Film International editors, contributors, and correspondents offer personal tributes and commentary on the late scholar of cinema.

I regret never having the pleasure of meeting David Bordwell. My only interaction with him was a lively email exchange little over 10 years ago. I was planning an article on the early film studies series from Indiana University Press, the Filmguides, to which Bordwell contributed an excellent study on The Passion of Joan of Arc. We discussed pathways from this text to the author’s seminal work, with Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson, on the Classical Hollywood Cinema (1985). Regrettably, my article concept died when learning of the lack of interest in the topic from others involved, including series co-editor Harry Geduld during an otherwise engaging phone interview with him. I was eager to learn of Bordwell’s journey from the rather formulaic structure of the Filmguides, and sure enough the background he provided was as interesting as the work: one of an avid reader whose ideas about art grew with each new engagement.

I first read Bordwell in my intro to film studies course at the College of New Jersey (formerly Trenton State). I already had a life-changing course there in the films of Hitchcock, also taught by veteran Barry Novick, in which Donald Spoto and Hitchcock/Truffaut became my first close reading on cinema (thanks to a liberal program structure in the 1990s, I could take a major directors course before the intro course). Novick had assigned Understanding Movies by Louis Giannetti as the class text but also had us review a two-page excerpt called “The Classical Hollywood Cinema” (CHC), which I later learned was from Bordwell and Thompson’s Film Art (before attributing the source of photocopies became a rule). Perhaps my great interest in the excerpt stemmed from years of passive viewing; admittedly, I was a late bloomer with things literary and cinematic. But I really took to my assignment to analyze John Frankenheimer’s All Fall Down (1962) considering Bordwell’s excerpt (my prof randomly handed out VHS tapes from a shopping bag to the class). After moving on to Bordwell’s longer works on the subject, I have made his commentary a focus, even if in the background, of my film writing ever since.

Today, I value Bordwell’s major works, especially his late-career focus on 1940s cinema and crime fiction, two of my interests. And still, though I have enjoyed and gotten much out of his blog on cinema, I regularly think back to two of his articles: one a kind of companion piece to his work on CHC, “The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice” (Film Criticism, Vol. 4, No. 1, Fall 1979) in which he analyzes art film as genre (a topic he returned to in Narration in the Fiction Film (1985). It’s one that allows my university students to articulate ideas about films that seem, at first glance, beyond their understanding (as Roger Ebert admitted when he reviewed Persona in 1967, years before Bordwell’s essay). The other article, one from mid-career (2002), “Film Futures” (SubStance, 2002, Vol. 31, No. 1, Issue 97) – a riff on Borges as a key to understanding parallel lives onscreen – offers potential in how we read many challenging genre works. The two short works lead to the best of Bordwell and are ones that can bring in young and new readers. 

Within a (deserving) sea of Bordwell tributes to appear lately, we hope you enjoy these by FilmInt’s editors, contributors, and correspondents.

Matthew Sorrento, Editor-in-chief
Haddonfield, New Jersey, U.S.A.

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As a budding young cinephile growing up in the remote hinterlands of rural Maryland, prior to the age of Amazon and streaming services, my access to film history was largely limited to a scarcely stocked video rental outlet, to whatever I could record (on VHS!) from Turner Classic Movies, or to whatever I could find at the nearest book or media store, some two hours away. It was on one such latter sojourn that I secured the particularly valuable purchase of David Bordwell’s 1994 text, Film History: An Introduction. While actually viewing many of the films discussed would come piecemeal throughout the ensuing years, I now had a tremendous guide, one that illuminated my imagination and fed my mounting passion. Bordwell’s insightful assessments, his unpretentious yet obviously refined style, and his judicious arrangement of key films, directors, actors, and producers helped set my priorities and put me on the path to further discovery.

