ISSN 1466-4615



James S. Hurley

David Bordwell's Iron Cage of Style




David Bordwell

_On the History of Film Style_

Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997

ISBN 0-674-63429-2

322 pages


'[P]eople whose profession it is to objectivize the social world prove rarely able to objectivize themselves, and fail so often to realize that what their apparently scientific discourse talks about is not the object but their relation to the object.'

Pierre Bourdieu and Loic J. D. Wacquant


'I am happiest, as a critic and a reader, when I am learning how these two concerns are mutually illuminating -- how the formal properties of a text are part of the work that text does in the world, and how its work in the world is enabled or conditioned by our understanding of its properties.'

Michael Berube



For David Bordwell it would seem that the gravest problem for film studies programs today is not the withering away of institutional funds slotted for humanities departments, or the imposition on those programs of profit-driven hiring, admissions, and curricular practices drawn from business models, or the possible linkages between this hyper-capitalized version of humanistic studies and postmodern capitalism's need for an ever-growing number of instrumentalized bodies to fill an ever-enlarging professional-managerial class -- no, film studies' gravest problem is none of these. It's that dad-blasted Lacanian-Althusserian Paradigm (LAP) and the damage it left in its theoretical wake. Bordwell's been in a running battle with the LAP for too many years to count, and while much of his animus against it has seemed to me unnecessary, overstated, or just plain mistaken, there's no denying that: a) he has scored against the LAP many telling points; and b) he has done so in the context of a body of work that is as formidable in its intellectual scope as any produced by an English-language film critic/theorist, living or dead. In other words, if Bordwell can at times be a bit monomaniacal, he has also shown himself to be a critic of remarkable range and force -- a thinker to be reckoned with.


In his most recent book, _On the History of Film Style_, Bordwell jabs the accusatory finger once again at the LAP and its legatees, citing them for giving short shrift to -- surprise -- film style. For all the razzle-dazzle attention paid to textual minutia in much of the LAP's canonical critical work (e.g., Heath's _Touch of Evil_ analysis; the _Cahiers_ editors' collective reading of _Young Mr. Lincoln_), it never seemed to pause long enough to note that the films under examination might have quite distinctive visual textures and tonalities, and that they might then be something other than symptomatically charged exempla of the classical Hollywood production system and the ideology putatively embedded in and advanced by it. Bordwell sees LAP and post-LAP criticism as doubly remiss here: remiss in that by jettisoning matters of style this criticism ignores one of the crucial ways in which films shape their viewers' experiences of them; and remiss in that this criticism is itself unacknowledgedly subtended by notions of cinematic history and form developed by the very historians of film style that the LAP purported to superannuate. Bordwell, in his 1991 book _Making Meaning_, proposed that the vagaries of theory-bound criticism could best be countered through 'a self-conscious historical poetics of the cinema'; [1] _On the History of Film Style_ can be seen as a preliminary step in the development of such a poetics.


In the opening chapter of _Film Style_, Bordwell places his project in the context 'of what is broadly taken to be the aesthetic history of cinema' (4). The history of film style is here only one of the histories contained within this aesthetic history, sharing space with the history of film forms, genres, and modes; and this aesthetic history is in turn just one of the larger historical narratives we can construct about film -- other such narratives including 'the history of the movie industry, the history of film technology, and the history of cinema's relations to society or culture' (4). Because, as Bordwell rightly notes, '[t]hese sorts of history are not easy to mark off sharply', he finds it advisable that critics look at the construction of historical narratives in terms of '*questions* posed at different levels of generality' (4). The questions Bordwell sees as fundamental to the historian of film style are: 'What patterns of stylistic continuity and change are significant? How may these patterns be explained?' (4). All of this seems promising enough: Bordwell suggests that the separating out of these various histories is sometimes arbitrary and provisional, that the borders between them are thus porous and moveable, that critics in general will necessarily have occasion to cross or re-draw such borders, and that critics concerned specifically with film style will need to go into other historical narratives in order to account for its changing articulations. It is Bordwell's goal to answer the questions he has posed in a way that is 'fine-grained' and 'empirically verifiable'. But although this goal may seem commonsensically admirable (who wants a criticism shot-through with historical hallucinations, and course-grained ones at that?), it becomes in Bordwell's hands a form of critical prophylaxis, drastically and wilfully reducing the range of his discussion. For, indeed, Bordwell's book may finally be most problematic exactly in the questions it doesn't pose, in the conceptual and cultural spaces it refuses to enter: he repeatedly halts his line of inquiry just at the point where large and interesting questions are arising. For Bordwell, however, these are inevitably questions that are not answerable in the requisite 'fine-grained', 'empirically verifiable' manner; addressing them will thus involve moving into historical speculation and generalization -- into, that is to say, the realm of theory and post-theoretical 'culturalism' in which too many critics have already misguidedly wandered. But Bordwell's insistence on these criteria for determining what questions are and are not admissible to his critical project is no 'innocent' heuristic decision; it is a choice with profound institutional and ideological consequences. What Bordwell too often gives us in _Film Style_ is, to adapt a phrase from Fredric Jameson, not explanation, but that which remains to be explained.


