well from Hong Kong. It’s partly because of the restraints on the expression of physical action in American cinema, chiefly through the rating system and censorship. The idea that certain things that Hong Kong does, not just the outlandish stunts or lots of gore, though those are problematic too, but also the visceral force of the cinema is actually subject to censorship. This gets you too stirred up, you know, to see this guy really hit this other guy really hard. Without any of the conventions that we have in the Hollywood cinema for handling that, it becomes a little disturbing. So my hunch is that directors and fight choreographers and stunt people have actually pulled their punches a little bit, so to speak. They’ve pulled back. And what we get is a busy bustle. Modern action sequences from Hollywood are throbbing with excitement and you have surround sound piped in from all channels. And you’ve got a general sort of lift of, “omigod, something really exciting is happening now.” But when you actually look, you don’t see that much happening. You might see big expensive stuff. You see the production values of a big explosion or something like that, but you don’t really get that moment by moment kind of seesawing of physical display that you get in Hong Kong cinema. You just don’t see it, by and large, in American action cinema. This is part of a general approach that I’ve tried to call intensified continuity, where American cinema is letting cutting and a rapid pace do a lot of the work that was traditionally done by acting, more controlled framing and things that really allow the audience to absorb what’s going on. Cutting can be very powerful and Hong Kong film-makers use it very well, but it can also be a way to dissolve the specificity of a scene. And cutting can do this generalized sense of hustle and bustle, but without a very precise sense of what actually is executed.

OFFSCREEN: It seems to me it’s going for an idea of disorientation. That is, it tries to make you disoriented.

DB: A couple of things are relevant here. One is Hong Kong varies its approach quite a lot, not only between action scenes and non-action scenes, but also within types of action scenes. Action scenes weren’t all handled the same way. But also, there’s a sense, for me anyway, that the cutting in Hong Kong cinema is amplifying action that’s already there. Whereas in a lot of the Greengrass stuff, the cutting is creating the nervous energy that you’re supposed to feel. So, for instance, in United 93 or something like that, this is basically a movie about people sitting in seats either in front of computer monitors or in passenger airplanes. And it’s all being done through the editing. Of course, the sound’s really important and performances matter too, I don’t want to downplay those. But the point is, the cutting is driving the film. And that’s not the case with most classic Hong Kong cinema. The cutting is serving something else. If you watch the Bourne films, every scene is cut the same way. There’s also the sense that the framing is kind of finding the subject. There’s no reason for the camera to pan slightly this way or rack focus this way. It’s kind of like, “well, we’re not quite, you know, we’re kind of groping towards representing what’s going on here.” This camera drifts away and so my sense is that this is introducing an artificial kind of excitement into the scene. Now it’s not to say cutting by itself can’t be exciting. It can, obviously, when the director uses it well.

OFFSCREEN: The Odessa steps . . .

DB: But there’s a huge amount of staging going on in that scene, of course, and that cutting wouldn’t make sense if there weren’t a very clear physical geography to that scene. But what I’m getting at with Greengrass is that the constant propulsive editing can be very good and very exciting, but it’s not varied enough to my taste. And also, I think he’s letting the sound do a lot of the work, again because in American cinema, you can’t really show extreme violence. So, for instance, the sound in one scene, I talked about this in a blog a long time ago, where Jason Bourne is fighting somebody, the guy draws – You hear a blade (makes the sound of a blade being unsheathed). You don’t see it. You can’t see it. But you hear it and you realize, oh, there’s a knife in this scene. Now, artistically speaking, that’s pretty interesting, I think. But it’s a resource partly, I think, driven by the constraints of not being able to show really bloody violence.

