16:9 in English:
Bordwell on Bordwell: Part III - Writing On Film Style
By JAKOB ISAK NIELSEN
This is the third installment of Jakob Isak Nielsen's interview
with David Bordwell. Part II of the interview concluded with a discussion
of Bordwell's views on transcultural functions of style. Part III
picks up the thread, yet changes the perspective somewhat by moving
on to a discussion of how Bordwell himself writes about film style
and how he encourages others to do so. Click
here to read Part I of the interview. Click
here to read Part II.
- - -
Both in On the History of Film Style and your
new book* you anticipate one of the objections that have been raised
about your inquiry into style. Namely, that it is trite and hollow
formalism that remains agnostic about ideological or political content
and ties to the culture at large. By limiting your focus to the
denotative functions of style, some would say that you have made
it even harder for your approach to yield interesting results. But
one of the main tasks that you have taken upon yourself is to prove
that a poetics of cinema need not be trite and hollow. Most will
agree that you have succeeded but it is also clear that you are
encouraging others to join you in the endeavor. It seems to me that
you have chosen one of two strategies in buffing up your claims
A) You have tackled stylistically idiosyncratic directors:
Dreyer, Ozu, Feuillade, Mizoguchi, Hou, Angelopoulos and most recently
B) You have built up claims about the stylistic norms - often
transcultural norms - of a large group of films: Japanese cinema,
Chinese cinema, Hong Kong cinema, an international tradition of
depth staging from 1908-20, contemporary Hollywood and classical
Hollywood cinema for instance.
Naturally, others could follow in your footsteps and fill out
the gaps within these two categories but what other types of inquiry
could be well suited for the poetics approach?
Let me just back up first. I wouldn't say that I was only concerned
with the denotative functions of style. Again it is a matter of
seeing how much I can squeeze out of a single concept. I'm interested
in the expressive functions, I'm interested in the decorative functions
and so on but I would distinguish between projects which are trying
to trace particular techniques or stylistic devices across history
from projects that are interested in other kinds of units like,
say, the work of a single director. I think there is a great deal
of work to be done at that second level.
I also think there is a great deal of work to be done studying
particular directors. None of my books on stylistics or poetics
in general have really plumbed the depths of what particular directors
do. I have written books on particular directors and there I try
to be as comprehensive as I can but when I write about, say, depth
in cinema or ensemble staging in this new book, I am only talking
about a rather narrow part of each director's oeuvre. I don't claim
to have a definitive take on Feuillade or Mizoguchi or Hou or Angelopoulos.
I'm just interested in how they relate - on this dimension - to
a tradition. There are so many filmmakers that you could do very
interesting studies of within this perspective of poetics. How do
they use certain kinds of historical material in their films, how
do they bring the thematics of their cultural inputs into the film?
How do the films participate in wider patterns of comprehension?
How are Iranian films - say Kiarostami films - taken up by certain
reading communities? I think there is a huge amount of work to be
done at the level of individual directors.
I also think - to go back to the earlier point about certain stylistic
choices - that . what I've tried to do in a very gross way is to
map a menu of options that seem to be existing in, say, classical
Hollywood cinema at a certain point, Japanese cinema at a certain
point. Those of course demand more refinement. They are just approximations.
So I think particular devices could be studied more thoroughly.
We still lack a comprehensive account of color in film, we lack
a comprehensive account of camera movement, we lack a comprehensive
account of many, many aspects of sound. I have put these particular
stylistic devices into an ensemble and said: "well, you can do this
and you can do that, and when you do this maybe that follows." But
we don't have a really solid history of most cinematic figures.
We don't even have a study of the history of lighting, something
that is so essential to all films - or even a portion of that history,
say, lighting in the classical Hollywood cinema or the 30s even.
If you actually go on a set, a lot of the time is spent on lighting.
It is certainly one of the hardest things for young filmmakers to
learn and I think most people in film studies are really quite ignorant
of the history of lighting and of the particular practices that
filmmakers use in lighting. So there is a huge amount of work to
be done on these particular technologies or these particular techniques.
|| * Figures Traced in
Light, forthcoming from The University of California Press. You
can pre-order the book here.
Again, it would be wonderful if they could be comparative
in terms of periods; of how lighting changes between the 20s and
the 30s in American studios; or across different cultures: how German
lighting was different from American lighting in the 1920s or how
widescreen cinema varies its use in Japan as opposed to the United
States. If you look at the 1950s, Japanese cinema is using the widescreen
in ways that no one ever thought of using it in the 1950s in Hollywood.
