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).

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8 thoughts on “Film Reading Group: Film Art by David Bordwell

  1. I found that Block and Bordwell both mean the same thing when they speak about Visual Structure / Film Form, respectively. It comes down to semantics, there is no difference whatsoever. So basically it comes down to preference of how you call it. Form or Structure

    Style is something that remains the same. Story dictates your Style, which in turn creates a Form / Structure of your film.

    Ozu for example. Tokyo Story has virtually no camera movement, except once or twice. The style of the film is very still camera that does not move. Nevermind the fact that Ozu used low angles – that partly stemmed from how in traditional Japan everyone sat on the floor – however out of that stemmed a style that is associated with Ozu. But I digress.

    The type of subject matter presented in Tokyo Story gave Ozu a certain point of view to treat the film in long takes and still camera (his other films before it, I gather were the same based on the subject matter) – so this style paved the way for a form / structure that is felt by the audience throughout.

    On the other end of the spectrum you have someone like Tony Scott – the type of subject matter (stories) present in his films inform the style; how he lights his films, shoots (lenses, movement, compositions), edits. That style in turn creates a form / structure.

    To my understanding: Style and Form depend a very great deal on your understanding of a story / subject matter. From that understanding – or “point-of-view” that a filmmaker decides upon – comes Style and Form. You hear it a lot with Ridley Scott’s commentaries where he mentions he has a “view” / “vision” – that stems from understanding his story and subject matter.

    • I think there are two big questions that arise for me from this. The first is something like: what are we understanding our concept of form for? By that I mean you’re completely right Digi that this is the way Form is defined in the Russian Formalism of the early 20th century, and this appears to be how the authors have applied it (in a very fascinating and educating way) to film. So, we can replace ‘language’ with various film concepts in any of these statements:

      “The formalists are really relatively indifferent to questions of meaning and to questions of interpretation. They’re interested in what they call “science.” They’re interested in structure. They’re interested, in other words, in the way a text is put together.”

      “Now how do we understand this form? “Form” as opposed to what? This is a crucial issue for the Russian formalists, which they handle very boldly. Part of their platform is that everything is form. There is no distinction, in other words, between form and content. That’s the fundamental mistake, as they see it, that their enemies of various kinds make in their understanding, in their approach to literature. But, you know, the formalists’ own basic distinctions are dualistic, aren’t they: the distinction between poetic and practical language, the distinction between plot and story, the distinction between rhythm and meter? In all of these cases, you’re tempted to say, “Well, gee. One of those must be form…”

      “Language of this source is a device, and in relation to other devices it’s called a “function.” We call it a function. That is to say it has a function; it has a function within our understanding of the way in which a text has structure. Every aspect of the structure of the text can be understood as having a function.”

      Of course Russian Formalism is just one school of thought among many, so while you’re correct that this is what they mean by form, and these are the ways we could apply what they mean in film, to what extent do we want to stake out our own position? If we were in a course on straight theory of interpretation I wouldn’t be at all satisfied with Formalism.

      But. Question 2: Of what practical use is the application is this theory? This is where I think our formalist model is really a very powerful tool for actual film making, over interpretation. By integrating everything you’re trying to do into the Form, and dealing with the complicated part-whole relations of an entire film composed of many individual scenes, shots, props, etc. within the film structure, I think this is an incredibly powerful tool for conceptualizing, visualizing, and creating your film; first, in assessing your decision-making during pre-production, and second in using your intuition on set in the moment.

      But I think it is pivotal that we don’t simply take what these authors give us lying down. I think we really need to stake out our own position, informed as it were by them (and this will involve an element of figuring out what’s practical to film production and what’s meaningful to understanding a film).

      • I see form as just an organizational structure – it’s not something that you can “see” – it is something you have an almost “subconscious feeling” for.

        This may not be a great example but when you read a sentence, the use of language is really at the forefront. And so you may say “great sentence” if you are analyzing literature. For film it’s like “Great film” – but much of that “great film” is about the style of it – or in literature, the “language” of it. So, if it’s making sense – when we say Great sentence, or Great film – we don’t think about the structure – we may feel it but much of that “greatness” is about how the style has been organized through structure

        If you rewatch the McTiernan commentary he touches upon a bit on his style. He calls it a “visual humming” it’s something intuitive that he feels, he can’t put it into words. Go to 6:47 in this video and listen. Also check out Tony Scott’s comments, he touches upon style and how he uses it for what purpose.