In his next three chapters, Bordwell addresses, not film style's history *per se*, but its historiography, discussing the writers whose work has been most important in bestowing narrative shape on the way the history of film style has commonly been understood. Bordwell introduces four terms in these chapters that are essential for his historiographical architecture: the 'Basic Story', the 'Standard Version', the 'Dialectical Program', and the 'Oppositional Program'. The Basic Story is for Bordwell the 'narrative that traces the emergence of film as a distinct art' (13), the once-canonical teleology of cinema that has it moving from the 'primitivism' of the Lumieres' documentary realism to the 'sophistication' of the Soviet directors' strategies of montage, making the familiar developmental stops along the way (Melies's fantasy films, Porter's early advances in editing, Griffith's development of flashbacks, cross-cutting, close-ups, etc., and the German Expressionists' mobilizing of the camera and visual intricacy in conveying psychological states). The advent of sound then arrests the development of film as an art form, locking it into a theatrical modality that forestalls further exploration and enhancement of the visual properties that, for the Basic Story, make cinema aesthetically unique. Bordwell sees the Basic Story as having developed in a somewhat *ad hoc* fashion: a product of journalistic reviews; higher-brow writings in specialized film publications; the proliferation of American and European 'cine-clubs' composed of serious film aficionados; the entry of cinema into museum culture (New York's Museum of Modern Art decisively taking the lead); and even promotional materials from movie producers themselves (Griffith's critical reputation, for example, substantially benefiting from the publicity generated for him by Biograph). The Standard Version brings a neo-Hegelian ontological anchoring to this story, seeing film as an autonomous aesthetic medium whose evolution demonstrates a self-refining search for its own essential form -- as advanced by such writers as Erwin Panofsky and Rudolph Arnheim, the Standard Version charts 'a development toward the revelation of cinema's inherent aesthetic capacities' (27). The first full-dress articulation of the Standard Version appears with the 1935 _Histoire du Cinema_, by the French fascist writers Robert Brasillach and Maurice Bardeche (Brasillach would in 1945 be executed for his collaboration with France's Nazi occupiers); for Bordwell, the rise-and-fall aesthetic trajectory of their _Histoire_ will serve as armature for the work of film historians for decades to come, including that of such widely influential figures as Georges Sadoul, Lewis Jacobs, and Jean Mitry.


Beginning in the late 1940s, however, the Basic Story becomes subject to an inversive intervention, most powerfully at the hands of Andre Bazin. What Bordwell calls Bazin's Dialectical Program stands many of the aesthetic precepts of the Standard Version on their head, so that the essence of film is no longer seen as fully realized through silent cinema's capacities for hyper-stylization (Expressionism) or dynamized abstraction (Soviet montage), but rather through cinema's heightened self-consciousness of its intrication with the world of material reality. For this reason Bazin embraces the 'theatrical' cinema that according to the Standard Version was an impoverishing bastardization of the medium; Bazin locates in this cinema an analytical approach to the image, enacted through 'invisible' continuity editing techniques ('*decoupage*'), that filmically interrogates the minutiae of reality. And, of course, Bazin sees as evolving out of *decoupage* the great *summa* of film's engagement with and exploration of reality: the deep focus *mise en scene* of Renoir, Wyler, and Welles. Bordwell lauds Bazin, not just for opening up new narrative possibilities in the Basic Story that the Standard Version had foreclosed, but for bringing unprecedented sensitivity to the nuances of films' visual operations.