The idea of disorientation, I go back to that too. I think that could be a cop-out. Because, yes, Jason Bourne is disoriented in his life, but he couldn’t fight so well if he were this disoriented. Moreover, these people who are sitting at their work stations, they aren’t disoriented, but they’re still filmed the same way. This goes back to the old Edgar Allan Poe slogan about how there’s a difference between the expression of obscurity and obscurity of expression, you know? So there’s a sense that, okay, if you want to convey confusion, in a way you have to convey it rather exactly. And if you just convey it confusedly, you’re just being confused rather than expressing confusion. That’s too hard. I mean, I think there are some interesting things in the Bourne films. But on the whole, I don’t think they have the same aims as the Hong Kong film-makers. I think the Hong Kong film-makers do want a real visceral arousal, among other things. It’s not the only thing they want. Whereas American cinema, I think, does not want to go that far. It doesn’t want that kind of strange mixture of anxiety and elation you get watching these sequences in Hong Kong film. I think what they want is something a little closer to a more comfortable framing of the situation, where you are aware of what’s going on in a more general sense, like, “oh, I see, what I’m supposed to feel here is, you know, the forces are closing in on Jason Bourne and he’s got to find a way out of this building.” And it’s exciting to have this kind of little bit of eye candy, a little bit of eye candy here, but I don’t have to be really struck by what I’m seeing on the screen.

I think I could try to offer some objective rationale for it, but I also think that it is partly a matter of taste and that young people have found the style of the Bourne films interesting and exciting. And it might be that, as often happens in the history of art, certainly in the history of film, things that seem kind of awkward or dead-ends become useful, becoming interesting in the hands of other film-makers. So I wouldn’t want to foreclose the possibility that somebody could take this approach that Greengrass and others take and do something interesting with it. I just don’t find that what he does with it is very interesting.

OFFSCREEN: Do you think there are any contemporary action filmmakers that are more strongly influenced by the Hong Kong classic style?

DB: I think there are, but I think the influence has played itself out in a strange way. For instance, I think in a way some film-makers may have felt intuitively – again, I can’t read their minds, maybe they would never even say they believed it – but my sense, if you look at the way things have developed, there seems to be an awareness that by the end of the ‘90s, let’s say, Hong Kong choreography had taken things about as far as they could go. There’s always the chance to do something different, of course, but the choreography became so elaborate, so intricate if you think about the Once Upon a Time in China films or something like that, where every set piece was ever more complicated, there seemed to be a reaction against this, which is also an influence. To my way of thinking, reactions against things are influenced by those things. And if you take a look at someone like Kitano Takeshi, who in a film like Sonatine, and somewhat earlier as well, decided on a kind of anti-choreography. That is, what if the guys just stand across from each other and start blazing away?

OFFSCREEN: Or moments or long stretches of not much happening . . .

DB: Of boredom.

OFFSCREEN: . . . and then, BOOM, violence happens in five seconds.

DB: Exactly. Downtime protracted and then an explosion. Or what happens when, again in Sonatine, one of my favourite scenes is when a bunch of guys get into an elevator, then they realize they have to shoot each other in front of two civilians. What happens? Those kinds of what we might even call table-top action scenes, I think can be seen as a reaction to the over-the-top quality of Hong Kong choreography. And then, of course, you have a smart filmmaker like Johnny To who can do the over-the-top stuff, A Hero Never Dies, for instance. But at a certain point he seems to resolve that he would like to try something else and, across a series of films, he’s tried other ways to maintain that tradition of very clear and crisp communication of the physical dimensions of the scene, and at the same time to do something different. Rather than the flamboyant choreography that you get in the ‘80s and ‘90s cinema, you can do something a little more austere, a little more like, say, Jean-Pierre Melville, but still with an action at the core of it. So a film like The Mission would be a touchstone for me here. But it’s also, I think, in other films too.

OFFSCREEN: How do you think Sparrow would fit into that, as it’s so stylized?

DB: There’s an example where, in a way, he’s redeveloping some kung fu comedy elements. Again, a scene in an elevator where the guy has a fish tank and these pickpockets together. I mean, that’s what was striking about Hong Kong film. In a way, physical action is central to all the genres, [even] romantic comedy. They are always visual storytellers and they’re always telling their story through pictures and particularly through bodies in motion. So if you think of a film like Chungking Express or Happy Together or any of these [Wong Kar-wai] films, peripatetic films where people move around and do stuff in the city or wherever seem to me to be cut from the same fabric as Hong Kong action cinema. It’s just it kind of reaches a purified expression, I suppose, in the Hong Kong action cinema. But the busy-ness of Hong Kong film generally, the idea that everything has to be kind of on the move is part of this tradition of a cinema that really is quite physical in its dimensions in a way that American cinema isn’t to the same degree. American cinema relies very much on plot and relies very much on verbal dimensions.