You look at films by Kurosawa like Hidden Fortress and you wonder
"how is it possible for them to get this shot? This couldn't have
been done in Hollywood. What lenses are they using? How are they
able to do this?" I don't have an answer to those questions but
it's clear if you just look at these films that there is an enormous
amount of innovation going on at the level of composition in the
widescreen in Japan and I presume in other cultures as well. So
we're actually just beginning. There is an enormous amount of work
to be done. Now, there is a lot of value in having someone like
Barry Salt* combing through the literature, watching as many films
as he can and coming up with or starting to observe some patterns.
Still, this work isn't informed by a central question. It isn't
informed by a research question, it is a compendium or compilation
of information and with some of the information we don't know where
it comes from. It's useful but I think now is the time for people
to ask more focused and precise research questions and then use
those kinds of resources to explore them. I've always been a purist
about watching films on film and so forth but now with DVD it is
a quantum jump above videotape. It is a huge change because now
many films that I couldn't study.
Widescreen films .
Particularly widescreen films, particularly color films. It would
be completely different now to write a book like The Classical Hollywood
Cinema. It would be at once easier and more difficult. It would
be easier because a great many of these films are now available
in one video format or another. It would be more difficult, I think,
because you would be constantly feeling that you would need to see
everything [laughs]. "Well, my sample is quite limited. Maybe I
should sit down and watch all these films on Turner Classic Movies
for the next two months?" It would be an abyss. When we all wrote
books before the Internet, it was useful to have limited information.
Now we have too much information so we can't write [laughs]. All
these things were squirreled away at archives or were just never
available. You never had access to people who knew lots and lots
of things but now you put something on the Internet and twelve experts
will respond. It's much more exciting and more interesting and now
is a good time to launch this kind of project because more and more
material is becoming available and we can do more fine-grained research.
I guess what I'm saying is that I don't regard those strategies
that you sketched as foreclosing research. I think it is really
an attempt to open some doors for others to see that there is a
huge amount of material out there if we ask these kinds of questions.
|| * See for instance Film Style
and Technology: History and Analysis, 2nd edition (London: Starword,
1992). For a recent article, see "The Shape of 1999" in
New Review of Film and Television Studies (vol. 2, no. 1,
Behind your question earlier though was the idea
of postponing the ideological or political dimension of the films.
My feeling is that research proceeds from many motives and there
is nothing wrong with partisan scholarship. It's fine if people
want to produce an ideological critique of cinema or aspects of
cinema. My only concern is that it be scholarship and that it follow
principles of rational empirical inquiry. To me, producing another
ideological reading of a single film in terms of the cold war or
in terms of a Zeitgeist or so forth is just not something I want
to pursue because, frankly, I think we know how to produce ideological
readings of films. Some people do it well, some do it less well
but we don't know a lot about a huge number of other things. And
since I regard scholarship as the production of knowledge I think
those should also be pursued instead.
In your work - even on individual film directors and even
on individual films - you bring in a larger stylistic paradigm instead
of, say, an ideological framework. Even when you write on Feuillade
or Hal Hartley your analyses are more or less directly set up against
a broader paradigm of filmmaking.
Yes, but I do think that stylistics and more broadly poetics have
always been comparative. First of all, if you think back to literary
stylisticians like Leo Spitzer or Roman Jakobson, they are always
looking at a particular stylistic choice, seeing it as an option
- what could've been done but wasn't done. But when you start to
imagine those virtual alternatives, you start to conjure up a different
sort of poem, a different sort of artistic project. And I think
that one of the advantages of historical poetics in the literary
field - or in musicology, or art history - is that they had a very
firm documentary base. They understood what works had influenced
other works - what works were present in the consciousness of writers
- so that writers themselves often are seen as writing with or against
or both with and against a tradition.
A presupposition of a lot of poetics is that writers work in a
kind of milieu where they are responding to other writers either
by influence or rejection or by modification. Now there is one form
of poetics - this is a good example of talking about diversity within
this framework - that is very object-centered and I would say the
later Jakobson is an example of this. The later Jakobson looks at
the poem and the relevant comparison class is the grammar of the
language and not what the poet's tradition was or what the poet's
own milieu was or anything like that but rather: "Given the grammatical
structure here, what are the semantic differences in these choices?"
