in English: Bordwell on Bordwell: Part IV - Levels of Engagement
Af JAKOB ISAK NIELSEN
Many of the concepts and practices presented in books authored or
co-authored by David Bordwell have become part of a theoretical
canon in film criticism and film academia. One of his most influential
books is Narration in the Fiction Film and one of the most
influential concepts in that book is the recasting of the formalist
terms syuzhet (plot) and fabula (story) into a mold that incorporates
the viewer's cognitive activity. Generally speaking, the cognitive
perspective is the central reason for the prefix neo- in
the research perspective that has come to be known as neoformalism.
Film style is also accounted for in the "master" schemas of film
form as they are presented in Narration in the Fiction Film
as well as in Kristin Thompson and Bordwell's central text book
Film Art: An Introduction.
The model of Film Form in Film Art:
Film as Phenomenal Process in Narration
in the Fiction Film.
However, Narration in the Fiction Film was written more
than 20 years ago and the first edition of Film Art dates
back even further. This final part of our interview series takes
its vantage point in a question many prominent scholars have been
asked about their earlier work: "Do you still agree with you?" In
light of his recent work on film style and stylistics, we ask Bordwell
whether or not he has found reason to adjust his views on the formal
system of film.
- - -
My first question concerns your views on syuzhet and style
and whether or not they have changed over the years. [Nielsen and
Bordwell look at figure 1 and 2 from Film Art: an Introduction and
Narration in the Fiction Film respectively]. When reading sections
of your forthcoming book like this "Style is the tangible texture
of the film, the perceptual surface we encounter as we watch and
listen, and that surface is our point of departure in moving to
plot, theme, feeling--everything else that matters to us" I can't
help but wonder whether or not you are approaching a position where
style is seen as something that shapes rather than reflects or interacts
with narrative. Or is it just a question of rhetoric?
That's exactly what it is. It's a façon de parler. It's
introducing the spectator or reader who may not have read these
things to this idea. My first approximation is "let's look at the
surface of the work." Now, I'm going to go on and argue that that
surface is organized in elaborate ways but I simply wanted to call
attention to the fact that all the things that film scholars and
critics care about depend on - are starting with - the texture of
the work. Our elaborations go far, far beyond what we're given,
but we are given something. That's where I wanted to start
and just explain that concept of style. That's just the lead-in.
Once we get into it, the argument would be that style is organized
and patterned. It's not just the surface of the work but the principles
of the surface's arrangement.
Are you still in agreement with these "master" schemas?
Click to read Part I, II and III of the interview
on Bordwell - Part I
Bordwell on Bordwell -
Bordwell on Bordwell -
Well, the one in Narration in the Fiction Film.
That book was written in 1983 and people were still talking about
cinematic excess, which Kristin [Thompson] and others have written
about. If I were to do it over again, I'd just ignore it. I think
that this has been a dead-end: the issue of whether or not there
are things at the surface level of the film that aren't organized,
that just give you a buzz or aren't patterned in any way, maybe
even looking at the surface as an abstraction the way Von Sternberg
said "you can project my films upside-down and they'd still be beautiful."
[laughs] "They're just patterns of light and dark." In the air of
post-structuralism people began to think "oh, this is a cool idea,"
but it is an empty idea in my way of thinking. I don't think there
is much to be said about it.
As to the relationship of style versus the narrative system
I suppose it is a matter of commentative versus expressive heuristics.
|| * With regards to narrative film
the distinction can be summed up approximately like this: commentative
heuristics can be said to be an explanatory procedure arguing that
the style of a film shapes its narrative structure and subject matter
whereas expressive heuristics argues that narrative and subject matter
determine the style of the film.
Yes, I think that's right. To me this represents
a simple way to think about style. Again it's a way of aiming rhetorically
at people who know nothing about style - even in literature or music
or style in painting. So one way to look at it is to say: "okay,
there are two levels of organization of a film." One level is action-based
with agents and situations and the activities they pursue and so
forth. This is an overarching formal system, and narrative is one
of these formal systems. *Another level is the audio-visual patterning
of the film itself. And the two mesh. There is a coincidence between
them. That is, the way you organize the texture of the film medium
is connected to the organization of this large-scale formal entity
you have, be it narrative or non-narrative. That's all I'm trying
to introduce with this schema: the idea that there are two levels
of organization. If students nowadays had what I consider really
sound literary educations and education in aesthetics it wouldn't
be necessary but since hermeneutics has taken over every level of
education it is something that you have to tell students about.
