Written by Kojève
Some of my initial thoughts about the most important broad aspects of the book. I’d love to get into any of the incredible number of details about Form, Style, Analysis, or History he gets into. Please excuse how clumsily written the whole thing is.
Within the context of this Reading Group it is certainly safe to say that any and all participants arrive here because of a particular profound interest in cinema. Since we might say that any sort of interest in cinema involves a total commitment to a world (or as we’ll speak about in a minute one of a cluster of worlds), we would be wise to first consider “What is Cinema?” in the abstract, i.e. the multiplicity of ways we might understand the place Cinema holds within the World. From here we can and hopefully will get more nuanced, and in taking Bordwell’s Film Art as our point of departure we find that this sort of necessary starting point provides a penetrating survey which manages to provide us with some sense of the sort of big abstract questions of categorization, as well as providing us with some fairly penetrating insights on an impressive array of concrete and narrow questions given the size and scope of the work as a whole.
I believe the foundation of our interest is at its heart something to be antagonized philosophically if we are to gain any sort of clarification regarding the nature of our commitment to film. We will return to this in far further detail as our reading group moves on, but I do believe that a brief philosophy provides the most interesting starting point for considering Film Art. — We find a basic human conceptual orientation that will be familiar to you from your ordinary language: we speak of ‘the World’ and ‘worlds’. The world is something we believe we belong to naturally and learn about progressively as we grow older. Worlds are something that we find ourselves making a commitment to at a certain age after achieving enough knowledge about the world that we feel safe making such a commitment. So, ‘film’ may be something we take to be as something in the world, and an element of the world that everyone learns about through existing in this place and time, while ‘the film world’ may be something that we choose to join because we gain for some reason or another some sort of interest in film (while someone else may join the academic world, the fashion world, the business world, &c &c.).
However, speaking of ‘the film world’ hides an important truth about the place of film in the world. Film involves Art, Technology, and Business. So, the Film World is not something that can be approached as some big uniform thing. The world a Grip occupies is almost entirely different from the world a Studio executive occupies. And yet Film is only one thing — here Bordwell is great, because he emphasizes that we miss this point out our peril. So how do we understand this paradox? That we must hold in combination and tension that we can speak of a Film World that consists itself of many Worlds, and that we may talk of Film although such a word means so many tremendously different things depending on the context in which we talk about it (This site, a Film School, a Board Room, on a Set, etc.) — All of this will I think involve a conceptual analysis on our part, one that is done over the period of many months. I’ll briefly give the most succinct passage in Wittgenstein to get the ball rolling, and I’ll speak in some ways of how I think Bordwell goes about analyzing our concept of ‘Cinema’/'Film’.
66. Consider for example the proceedings that we call “games”. I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all?—Don’t say: “There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games’ “—but look and see whether there is anything common to all.—For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don’t think, but look!—Look for example at board-games, with their multifarious relationships. Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common ballgames, much that is common is retained, but much is lost.—Are they all ‘amusing’? Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience. In ball games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared. Look at the parts played by skill and luck; and at the difference between skill in chess and skill in tennis. Think now of games like ring-a-ring-a-roses; here is the element of amusement, but how many other characteristic features have disappeared! And we can go through the many, many other groups of games in the same way; can see how similarities crop up and disappear. And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail.
67. I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than “family resemblances”; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way.— And I shall say: ‘games’ form a family.
Bordwell emphasizes that we need to begin with a merelogical investigation of what we might call ‘Film’ by going through a set of logical steps that determines the organization of the book. Here I’ll try to follow the organization a bit. Film is the intersection of Art, Technology, and Business. To treat these things as distinct or antagonistic to one another is to misunderstand Film. Everyone interested in being involved in the film business needs some understanding of Film Art, Film Technology, and Film Business, because Film exists at their point of intersection. All of this seems obvious, but can easily be missed (think of want-to-be-directors you know who will say ‘I just need someone to take care of the business side for me’). — What is equally important to remember how committing yourself to the ‘film world’ is to commit yourself in a sense to two worlds (simplistically: the film world and the little world you occupy therein); however, as a Director you need to have an equal understanding and appreciation of the importance of each of these aspects of Film. The director does not have to know each role with the same level of depth of a practitioner of that role does (though we have discovered within the history of cinema that a sufficiently intelligent and motivated director can, given enough time, do just that) but they have to maintain a balance of knowledge within the tripartate nature of film. This is a recurring theme within Film Art, and the most important one at that: a mereology of cinema reveals that a pure reductive analysis of cinema is impossible — rather we have to replace our traditional conception of cinema with a more hermeneutic approach: none of these three aspects of Film – Art/Technology/Business – can be understood entirely separately from one another, so each part of a Film depends on the Whole and the Whole depends on each of its part. This leads us to the most important aspect of this most important aspect, which I hope will be the theme of our readings moving forward….
Film Form. The point here is that importance of context. — This corresponds to some stuff some of us may have read about already, such as the Hitchcock Rule, the choice of framing and what is in the frame, etc. The point is the following: A Film’s Form gives meaning to the Style, while the Film’s Style helps create the Form. Scene each give meaning to the Film, while the Film gives meaning to each of the Scenes. An Actor’s Performance gives meaning to the contents of the screen, while the contents of the screen give meaning to an actor’s performance (think Kuleshov effect). So our analysis has to appreciate the way in which these things work together in motion towards the holistic creation of meaning in a film.
A further point is also something like this: Patterns create significance; narrative significance exists within a Formal System which relies on the cognitive recognition and decoding of patterns. These patterns are based upon Systems and Conventions which are both created within the film and exist according to an audience member’s ability to recognize convention: conventional (cinematic or cultural) patterns, tropes, ideas, behaviors, etc.
OK so back to our starting point for this big holistic thing we call film. I think we might be able to say in some sense that Film Art is a sort of Universal Aesthetics which exists within a socio-historico context which determines its creation. Bordwell starts the book with a basic overview of how something goes “from plan to screen” and I think the point is this: The A/T/B trinity of film is in a sense though holistic also slightly hierarchical: Film Technology and Business represent the Conditions of the Possibility of creating certain sorts of Film Art. A Film functions through creating a whole Experience through its parts, and in doing so takes on an Aesthetic Form. This Aesthetic Form is created via decisions about existing Artistic possibilities, and the form exists within what I might call Form-Technique.*
We might say a few words about the last part of the book. First, Bordwell provides some tools for Critical Analysis. He says quite rightly that this can only be achieved after gaining a depth of understanding of (1) Plan to Screen (what I’ve called the Trinity or Tripartite nature of film), (2) Film Form, and (3) Film Style. The point here is that the etymological root of ‘analysis’ is to break up into its pieces, and we can only understand the pieces of a film if we understand both the film’s form, and the totality of artistic possibilities that exist within film as a medium (as covered in the book). Our understanding involves asking why particular choices were made by the filmmakers and how these both shaped and were shaped by the film’s Form.*
Finally, I believe what we gain out of his covering of film history is some sense of the way a film involves a holistic relationship between the universality of film art (or a film’s aesthetic qualities) — especially the way this medium has achieved a universal aesthetic quality as it has developed over the last 100 years — and the ways in which films are also necessarily something to be understood within socio-historico contexts (and in many ways more so than other human activities, such as literature).