||16:9 in English:
Bordwell on Bordwell: Part I – Hitchcock, Hartley and the Poetics
By JAKOB ISAK NIELSEN
David Bordwell may very well be the most well-known film scholar of
our time. It is probably safe to say that most – maybe all – film
students at one time or other in their studies will encounter a book
that he has authored or co-authored. His productivity inspires awe,
the quality and range of his work even more so. That is not to say
that his writings are popular across the entire field of film studies.
Bordwell’s writings have certainly received their share of critical
comment – sometimes stimulated by the polemical nature of his positions
as set forth in Making Meaning* or
which he co-edited with Noël Carroll. Few film scholars have received
so much attention and criticism from other scholars as Bordwell. The
clarity and precision of his writing and of his claims are, of course,
one of the reasons why his work remains so open to criticism, yet
these same features ensure – God forbid – that we will never see “The
Bordwell Reader” on the shelves of university bookstores. He has variously
been labeled a cognitivist, a formalist and a narratologist or a combination
of these. The categories are porous and his varying lines of inquiry
give different emphasis to each aspect. However, as part I of the
interview and the ones to follow will reveal, the term poetician may
be more appropriate for both the type of research he pursues at this
stage of his career and the perspective in which he views a large
bulk of his former research.
The interview was recorded May 17, 2004 only a week after David
Bordwell had completed his final seminar at Communication Arts,
University of Wisconsin-Madison. Since Bordwell was retiring, he
had been asked to do a seminar on his own work. Nicknamed Best
of Bordwell the official name of the course was The Poetics
of Cinema and a great deal of this interview is an offshoot
of topics raised during the semester.
- - - - -
An era is about to end. You’ve just wrapped up your last class
at ComArts after teaching at UW for more than 30 years. You are
still young – in your mid-50s …
I’m 56, yes.
… and you don’t strike me as the kind of man who will rest on
[Laughs] If I could only find some laurels to rest
upon I’d rest [looks around on the floor].
What will you actually do now that you have retired from UW?
I want to continue to do research in film of course – write and
read about cinema. And I also want to expand some of the things
I’ve done. Areas I’ve explored, I’d like to explore more deeply.
So for instance, I’m more and more interested in seeing films from
the 1910s by Bauer and other filmmakers of the period. Also I’d
like to attend more film festivals. An academic schedule is great
and I can’t complain about it, but there are so many film festivals
in the world that show films that I often had to miss because of
my teaching schedule and so forth - films that were important for
my research or just for my own development. So basically, I’ll do
what I was always doing but with a more flexible schedule.
You started teaching at UW in 1973 but you’ve been writing
criticism for even longer. One of the earliest articles I’ve found
is on Hitchcock’s Notorious  …
Yes, that was my first article published outside of my local scene.
I wrote film criticism for my college newspaper from 1965 to 1969
and I think this was the first article that was published in an
Yes, it was published in Film Heritage in 1969. It’s
been 35 years since the article appeared. Can you highlight continuity
and change with regards to the lines of inquiry that you have been
pursuing since the late 60s?
I would say that throughout my study of film, three areas – they
are not exactly issues or problems – but three areas have interested
me. One is the study of form – of cinematic form in the broad sense,
particularly narrative form and handling of narrative issues like
point-of-view, characterization, patterning of narrative structure,
things like that. And then secondly, I’ve been interested in what
we might call film style, the aesthetics of the use of the medium.
And then thirdly, the spectator and issues of how spectators understand
films. Either how they make sense of them at some very basic level
of narrative comprehension but also in terms of how spectators interpret
films; how they try to ascribe broader significance to the films
that they see. And in an odd way – although of course, I didn’t
have anything like a program when I started writing, I was just
an undergraduate then – that essay on Hitchcock that you mention
has parts of all three. Obviously, when you’re dealing with Hitchcock,
you’re dealing with the manipulation of the spectator. You’re dealing
with how the spectator is given certain kinds of information, how
certain types of attitudes, emotions and expectations are generated
and then how those are creatively manipulated. I was particularly
interested in something that I thought was a big discovery
but which at least now everyone knows about, which was how he uses
point-of-view – optical point-of-view – to switch pieces of information
from character to character.