        When we watch a Fincher film we’re more prone to noticing his style. Much of it, he keeps the same throughout the years.

        I think the idea of form is definitely not an easy concept to grasp fully but I think as we delve deeper into readings and analysis we’ll be able to make our own assumptions. But for now, I almost want to say form is the various Acts of the film in the narrative. However – if we are to go by Block’s reading – VISUAL Structure is distinctly different from just narrative structure (Act 1-3, (or 5)), yet each Act may have a distinct Visual Structure: Tracking shots across the Z axis ONLY (Malick) and say by Act 3: It’s all HANDHELD (tied directly to what’s being told in the Narrative).

        Again, Bordwell really delves into this in The Way Hollywood Tells It – I’m looking forward to when you get to read it and I’m anxious to re-read it myself.

    • Regarding your example with Ozu, this is something which is really interesting to me. Using this language of ‘form’ that we’ve acquired, I might suggest there are a couple types of directors. In the first instance, there are the types of directors where each of their films are very similar to one another. In your example I think we may say that the consistency of style is therefore due to a consistency of overall form, because the director has a certain point-of-view they are trying to get across over their career and multiple films. In this instance the nature of their Form is quite clear, and it’s one reason why both a consistent style emerges, and also it is so easy to call them an ‘artist’ or ‘auteur’ — because their individuality is so blatant and unique. (Ozu, Tati, Fellini, so on)

      What is more interesting to me frankly is the second sort, the sort that as it were necessarily retains a point of view but who attempts to try many different cinematic forms and therefore experiments with a variety of structures depending upon the material. What is interesting is that an artistic stamp emerges — because they are a great artist we find that there are similarities that we can point to as belonging to an authorial stamp — but the resemblances are only there for the people looking for them; without prior knowledge, it would be very difficult to make the connection. I think Kubrick is a director like this. It is hard for me to imagine that anyone would connect Barry Lyndon, Lolita, The Shining, and Dr. Strangelove together in a veil of ignorance.

      It would be interesting to consider these two different approaches to form.

      • I do hear what you’re saying. Something like the difference between Paul Thomas Anderson and Wes Anderson. One tries different styles – the other keeps it the same. Wes Anderson’s individuality is really what informs much of his films; the kinds of stories he likes, and the style. So he just goes with it always.

        I have to say it really is about what kind of stories and style you’re attracted to. Darabont tried something different with The Mist – for a change – yet all his previous films are fairly “samey” in style. I guess it depends largely upon what you want to do as an artist. Once you grasp your tools – you can decide whether you keep to the same style, structures, what have you – or switch it up in every film or once in a blue moon.

  2. The cinema presents a unique way of experiencing the world. So, our innate human tendency is to want to find order and meaning in the seemingly random and disparate facts and states of affairs we find in the world around us. However, the last 2,500 years has been the history of our marked failure to do so. It is the beauty of cinema that we can construct a film in such a way that we can present a world which is through and through structured, significant, and meaningful.

    I like the example of literature. See, that’s the thing about literature! What you are experiencing is entirely linguistic; a collection of words structured in such a way as to create a certain sort of experience. There is, however, nothing beyond these words and their structure.

    In the cinema we are layering an enormous amount of both concrete and abstract stuff on top of one another. Our ideas are organizing physical matter and making it intelligible, meaningful, and significant to us. As you say, in any given scene we have various abstract structures functioning — Literary, Visual, and Sonic — which bear a relation to one another through what we wish to call the Form. Since the combination of these structures compose the Form and the Form determines how we use these structures (within the space of artistic possibility), this is why we have chosen to speak of what I called Form-Technique and what you called style-forms.

    And finally you are very right to say reification of these structures would be a terrible artistic error.
    Within these structures we have a lot of concrete material stuff which bears some sort of relation to the structure (say: music, plus sound effects, plus dialogue), but they are not things we can say ARE the structure. The especially central stuff too — such as the performances, the staging, the sets, the props, etc. — are not equivalent to the Form or anything like that. What we may say is that they are the matter which are created and organized according to the Form.