The relevant comparison class then becomes the syntax of the language.
Whereas if you take the Russian formalists of the 1920s, when they
made a stylistic or formal analysis they were always concerned with.
"well, within this tradition in which the poet was writing,
what were the preferred alternatives, what were the norms?"
Now Jakobson of course comes out of that formalist Russian - or
Slavic - tradition and he went much more toward what I would call
structuralist poetics. But in his early days, he too was interested
in those kinds of comparison classes. His essay on the Dominant
comes out of this concern for structure of the work as inheriting
patterns of composition from other traditions. I think there are
different ways to go on this but I do think that poetics in general
- and stylistics in particular - tend to be very comparative. And
a historical poetics tries to find plausible and pertinent comparison
classes for the work of art at hand.
||"Ideology doesn't turn on the camera!"
If I know that Hartley has seen films by Godard
and Antonioni and in some sense sees his work as related to those
traditions - either by extension or revision - then I'm going to
look at Antonioni and Godard as possibly having affinities with
Hartley. In the case of the piece on Hartley that you're mentioning,*
I saw those even not knowing that. I saw the first Hartley films
and went "Oh, this is like late Godard." And then when I saw certain
scenes I thought there could be something related to Antonioni.
So I asked him [laughs] - fortunately he was alive [laughs] - and
he said "Yes." Even if it turned out that there was no influence,
it's useful heuristically or pedagogically to point these out. Even
if he wasn't influenced by Antonioni, we see here two ways of handling
dramatic space and actors moving through a dramatic space. Those
two options are creative choices - maybe even subconscious choices
- made on the part of the filmmaker. I guess there are two advantages
of comparison. One is that it could actually be an historically
appropriate comparison and the second is that even if it turns out
to be far-fetched, at least it has a pedagogical or discovery value.
It can be illuminating: "Oh, I never noticed that about Antonioni
before, about how his characters really don't ever look at each
other - except at certain key moments." It just funds your greater
appreciation of the film.
This also tends to set the poetics approach apart from the hermeneutic
approach. At least I assume that one of the reasons why many scholars
or critics have favored the expressive and symbolic functions of
film style (and implicit and symptomatic meanings) is that it can
enrich - or in some scholars' view mystify - the interpretation
of individual films. For most scholars it would take years and years
to build up a conception of the stylistic paradigm within which
a film is made. So working within the hermeneutic tradition it would
be more likely that you take a single film and then build upon that.
I think that's right. At lot depends on what your questions are.
For practical criticism I think interpretation is indispensable.
I think if you are going to talk of a particular film or filmmaker,
you want to know that work as intimately as possible. You want to
absorb that work as fully as you can to remain alive to all its
possibilities and I think you have to be interpretive as well as
analytical. If you want to know certain aspects of the work
better, I think the poetics approach is more suitable.
I wouldn't say that poetics is harder but it does require
more in-depth research. One of the advantages of the hermeneutic
approach is that it allows you to read broadly and generally about
certain interpretive strategies and then you can pretty much apply
them with refinements and adjustments to particular films. I know
that sounds like a terribly mechanistic way of doing it but I think
that much interpretation is mechanistic in just this way. One of
the reasons that I think fewer scholars pick up the poetics perspective
and try to develop it is because it seems focused on minutia or
triviality. It inquires into highly esoteric issues and I have to
say it parallels the standing of stylistics and poetics in literary
In literary studies you don't get any mileage or traction for being
a stylistician [laughs]. You have to be an interpreter. You have
to be a Frederic Jameson; you have to be an Edward Said; you have
to be a Gayatri Spivak. You have to be a hermeneut. That's just
the way that community organizes itself and the contrast, I suppose,
would be art history or musicology where the hermeneutic turn has
come much later.
I would like for us to discuss how your conception of a poetics
of cinema hooks up with your views on interpretation and meaning
as set forth in your 1989-book Making Meaning. In that book
you delineate four different types of meaning: referential meaning,
explicit meaning, implicit meaning and symptomatic meaning.
You argue that the making of implicit and symptomatic meanings
is an act of interpretation whereas the making of referential and
explicit meaning is an act of analysis.
Yes, or comprehension. The uptake of them is comprehension but
for film analysis, I think we start with those two, yes.
Can we hook this up to your inquiry into matters of style?