OFFSCREEN: And also a certain sense of realism.

DB: Yeah, absolutely.

OFFSCREEN: Because you’ll never see these figures flying through the air, which I think is one of the most graceful and wonderful things about Hong Kong [cinema]. You just don’t see that in any kind of action film from the US.

DB: Right. You see it sometimes, but only in films, I think, influenced by Hong Kong.

OFFSCREEN: Tarantino or somebody like that.

DB: Or Boondock Saints or something like that, where they just said, “okay, we now have permission to go over the top, so let’s go over the top. The fan boys at least will understand.” But you’re right, I think there is that. I think American cinema, you go back to your point of realism, I think it’s really important. I think we have to remember that this is crucial to understanding why American cinema is different from other cinemas, and that is American cinema developed as a middle class phenomenon. Once cinema moves into dedicated venues, picture palaces and so forth in the late teens, early ‘20s, and decides we’re going for a middle class audience, that conception, what counts as good taste and middle class values are at play through the history of the American cinema. Right up to the present, I think. Still, today, I would argue that American movies are aimed at middle class audiences. Working class people, poor people watch television. Rich people watch some movies, probably, but the real centre of the American movie-going public is the middle class, whatever that may be. Whereas in other popular cinema traditions, and I would put India and Hong Kong as good examples, it’s much more of a working class tradition. The films are much more aimed at a public which hasn’t been to college or doesn’t read literature, isn’t aware of what’s going on in the political sphere in the same way that you would have in American cinema. So I would argue that that kind of realism that you’re describing as still haunting American cinema is partly a function of that taste of a certain class that was established quite early. And of course this restriction on what can be shown. Whereas those constraints weren’t as strong in other national cinemas. And so you have more of a, if I could say, a grass roots cinema in those countries. Now, that’s not to say that there aren’t middle class elements in those cinemas or that those cinemas aren’t gentrified as the cultures become more affluent, which is definitely the case.

OFFSCREEN: Bollywood, for instance.

DB: Exactly. And also I think Hong Kong, where they start to have a spate of romantic comedies about shopping. Or aimed at these young professional women who think of themselves as highly Westernized and middle class, and they probably are middle class. But when I started looking at Hong Kong cinema and talking to people, [I had] an interesting interview with Michael Hui, and Michael Hui said, “I’m making these for the working class. Middle class people don’t go to movies in Hong Kong. Middle class people only go to American films if they go to films in Hong Kong.” I don’t know how accurate that is as sociology, even though Michael Hui has a degree in sociology. But the interesting thing is that there is a sense you get with these films that people want to be thrilled, and they’re not afraid of suspending what we would think of as realistic expectations to get that.

Why study film style?

OFFSCREEN: One thing you mentioned in the master class was that there was some resistance to the idea of taking Hong Kong seriously as a new style.

DB: The resistance would be two-fold. There would be traditionalists who would say you cannot compare Hong Kong cinema style to Soviet montage, that’s just ridiculous. I think I can counter that. But there are people who say, well, style isn’t mandatory. I mean, we’re not that interested in Soviet montage either. But if you’re studying a medium, then you’re at least including the expressive possibilities, the techniques of that medium. It would be strange to say you study drama and not study performance. Or study staging or lighting or things like that. Your question will always dictate what you study, but it would be very strange to say, “I refuse to ask any questions about the properties or practices or created processes that have gone into the creation of this medium.” That would be very strange to me. There are plenty of things you can do that don’t depend on the way films look and sound. I have colleagues, very much my close friends and colleagues, who if all the films in the world burned up tomorrow, it wouldn’t change their research project whatsoever. They completely would go ahead doing what they do. They’re just not focused on that aspect of cinema. But if you’re interested in films as such, and not, say, the film industry or the impact of film on society or film policies undertaken by governments or something like that, if you’re really interested in the artifacts in some way, and most film people I think are interested in the artifacts, then the question is, those artifacts are part of the medium. And often the things you want to know about involve the medium.

