Remembering David Bordwell

David Bordwell

There’s a strikingly personal tone to nearly all of the tributes that immediately flooded social media after the University of Wisconsin–Madison announced that David Bordwell had passed away on Thursday at the age of seventy-six. Admiration for an academic who made a decisive impact on film studies with the twenty-two books and monographs he wrote or cowrote might be expected. So, too, would be an appreciation for the clarity with which Bordwell expressed his boundless enthusiasm for the art of cinema. But Justin Chang speaks for many when he notes that Bordwell was “as irrepressibly brilliant, passionate, and companionable in person as he was on the page.”

Recalling a time when he appeared on a panel with Bordwell, the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips, and Janet Pierson, who at the time was the director of SXSW Film & TV, critic Ali Arikan writes that “as we were getting on stage, I said to David, ‘Now I know how Ringo felt.’ He laughed and said, ‘Yeah, but Ringo’s great!’ A genuinely warm guy.” Sports broadcaster Evan Davis remembers “projecting a print of Nightmare Alley (1947) at the Wisconsin Cinematheque. David came up to me after the screening had ended. ‘Those were some of the smoothest reel changeovers I’ve ever seen.’ To this day, it remains the greatest compliment I’ve ever received.”

Bordwell grew up on a farm outside Penn Yan, a town in upstate New York with just one movie theater. He watched the films late-night television had to offer and read popular histories such as Arthur Knight’s The Liveliest Art (1957). As a student, he reviewed movies for his college newspaper, attended Film Society screenings, and he eventually landed at UW–Madison, where he taught from 1973 to 2004. Maria Belodubrovskaya, a former student who now teaches at the University of Chicago, tells the writers of UW–Madison’s remembrance—Vance Kepley, Lea Jacobs, Kelley Conway, and Susan Zaeske—that in Bordwell’s classes, “everyone was treated as no less curious and observant than the instructor himself.”

In the summer of 1974, Bordwell moved in with Kristin Thompson, his close collaborator, an author of books on Lubitsch and Tolkien, and eventually, a dedicated Egyptologist. Bordwell “was as wonderful a spouse as he was a scholar and a friend,” wrote Thompson this weekend at Observations on Film Art, the blog they launched together not long after Bordwell retired.

In 1979, Bordwell and Thompson wrote the book that has become a cornerstone of Film 101 courses around the world, Film Art: An Introduction. The thirteenth edition, cowritten with Jeff Smith and translated into ten other languages, was published last fall. Film Art “probably did more than any book in existence to activate young cinephiles, a classroom at a time,” observes Michael Phillips. “‘Which movie was on the cover of your edition of Film Art: An Introduction?’ is one of my favorite icebreakers,” quips writer Mark Asch. At, Matt Zoller Seitz explains why “Film Art is probably the most important book in the entire film studies canon.”

Talking to Norwegian critic Dag Sødtholt in 2004, Bordwell pointed out that “my work is not mainly concerned with finding out which are the best and worst films, but understanding the flow of film history. Why is this film the way it is? What has created that trend? Why, in this context, are certain films made?”

The UW–Madison writers outline “three principal strands” in Bordwell’s research, the first being “stylistic analyses of individual films or directors,” most notably in books such as The Films of Carl Theodor Dreyer (1980), Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema (1988), and The Cinema of Eisenstein (1993). Bordwell worked on the Ozu book from 1976 to 1988, traveling with Thompson to archives around the world to see films that were at the time unavailable on video and studying them up close on a Moviola. “All of my three director’s books, on Dreyer, Ozu, and on Eisenstein, have obsessed me,” Bordwell told Sødtholt.

The second strand examines “national film styles and modes of film production,” and the primary example here is The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (1985), cowritten with Thompson and Janet Staiger. Profiling Bordwell for the New York Times in 2010, Manohla Dargis wrote that “this magisterial work uses 300 movies from 1915 to 1960 (and a bit beyond) to trace changes in Hollywood’s production practices and in its technologies through, for instance, a history of cameras. It also identifies the conventions that helped constitute the classical style through devices like continuity editing; explaining how these devices work to create systems of cinematic narrative, time and space; and examining how these systems work together. This was history with a vengeance: detailed, rigorous, monumental.”

The third strand tackles the way movies are received. “For Bordwell,” note the UW–Madison writers, “spectators were active makers of meaning who drew on their understanding of cinematic conventions, their knowledge of different types of stories, and their real-life experience to comprehend the various visual and audio cues given to them by the film.”

Besides these three fields of research, narrative structure, digitalization, and the role of the critic were also engaging and productive interests. Bordwell’s last book, Perplexing Plots: Popular Storytelling and the Poetics of Murder, was published early last year, and he released Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies as a freely accessible ebook in 2012. Addressing the “split” between academics and cinephiles in an essay for a 2011 issue of Film Comment, Bordwell wrote that the “ideal cinephile critic has wide and subtle tastes and tries to expose the distinctive qualities he or she finds in the film. Through the skillful use of language, the critic tries to convey the film’s unique identity and to summon up, by a kind of tonal mimicry, the effects that the film arouses.”

That’s quite a challenge, and while working on Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling (2017), Bordwell became especially interested in four writers who rose up to meet it, each with his own distinctive flair: Otis Ferguson, James Agee, Manny Farber, and Parker Tyler. The Rhapsodes: How 1940s Critics Changed American Film Culture (2016) “remains to me the best book ever written about film theory and criticism,” writes German critic Frank Noack. “On merely 174 pages, it provides a depth of insights that are still relevant today.”

Reviewing The Rhapsodes for Artforum, Geoffrey O’Brien wrote that the “primary pleasure of this book comes from Bordwell’s appreciation of the originality of these writers, the way each of them constructed a distinctive prose whose mixing of unlike elements calls to mind that ‘homemade world’ that the critic Hugh Kenner discerned in the poetry of William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens. There is real enthusiasm, and valuable guidance, in Bordwell’s tour.” Anyone looking for two richly entertaining hours of listening ought to turn to Bordwell’s discussion of The Rhapsodes with Violet Lucca and Nick Pinkerton and of Reinventing Hollywood with Lucca and Imogen Sara Smith on the Film Comment Podcast.

Bordwell “demonstrated a model where leaving the university simply opens up a new and more productive phase of his career,” writes media scholar Henry Jenkins. “He traveled. He spoke. He wrote more books in retirement than in his academic career. And above all, he blogged. The blog is an extraordinary accomplishment which we will be mining for many years to come . . . And one could watch his final books take shape there.”

Observations on Film Art also became a fifty-episode series on the Criterion Channel. Bordwell “was a champion for movies not because he was superb at analyzing form—he was the best—but because movies were his life force,” says executive producer Kim Hendrickson. “I, and so many colleagues at Janus and Criterion, are indebted to him for his brilliance, generosity, and friendship.”

Hendrickson’s statement is one of a handful of tributes that the UW–Madison writers have gathered from friends and admirers, including screenwriter David Koepp (Jurassic Park), director Damien Chazelle (for whom Bordwell was “America’s André Bazin”), and producer and filmmaker James Schamus, who describes Bordwell’s friendship as “unnervingly generous. His astonishing critical intelligence never got in the way of his enthusiasms, and his enthusiasms never dampened his analytic regard; they were functions of each other. This meant that when talk came around to one’s own work, the effect was something akin to getting a loving bear hug from a nuclear-powered microscope. There will never be another like David again.”

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