Media Studies Notes

David Bordwell on Film Style

ARTICLE: Bordwell, David (1994) “The Power of a Research Tradition: Prospects for Progress in the Study of Film Style.” Film History 5, : 59–79.

Bordwell reviewed the historical study of film style in relation to its object (chronological change and stability in the film technique), a core set of problems (chronology, causality, influence, affinity, etc.) and shared methods of stylistic analysis.

Bordwell describes a research tradition accepted in the international history of film style, which he calls the Basic Story. The Basic Story “presents film from the recording of a pro-filmic event (either an actual event or a staged event) through steps of elaboration of particular film techniques – cuttings, closer framings, camera movement, lighting effects and nuanced acting.” (p.60) The Basic Story focuses on the work of individual filmmakers as well as “national schools.” It categorizes films as Italian epics, American features, German Expressionism etc. And authors are recognized as significant such as Meliès, Linder, Feuillade and Cohl for French cinema and Griffith, Ince, De Mille, Sennett and Chaplin for American films.

By the 1930s, the Basic Story was widely accepted as the standard approach as “it provides a chronology and a canon. It traces a course of events to be examined, explained and expanded upon. The Basic Story developed into 3 branches – the Standard Version, the Revised or Dialectical Version and the Oppositional Version.

For the Standard Version, “stylistic change results from the filmmakers’ efforts to solve a particular problem.” (p.60) Bardeche and Brasillach (Histoire du Cinema) added the notion that the history of film is a search for the distinctive qualities of film as art, i.e., searching for its own language and best mode of expression.

In 1943, Andre Bazin argued that the tendency of the cinema to be free from photography is just half of the picture, or even a false one. He argued instead for “the camera’s ability to record and reveal physical reality” and called for more realistic films. Thus the Revised Version.

In the 60s, the New Wave and foreign directors brought about the Oppositional Version.


From wikipedia:

Bordwell is a prolific scholar, interested in auteur studies (Ozu, Eisenstein, Dreyer), national cinemas (Hong Kong), history of film style, and narrative theory. Bordwell is considered the founder of cognitive film theory, an approach that relies on cognitive psychology as a basis for understanding film’s effects. It was established as an alternative to the psychoanalytic/interpretive approach that dominated film studies in the 1970s and ’80s. He is the Jacques Ledoux Professor of Film Studies, Emeritus in the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

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