Yes, I think so. What a lot of stylistics in the hermeneutic tradition
turns out to be about is looking for implicit and symptomatic meanings.
When trying to attach symbolic meanings to certain configurations
of shots or certain images or materials in the shots, we'll
either say "well, implicit meaning is in some sense volitional."
We postulate that the filmmaker is voluntarily creating this meaning
for us. Or it's symptomatic in that it may be involuntary but nevertheless
tells us something about this filmmaker or the social milieu or
the broader worldview that the filmmaker subscribes to. To my way
of thinking, the hermeneutic tradition is very much about looking
for the symbolic dimension of style and about reading that symbolic
dimension either implicitly or symptomatically. Whereas the kind
of stylistics that I'm proposing by concentrating on denotation
and then secondarily on expression and decoration says "actually
referential meaning matters a lot." The construction of referential
meaning - the construction of the story space, the character's mental
states and things like that - is a large part of the business that
filmmakers concentrate on. And so we ought to expect that the kind
of meanings that we're focusing on for stylistics would start there.
It's a kind of bridgehead or benchmark, or point of departure I
think, for the others.
So I suppose the hypothesis would be somewhat like this: "Through
analysis or comprehension - and not interpretation - of the denotative
functions of style we can construct referential and explicit meanings"?
At least that seems to be the approach you are suggesting.
On the other hand, meaning does not always seem to be the deliberate
end-point for you.
Well, I take meaning in this very gross sense. I would say that
there are abstract meanings and concrete meanings. Within the cognitive
perspective that the Making Meaning-book sets out the assumption
is that we all make meaning through inferential elaboration and
that we have some pretty low-level inferences and that we have some
pretty high-level inferences. A low-level inference is "this is
a man talking to a woman; they are in conflict; they are in a room."
These are so primary that we don't even think about them. A high-level
of elaborate inference would be "he represents the phallus." There
is a huge spectrum in-between those two things and those layers
are what I'd like to get at. In that book suggesting that in a way
a poetic-centered approach - though I argue at the end that a poetics
approach is complimentary to hermeneutics - a poetic-centered approach
can also shed light on hermeneutics. In a way what I try
to do in that was to produce a poetics of cinematic hermeneutics
[laughs]: what are the purposes and functions?; what are the norms?;
what are the standard practices?; what are the standard moves that
people make?; how do they set this out in style?; how do they use
rhetoric? In other words, what are the commonplaces or taken-for-granted
resources of interpretation of films?
In a sense that is very parallel to looking at a historical poetics:
"what are the norms?; what are filmmakers doing automatically; how
are these regularities that we find in the films connected to the
concrete practices and the like?" It sounds too fancy but I basically
would like to say that the hermeneutic approach is a cognitive activity:
people use their minds to do it. It is also a linguistic activity:
people use language to do it. And we can study those two activities
as, indeed, cognitive and linguistic tasks. And Making
Meaning is my attempt to study them as tasks within a certain
institution that developed largely in Western film criticism. There
may be other ways to understand these tasks but interestingly enough
I haven't seen anybody else counter this position. I've heard people
rejecting it but I haven't seen anyone actually say "no,
it isn't a cognitive task; no, it isn't taking place within institutions;
no, it isn't a matter of a combination of rhetoric and construction
of meaning." I would say that most film scholars nowadays are constructivists
when it comes to meaning and here I propose a constructivist account
of interpretation and I'm surprised that people have not either
said "yes, that seems to be pretty much what we do" or "no, it's
not what we do. Here's really what we do." It's odd and I think
the fact that I was critical of the repetitiveness of contemporary
academic interpretation has taken the center rather than
my - I thought - neutral and fairly objective analysis of all types
of cinematic interpretation: academic, journalistic, pedagogical
or whatever. That, I think, is the nexus of my case. The fact that
I think that academic interpretation is very routine is my own view,
my own opinion. You can accept it or reject it but the account
I give, the explanation I try to give, of how interpretation
works is detachable from that.
- - -
In the next and final
part of the interview, Nielsen asks Bordwell if he is still
in agreement with his views on narration and style as presented
in Narration in the Fiction Film (1985). This initial question
leads on to a discussion of the decorative function of film style,
the concept of excess and, ultimately, the levels at which viewers
engage with films.
||* The essay on Hartley is published
in Danish in 16:9, #7, and and in English in 16:9, #12.
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