This is a position similar to the one he takes regarding his next seminal thinker, Noel Burch, main proponent of the Oppositional Program. The Basic Story of film history had, for Bordwell, been shaped by distinctly modernist notions of the evolution of aesthetic form -- Bordwell observes that cinema was seen as moving in the 'leaps from vanguard to vanguard' that Harold Rosenberg claimed for modernist art practice (21); Bazin had countered this modernism by privileging its dialectical Other: realism. With Burch, modernism again asserts itself, but here in more formally sophisticated and politically charged fashion. Bordwell sees Burch as bringing a rich observational acuity to film, attending to formal properties and possibilities of cinema previously unconsidered by critics (e.g., the complex deployment of spatial 'parameters' within the frame; the various types and uses of offscreen space). Burch does this in the service of a project whose goal is to discredit the routinizing formal procedures of mainstream cinema (what Burch calls the Institutional Mode of Production) and to valorize new, formally radical approaches to film practice. Burch's influence on film historiography is for Bordwell profound: Burch provides a lexicon that encourages a closer engagement with and understanding of the difficult 'high-modernist' films of such directors as Antonioni and Resnais, and that lays much of the conceptual groundwork for the anti-bourgeois 'political modernism' of directors such as Godard. Burch's opposition to the Institutional Mode of Production also forces a revisiting of the early, 'primitive' cinematic practice the IMP supplanted, which must now be seen as more formally dense and politically complex than had previously been acknowledged.


As a general synoptic history, these chapters are for the most part deft, Bordwell concisely covering a great deal of ground. There are, however, significant points in his narrative which he treats in reductive or inconsistent ways -- Bordwell's ambition for a fine-grained film history would seem not always to find its analog when he addresses matters of intellectual history. For example, Bordwell courts real confusion when he links Bazin's realist turn to a general postwar increase in realism's cultural currency. This claim is questionable enough on the face of it, but becomes even more so when, in his discussion of Burch, Bordwell much more accurately notes that, following a brief lull during World War II, 'modernism returned with a vengeance' (84); this, of course, is the moment when modernism undergoes its full institutional appropriation -- e.g., the U. S. I. A. makes abstract expressionism one of America's official cultural exports, Faulkner and Eliot win their Nobels, _Ulysses_ becomes a fixture in university literature departments, etc. (The confusion here is most notable when the work of Brecht -- held up by Bordwell as an example of realism in chapter three -- returns in chapter four as an example of the ascendancy of modernism.) Also problematic is Bordwell's criticism that Bazin's rewriting of the Basic Story is undergirded by a neo-Hegelian apprehension of the contours of history that makes his Dialectical Program more sweeping in its claims than the actual particulars of film history will permit; Bordwell attributes Bazin's historical assumptions, in part at least, to all that Hegelianism suffusing the intellectual culture of postwar Paris (Kojeve goes unmentioned, but his is obviously the influence Bordwell has in mind). While these claims are supportable enough as far as they go, a more detailed attention to this complex and varied intellectual milieu is called for: the phenomenological dimension so central to Bazin's criticism begs in particular for a discussion of his work in the context of the prominent position held in postwar French intellectual life by such thinkers as Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty. While all of these philosophers stand in clear debt to Hegel, none can adequately be described simply as 'neo-Hegelian'.