It would be like art history. Art history to me has two or three different domains that are perfectly legitimate for art historians to talk about. Art historians study patronage, which is fine. And once you’re studying patronage, maybe you don’t need to look at many pictures. You’re studying the documents for how such-and-such was paid for. You can study patronage even if the pictures haven’t survived. But art historians also study iconography, they study how thematic meanings or semantic dimensions of artwork have been codified to various degrees in various traditions. And there’s a certain way of representing a saint, there’s a certain way of representing the Virgin, and so forth. You can study, as many great art historians have done, those different ways that those icons have been presented. But you can also study the history of visual style in painting. And many great art historians have done that. And of course they inter-connect, because sometimes an art historian focusing on iconography really does have to consider style, or a stylistician has to consider iconography, depending on the question they ask. So I think it would be eccentric, given the history of how we do research in the humanities, to say, “well, the study of form and style in cinema is off limits because we’re really interested in the cultural meanings, the cultural work that films do.” I think that’s too limiting. I think that some people are good at that or want to study that. That’s fine, I have no complaint. But I also think that you shouldn’t foreclose the possibility that we can find interesting things about the way films behave by looking at their formal or stylistic features, particularly as those have developed in different contexts in different periods.

Masterclass: Bordwell, Donato Totaro, King-Wei Chu (photo by Pierre Roussel)


OFFSCREEN: I think you would call yourself a cinephile?

DB: Oh, yeah, sure, absolutely.

OFFSCREEN: There’s a lot of discussion about cinephiles, [and] it’s all about the [feitishizing of] fleeting moments, the scratches on celluloid and so on. And the idea of the cinephilic moment at a young age [as a source for] the pleasures of cinema. Do you have a cinephilic moment or do you even agree with that type of discussion?

DB: I’m a little uncomfortable about all the discussion of cinephilia. I’m not uncomfortable with cinephilia and I’m not uncomfortable with the idea of cinephilia, but the fact that people want to talk about it so much does puzzle me, because it seems to me that that can take a couple or three kind of unproductive directions. One is narcissism. Essentially, so many articles about cinephilia begin with this confession of your childhood. Now, it’s more interesting to read about someone’s childhood than to read about their dreams, I give you that, but still, it’s not the most compelling intellectual activity I can imagine, hearing about how somebody saw Oceans’ 11 at the age of seven and thought, “oh great, cinema’s fantastic.” Fair enough. That’s what happened to you, that’s fine. But I do think there is already enough narcissism, particularly in popular film criticism, that we don’t need to add to that.

Another feature of this is it seems to be partly a recruiting device. It’s a way of giving an identity to something which is almost trying to create a collective force behind something that is really pretty eccentric and private. But by giving it a name, giving it an identity, giving it a history, you kind of say, “okay, we’re a voting bloc too.” You know, the cinephile caucus. And that seems to me again to be a kind of, it’s fine, it’s okay, there’s no problem, but you can spend your energy in other ways.