I showed the film – Notorious - for our film society and
while it was running, the first two or three shots: point-of-view
shots. Everything after that is structured around different characters’
optical point-of-view. Although I think we commonly recognize that
now, in the late 1960s we were only just starting to realize the
way Hitchcock was using film style to construct points-of-vantage
on the action … and then thirdly, of course, narrative construction
and how suspense is generated through shifting larger conceptions
of point-of-view, not just the stylistics of optical p.o.v.-shots
but also larger blocks where he shifts between Cary Grant, Claude
Rains and of course Ingrid Bergman in terms of what they know
and what we know. I of course didn’t articulate these ideas
in a very rigorous way then - it was really just a piece of practical
* See for instance volume XVII, no. 2-3 of
a double issue that features responses to Bordwell’s 1989-book Making
I couldn’t help but notice some similarities
with your essay on Hal Hartley, which is one of your most recent
publications.* In the essay on Notorious as well as
the Hartley-essay you’re concerned with the orchestration of glances
and both articles actually refer to an Antonioni-influence.
Yes, there is a scene where Cary Grant learns about his mission.
It starts as a love scene and ends as a scene of separation. And
the way Hitchcock stages it in terms of the edges of the frame really
looks forward to the kind of things that Antonioni would do more
heavily and systematically in his films. With Hartley … Hartley
has confirmed to me that he was interested in Antonioni. These similarities
are almost accidental, I suppose, but you have to remember also
that for my generation – this is very much a piece from the 1960s
– the American auteurs were Hitchcock and Ford, less Hawks but Hitchcock
and Ford. And the foreign directors that were foremost important
were the Italians and the Scandinavians so it would be natural for
me to look for analogies in that rather small search base. Now
it would be more interesting to look at Notorious in terms
of not only Hitchcock’s earlier films but also in relation to the
rise of film noir in the United States. The film is very much a
film noir and it seems to be playing off some of the things that
Hitchcock was developing with the Cary Grant-image or -persona that
were also there in Suspicion  for instance. There’d
be a much richer context to draw upon now than we had back then.
It’s interesting… the more I think about it, the more Hitchcock
was a key influence to the people of my generation and people who
are a little older than me like Scorsese and Coppola because he
showed that you could make complex and sophisticated films in the
American popular tradition. Many other American directors have done
that but with Hitchcock it was somehow more obvious. His films had
a very salient style. They were identified as personal films – I
mean Hitchcock was a kind of brand name in the 60s – and there was
an awareness that Hitchcock, even as he was making more so-called
commercial projects, was still bringing in his own concerns and
presuppositions. So there is a way in which Hitchcock provided a
model for both young critics and young directors -
apart from De Palma who was obviously influenced - but even for
people like Scorsese or James Toback. People like this who were
part of the New York film culture scene would see Hitchcock-films
and say: “here’s somebody who actually has it both ways. He makes
genre pictures, he makes films that audiences love, but he also
makes very personal films and very artistically ambitious films.”
And for critics – apart from film directors – we saw Hitchcock
as somebody who was on the level of the European masters. For us
there was still this interplay of the popular and the personal -
though I think there was probably less emphasis on his being a popular
artist and more emphasis on him being an expressive and personal
artist than there should have been.
Nevertheless, there is a sense in which Hitchcock showed a whole
generation of both filmmakers and film critics the art of cinema.
He seemed so eclectic and pluralistic in his approach. He could
make films with 8-9 shots like Rope; he could make films
with very finely broken down montage like Rear Window. He
seemed to be just a master - a virtuoso of the film medium - and
he was almost our film school. Hitchcock – more than any other filmmakers,
even European filmmakers – was the director people felt they could
learn most about cinema from.
Hitchcock doesn’t play that big a part in your most recent
* The essay on Hartley is published
in Danish in this issue of 16:9.
Not yet published in English.
No, I think it is fair to say that Hitchcock is
a very, very good director but I think he has been overrated by
others as well as by me [laughs]. The more I’ve come to appreciate
other filmmakers, the more Hitchcock’s work seems to me – without
being any the less pleasurable – not absolutely of the very first
rank. And I also feel that Hitchcock… it’s a bit like writing about
a major figure in literature like – I won’t say Shakespeare – but
like Dickens or Tolstoy. There has been so much written on Hitchcock
that even just to comprehend the secondary literature would be a
large part of one’s lifetime. I prefer now to work on directors
who are underappreciated; on directors about which I feel I have
something original to say. I really don’t think I have anything
original to say about Hitchcock [laughs] … well, with Rear
Window I feel that I was able to bring together some insights
about filmic narration around Rear Window but I would
nowhere claim that it was a complete or adequate reading of the
film.* I just wanted to use it as a familiar test case really. But
in terms of actually shedding light on Hitchcock the way I would
like to think I’ve shed light on, say, Ozu or Eisenstein or possibly
Dreyer, I don’t feel I have anything to add to the discussion.
