In memory of David Bordwell, the ‘Aristotle of cinema study’

One of the greatest of all contemporary critics, David Bordwell was a tireless champion of film art whose eloquent work on film style and narrative have transformed our understanding of the history of cinema.

19 March 2024

By James Naremore

David Bordwell with Abbas Kiarostami in 1997 © Courtesy of Kristin Thompson

Cinephiles throughout the world are mourning the recent death of David Bordwell, following a lengthy illness from interstitial pulmonary fibrosis. Bordwell was the Aristotle of cinema study. He gave us a full-scale poetics of the feature film, and his clearly articulated writings transcend the boundaries between academic research, journalistic criticism and the practice of filmmakers. Although he’s no longer with us, his name and works will endure.

It’s impossible in an essay to survey Bordwell’s prolific career, during which he authored or co-authored over 20 books. His more familiar achievements include by far the best textbook on movies, Film Art: An Introduction (1979), written with his wife, Kristin Thompson; and the massive, groundbreaking The Classic Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (1985), co-authored with Thompson and Janet Staiger. More recently, in a world where film blogs and websites sprout like mushrooms, has long been the most informative and entertaining. Rather than discussing these and many others, however, I’ll take a personal approach, concentrating on my memories of David and my favourites of his writings.

Tih Minh (1918)

David and I belong to the same generation. I once told him I was annoyed by the old claim that 1939 was the best year for Hollywood. “Have they heard of 1947?” I asked. He smiled and told me he was born that year. We both started as English majors and we began publishing on film at roughly the same time. We each wrote early volumes for the Indiana University Press Filmguide series, and many years later, when he retired from teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he had worked since the early days of his career in 1973, I was among a group invited there to give talks for the occasion. David had the opportunity to choose a film to screen: a 35mm print of Louis Feuillade’s epic, relatively little-known serial Tih Minh (1918), which was one of my most memorable cinematic experiences. During the film, David took up his usual position in the theatre: front-row centre, a spot few would choose, but one that gave him the ability to scan the full image, looking for details.

David and I each wrote essays in a 2001 Festschrift for the critic Andrew Sarris. David was never an auteurist, but he went on to write many books and chapters on important directors – Dreyer, Ozu, Eisenstein and others from Hollywood, Europe and Asia. He was as good on Godard as on Griffith, and his essay on Sarris gives us a key to his chief interests. In the essay he recalls his only meeting with the critic, at a lecture where he got an autographed copy of The American Cinema and came away with the feeling that “one could talk seriously about movies without dethroning their delights”. He had “found someone – virtually the only critic in America – who treated popular movies as an art”. 

David Bordwell lecturing in Munich in 1999
© Courtesy of Kristin Thompson

Despite his erudition and important work on difficult filmmakers, David loved popular films. He was a fan of Quentin Tarantino and, according to his New York Times obituary, one of his favourite pictures was the adaptation of the Tom Clancy thriller The Hunt for Red October (1990). But no matter the cultural capital of what he discussed, the subject of his writing was always art. His overarching aim was to understand film style – an interest fully elaborated in his brilliant book On the History of Film Style (1997), which should be required reading for anyone who wants to learn about the relationship between style, technology and the formation of canons. 

Style, Bordwell explains, may be used in different senses: “We may speak of individual style – the style of Jean Renoir or Alfred Hitchcock, or Hou Hsiao-Hsien. We may speak of group style, the style of Soviet montage filmmaking or of the Hollywood studios… Nonetheless, recurring characteristics of staging, shooting, cutting, and sound will remain an essential part of any individual or group style.” Bordwell shows, however, that the earliest arguments for the ‘seventh art’ were teleological, charting the medium’s progress from primitivism to an essentially cinematic style. The spread of film museums and film societies furthered these arguments by creating a selective history. Under Iris Barry’s management of the film department at the MoMA in New York, for example, Eisenstein and Pudovkin were canonised, but Vertov and Kuleshov were “virtually ignored” and Chaplin considered excessively theatrical. Then, with the development of sound, a crisis struck. For many influential historians, sound was the death of pure cinema and the birth of photographed plays – the rise of telling rather than showing. Writers fell back on a birth-maturity-decline history, ignoring what Bordwell identifies as an important question: “What if cinema does not have an essence at all?”

The first major challenges to what Bordwell calls the Standard Version of film history arrived with the French theorist André Bazin, who dethroned montage, emphasised sound and helped establish a new canon. Hitchcock, Welles, Rossellini, De Sica, Renoir and Bresson became names to conjure with, and Alexandre Astruc set the stage for auteurism with his argument for the caméra stylo (literally, the ‘camera pen’). All this is now a familiar story, but the importance of Bordwell’s account lies in his treatment of successive stages of writings on film style and changes in the canon. This history becomes further complicated by post-1968 radicalism, the rise of feminism, the development of academic film study, the greater availability of old films and the emergence of new cinematic technology. 

Bordwell’s study is buttressed by beautifully illustrated, well-chosen examples of film scenes. (As only one example, consider his discussion of directorial and period style in a scene involving six characters, two rooms, a long take, a moving camera and staging in depth in Otto Preminger’s 1945 film Fallen Angel.) His book ends in the late 1990s, but it can be supplemented with his 2005 study of cinematic staging, Figures Traced in Light. Together, the volumes point toward an even larger history and research programme, showing how technical developments (Steadicams, CGI, digital reproduction, etc) and cultural movements (neorealism, new waves, slow cinema, etc) affect critical and historical writing on film as much as individuals do.