The other thing that strikes me now about the talk about cinephilia, not again the phenomenon itself, is that it may be starting to become a branding device. And by that I mean film festivals, for instance, are starting to say, “we’re for cinephiles.” I think it’s the Edinburgh festival that says, “we’re for cinephiles, for a new cinephilia.” And Bologna has said, “we’re the cinephile festival, we’re a feast for cinema.” Those are objectively true. I don’t doubt that Edinburgh is trying to create a new cinephilia or that Bologna is a festival for cinephiles, because I’ve bumped into those cinephiles when I go there. But there’s a sense now that this is a logo. If you’re a cinephile, this is what happens. I don’t have a deep moral objection to this. There are certainly more important things in the world to worry about, but I do think that we could spend our time more fruitfully than just sitting around a table saying things like, “Ophuls . . . wonderful! Reckless Moment was fantastic.” “Oh, yeah, Reckless Moment. What about Lola Montes?” “Oh, Lola Montes, that’s a mind-bender.” And we go round and round. Now, I don’t know that literateurs sit around a table and say, “John Keats, now there’s a poet.” “John Keats is fantastic. He’s fantastic, but so is Shelley. Shelley is fantastic.” “Oh, well, Shelley, now you’re talking Shelley. Shelley is terrific. But don’t forget Wordsworth. Oh, and what about that wacko Coleridge?” I don’t think many serious people who study literature do that a lot. They do it some, I’m sure. But for that to become the centre of their discourse, and I’m of course being very unfair here, but there is this tendency of the “gee whiz” response, and the “I will point and you shall mutely observe what I find transcendent about this” that is there in a lot of cinephilia talk. It’s like all confessional talk. It can be interesting if you’re on the same wavelength as the person confessing, and I guess I am kind of on their wavelength being a nerd like them, but there’s a sense in which I feel so much word verbiage, so much energy that could be so productively spent in actually creating knowledge, in actually producing some knowledge. Get me some information, get me some opinion, get me an argument, give me something to hang onto. This is my rationalistic side.

OFFSCREEN: For you there is no little thing like . . .

DB: Well, everybody has these epiphanic moments. I get a buzz, like everybody else does. I mean, I like to see the reel change marks, of course. But I’m not going to write a rhapsodic article about reel change marks. Changeovers are changeovers. Some people can interpret this rise of cinephilia talk in the context of the rise of digital. Someone surely is out there who will say, “clearly the object is being lost and now that we’re losing the object, there’s a fetishization of what remains of it in all these moments and little buzzes that we get.” And I think there’s something to that probably. But it goes back earlier. My awareness of the debate about cinephilia, the actual debate about cinephilia as opposed to the phenomenon itself, my memory is that it starts in the ‘80s with Cahiers du Cinema. Cahiers du Cinema starts to publish articles about cinephilia, as a self-conscious thing, in the ‘80s. But that was clearly in response to [the] rise of home video. And there’s that famous quote from Truffaut, he says, “insofar as I’m a cinephile, I love video.” But that’s a dividing line, because a lot of us felt that if you’ve seen a movie on VHS, you haven’t really seen the movie. That movie doesn’t exist until you’ve seen it on screen and film. But we’ve always made compromises. Cinephilia has been attached to a lot of different objects. I mean, not just nitrate or 35 millimetre, but obviously 16 millimetre, 9.5 millimetre. Collectors who collected those are now offering them back to us because sometimes that’s the only way they’ll still survive. 8 millimetre, super 8 millimetre, scraps of 70, which I have in my refrigerator. There’s lots of different objects there. And I don’t know that maybe it’ll be very hard to love your hard drive the way you can love these scraps of film. Again, I don’t doubt that people feel it, I’m sure I feel twinges of it too. I just don’t understand where we get by talking so much about it.

Donato Totaro, David Bordwell, & King-Wei Chu (photo by Pierre Roussel)

David Bordwell Interview

David Hanley has a BFA and MA in Film Studies from Concordia University and is currently pursuing a PhD in Indigenous and Canadian Studies at Carleton University, where he has also taught in the Department of Film Studies. As well as being a frequent contributor to Offscreen, he has had pieces published by the University of Toronto Quarterly, Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, Synoptique, The Projector, Isis, and Nuacht. He also contributed several entries to the Historical Dictionary of South American Cinema by Dr. Peter H. Rist (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014), and chapters to the books Reclaiming 1940s Horror Cinema: Traces of a Lost Decade (Lexington Books, 2015) and The Spaces and Places of Canadian Popular Culture (Canadian Scholars’ Press, 2019). He has been a programmer for Cine Gael of Montreal’s annual series of contemporary Irish films since 2011.

Volume 17, Issue 5 / May 2013 Interviews   david bordwell