David Bordwell is undeniably one of the great “quantitative” critics in the world, one of those writers who trust strongly in common sense and what is in front of his eyes, and yet to call Bordwell a critic seems like a misnomer. Though you’ll find plenty examples of Bordwell’s cinematic recommendations, we might wonder exactly what that recommendation would consist of. Is a film great because it has an average shot length of 15 seconds, or because it fits neatly into a system of norms, or because it uses a high number of compass point shots: shots that reverse the angle from one shot to the next to 180 degrees? Indeed is the idea of a quantitative critic a contradiction in terms, and do we not want from a critic qualitative judgement over quantitative fact? Now this judgement is not at all opinion, and we might be reminded here of Gilles Deleuze’s useful comment in Negotiations where he says “concepts are what stops thought being a mere opinion, a view, an exchange of views, gossip.” (1) Conceptual thinking can elevate judgement, can make one’s response singular: it can be rigorously self-assertive but not at all a mere or humble opinion. The best critics basically conceptualise their opinions, finding in their instinctual response various principles for taking the work personally: perhaps none more so than André Bazin, whom many would still regard as cinema’s most important critic. Bordwell rarely offers this assertive conceptualising, so that the gap between his opinion on a film and his analysis of a film seems too far adrift to take him seriously as a critic; yet at the same time he is a very important figure whose analysis of film could – if critics were more willing to absorb some of the formal observations he makes – contribute to much better criticism.
This might seem a needless paradox: Bordwell is himself not much of a critic but he can usefully contribute to the betterment of criticism. Perhaps a look at the new book Minding Movies, based on Bordwell’s and his wife Kristin Thompson’s blog, can help us show that it needn’t be much of a paradox at all. In a number of essays, one or the other picks apart articles written by journalists that make claims Bordwell and Thompson think are poorly argued and consequently invalid. In one blog entry reproduced here, “Don’t Knock the Blockbusters”, Thompson wonders – as she compares the prototype to a film’s negative – when was “the last time you heard someone complaining about the high cost of the latest Toyota prototype?” (p. 46). As Thompson notes, “for some reason, the cost of making that negative is often public knowledge” (p. 46) and she goes on to explain why: “The notion that a movie sets its company back by $200 million can be a selling point.” (p. 46) Thompson then explores why so many of today’s blockbusters are so expensive: “the key factors have been star salaries and computer generated special effects.” (p. 47) “Yes”, she says, “it may sound absurd that it requires $200 million to make a movie, especially one that gets mediocre reviews from critics and fans. Still, from a business point of view, it makes sense and is good for the country.” (p. 49) It is the sort of argument that counters well many a lazy argument about Hollywood profligacy as she looks at the fortunes many of these mega-budgeted films have made at the foreign box office, but it still seems somehow a corrective to mediocre articles rather than a fine piece in itself. It may force the critics to think through their articles more carefully, but maybe the underlying instinct for writing these negative pieces about Hollywood is that the point is still valid; just that the conclusions the writers arrive at are too hastily offered. One reason why writers will be commissioned to produce such articles is the perfectly reasonable assumption that many people have a problem with big-budget, empty-headed blockbusters. Bordwell and Thompson are good on the laziness of the research, but they still often seem to leave the question that prompted the debate untouched. Bordwell and Thompson can improve criticism in the sense that they demand these articles be far more detailed in their research and judicious in their argument, but their responses are themselves often not works of criticism.
We notice this in a Bordwell article on sequels, “Live with It! There’ll Always be Movie Sequels”. In this roundtable discussion with other writers, Bordwell argues that there are lots of good follow-ups, citing Aliens (James Cameron, 1986), Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980), Toy Story 2 (John Lasseter, 1999),and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Steven Spielberg, 1989). “[W]e have art-house examples too,” he continues, “provided by Satyajit Ray (Apparajito  and The World of Apu ), [Ingmar] Bergman (Saraband  as a sequel to Scenes from a Marriage ) and [François] Truffaut (the Antoine Doinel films).” (p. 13) Again what we have here is a piece that can counter the easy article about a glut of sequels impoverishing cinema, without quite answering the problem that we have with a sequel culture. Part of the problem, of course, resides in Bordwell’s easy transition from Hollywood sequel to semi-autobiographical exploration, from a cinema of franchise to a cinema of self-expression. Ray, Truffaut, Bergman and others appear to be exploring aspects of being and society through their work; Spielberg, George Lucas and others offering an updated, expanded product. In this sense, sequel culture in mainstream cinema seems closer to technological innovation: a commercial need to keep visible an already established product. Could we say the same of Truffaut et al? No doubt there are commercial imperatives behind art-house choices, but how useful is it to compare Bergman’s Scenes from the Marriage and Saraband to, say, Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg, 1981) and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Spielberg, 1984), or Lethal Weapon (Richard Donner, 1987) and Lethal Weapon 2 (Donner, 1989)? Unequivocally, all three originals are clearly offering follow-ups, but where the word sequel seems unproblematic and clear in Spielberg’s and Donner’s case, it feels inappropriate in Bergman’s. Often in Bordwell’s work there is this categorical claim that is utterly legitimate logically, but curiously misses the point aesthetically. The roundtable discussion on sequels that Bordwell initiates, like Thompson’s article on the blockbuster, usefully removes ready assumption (the sequel isn’t only a Hollywood game), but opens the question to further debate. It is here again where a critic can absorb Bordwell’s counter-arguments and move towards a complex synthesis of why art cinema also offers sequels, and yet why they aren’t sequels in the manner of the Hollywood films.