    I honestly believe this is why when we talk about, like you were saying, “great film” . . . there is a kind of mysticism about the experience, the gut-punch film which leaves you speechless and inarticulate — what Tarkovsky calls the experience a sublime, purging trauma. I think this is because Form is so disassociated from the concrete material of a film and so terribly abstract (you’re seeing sets, props, actors, literary-dialogue, editing, shot selection story structure….) where as there is absolutely no separation between form and content in literature, and so the power of the work is more transparent and logically ascertainable.

    I apologize if none of this gets at what interests you. I might also add that you’re right in saying we should get into the concrete nitty-gritty of cinematic examples of ‘functions’, though I’ll wait on you for that.

    • I’ve definitely noticed, especially in the last few years how cinema is an immaculate construction – like literature, like music. There’s a lot of relation to literature and music in cinema. Tarkovsky relates it to poetry, Kubrick or McTiernan relate it to music, someone else relates it to big band jazz.

      But it is quite fascinating how a film can be structured in a ‘perfect’ way. This is what’s exciting, but also this is why cinema is so powerful and why Lenin or Hitler down to Americans (and everyone else) realized its power in propaganda. You can structure anything in such a way that you can make people FEEL or BELIEVE a certain way.

      Getting away a bit from that – I think, one of the big reasons I started this blog is because I set out to reverse engineer how all these elements all work to make us feel and experience cinema in that gut-punching way.

      I have to say I’m still a bit fuzzy on Form vs Content and Functions – so I’ll get back to you on this a bit later as I review Film Art on those sections.

      What I have been noticing is the relationship or mere repetition and how it functions.

      In Gravity – the fire extinguisher is introduced in a scene and functions to distinguish a fire – later on it is repeated (and we are aware of it because of it being established) of its next function.

      In Truffaut’s Day for Night which I just saw – the repetition of a recurring dream which completes by a third act or so functions as a Question but later it is revealed in an Answer form by letting us see the dream play out in one complete run. So the dream is an element, which is repeated, and performs a function.

      in Gravity – extinguisher is an element, is repeated and performs a function. I’m trying to come up with a list of examples that I’ll update the main post with – with screencaptures. So we can further dissect concepts of “elements, repetition, function”

      • Tarkovsky I take as doing something different almost altogether. I think he is trying to battle all of the different non-cinematic inclinations which have to his mind infected Cinematic art. For example, literary structure as being a cause-and-effect narrative based on character choices (taken from ancient theater), the creation of all too obvious symbolic content (taken from painting), the emphasis on capturing the ‘realism’ of an event (taken from photography), and so on. It’s very much a book arguing against a lot of the Russian Formalist concepts which by that point had become a bit of a conservative doctrine. Later on, he’ll be very interesting to compare to McKee and Eisenstein.

        For now — after some thought I think the relation to music makes a good deal of sense. In music the Form of the piece informs its many structures, i.e. each instrument is playing a different melody which is both its own structured part of the piece, but also something contributing to the overall piece’s form through that structure. These different structures, interrelated and criss-crossing temporally by maintaining the same rhythm and tempo, create the Harmony of the piece, and its form. If one of those structured elements is off rhythm, played poorly, not precisely structured in relation to the others, etc. the whole piece is off and the performance is fucked.

        What film has though in term of Form and Structure that no other art form has: Its abstract Form allows for the creation of its concrete constituent materials, which then inform a whole new creation of form from those materials! The abstract informs the concrete informs the new abstract. One of the many artistic powers of editing.

        As far as form/content, the Russian formalists say without a doubt that form = content, this is their big mantra. If you like I’ll share all the relevant stuff from the Yale site which talks about this.

        “Repetition and how it functions.” — Getting back to music: think of the role of patterned repetition and progression in a musical piece. How that functions towards the creation and instillation of emotion. Might we say this is how film works? Is the part where we hear the roots of the melody at the beginning of the piece, then loud near the end, much different from seeing the Maze many times throughout The Shining and by the end having it play the pivotal functioning role in creating the emotional release of the dénouement built through the Form’s instillment of suspense? (Or Day for Night: I use this example simply to augment the Day for Night one)

        We have to consider function along with patterns & progression and their interconnected role across the three structures. Bordwell? (I’ve been reading enough to forget who) discusses the patterned use of shark attacks in Jaws. Each new time an attack happens (has the same general ‘form’) and we see the shark’s POV, and we hear the musical cue. We’ve patterned recognition through constituent elements, and created an emotional reaction. We then use these elements to progress our emotions (in this case the building of suspense) through the narrative construction.

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