The only criticism made about Bordwell’s work has been his reluctance to discuss politics, including such matters as race, sexuality and ethnic or gender identity. I knew him personally as a liberal (I once heard him say, “We are all Marxists.”) and I can testify that he hated Trump as much as anyone has. But his position was always that his research interest was art, and you will find in his writings no critique of the Hollywood industry (which he did not view as Fordist) or analysis of its societal influences. He was happy to think of himself as a formalist, and in that role he was incomparably important.

Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell with Terence Davies (centre) in Bruges in 2001
© Courtesy of Kristin Thompson

Perhaps because I have a soft spot for the 1940s and crime fiction, I have a special fondness for what might be called late-period Bordwell, which involves a turn toward Hollywood and narrative form. His Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling (2017) is the definitive treatment of cultural trends and narrative innovations in that decade, and deals with both collective and individual achievements (it has ‘interludes’ dealing wonderfully with such figures as Preston Sturges and Joseph L. Mankiewicz). Wisely, it doesn’t do everything. Bordwell doesn’t say much about budgets or the inner workings of individual studios, and he gives only glancing treatment to visual style, which he points out would require another volume. But he is superb on the way goal-oriented narrative was transformed. The period was rife with flashbacks, dream sequences, off-screen narration, amnesia, deus ex machina angels and ghosts, and experiments with on-location shooting. Artistic self-consciousness was flaunted, pop psychoanalysis was in vogue, characters suffered from neurosis or obsessions and not everything ended happily. It was a noirish decade and not simply in thrillers.

The Chase (1946)

Bordwell is rightly suspicious of “reflectionist” film history (the populace is depressed, happy, etc, because movies are) and convincingly argues that trends of the 1940s were motivated chiefly by filmmakers. For most of the decade profits were up, artists had “wiggle room” for innovation and Hollywood was responding to developments in literature and theatre, which led to what Bordwell calls “middlebrow modernism”. Among the many strengths of his book is his encyclopedic knowledge. He seems to have seen everything (and listened to a great deal of radio drama) and he discusses significant pictures I didn’t know, giving valuable production information and stressing the importance of writers and producers as well as directors. 
My award for his best piece of detective work goes to his discussion of The Chase (1946), the most jaw-droppingly weird film noir of the period, which was directed by Arthur Ripley, produced by Seymour Nebenzal and scripted by Philip Yordan from a Cornell Woolrich novel. Bordwell shows that Nebenzal hastily patched together the bizarre conclusion, “jamming together, somewhat desperately, characteristic 1940s devices – flashback, amnesia, dream (prophetic or obsessive), forced happy end… a maze of alternative devices.” 

Bordwell’s short, delightful spinoff from Reinventing Hollywood was The Rhapsodes (2016), which shows how four journalistic critics of the late 1930s and 40s helped change movie culture. They were Otis Ferguson at the New Republic, a jazz-influenced writer who praised Hollywood’s invisible style and methods of collaboration; James Agee at Time, Life and the Nation, a romantic with a strong literary reputation who championed poetic realism; Manny Farber at the New Republic, Time and the Nation, a painter, punster and tough-guy stylist who paid close attention to screen space; and Parker Tyler at View and other vanguard journals, an intellectual who celebrated camp, myth and Freud-inflected surrealism. In addition to its historical value, this book reveals Bordwell’s skill at analysing language and his considerable wit. (In person, David had the best sense of humour of any academic I’ve known.)

Bordwell’s last book, Perplexing Plots: Popular Storytelling and the Poetics of Murder (2023), is my favourite of all his writings. Here he turns mainly to literature because his chief interest is plot. His focus is on Anglo-American crime fiction viewed in a large cultural context and he often shows how the rarified techniques of high modernism were sometimes anticipated, sometimes absorbed by popular narratives. Along the way, he demonstrates that theatre, film, radio, TV, comic books and even music have participated in the “churn” of narrative development. The mystery plot is his privileged subject because it manipulates structure and invites the reader/viewer to participate in the discovery of a “hidden story”. Practically every novelist, aside from Jane Austen and the ultra-high modernists, has experimented with the form. (Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex is a murder plot and so is Arden of Feversham – often attributed to Shakespeare and Thomas Kyd – which could make a great movie.) As Bordwell says, Faulkner and Nabokov are almost as much crime and mystery writers as Mickey Spillane. And because all mystery storytellers deal with problems of temporal structure, point of view and segmentation, what Bordwell calls a “variorum” is created, involving “schemas” that can be revised in interesting ways.

Bordwell says, “I haven’t read everything,” but it’s difficult to believe him. Who knew about the 1933 movie The Sin of Nora Moran, the 1919 play A Voice in the Dark or the 1935 novel Cast Down the Laurel? Bordwell ranges over these items along with an array of familiar writers: Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers; Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler; Erle Stanley Gardner and Rex Stout; doom-laden Cornell Woolrich; heist specialist Richard Stark; perverse Patricia Highsmith; procedural expert Ed McBain; and thriller aficionados Gillian Flynn and Laura Lippman. Running through everything is important commentary on the publishing and entertainment industries, slick magazines and paperbacks, the New Criticism and journals like Writer’s Market. There is also a subplot on the history of narrative poetics, beginning with Henry James and Percy Lubbock. 

Perplexing Plots is a magnum opus. Thankfully, Bordwell learned before his death that it had been nominated for both an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America and an Agatha Award from a similar group of Christie devotees. I hardly know where to stop praising it and his other writings. David was a great critic, and I’ve gained more inspiration and practical knowledge from him than from any other writer on film.

  • David Bordwell, 23 July 1947 to 29 February 2024