It may seem unfair to say that Bordwell misses the point aesthetically; few writers on film have been more attentive to the form. When Susan Sontag suggested in an interview with Evans Chan that she had reservations with Fredric Jameson’s use of the term postmodernism, it was because she felt he was interested in philosophy more than art:
He’s interested in ideas. If he cared about literature he wouldn’t have quoted – at great length – Norman Mailer. While you illustrate your ideas with quotations from novels, you’re also implicitly suggesting to people that they read these books. I think that either Jameson doesn’t know that Mailer isn’t a very good writer, or that he doesn’t care. (2)
The sort of problem Sontag has with Jameson is, of course, the very argument Bordwell has with anyone from Slavoj Žižek to Jacques Lacan, evident in a comment he makes on his blog (but not in the book) that echoes directly Sontag’s: “Most of FRT [Zizek’s The Fright of Real Tears] offers standard film criticism, providing impressionistic readings of various [Krzysztof] Kieslowski films in regard to recurring themes, visual motifs, dramatic structures, borrowed philosophical concepts, and the like.” (3) What it doesn’t do is concern itself enough with the form of the film: the aesthetics, or – a word Bordwell prefers and that echoes back to Aristotle – the poetics of film. But perhaps it is this very concern with the poetics of film rather than its aesthetics (if we choose to play with words) that leaves Bordwell an important writer on film but often less than a great one.
The problem rests chiefly with affectivity, with Bordwell arguing in an essay here, “Love Isn’t All You Need”, that love ain’t enough. As he asks “is love of movies enough to make someone a good critic?” he reckons instead, “a piece of critical writing ideally should offer ideas, information, and opinion – served up in decent, preferably absorbing prose.” (p. 64) A fair requirement, we might say, but what about love as affective response, where the critic registers their love for the film not in gushing superlatives but in precise, singular observation? Why one might regard fellow American academic Gilberto Perez as both a critic and a great writer on film is because of this capacity to register the love of cinema through the singularity of his response towards it. It is not only in his semi-autobiographical opening chapter in The Material Ghost, where Perez notes that he cannot help but feel the best of cinema came at the most formative moment for him, “an efflorescence of the art that peaked in the sixties and has not been matched since” (4), but in how he brings in examples to sustain the arguments he offers. Writing on Alphaville (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965),
Very slowly, with halting effort, the princess speaks the redemptive concluding words: “I love you”. In this final view of her face, the inspired amateur actress, her large eyes moist and poignant at the edge between light and shadow, plays in earnest but betrays some uncertainty that maybe she should be playing in jest: an uncertainty quite in keeping with the uncertain tone of an ending that elicits sentiments no less stirring for being mixed. (5)
Here Perez offers something singular in the description, as if trying to find the importance of the art and the significance of his feelings at the same time. Now when Perez in the same book calls into question the assumptions of Bordwell and also Noël Carroll on the difference between interpretation and theory, he does so because he feels that where Carroll believes “film theory tracks the regularity and the norm, while film interpretation finds its natural calling in dealing with the deviation”, Perez reckons “that theory shouldn’t be divided from criticism or interpretation in this or any other way. Problematic or puzzling cases, highly distinctive works, are precisely what lead to the questioning of old theory and the formulation of new.” (6) Perez’s The Material Ghost offers love in a twofold manner: firstly, Perez wants to write theoretically on the exception, and secondly, by being drawn to specific moments that bring out the singularity of the work and the singularity of his responses to it, he makes the film his own. This is love as affective response, and many of the great critics/theorists possess this quality; Bazin most obviously when saying, for example, in an essay on Vittorio De Sica, “I have used the word love. I should rather have said poetry. Poetry is but the active and creative form of love, its projection into the world.” (7) It is a capacity one often feels that certain cognitivist-inclined writers miss in their pursuance of norms and average shot lengths.