But as I came to realize by eventually attaining Bordwell’s other texts (those written with or without the similarly inspiring Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson), film history was more than just these generally and justifiably noteworthy features and filmmakers. Bordwell taught me that all films – from all over the world and since the dawn of the medium – were vital to the formation and evolution of the art form with which I have for so long been obsessed. His stunning range of knowledge and integration of discriminating examples demonstrated what made even the most obscure and seemingly minor films significant. They, like Bordwell, always had something to teach a student of film, and it was more than just dates and figures and titles. It was the technique and industrial processes that were vital; the assorted theories behind what was done, how, why, and what it could mean; and it was the critical application of evaluating cinema from diverse perspectives that proved likewise so important.

In this, Bordwell conveyed the priceless notion that all films could have worth. Yes, there were the great ones (and Bordwell’s handling of major films and filmmakers was unparalleled), but cinema history is so much more, and the diversity of contemporary cinema could be just as rewarding – with the right outlook. Under Bordwell’s tutelage, I found that film history, theory, and criticism were also accessible, culturally penetrating, and continually developing. It was, and remains, part of the cinephile’s journey, and it’s a tragedy David Bordwell will no longer be leading this ongoing pursuit.

Jeremy Carr, Contributing Editor
Gilbert, Arizona, U.S.A.

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I have a specific memory of David Bordwell. I met with him and my dear friend Sid Gottlieb at Sid’s home in the fall of 2016, when he brought Bordwell to speak at Sacred Heart University. Very quickly I recognized that I was conversing with a very distinguished gentleman of great generosity and sensitivity. I brought up the fine eulogy he wrote for Robin Wood on the occasion of that very great critic’s death in 2009, doubly generous since Wood complained on one occasion about the “Bordwellization” of film studies. Wood said that Bordwell was too much the scholar, whose attention to formal properties took him away from a close reading of films focused on valuation, on a moral criticism anchored in humanism. At the time of our get-together, I complemented Bordwell for his generosity, adding that a “zinger” from Robin Wood was worth a thousand compliments from supposedly more renowned people in “the field.” I was going to continue with my back-patting when he ended the exchange with a small facial gesture suggestive of “say no more,” or “it’s nothing,” and I’m sure he was sincere. This moment made me conclude that Bordwell was indeed a fine gentleman, not the kind of opportunist or careerist common to academe, which it might not be unfair to expect given Bordwell’s mammoth reputation – there was no outsized ego to go with it.

In thinking of David Bordwell, I must concern myself conscientiously with the nature of his accomplishments and their drawbacks, at least as I see them. The concept of a “film studies program” owes much of its existence to Bordwell’s presence over the last forty years, since his work was serious-minded and insistent on the importance of cinema as a subject for academic study. Although a foe of the various imported “theories” affecting film in the last thirty years of the twentieth century, Bordwell’s many textbooks could have clotted prose of their own, and jargon that made the “Bordwellization” of the discipline present us with a less-than-pleasurable experience. His approach to cinema could be mechanical, with an eye on supposed tendencies and trends he discovered. The most excoriating paper on this is Andrew Britton’s “Philosophy of the Pigeonhole” (in the formidable collection Britton on Film), a blistering dismissal of Bordwell’s early co-written book The Classic Hollywood Cinema, in which Bordwell, according to Britton, invents his own notion of “classic” only to dance around it, and ignores logical traps that impede his generalizations and invented categories.

The moment of a scholar’s death should hardly be a time for scoffing at his achievement, but I am reminded of those funeral orations that are all emotion, slobbering on the congregation, never wanting to confront the whole of a person’s life; we can both bury and praise Caesar (keeping in mind David Bordwell’s modesty: he never wanted to rule Rome, although he came close to doing so).

There are people who helped create cinema studies who rank higher for me than David Bordwell, because I knew them very well personally and could assess their temperaments, like Robert Sklar, my doctoral advisor at New York University. His doctoral dissertation was on F. Scott Fitgerald, an accomplishment serving well the architecture he contributed to the building of cinema studies. In thinking about Bordwell and Sklar (and myself, but I make no further claims), I’m reminded of their origins in English and American literature, at times before the creation of film studies – a task up to them. Today, it seems sufficient simply to study the media (and associated technologies), not the cultural heritage of this greatest of all art forms.

