On the History of Film Style, by David Bordwell

Bordwell's book is divided into five chapters:
1) Defending and Defining the Seventh Art
2) Against the Seventh Art: Andre Bazin and the Dialectical Program
3) The Return of Modernism: Noel Burch and the Oppositional Paradigm
4) Prospects for Progress: Recent Research Programs
5) Exceptionally Exact Perceptions: On Staging Depth

I will mainly discuss chapters 1 and 3 (with a little on chapter 2), since the topic of cinematic specificity as a distinct discipline, in chapter 1, and the topic of oppositional challenge to the characteristic methods of a discipline, in chapter 3, are areas of extensive debate and confusion by many people involved in cinema studies. This article is not intended to be a substitute for reading Bordwell's book. I will select specific ideas to highlight and elaborate on, without claiming to have provided a comprehensive coverage of everything in the book nor the chapters I have primarily focused on.

Defending and Defining the Seventh Art

To put this chapter in context, Bordwell has used the term 'the seventh art' to refer to an idea that there are separate and distinct arts; music, dance, painting, literature, architecture, sculpture, and cinema (or photographic art in general).

Bordwell stated that the history of cinema is most commonly understood as a narrative that traces the emergence of cinema as a distinct art.

I believe that the history of cinema is not any particular story but related to history in general, as in the totality of what has existed and occured up to now (which is never known, knowable, or told in its entirety, and can have many stories told about it in many different ways).

Bordwell has adressed the idea that there is a consensus about the development of cinema as a distinct art, something he calls "the basic story."

"The basic story," he wrote "is largely a chronicle of technical progress. It traces a development toward growing expressivity, subtlety, and complexity in telling a story on film." According to this idea, filmmakers can all draw from an accumulated range of techniques from all films.

Bordwell also discussed the idea of "the standard version" of the basic story, which is used to treat the history of film style as "a development toward the revelation of cinema's inherent aesthetic capacities."

Put simply, the basic story is about the history of how cinema as a distinct art has been used, and the standard version is about the history of how cinema as a distinct art can be used in the context of what is known about it at various times.

Bordwell has discussed the problems posed by sound to ideas of a basic story with a canon and chronology developed in the silent era. Many students now read books such as Rudolf Arnheim's Film as Art and think it strange that someone would advocate silent black and white cinema over cinema with sound and colour. The advocacy of positions like Arnheim's is typical of ideas of cinematic specificity; that only what is uniquely cinematic belongs to a distinct art of cinema. In this line of thought, the use of colour, sound or verbal language would be to borrow from painting, music or literature and spoil the purity of a uniquely cinematic art.

In the words of Erwin Panofsky (quoted in the book):
From about 1905 on, we can witness the fascinating spectacle of a new artistic medium gradually becoming conscious of its legitimate - that is, exclusive - possibilities and limitations.

Even today people make similar appeals to these types of cinematic specificity - whether fully thought out, as a repetition of advice encountered elsewhere, or as an over-correction for beginner screenwriting and filmmaking mistakes - using phrases like "cinema is a visual medium." If you accept sound cinema, is cinema not more like audio-visual (or audio-visual-spatio-temporal-etc)?

Against the Seventh Art: Andre Bazin and the Dialectical Program

According to Bordwell, Andre Bazin developed a revised conception of the basic story based on the idea that it contains not one trend but two:
1) following the standard version, some filmmakers sought to showcase the uniquely cinematic aspects of their work and set it apart to be recognised as an artistic creation as opposed to a mechanical reproduction of what the camera was pointed at.
2) some filmmakers focused on "the ability of the camera to record and reveal physical reality."

Three types of conceptual approaches to cinema are dealt with in this chapter:
Pure Cinema
An approach that deals only with 'the unique essence of cinema.'
Impure Cinema
An approach that deals with more than 'cinematic specificity' (eg. includes sound, colour, verbal language, passage of time, etc.)
Total Cinema
An approach that aims for a complete simulation of reality, in which the the film is considered an absolute substtute for what was filmed in every way.

Of these three, my preference most closely matches impure cinema (although I don't think that's a good name for it because there is no need to name or define it in relation to an idea of pure cinema). Alternatively, I could consider my preference as most closely matched to total cinema in that a film can be understood as if it were a recording of (a fictional) reality. However, I think Bazin went too far in the extent to which he claimed a film can substitute for reality.

The Return of Modernism: Noel Burch and the Oppositional Paradigm

According to Bordwell, "around 1960, European directors launched what came to be recognized as a modernist cinema." But what is modernism?

In the words of Clement Greenberg (quoted in the book): "The essence of Modernism lies, as I see it, in the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticise the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence." Bordwell also discusses an influential conception of Modernism in which "the artwork was obliged to acknowledge the materials and structures of its medium to "lay bare the device," in the phrase of the Russian formalists." But how does someone determine what a discipline is and what its characteristic methods are, in order to use the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticise it? Should it be assumed that there are distinct and reliably identifiable disciplines with distinct and reliably identifiable characteristic methods? Can a person deliberately "lay bare the device" in order to challenge its workings without a reliable knowledge of what it is and how to establish this knowledge?

(Further reading: Some interesting coverage of ideas of modernism (and thinking beyond them), in my judgment, include Bruno Latour's We Have Never Been Modern (translated to English by Catherine Porter) and Chapter 1: Beyond Modernism and Postmodernism in Roy Bhaskar's Reflections on Meta-Reality: Transcendence, Emancipation and Everyday Life.)

According to Bordwell, by the 1970's people like Jean-Louis Comolli and Noel Burch "sought to contest the ideology of transparent realism" on a basis similar to that mentioned by Clement Greenberg above, believing realism to be simply a structural arrangement of material to create an illusion of reality that served the interests of particular types of people.

These sorts of claims are very commonplace in universities around the world now that many people who were university students in the 70s are senior members of faculty in universities and have groomed many students with similar ideas. In my experience, it is common among many people in universities for such an assumption to be held that a film is 'an oppressive group-specific attempt at transparent-realist illusion used to gain advantage over another group by deception.' It is also common for this assumption to be accepted without support of evidence or be considered to not warrant questioning about the basis of the assumption. I think such claims should not be accepted without compelling evidence based on real observations and what can be reliably inferred from them, not prefabricated and unverified or unverifiable speculative or rhetorical theory.

With On the History of Film Style Bordwell has provided, in my judgment, one one of the better books on film history (but limited to the history of film style). For a broader treatment of film history, you could try Film History: An Introduction by Bordwell and his wife Kristin Thompson or The Story of Film: A Worldwide History by Mark Cousins.

Bordwell also has a website, www.davidbordwell.net, with lots of film related content, including a range of Bordwell's articles and interviews. Included is an introductory chapter dropped from the latest version of Film History: An Introduction to make room for other content, revised and retitled Doing Film History.

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