David Bordwell: In Memoriam, a Guest Post from Rodney Powell

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David Bordwell, the preeminent film scholar of his generation, passed away on February 29 after a long illness. The University of Chicago Press was privileged to publish three of his books, one of which, Minding Movies: Observations on the Art, Craft, and Business of Filmmaking (published in 2011) was co-authored with his longtime partner, Kristin Thompson. It consists of entries taken from the blog they started in September, 2006, “Observations on Film Art.” The other two are The Rhapsodes: How 1940s Critics Changed American Film Culture (published in 2016) and Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling (published in 2017).  

Bordwell’s preeminence was affirmed by the outpouring of comments from colleagues, former students, and many in the film industry who had learned from his work. An obituary posted on the website of his longtime academic home, the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, on March 1, was subsequently reposted on the “Observations” site on March 3, along with additional comments by Kristin Thompson. Here’s a link. It is an excellent summary of both his scholarly achievements and his exemplary personal qualities. In its closing words,  “All who knew David Bordwell personally will miss his kindness, goodwill, and boundless congeniality, as well as his professional wisdom.”   

Although I did not know him well, the working relationship we established attested to that “kindness, goodwill, and boundless congeniality.” I would add that he was a consummate professional–given all he had already published, he knew about the procedures of academic presses and was not disturbed by the requirements such procedures entailed. He was even able to joke about them. Basically, he knew what he wanted, and I only needed to make sure that the process of going from manuscript to book went smoothly. He was the ideal author from a procedural viewpoint; add to that the outstanding quality of his work, and you have a recipe for nirvana for an acquisitions editor. 

It is the quality of what the University of Chicago Press was privileged to publish that I want to stress. The Bordwell and Thompson “brand” was established with the publication of a textbook, Film Art: An Introduction in 1979, and their blog was initially thought of as a way to provide online supplementary material for that text. It soon expanded to include whatever the pair wanted to write about, and it remains one of the wonders of the internet. Minding Movies is an excellent sampling from the early years, but I urge those who are not familiar with the site to explore its manifold delights.  

It was the publication by Bordwell and Thompson (along with Janet Staiger) of The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 in 1985 that jolted me into new ways of thinking about Hollywood, particularly in regard to the “mode of production” that was not the mindless “factory” disparaged by those who, seemingly reflexively, disliked its “products,” but a logically-developed method for enabling production of the large number of features needed to keep that system functioning. Although Bordwell, Thompson, and Staiger were by no means uncritical cheerleaders for that system, they recognized the opportunities it offered for talents who were able to work within it, despite their grumbling and clashes with “the bosses.”  

So, despite his vast knowledge and major achievements in other areas, I believe it was Bordwell’s contributions to the study of American cinema that constitute his most lasting achievements. Starting with that groundbreaking The Classical Hollywood Cinema, Bordwell went on to elaborate and extend the basic narrative concerning Hollywood cinema established there. To me, The Rhapsodes and Reinventing Hollywood are complementary studies of aspects of developments in the “long” 1940s (approximately 1939-1952 in Bordwell’s formulation) that transformed a well-established system that had already produced many classic works of film art. As Bordwell notes toward the end of his “Introduction” to Reinventing, “. . . you could make the case that Hollywood film was America’s greatest contribution to world art in the 1940s” (p. 16). He proceeds to demonstrate how that transformed system makes such a claim plausible. 

In The Rhapsodes, he discusses a group of maverick writers (Otis Ferguson, James Agee, Manny Farber, and Parker Tyler) who, through their fresh responses to, and effective writing about, the movies of that era, helped change the prevailing film culture in the United States from the above mentioned all-but complete dismissal of the “products” of the despised Hollywood “factory” to a more open, but still wary, recognition of the artistic virtues exemplified in some of those productions. In a sense, The Rhapsodes is an apt prelude to the detailed (and entertaining) study in Reinventing of how “cooperative competition” among many professionals changed some of the basics of movie storytelling in ways that still influence filmmakers, not only in the U.S., but around the world.   

Bordwell’s closing words for his magisterial study also make a fitting conclusion for my appreciation of his career-long efforts to understand how movies work: “Across a few years and scores of films . . . filmmakers rethought the art of telling stories in images and sounds. They stretched the horizons of cinema for all those who followed. (p. 479).” Bordwell was a leader in exploring how the moviemaking system actually functioned, and, crucially, he provided a sustained demonstration of how to proceed with the careful explanation of that functioning in his own writing. He challenged and motivated many others to do outstanding work, and his sterling personal qualities were a shining example. I do not think we shall look upon his like again.  

Ave atque vale, David.    

Bordwell also wrote the forewords for two collections by Roger Ebert published by the University of Chicago Press: Awake in the Dark: The Best of Roger Ebert (published in 2006; Second Edition in 2017) and The Great Movies III (published in 2010).  

–Rodney Powell, happily retired former assistant editor at the Press who acquired several film books

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