Are you approaching a position that Noël Burch opens the way
for: that style shapes narrative and not vice versa. If we postulate
for instance that we will make a film that starts with 10-second
long shots and ends with 2-second close ups.
Well, I think in some traditions style does. That's where I would
back off to the historical poetics position and say: "in some traditions
it can, certainly in the avant-garde tradition in America
and other countries it has." And I would say that there are traditions
in which the texture of the work plays a constitutive role in the
work to a greater degree and other traditions where it really is
It becomes a question of which paradigm we're looking at?
Exactly! What historical norms have been erected around this? Burch
was - I think - very, very important and I regard him as a key film
theorist though a lot of people disagree. I think he is very important
at that stage in his career because he calls our attention to this.
Something that, again, is commonplace in, say, music, which is his
master metaphor. When you have Alban Berg writing Woyzeck
or Lulu: in organizing the musical texture of the piece,
he then uses certain stylistic parameters as the basis for
the dramatic texture of the piece. That's a very profound
insight and it does capture the way some things work. It
also ties into the possibility that once we recognize this relation
which Burch points out we can recognize the decorative functions
of style more easily.
|| * Other formal systems include
rhetorical, categorical, abstract, and associational form.
Yes, style becomes more visible. I'm a little
bit surprised by how closely you relate Burch's parameters to the
decorative functions of style. To me your description of
the decorative functions of style almost sounds as a description
of parametric narration.
I would argue that parametric narration is a highly self-conscious
and organized use of the decorative or ornamental function of style.
That is, you can have style performing decoratively in one-off occasions.
I think of Busby Berkeley-films for instance where it is just there
for the moment and then it's gone and you go back to the ordinary
story. And I don't think you want to argue that Busby Berkeley-films
have parametric narration. They are taking the conventions of the
musical and on one little occasion or another in the film elaborating
a very simple musical number into highly artistic and complex visual
patterning that I would say is functioning decoratively. The camerawork
and the compositions of those scenes are decoratively designed.
They do not especially express the music; they don't have much to
do with the characters.
It's aesthetically pleasing.
It's aesthetically pleasing
and decoration is. If you think of decoration in all cultures, it
takes a functional object that is used for other purposes and embroiders
it. So you have a jug. The jug's purpose is to carry water but why
would anyone then paint a zig-zag pattern on the jug? Well, it's
aesthetically pleasing! It doesn't have anything to do with the
water; it doesn't represent the water or the ritual functions of
the jug in society. Well, it might have but it wouldn't have to.
It's aesthetically pleasing and then someone sees it and says: "I
can do that better and I have a jug here that I'm going to paint
differently." And so the standard patterns of artistic creativity
emerge: recognition, discovery and competition.
So it's very deep-seated, maybe one of the earliest functions
that style performs. What I want to argue is that we can have decoration
within a narrative film. True, there are some films that are decorative
.without being rooted in a narrative.
.right, without being rooted in a narrative tradition. But in
a narrative film you can have a decorative level of style there
too - either as a one-off thing as with Berkeley or a more complex
case with parametric narration. So parametric narration for me becomes
a case where the decorative function of style has become part of
the whole film's organizing principles.
I guess there are two maybe even three positions at work within
I am not sure we can split them. That would have to be explored
more. It's possible that if you start to look at films from this
perspective you might discover that the decorative aspect is more
pervasive in films.
|| * See also Bordwell's ealier description
of the decorative function of film style in Bordwell
on Bordwell - Part II.
Yes, what I was getting at with regards to
a further complication of the decorative category is that, for instance,
many aesthetically pleasing camera movements can also be said to
serve narrative functions even if it is only a matter of expressing
the feelingful quality or mood of a scene:* For instance, the tracking
shots in the ballroom-scene in The Magnificent Ambersons or
Ophuls' rhythmic long takes. So the decorative aspect need not exist
independently of a narrative function but is also something that
can be built on top of it. A camera movement can both be compositionally
motivated according to narrative demands and at the same time be
visually appealing in itself?
Exactly, that's right but there has to be a level of awareness
of patterning for decorative to work. When you walk into a room
and say "it's beautifully decorated," you're aware of the juxtaposition
of the various parts. Or if you look at the tiling on the floor,
which is a classic case of decoration, and you register it as an
aesthetic statement. I think that level of awareness has to be there
for it to be decorative.
||* What Bordwell would term "the
expressive function of film style." See Bordwell
on Bordwell - Part II.