Another person I must rank higher than Bordwell is Robin Wood, who studied under A.P. Rossiter and F.R. Leavis at Cambridge. One could not study Wood’s close readings of films without seeing the importance of literature, music, and painting to a valuation of cinema, and the application of sensibility to criticism of any work. Wood, in the opening of his book Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan and Beyond, states “I am a critic,” emphasizing the supreme responsibilities of criticism to our culture, with theory and scholarship serving a supportive importance. In explaining criticism to us, Wood makes us understand why Kael, Ebert, and so many others are journalistic reviewers at best, having little or nothing to do with criticism. Wood saw Bordwell as a scholar – an exacting and very competent one to be sure – whose sensibility remained somewhat remote, and whose mechanical exercises could be irksome. I was never amazed that his textbook Film Art was never embraced by my students. Yet Wood was awed by Bordwell’s knowledge – of Eisenstein, Ozu, Dreyer, and so much else.

I don’t want this farewell to David Bordwell to be encumbered by complaints and niggling criticisms. His passing is major, especially as cinema studies appears to be losing ground as a respected discipline, with the rest of the humanities. David Bordwell saw this happening, along with other people trying to hold onto what is most important, as “sports media,” finance, and computers take hold of the university. We can hardly expect to see someone come out of a legitimate literature department, one unburdened by fads and poppycock, to create a new field honoring an unrecognized but crucial art form. I will miss David Bordwell.

Christopher Sharrett, Contributing Editor
Hamden, Connecticut

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Bordwell, Post-Theory

When I spent an afternoon driving David Bordwell to an airport many years ago, I eagerly chatted with him about Post-Theory (University of Wisconsin Press, 1996), the anthology he co-edited with Noël Carroll. Its title was as decisive as it was declarative, as forward-looking as it was timely, as necessary as it was inevitable, but it took Bordwell and Carroll to cross the scholarly Rubicon while confidently and simultaneously announcing that it had already been crossed.

Post-Theory encouraged Film Studies to eschew the search for a grand, unified, singular theory that would explain all… Theory with a capital T, not just grammatically, but also intellectually, emotionally, and orthodoxically. It was into this hyper-theoretical pursuit, this era of “theory wars,” this era in need of rescue, that many of us entered Film Studies. We were not anti-theoretical, not at all. But we knew a singular, overarching answer to our many questions was not possible, because we knew the cinema was too wonderfully enigmatic for that approach to ever work. The cinema needs to be understood as plural, every bit as plural as the many theories that might or might not be help in our quest(s).

Post-Theory crucially liberated us from Theory with an uppercase T. The book – and Bordwell’s imprimatur – allowed us to refocus our attention to the cinema, to refocus our attention to the art form that had ignited our passions, with theories employed in service of the cinema, rather than the other way around, which at times had resulted in little more than unhelpful, even unnecessary, exercises in which film examples were plucked to add plumage to a (or “the”) Theory. Sharing my views to Bordwell, I enthusiastically used the film Tron (Steven Lisberger, 1982) as a metaphor, in which Flynn (Jeff Bridges) successfully leads computer programs into a successful result against the Master Control Program (MCP).

But this was true of so much of Bordwell’s work. He made neo-formalism attractive and sexy, which it is to filmmakers, but not always to scholars. While some colleagues had disdain for historiographic research, and held fast to some simplistic and unhelpful binary opposition of “history versus theory,” Bordwell suggested the need to historicize theory and theorize history. He spoke about film history as important and as fun. And we needed that, badly, those of us who agreed with him and, yes, those who didn’t. The fact it was Bordwell who openly spoke about these views made life much better for those of us who came into the field after him.

Yes, I took David Bordwell to the airport that day many years ago. But thanks to his scholarly achievements – and the kind charitable and gentlemanly way he presented it – I’m the one who always keeps getting to take flight, over and over again. Thanks, David, always….

