Film Reading Group: Film Art by David Bordwell

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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).

Film Reading Group 2014

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Update 1/14/2013: Changes to the syllabus are outlined in RED

For those who have been visiting the site and learning through the commentaries but want to take it a step further with their autodidacticism as it pertains to film education here’s your chance to join a reading group that a few of us have established.

So far, we have outlined the reading material for the first three months. A strikethrough indicates a past event; book has been read and discussed.

Our aim for the next three months (we are two weeks in) is to delve deep into discussing film Style/Form/Structure. Our hopes are to reverse engineer how a film is put together. Whether it is a comedy, arthouse/Sundance indie, or film noir – we will aim to break down how style dictates the film’s form or vice versa. How are films structured? The first two books; Film Art, and The Visual Story delve deep into these concepts so we recommend you start with those books.



If you are near a university or a local library you should be able to find most of the readings outlined above. Some books you can find online through a site like Archive.org in PDF form. All in all, the dedication is up to you. Anyone is truly free to get in on the discussions in the comments even without reading the given books. But we do aim in having dedicated readers participating so that we can all discuss the concepts and ideas we learn in these books.

We will read the books in chronological order of the syllabus. About two weeks: one week to read, one week to discuss will be applied to each book. Certain visual examples will be illustrated as well. A separate section has been created – Film Reading Group, much like the Commentaries section – where you will be able to track down the individual posts (and film reading progress) of the given book/week and read all the discussions anyone involved will have – along with whatever examples, illustrations that will be posted up in the main post.

So far there are three of us actively participating and since making the post there have been a handful of interested people who have approached us. The goal is to grow in our understanding and grasping of film technique, cinematic language and cinema as a whole. In doing so, we also aim to create a network of serious film individuals and filmmakers who would wish to collaborate down the line in a sort of a distanced filmmaking way, utilizing social media or simply internet to collaborate on projects.

A separate post for Film Art will be created in order for everyone to get in on the discussion.

Without further ado, below is an Abstract written up for The Visual Story by a member of the Film Reading Group, Kojève.


Written by Kojève

Visual Story

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This is mostly a factual book. I’ll list out some of the facts in another post. For now I’ll remain pretty broad just for the sake of thinking about the larger meaning of the book in our project.

A film’s visuals are structured. The people responsible for the film should approach their domain the same way a Screenwriter approaches a Story Structure. Our point here is to “understand how visual structure allows you to communicate moods and emotions.” So here we understand an important part of the author’s conception of visuals: the film’s Visual Structure is a communicative act, it is the act of communicating meaning/emotion/understanding by (1) controlling the attention of the audience and (2) varying the visual intensity of their cinematic experience (via affinity/contrast) across scenes, sequences, and film. — If you really read the book it is incredible that despite how complex a visual system really is, ultimately this is all a film’s visuals are up to. [Editing in a note. This is all a film’s visuals are up to within the Visual Structure; I take it as obvious that there are all kinds of other things a film is up to aesthetically regarding things like beauty, editing around performances, etc.]

What I take to be a key point is that we should “find the critical relationship between story structure and visual structure” through pictures. But he says of pictures that they all involve Story, Visuals, and Sound to encode meaning/emotion. As we get into Sound, I like the idea of thinking of these three Story/Visual/Sonic Structures as interrelated acts which are both holistic yet comprise their own whole or Formal System. [Here I think it would be interesting to think of how a film’s visuals alone might comprise locutionary/illocutionary/perlocutionary acts but that’s off-topic.]

OK so now we think of Visual Structure as something self-enclosed and unified in Form and Style, as well as interacting dynamically with the other structures. If we consider the actor — an Actor is a performance, and a visual object on screen so it’s our job to be able to balance these two things in our mind at the same time while shooting. We may wish to focus the audience’s Point of Attention on the performance for a long swaths of uninterrupted time so as to allow the literary/theatrical quality of the film function as the creation of meaning/emotion (think Olivier’s Richard III), or we may take some effort to create a visual structure which does a lot of that work while building that performance into the structure (think Tony Scott).

How terribly obvious all this writing is. So OK, broadly: Visual Structure as System creates its own Visual Patterns by establishing meaning — patterned linking of a visual cue and a meaning. What visual components of a shot relate to meaning and interpretation? (1) Space, (2) Line, (3) Shape, (4) Tone, (5) Color, (6) Movement, (7) Rhythm. So consider the Sonic-Emotional link created through structured patterns in Jaws & Psycho. Visuals have the same function.

Visual Structure exists through visual progression. Visual progression is the creation of patterns through the abstract determination of how we are to approach varying the level of intensity (same as a story) via the concrete determination of specific points of affinity and contrast across scenes/sequences/film of these 7 visual components, by mapping this stuff out in combination with story structure. All of this applies to remembering how to work on these smaller more precise as well as larger aspects of the structure while keeping the whole complex mereology in mind. In practical production, all of this is very difficult.

The final interesting point. He makes a larger logical claim akin really to something like the Laffer curve — there exists a point between no intensity, which is all too dull, and too much intensity, so we might take this as a 0 to 100 mathematical function and make a relative visual graph that spans our entire scene/sequence/film.


In regards to commentaries – I am planning to upload more in the next few days, apologies for the delay.