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Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Guest Review: Harlow on Bordwell

Morgan Harlow reviews
by David Bordwell

The film, the whole film, and nothing but the film. David Bordwell focuses on the poetics of cinema, leaping over the various schools of criticism that have come into vogue over the last 60 years in research in the humanities, and, more recently, to film study. A prominent film scholar and Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Bordwell describes a poetics of cinema quite apart from the rhetoric and interpretations of methods-based theorizing.

How is a film made, with what effect, in what historical context? Poetics of Cinema, a collection of essays written over the last 30 years, aims, in Bordwell's words, "to produce reliable knowledge by pursuing questions within two principal areas of inquiry. First is what we might call analytical poetics. What are the principles according to which films are constructed and through which they achieve particular effects? Second, there's historical poetics, which asks, How and why have these principles arisen and changed in particular empirical circumstances?" (p. 23)

Bordwell has written a number of scholarly books and articles on film, film art and poetics, and writes the blog, Observations on Film Art and Film Art. Bordwell and his partner, film scholar Kristin Thompson, continue on the website what they started with the textbook, Film Art, now in its eighth edition. And Bordwell has just announced he is working on a new book. The Poetics of Cinema is a coherent assemblage, with some new essays and others previously published and revised for inclusion in the book.

Though a lot could be said for reading this book in order (the discussion of network narratives in Chapter 7, which I read first, hearkens back to points made in Chapter 3 about identifying the protagonist), even a reader that jumps around as I tend to do will find that the work as a whole and each piece communicates a consistent poetics by which to study and understand film craft, narrative, and style in artistic and historical contexts.

This is a book to spur the reader on, to read alongside others and in between watching films. Along the way, I dipped into Bordwell's The Way Hollywood Tells It, J.J. Murphy's Me and You and Memento and Fargo: How Independent Screenplays Work, and watched my first Ozu film. What made Chapter 7 stand out for me in my initial flip through this textbook-sized book was that Bordwell draws from an Italo Calvino meditation on relationships as "the design that emerges from the squiggles on the carpet," in his discussion of network movies.

Bordwell, in his discussions on poetics throughout, brings in observations not only by Aristotle and Coleridge, but also Samuel Johnson, W. H. Auden, Jorge Louis Borges, the work of Tolstoy and George Eliot, and many more to illustrate the what, how and why of film conventions. In Chapter 6, "Film Futures," Borges's story, "The Garden of Forking Paths" works as an interesting contrast to show that what theoretically works in physics and philosophy doesn't work in film narrative, which takes its cues from cause and effect in everyday life. Bordwell lay out the rules of forking path tales in two movies in particular, Krzysztof Kieslowski's Blind Chance (1987) and Peter Howitt's Sliding Doors (1998).

I won't hold it against Bordwell that he is clearly in love with Hollywood and the studio system. There is a science in the art of cutting. While for me loving studios would be comparable to loving big oil or the spin off toy industry, I have to confess to taking in film at the most primitive level, holding a fascination for the face and spellbound by narrative and music. Bordwell loves this as well, but there is so much more and he doesn't want us to miss it.

The medium is the message, you are what you eat, and Bordwell is film. I like philosophy and thought experiments, but I also like David Bordwell. Like a friend's mathematician father, Bordwell is comfortable with numbers, facts and what makes sense in the world. I have to say that the now obscure article on the male gaze, Laura Mulvey's "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," was to me, meaningful and shall I say, eye opening in a way that something is brought to the discussion one has felt along the way but wasn't sure if one was just imagining it or not.

Bordwell, on the other hand, is big on evidence. And it has its advantages, slower moving, perhaps, but it's bound to be sure. Though not always, Bordwell will add, allowing for new and careful insights that could displace an older theory. In "Who Blinked First," (Chapter 11) Judy Garland not blinking on camera is tied to "the strength of the stare," a convention of "eye behavior" to enhance effectiveness in acting. Initially I was tempted to argue that, from my own experience as a mother of two relating to Garland as a stressed-out mom, there are just those days when it feels you barely have time to blink. Bordwell would discourage such psychologizing or cultural inferences. Where's the evidence? Bordwell is for scholarship, not guesswork.