Gary D. Rhodes, Contributing Editor
Shawnee, Oklahoma, U.S.A.

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My introduction to David Bordwell’s oeuvre was made during my undergraduate coursework at DePauw University. In part, Bordwell’s studies inspired me to pursue writing of my own. Just as André Bazin’s monumental ideas laid the groundwork for the French New Wave and much of modern film theory at Cahiers du Cinéma, Bordwell’s seminal literature was and remains foundational in educating students of film. Like Alex (Denis Lavant) in Leos Carax’s Boy Meets Girl (1984), Bordwell very well could also be described as a filmmaker who hadn’t yet made a film. Had he desired, Bordwell would have been a natural behind the camera like writers turned directors Peter Bogdanovich, Paul Schrader, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Leos Carax.

Bordwell’s passion for the moving image was contagious, and he was among the most fluent in the language of cinema. He was also an astute film historian and critic. His book, The Rhapsodes: How 1940s Critics Changed American Film Culture, is among my personal favorites. Bordwell possessed the rare talent to clearly articulate what made films great, how filmmakers achieved that greatness, and why it was important to continue filmic discourse. His ability to thoroughly and thoughtfully decipher mise-en-scène was exceptional, making him the perfect educator for the Criterion Collection’s Observations on Film Art. Of the fifty part series, analysis of Antonioni’s unconventional staging in L’Avventura (1960), Godard’s contrasting aspect ratios with Vivre sa Vie (1962) and Contempt (1963), and Harold Lloyd’s significance in the development of narrative comedy with Girl Shy (1924) are standouts. 

Bordwell’s 1979 essay, “The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice,” a precursor to his textbooks and work with the Criterion Collection, is one that I recall from school and one that I admire. It is a prime example of a tightly crafted and well-researched assemblage of conventions and how their use differs from the classical narrative film. In his 2007 book, Poetics of Cinema, outside of Bordwell’s general exploration of how films are made, technical specifications of filmmaking, and theoretical ways to consider cinema, he expands upon his original “Art Cinema” essay. This is just one example of Bordwell’s long-lasting desire to keep film studies alive, and his ongoing efforts to do so. He continued to do this up until the very end. Some of his most recent books include Reinventing Hollywood and Perplexing Plots: Popular Storytelling and The Poetics of Murder. Through his writing and his contributions to film studies, Bordwell’s legacy lives on. 

Jonathan Monovich, Image Editor
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A.

Bordwell taught me that all films – from all over the world and since the dawn of the medium – were vital to the formation and evolution of the art form with which I have for so long been obsessed.”

Jeremy Carr, Contributing Editor

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Discovering early film writing by David Bordwell not only gives us a precious insight into a nascent analytical methodology, but also lets us enjoy a writer’s emotional connection to a film – the two approaches, of course, never mutually exclusive in his hands.

Bordwell – introduced as a graduate student in film at the University of Iowa – reviewed the re-release of Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus for Film Comment in 1970 (Film Comment, Vol 6, No 3 [Fall 1970]). For him, it marked a timely reassessment of what he considered a masterpiece. Bordwell’s two-page examination could be considered the first authoritative critical analysis of a film that has always, curiously, struggled for attention. Chaplin wrote, produced, directed, starred in and composed the music for his 1928 silent comedy, which has since been overshadowed by two masterworks before and after it: The Gold Rush (1925) and City Lights (1931). It feels like an immense pleasure for Bordwell to remove the film from these shadows, to examine it in daylight and to take us on a journey through its many layers. Bordwell’s instant assessment is that this film provides a valuable connection with Chaplin as an artist:

“Perhaps Chaplin’s most objective analysis of his screen persona, it uses the circus as a metaphor for both Film and Existence. Like Bergman in Sunset of a Clown, Chaplin fills his circus with symbols that suggest both the depths of art and the bleakness of life.”