I want to shift focus a little bit to your current “hobby horse”
[laughs], what you call the poetics of cinema. In
your article on Chinese film in Post Script you present the
approach in quite broad terms. What you propose is this: “To ask
about the poetics governing any filmmaking tradition is to pose
at least four broad questions”:
- Overarching form: by what principles are the
films created as distinctive narrative wholes or “other” wholes?
- Stylistics: how is the film medium deployed
in a film or body of films?
- Spectatorial uptake: how do form and style
shape the uptake of films?
- Historical poetics: how do form and style exhibit
patterns of continuity and change over time and how might we best
explain these patterns?
* See Narration in the Fiction Film
(Madison: University of Wisconsin Press; London: Methuen 1985).
It is a perspective. I don’t see it as a research
project or even a research program stated that way. It is really
a perspective. It is a way in which many researchers could come
up with a variety of research projects or programs.* I wanted to
just mark out an area of certain kinds of questions that one could
ask about cinema. So for instance to take the narrative aspect of
that perspective, I guess I would say: “well, there are many theories
of narrative…” And I’m not proposing that we simply – if you are
someone working within the poetics of cinema – accept or subscribe
to one narrative theory over another. There’d be many possibilities.
The same thing goes for the conceptions of style, conceptions of
the spectator and so forth. It was really an effort to just create
a virtual space within which a lot of different theoretical projects
could be developed.
My own perspective, my own theories I’ve laid out in particular
works. I think of narrative in a certain way; I think of style in
a certain way; I think of spectatorial activities from a broadly
cognitive standpoint; I think of history in terms of norms, shared
community norms within institutions of filmmaking, ways in which
filmmakers communicate with each other and challenge spectators.
But those aren’t the only ways you can think about those issues.
There are other theoretical angles you could pursue. So what I wanted
to do in that piece was simply – for an audience I felt didn’t know
the perspective at all, mainly Chinese film scholars – to create
a very broad brush. It’d be nice if some day there was a body of
work within this poetics of cinema so that one could actually say:
“well, there are these different schools of cinematic poetics or
there are these different theories of cinematic poetics and so on.”
That doesn’t exist now although I do think that without calling
themselves poeticians, a lot of classical film theorists were working
in this domain. If you think of someone like Bazin who is usually
thought of as a theorist in terms of abstract theory, realism and
so forth, he actually did a lot of empirical work. He proposed some
very bold hypotheses about the history of film style, about how
narrative worked in certain bodies of films like the neorealist
* It is not an entirely new
perspective but Bordwell has probably given it more prominence and
substance in later years. For an early statement see “Lowering
the Stakes: Prospects for a Historical Poetics of Cinema.” Iris,
no. 1 (1983): 5-18.
Even about the development of average shot length*
Exactly! Bazin was doing the kind of work I would consider part
of a poetics of cinema. Eisenstein of course is much more explicit
about this. I think that Eisenstein’s writing, but also his teaching,
were very much coming out of the formalist tradition of the 1920s,
which was itself self-consciously a cinematic poetics-tradition.
And he was responding to people like Shklovsky and Eikhenbaum and
Tynianov in terms of the practical exercises he set his students
as much as his actual theories.* I would argue that Eisenstein has
a kind of expressive poetics of cinema where his concentration is
on stylistics for the most part and the effect on the spectator,
those two issues. And he wants to argue that style is the manifestation
of an expressive quality in cinema and it gets transmitted to the
spectator through a series of [compositional strategies, ed.] I
think that many classic film theorists who are normally classified
as being “aestheticians of cinema” - working on film aesthetics
in so far as they were inquiring about the issues of construction,
norms, how spectators take the films – are certainly doing work
that I would consider to be in the realm of poetics. And I think
some contemporary writers are working in this domain. They may not
chose to call it that and that’s fine, they don’t have to, but in
the sense that these people are starting to focus on some of these
problems in a self-conscious way does suggest that this is becoming
a viable scholarly avenue.
Perhaps we can also mark the borderlines of the poetic avenue.
There are certain scholars who work on the limits of a poetics.
