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Eye on the Screen: David Bordwell (1947-2024)

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“Preconceived methods, applied simply for demonstrative purposes, often end by reducing the complexity of films,” David and Kristin once wrote. That’s a sentiment I heartily agree with. It bears repeating today, now that so much of “cultural writing” consists of “takes” that discuss works of moving image art as if they were pamphlets or PDFs, and that seem mainly interested in provoking a response, often with all the grace and erudition of a stick in the eye.

I never had David for a class, but based on my conversations with him, he must have been a marvelous teacher. He once explained classical continuity versus intensified continuity to me by citing Howard Hawks’ classic screwball comedy “Bringing Up Baby” as an example of the older type of continuity. Filmmakers in the pre-television era, he said, tended not to cut unless they felt there was a reason. They also understood that performances in a physical comedy are funnier if the camera stays farther back and shows us most or all of the performers’ bodies, so that they are somewhat diminished in the frame and we begin to think of them almost as machines or objects or dolls. The more we see them as warm, complicated, psychologically plausible human beings (mainly through closeups) the less likely we are to belly-laugh. That’s why Hawks doesn’t give us the first closeup in “Bringing up Baby” until halfway through the movie, when he cuts to a shot of Katharine Hepburn as she silently realizes she’s in love with Cary Grant. The moment leaps out and is unexpectedly powerful because the director hasn’t been jamming the camera up into actors’ nostrils for the preceding 45 minutes. “Your brain thinks, ‘Oh, this is different, this might be important’ and then you wonder why,” David told me. “In a lot of modern movies, the closeup is the default.”

David was wildly productive right up to the end, writing books under his own byline and in collaboration with Kristin, and contributing essays to other people’s work. (David did essays for three of the books in my Wes Anderson Collection Series: The Grand Budapest HotelThe French Dispatch, and a forthcoming, not-yet-scheduled book on Asteroid CityThe French Dispatch book is dedicated to him and Kristin, and he wrote the introduction to Asteroid City.) He remained plugged into the world of film criticism and scholarship, often making a point to seek out and mentor younger writers who had been inspired by his and Kristin’s work. And he was generous in acknowledging the contributions of others: a blog post from last year on James Cutting’s book Movies on Our Minds: The Evolution of Cinematic Engagement (which, like so much film scholarship, would not have existed without Bordwell and Thompson’s work) is not only extravagant in its praise for Cutting but goes out of its way to mention six other film scholars in the space of a single paragraph. David was always keen to let people know when he’d cited their work or said something nice about him, and there are probably thousands of people out there who, over the decades, had their days made by the arrival of a Bordwell email with the subject header, “You’ve been BLOGGED!” 

David once wrote to me years ago that he didn’t see the sorts of video essays I’d started doing in the mid-aughts as being all that similar to the picture-augmented formal analysis that he and Kristin did in their books. But he later came around to the idea that they were different paths toward the same destination. I think he proved it beyond all doubt in the pieces that he did for Criterion Channel with Kristin and Jeff Smith, which are compiled here. It’s one more astonishing body of work to accompany all the others. 

The world already seems like a poorer place without him. The best way to honor his memory is to talk about filmmaking. The stuff the dreams are made of.

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