The plot of The Circus revolves around the Little Tramp’s unintended comicality – he’s a hit in the circus ring only because he stumbles from one mishap to another and is exploited by the ringmaster as an inadvertent performer. For Bordwell this setting is rich with meaning, what with the repeated symbolism of the circus ring and the parallels it draws with cinematic art. The Circus, feels Bordwell, “is one of the few films in which Chaplin’s nineteenth century sensibility deals symbolically with art and despair in a truly twentieth century way.”

It also allows Bordwell to pick apart the nature of screen comedy and what we as viewers bring to it, given our relationship with Chaplin. He pays particular attention to the scene where the clowns try to teach Charlie the William Tell gag (where one clown eats the apple from his head before the other one can shoot it off). Charlie doesn’t get it. Of course he doesn’t, says Bordwell. “Charlie cannot be taught to be funny. The dichotomy between art and life blurs in these scenes with the clowns because Charlie’s life is all one comic bit. For him, as for us, comedy takes on the larger meaning of an infinite cycle of rapture and melancholy, energy and lassitude, hope and despair.”

Bordwell finds such poetic depth in The Circus that it is indeed odd that the film was overlooked for so long. It seems be in a continuous state of rediscovery – Jeffrey Vance having written an impassioned tribute to it in 1990 (The Circus, A Chaplin Masterpiece, Film History, Vol. 8, No. 2, 1996) – but Bordwell, the graduate student, started the ball rolling with a scholarly appraisal that, to put it simply, really makes you want to watch the film.

Bibi Berki
London, U.K.

* * *

When I first took my film history classes as an undergraduate, David Bordwell’s name and his works were ubiquitous throughout the seminars and on throughout my academic career. I can fondly recall devouring the assigned readings many late nights in the college library’s reserved reading floor.

Perplexing Plots: Popular Storytelling and the Poetics of Murder (Film and  Culture Series)

From Hitchcock to Tarantino, and from Highsmith to Flynn, the late David Bordwell addresses crime fiction and film, its intricate history and all its nuances in his newest book, Perplexing Plots: Popular Storytelling and the Poetics of Murder (2023). In the book, Bordwell demonstrates how the genre very often enabled less sophisticated viewers to become more visually literate by weeding through sinuous plot changes and ironic twists. He discusses how crime fiction and film, historically a mass popular culture genre, is utilized to help viewers and readers connect to complex narrative devices thus enhancing the comprehension and appreciation of the genre. He is less concerned with human fixation on crime in the stories, and more interested in the narrative devices and plot structures that drive them.

Lest we forget that over time, while one of the most popular of all genres, crime narratives are only just starting to get the prestige and respect they deserve. The crime genre was often considered lowbrow entertainment, and as Geoffrey O’Brien points out in his review of the book, they were often compared to a vice or guilty pleasure. Bordwell argues that these narratives are essential to cinematic and literary history and lends logic and legitimacy to the crime genre where previously there had been ambiguity, critically and academically, about its significance favoring more classical narratives.

Perplexing Plots: Popular Storytelling and the Poetics of Murder is written in conversational and accessible style, and continues David Bordwell’s long established reputation as one of the foremost critic/theorist of film studies. He will be greatly missed.

William Blick
Little Neck, New York, U.S.A.

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When books bring out strong reactions from both laudatory and critical angles, it often means there’s something substantial within their pages. David Bordwell’s 1985 title Narration in the Fiction Film is that kind of book. Some find it a labored exercise in tedious overthinking, while others see groundbreaking insights in its text. On whichever side of the fence anyone sits, nobody can reasonably question that it’s a deeply thoughtful and highly original work.

As a film buff who’s not an academic, what I wondered when I approached Narration in the Fiction Film is whether it had any use outside of university classrooms. Can it speak to cinema enthusiasts who aren’t students or eggheads? The answer I came away with was yes. I love film noir and have read countless books about the genre, have also written tons of articles and essays on the form. And I learned something new about these films from taking in Bordwell’s “Sin, Murder, and Narration” chapter that discusses several facets of three of these titles. Bordwell’s words made me see things like the usages of camera angles, music, and the restriction of knowledge allowed to the viewer, in new ways. And I did a little cheer when I saw that he singled out Murder, My Sweet, Edward Dmytryk’s 1944 adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s 1940 novel Farewell, My Lovely, for examination, as that’s long been a pet film noir title for me.