And he always leaves room for theories based on good scholarship to be disputed on grounds of new evidence. Here, he clearly takes the high ground in mechanistic detail. Bordwell's commitment to film art is comparable to Harold Bloom's to literature. Both work against fragmentation in scholarship and worry about theory obscuring knowledge. Bloom opens his chapter, "Freud: a Shakespearean Reading," (in The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages) with a bruising comparison of Freudian literary criticism to the Holy Roman Empire, introducing his punch with, "Every critic has (or should have) her or his own favorite critical joke."

Bloom's "rant against cant," is partly why I read him; I think it's lovely, comparing theorists with hordes of lemmings bound for blindly leading each other off the cliff. Bordwell, too, can rant, but more as an ahem kind of clearing the throat, let's get real here, way. But here is Bordwell on Bloom, in The Way Hollywood Tells It, Story and Style in Modern Movies (2006). Bordwell notes, about his discussion of "the problem of belatedness" for film directors: "I borrow the term from Harold Bloom, but I don't mean to accept his Freudian theory of literary influence. I use the term to describe any situation in which an artist follows outstanding predecessors and must carve out her distinctive contribution." (p. 247, notes to p. 23).

I take it as a misreading of Bloom on the part of Bordwell, who is suspicious of any theory smacking of a psychoanalytic approach. As for a Bordwellian critical joke, search as I might I could not find an equivalent to match Bloom's. Bordwell's level good humor ranges from matter of fact to dry. One blog entry begins with, "My name is David, and I'm a frame counter," (January 28, 2007) and goes on to comment on the current state of, an explanation of the function of, and a historical discussion of, film cutting. Bordwell's humor always has a clear purpose, to lead in to serious scholarship.

Bordwell's introduction to Poetics of Cinema introduces the book as a group of essays concerned with poetics but also edges over to tipping the balance Bordwell maintains with keeping rant to a minimum, and therefore it might be best read as an afterward. The scholarship throughout speaks to the issue of poetics, and particularly the very fine essay, "Poetics of Cinema" (Chapter One).

The intro contains essentials about the mechanical aspects of putting together the book, but it also puts the reader on guard for a feud. It is one which Bordwell and film have already won, the right for film to be regarded as art and for academic film departments to be separate and distinct from cultural studies. Bordwell's evident love for film art is sanctified by his genius for film and a clear objectivity rarely seen in the humanities. His scholarship is lively and not mired down in extraneous theory. We've all been in the class or written the paper where we attempted to stick a theory as if with a wad of silly putty on to some song, movie or other art work to make a point. Not that all theory doesn't stick, but for a means to reliable knowledge a coherent poetics as Bordwell proposes can't miss.

One has to, I think, be an admirer of capitalism to put one's whole faith in such an art form. Because of inaccessibility in who will do the making, and its dependence upon big money and huge profits, film is a flawed art. Beautiful, powerful, but flawed in ways other art forms, including drama, and surely, poetry, are not. Perhaps that is why film is an easy target for culturally and politically minded theorists. And why auteur theory is so attractive, because we can believe that through the vision of an individual artist, through the sophisticated powerful and emotive art of visual storytelling, the business structures and cold machinery of film can be transcended and become art.

Can we draw a clear line between art and politics, and is it desirable to do so? Historical poetics takes politics into consideration, and there is no question that we are still being informed and shaped by historical patterns. Cultural studies is worthwhile but it isn't film study. Psychoanalysis has a grounding, but it isn't in film. But structures, money, space, and yes, art, are political. And these make up both culture and film. Bordwell doesn't deny this. His arguments for a poetics of film are informed by this, and argue for a demarcation that will serve everyone's interests.

Morgan Harlow is an American poet.
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