By recognising the importance of the affective response, we can understand better why Bordwell and Thompson are fine writers at picking apart other people’s arguments and helping improve some lazy responses, but not always so interesting when it comes to instigating thought. When Bordwell and Thompson question critics’ responses to blockbusters and sequels, it seems they are doing so not out of a love for the films themselves, but out of a need to correct an overly hasty response to the zeitgeist. We might concur when Bordwell says, at the end of “Live With It: There’ll Always be Movie Sequels”, “I don’t agree with all of these arguments and opinions, and I don’t expect you to either. The point is that compared to journalists’ rote dismissals of sequels, these writers offer more stimulating and more probing arguments.” (p. 19) However, to counter a weak argument isn’t half as interesting usually as creating a fresh one. If one feels exhausted by the number of sequels and the predictability of blockbusters, the argument is worth making, yet for Bordwell and Thompson this type of frustration would seem to be too subjective, and play on too many assumptions about history and the audience. In “Superheroes for Sale”, Bordwell lists six problems he has with zeitgeist readings of films, including “so many different movies are popular at any moment that we’d have to posit a pretty fragmented national psyche”, and “the movie audience isn’t a good cross-section of the general public.” (p. 24) Again, another useful finger wagged at the critic, but again hardly revelatory.
Interestingly, although Bordwell and Thompson are undeniably empirically driven, perhaps the best article in the book is one of the most speculative. In “This is Your Brain on Movies, Maybe”, Bordwell mentions psychologist Richard Gerrig’s notion of “anomalous suspense” as he wonders why, say, “young children listening to the story of Little Red Riding Hood seem to be no less wrought up on the umpteenth version than on the first.” (p. 97) Drawing greatly from his good friend Carroll, but not entirely in agreement with him, Bordwell wonders whether what happens to us when we re-watch films is that we suffer from a certain “cognitive impenetrability”. “So here’s my hunch: A great deal of what contributes to suspense in films derives from low-level, modular processes. They are cognitively impenetrable, and that creates a firewall between them and what we remember from previous viewings.” (p. 100) As he adds,
the shots are often cut together so fast that we barely have time to register the information in each one…further, what is shown can push our processing as well. Seeing people’s facial expressions touches off empathy and emotional contagion, perhaps through mirror neurons, those neurons that fire when we perform an activity or when we see others perform it. (p. 100)
For all the language of computers and cognitivism, there is here a speculative faculty at work in Bordwell’s article that takes us places, and not straight back to the flatbed machine poring over slowly moving images that is usually so central to this indefatigable writer’s work.
In a blog piece on Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni not included here, Bordwell again justifiably questions the hasty opinions and unsubstantiated remarks of many a mainstream critic, and while we often wish Bordwell came at film with more of a perspective, more of a sense of what films feel like, we might wish even more that many a critic would acknowledge the work he has done and absorb some of his, and sometimes Thompson’s, useful formal terms into general criticism, where their rigorous, and sometimes rigid, empirical bent could toughen up some flabbily general sentences. A sort of Bordwellian boot-camp: with Anthony Lane, Peter Bradshaw, and a handful of others among the first assignment. But equally, while we might rue Bordwell’s relative absence in mainstream criticism even though his terms are often pithy and to the point, we might equally wish his influence within the academy were much less so – with Bordwell and Thompson’s Film Art the default textbook for tutors looking to drum ideas of form into students’ heads. Maybe we should go easy on assigning Bordwell to students for a few years, and start buying Film Artet al as hefty stocking fillers for journalistic critics in need of a few terms to give a bit of analytic shape to their prose. One could do worse than start with Minding Movies; perhaps even rename it Minding Critics.
Minding Movies: Observations on the Art, Craft, and Business of Filmmaking, by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2011.
- Gilles Deleuze, Negotiations, Columbia University Press, New York, 1995, p. 136.
- Evans Chan, “Against Postmodernism, etcetera – A Conversation with Susan Sontag”, 2001.
- David Bordwell, “Slavoj Žižek: Say Anything”, David Bordwell’s website on cinema, April 2005.
- Gilberto Perez, The Material Ghost, The Johns Hopkins University Press, London, 1998, p. 3.
- Perez, p. 359.
- Perez, p. 21.
- André Bazin, What is Cinema? Vol. II, University of California Press, London, 1972, p. 74.