The scope of Narration in the Fiction Film is what makes it so remarkable. Bordwell looks at so many different methods and techniques involved in how different filmmakers utilize the medium to tell stories, it’s impossible not to learn something from the book, regardless of how much you think you know about the history of cinema. Personally, I got the most out of the chapter titled “Art-Cinema Narration,” wherein Bordwell explores how directors like Polanski, Bergman, Pasolini, and other auteurs have used narrative processes in cutting edge ways that distinguish their work from the established strategies.

Any film fan – whether they be an academic, a critic, someone involved in the making of movies, or a lay enthusiast – can gain worthwhile knowledge from reading this book. RIP David Bordwell.

Brian Greene
Durham, North Carolina, U.S.A.

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David Bordwell’s last book, Perplexing Plots: Popular Storytelling and the Poetics of Murder (Columbia University Press, 2023), is a remarkable work in its own right and also one revealing of the arc of his career. It returns to where he began, in literary studies, but engages it with his characteristic wisdom and cultural elasticity. It focuses on the development of detective fiction and some of its focal points are ways in which genre and media inflect narrative structure.

He entered film studies in the 1970s. Before the ‘70s there was no established field of academic film studies in the US – much of it began then and David was at the center of developing it with rigor and respectability. He was not alone. There were others in the US, including Robert Sklar at NYU, James Naremore at Indiana University, and Dudley Andrew at the University of Iowa. The first PhDs in film in the US only appeared in the ‘70s but the field grew quickly. By the ‘80s it had become a respected academic discipline. David’s work had a good deal to do with that.

I first met David in the ‘70s when he was one of the two star film professors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The other was Russell Merritt. The field of cinema studies was just emerging in the US and David was at the center of it. I recall Russell saying with admiration that David could carry a discussion of aesthetic issues to greater heights of abstraction than anyone he knew, or had ever known. He was perceptive in this.

In those days, the presumption was that David dealt with film theory and Russell with film history but, as his career progressed, David would embrace history as well as other approaches. Two of his textbooks, co-authored with his wife Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction (1979) and Film History: An Introduction (1994), indicate that expansion of focus, which never stopped.

He had a Puckish, wide-eyed enthusiasm for people and ideas, and influenced a legion of students, many his own age and some even older, who would distinguish themselves in the field that he was so influential in establishing, including Peter Lehman, Serafina Bathrick, MaureenTurim, Douglas Gomery, Diane Waldman, Marilyn Campbell, among others.

David’s fame quickly became global and he spoke all over the US, Europe, and Asia, as well as at the faculty-level Columbia University Seminar on Cinema and Interdisciplinary Interpretation.

I’ll miss him; I could say more.

William Luhr
Jersey City, New Jersey, U.S.A.

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David Bordwell was important to my scholarly and educational work in film studies, having assigned his co-authored text Film History (co-authored with Kristin Thompson) for my courses. Bordwell was also very kind in responding to my inquiries, one set of which concerned an intriguing visual trope from the early episodes of the original Raymond Burr Perry Mason series. His meticulous and insightful formal approach to the analysis of film informs his classic works such as Film Art and Film History. He also contributed materially to the study of Hong Kong film, one of my own interests, with his widely cited book Planet Hong Kong

His presence in film studies will be greatly missed.

Ken Hall
Johnson City, Tennessee, U.S.A.

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In a crumpled suit, he was resolutely uncharismatic…. He talked fast, interrupted himself, and, finding few recent movies to praise, celebrated Max Ophuls and Jean Renoir…. At evening’s end, I knew which camp I belonged in.”

Bordwell, on seeing Andrew Sarris appear with Pauline Kael in 1965

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