Dear Professor Bordwell: A Great Talk by an Eminent Film Scholar

Books by Bordwell

I’m sure we all have our heroes and heroines, and David Bordwell is definitely my hero. For many of us who took an introductory course in cinema and media studies in the past few decades, his name must be familiar: Professor Bordwell and his wife Kristen Thompson have co-authored Film Art: An Introduction, which reached its 10th edition this year. Professor Bordwell was a guest speaker at the 2012 Peter Morris Memorial Lecture at York University, the lecture series established in the memory of the late film scholar Peter Morris (1937-2011) to promote critical discourse in the field of film studies.1 I was fortunate enough to not only attend the lecture but also attend a dinner with Professor Bordwell.

When we read non-fiction books, we often tend to imagine the authors’ real voices, and I have done so many times. I had never heard Professor Bordwell’s voice until I attended this lecture, and I somehow imagined his voice would be soft but energetic. It turned out that his voice was indeed energetic but much deeper than I expected.

The title of his lecture was “How Motion Pictures Became the Movies,” and focused mainly on the dominant group of films from 1908 through 1920. So-called early cinema is not my field, so I’m familiar with only its basic outline, but I really enjoyed Professor Bordwell’s analytical approach, or neo-formalism/cognitivism. His main claim was that two strands of film styles – “tableau”-based theatrical cinema and continuity editing-driven cinema – must have co-existed rather than the latter completely took over the former. His meticulous attention to detail in each shot and cut was amazing and generally supported his argument of how the condition of camera optics had shifted wider, shallow staging of theatre to cinematic staging of deep space and how camera optics had changed the positioning of the cast on stage. I am not sure if this was during the Q&As or his lecture, but he also pointed out that many shorts on YouTube contain the traits of “tableau” cinema.

One of the drawbacks in neo-formalist research is its lack of engaging in the context of the research subjects, and one of the attendees indeed asked about the socio-economic context of early cinema during the Q&As. The response given by Professor Bordwell was most likely unsatisfactory to the questioner – instead of touching upon any salient events or factors from the 1910s, he showed an original script used in that period and emphasized what hand-written notes on it could reveal the time’s factor of filmmaking. Material history often plays a significant role in his research and a detailed scrutiny of film and its related material history seems to be the two strands of his methodology.

At the end of the lecture, I was very glad to see that Professor Bordwell is still conducting his research on Bordwellian framework. When I finished my undergraduate program in cinema studies, I was fully Bordwellian, and planning to pursue a research on cognitivist way of understanding experimental cinema and media. During the second year of my MA program, something happened and I started losing a strong sense of being Bordwellian. Seeing how Professor Bordwell developed his argument in the lecture, I re-appreciate his methodology that emphasizes material history and meticulous attention to film itself. Film as a medium may not be at the centre of Cinema and Media Studies anymore, but his two-strand methodology will always remind us of the core of this academic discipline.

After the lecture, I joined Professor Bordwell, some faculty members and graduate students at dinner. At the dinner table, he was sharing his impression of Sinister (2012) and pointed out that its opening scene had a factor reflective of the current situation of film. I haven’t watched it yet, so I might misunderstand some of his points, but basically, one character who tried to watch an 8 or 16 mm film eventually recorded it with a video camera to watch it more closely on a computer. D.N. Rodowick may be much younger than Professor Bordwell, but Rodowick may react to this scene as curiously as Professor Bordwell did. (They are interestingly students of Dudley Andrew and Rodowick received his PhD nine years after Professor Bordwell.)

It was really my pleasure to attend the lecture by Professor Bordwell and to have an opportunity to talk to him in person. I really hope that I have a chance to present my research in front of him someday and discuss it with him. However and wherever my research will turn out in the next several years, Professor Bordwell will remain my hero. Dear Professor Bordwell, please continue conducting your rigorous research and inspiring coming generations of new scholars!

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1http://film.finearts.yorku.ca/news-events/events?Event=26687&Month=10&Year=2012 &Detail=Y

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