Say for instance someone like Robin Wood who has a keen eye for
the use of stylistic devices but who – after registering a particular
application of a stylistic device – will move outside of or beyond
the poetic realm.
Right, right. I don’t think that Robin is interested in causal
explanations at the level that I’m interested in. That would be
my argument. I would say that a poetics – at least a historical
poetics of cinema – tries to tell a fairly detailed causal story
about why form and style are the way they are. I think that there
are two levels – at least two levels – to Robin’s work. One is –
as you say – a keen eye for stylistics. Though I have to say that
Not always that keen?
* See “The Evolution of the
Language of Cinema,” in What is Cinema?, vol. 1. (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1967).
* As to Eisenstein’s teaching, see for example
“Mise-en-shot” in Lessons with Eisenstein, ed. Vladimir
Nizny (London: Allen and Unwin, 1962).
Yes, or that perhaps the same claims are reiterated
rather than going deeper. For instance: “Mizoguchi the long take-director.”
I’m not sure that Robin has gone much beyond that observation. You
can get a lot out of that but one would have to go down some levels
of specificity to get more precise conceptions of how he uses long
takes. Nevertheless, I think what Robin tends to do is to look at
style, look at character particularly as a narrative function -
character in relationship to some larger conceptions of how narrative
works – but then I think he moves to the hermeneutic model.* In
the old days, his explanations were tied to authorial vision, to
conceptions of order and disorder as they ran through the work of,
say, a Hitchcock or an Arthur Penn. Now in a way he is still interested
in order and disorder but from a more ideological perspective. I
regard Robin Wood as a very brilliant practical critic. He’s someone
who looks very sensitively at movies. He is passionate about works
and he wants to write about the works that move and intrigue him
but I think he backs away from a systematic formulization of his
perspective except in so far as it has some political dimension.
* For an example of this move in Wood’s work,
see his interpretation of Ophulsian camera movement in “Ewig hin
der Liebe Glück,” in Personal Views: Explorations in Film
(London: Gordon Fraser, 1976).
My own view is that there is more to be done before
one plays the hermeneutic card. I would like to have a set of concepts
that are clear and fairly well-defined and see how much one can
squeeze out of them at various levels. So for instance… if you
think about the idea of personalized causality in the classical
studio era. That is a pretty obvious observation and the concept
itself is not very elaborated but once you start to work on just
that, you start to think “how many aspects of the film seem
to depend upon a conception of causal connection – particularly
manifested in terms of personal interaction?” A great deal of the
film is explicable that way – principles of construction of the
film are explicable that way - so that you can even get down to
transitions between scenes: dialogue hooks, dangling causes etc.
So my sense is that Robin Wood is not really interested in those
questions. He is not interested in what we might call the constructional
principles of works. He is more interested, I think, in particular
works and what he can find in them in terms of a critique of what
he takes to be dominant ideology. And that’s fine, that’s perfectly
legitimate but it is not the same kinds of questions that I’m trying
to pose with this idea of a poetics of cinema.
- - - - -
Part II of the interview
concerns the functions of film style. It will appear in 16:9,
# 8 – to be issued on our website September 16th 2004.
Bordwell also mentions Kristin
Thompson’s book Storytelling in the New Hollywood (Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1999) as “a good example of how you can
take a cluster of fairly straightforward concepts and see how much
you can wring out of them in terms of critical tools that allow
you to explain the architecture of a wide variety of films - to
explain them in a functional sense.”
References to Bordwell-publications:
Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989).
Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies, edited
by David Bordwell and Noël Carroll (Madison: University
of Wisconsin Press, 1996).
“Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious” in Film Heritage,
vol. 4, no. 3 (Spring 1969): 6-10.
“Up Close and Impersonal: Hal Hartley og Traditionens
Vedholdenhed.” 16:9, no. 7 (www.16-9.dk).
Not yet published in English. For a German version of
the essay see Double Reflections, ed. Johann
Schmidt, Malte Hagener, and Michael Wedel (Berlin: Bertz
Narration in the Fiction Film (Madison: University
of Wisconsin Press; London: Methuen, 1985).
“Transcultural Spaces: Toward a Poetics of Chinese
Film.” Post Script, vol. 20, no. 2 and 3 (2001):
“Lowering the Stakes: Prospects for a Historical Poetics
of Cinema.” Iris, no. 1 (1983): 5-18.
For a full list of Bordwell’s publications see: www.davidbordwell.net/cv.htm
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