In film studies we would look at our most stylized
genres - melodrama, the musical and such places - for narrative
cinema's decorative impulses. I also think it can oscillate. It's
complicated because there is a long tradition of camera movements
being used purely as flourishes but if you think of a film like
Magnolia, at a certain point I would say that the camera movements
in general take on a decorative dimension. For instance, we have
two characters talking to one another and the camera is moving in
time to the music. bum-ba-da-ba-da-bum. that kind of musical pattern
and the camera is moving slowly in on one character and then it
moves slowly in on the other character and then slowly in on the
first again. And after a while you become very aware of the juxtaposition
of these two camera movements in time to the music. It's definitely
expressive - though it's hard to say exactly what it is expressing
- and you could argue that to some degree it's denotative because
it's giving us closer views of the character's facial expressions
but it is somewhat beyond what is necessary according to the minimal
norms of denotation and expression. It's a little more than you'd
need and so you begin to think "okay," and then you begin to realize
that it's this harmonization. There's an actual audio-visual harmony
in terms of the rhythms of the camera movements and the rhythm of
the music and the timing of the cuts.
I haven't analyzed the film in detail yet so it's up to you and
others to do this [laughs] but I have a hunch that there is a decorative
dimension to those camera movements in Magnolia by virtue of the
fact that they're so strictly repeated symmetrically and because
of the fact that they are tied to the music. You cannot but become
aware of them to a degree that you are not of the patterning in
Die Hard when we track in on Bruce Willis as a new line of dialogue
gives him a new piece of information. That's an intensifier, that's
a denotative-expressive intensifier I would say. But when you start
to have these symmetrical movements that are so closely timed to
the music, I begin to think it has lifted up that intensifier another
level to something more decorative.
This analysis allows you to move to interpretive possibilities
because there's almost a kind of inevitability to this and so much
of this film is about the inevitability of chance. It's going to
happen, sooner or later, that these incredibly weird coincidences
will take place, just by random variation. Sometimes it just turns
out that if you dial a random number it turns out to be 1-0-0-0-0.
What are the chances of that? Well, exactly the same as dialing
any other configuration. It's just that the meaningful configurations
pop out at you as somehow over-determined but they are just as randomly
selected as any other and I think that part of this film works to
make us aware of the interplay of pattern and accident. By suddenly
seeing a patterning of these very common devices of the camera moving
in, we suddenly become aware of the aesthetic patterning of the
work as a whole. We're starting to see that at the very fine-grain
of each scene there is a kind of visual design that is mirrored
by the larger convergence of all these characters' fates around
a single event.
In a sense the decorative function takes you beyond or outside
the diegetic world, doesn't it?
Well, it could, yeah, yeah. What I was trying to
capture with my Ozu-examples* was that you're in the diegetic world
because you're getting this information but the patterning makes
you highly aware of the artifice of the whole thing so in a way
you are outside of the diegetic world too. But you're appreciating
the artistry of it just as when you are looking at the design of
It's a different type of appreciation though.
A different level of engagement, I would say. You're engaging
not just with the story but also with the artifice of composing
the story. And we can conclude with this perhaps: what I consider
to be one of the biggest mistakes of film theory - of contemporary
film theory - is to feel that there is this notion that either you're
immersed within the world of the story and you take it as an illusion
and you're completely unaware of its design or you're outside looking
critically as a Brechtian spectator. This is far too simple. We
have always been both. In classical cinema characters turned to
look at the camera; the end of the film had people turn away from
us. I mean, classical cinema is built on a high degree of overt
narration and that's part of its interest for audiences. That's
a level at which they interact with the film just as much as when
they feel with a character or feel sympathetic or whatever. Classical
cinema - in fact, all cinematic traditions - build into their concern
an appreciation of their own artifice. This is not some special
thing theorists need to tell us about. This is something audiences
have always been aware of and always enjoyed in all filmmaking traditions.
And the issue is not whether we're inside or outside the narrative
but rather the relationships between the kinds of narratives we
have and the kinds of conceptions we have of being appreciative
of the artifice. For instance, appreciating Ozu's artifice is not
the same as appreciating Minnelli's artifice or Hitchcock's artifice.
It's not a question of transparency or illusion on the one hand
and detachment on the other.
It would be more worthwhile to account for the many different
types and levels of engagement?
|| * See Bordwell
on Bordwell - Part II.
Part I-III of the interview series:
on Bordwell - Part I
on Bordwell - Part II
on Bordwell - Part III
The schemas can be found in:
Bordwell, David: Narration in the Fiction Film
(London: Routledge, 1995): 50. First published in the
United States of America by The University of Wisconsin
Bordwell, David; Thompson, Kristin: Film Art: An
Introduction, 7th edition (New York:
McGraw-Hill, 2004): 175. First edition published in
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