But 'neo-Hegelian' is a term Bordwell dispenses rather freely in _Film Style_, using it to describe virtually any mode of interpretation that develops 'abstract' general categories in order to account for concrete social and historical particulars. Such interpretive approaches, argues Bordwell, produce 'top-down' histories which do procrustean damage to the specific phenomena they treat (nuances are lost; the 'course-grained' prevails) and which, moreover, construct overbroad and finally speculative conceptual apparatuses purporting to explain those specifics. Bordwell is much more energized by what he sees as this latter problem; indeed, although he does want to fine-tune the Basic Story in _Film Style_, one of his happy claims in the book is that, the self-important radicalism of the LAP thinkers notwithstanding, the earlier critics and historians collectively responsible for the Basic Story got things more right than wrong (an especially notable achievement given the archival vagaries within which they worked). When Bordwell scores these earlier writers it is, as a rule, because they have made what he views as some 'unverifiable' move that places film history in a larger, 'determinative' social/economic/historical context. So, for example, while the Marxist Sadoul is praised because he 'nuances' Brasillach and Bardeche's historical narrative, his attempt to show that film history had been profoundly shaped by class interests is tacitly equated with his fascist predecessors' claims that the shaping force involved was a cabal of (implicitly Jewish) capitalists -- Bordwell blandly treats these explanatory accounts as mere ideological inversions of each other. (Indeed, one of the most troubling results of Bordwell's refusal to ask the big, 'neo-Hegelian' question is that he never addresses the possible ramifications for the Standard Version of film history that, according to him, its foundation was largely laid by fascist ideologues.)


Similarly, the main problem with Burch's Oppositional Program is that it, too, relies on seeing class conflict as the engine of historical change for film style, the rise of the Institutional Mode of Production being for Burch a product of cinema's economically-driven need to legitimate itself with a middle class whose bourgeois subjectivity required 'psychological identification' with aesthetic works. As a shortcoming of Burch's argument, Bordwell points to the viability for bourgeois audiences of other, historically coincident aesthetic forms such as opera, ballet, and abstract painting, which didn't provide the reality effects supposedly needed for such identification (113-4). But if Burch's historical model does indeed call out for greater refinement, Bordwell's counter-argument here is itself rather unrefined. Are we really to understand that it was largely the same audience with the same class investments and social assumptions that went to see museum exhibits of post-Impressionist paintings and movies starring Mary Pickford or Rudolph Valentino? While surely there were some significant demographic overlaps between moviegoers and the patrons of the 'high culture' aesthetic practices Bordwell mentions, to lump these groups together under the aegis 'middle class' is to ignore significant distinctions that should be drawn *within* classes, distinctions that complexify traditional notions of economic class, and that may finally speak to the need to demarcate categories of class very differently. In light of the subtlizing work on class done by such social theorists as Erik Olin Wright and Pierre Bourdieu, Bordwell's thinking on class here seems at least as baggy and imprecise as many of the 'neo-Hegelians' he criticizes.


In chapter five of _Film Style_, 'Prospects for Progress: Recent Research Programs', Bordwell shifts from historiographical overview to issues of current and pressing concern in film and cultural studies. This is perhaps the most intellectually ambitious chapter in Bordwell's book; it is certainly the most contentious. Bordwell addresses two divergent approaches in contemporary film studies, that of the 'revisionist historians' who, through extensive archival research conducted within a modest and flexible conceptual framework, have shown the factual errors and historical gaps that marred the Basic Story, and that of the LAP theorists and their cultural-studies descendants who insist on imposing broad-brush, ideologically self-fulfilling paradigms on their objects of study. While it is the practitioners of the former approach who are Bordwell's intellectual heroes in this chapter, it is when addressing the latter group that his argument takes on its greatest urgency -- it is only slightly too hyperbolic to say that, for Bordwell, the LAP is the nightmare from which film scholarship must awake. But, as at earlier points in _Film Style_, Bordwell's goal of historical subtlety and precision softens when he encounters intellectual positions he opposes and critical methodologies he rejects: his discussion of the LAP, which he terms 'Grand Theory', is woefully reductive and open to historical and conceptual dispute.


As he sketches it, the Lacanian-Althusserian Paradigm was a monolithic theoretical entity that attracted critics with its hubristic claims to systematicity and comprehensiveness, and then 'imploded' as a result of criticisms from without and contradictions from within; the result was that its adherents 'began purging their shelves of Althusser and Lacan' and turned instead to 'cultural studies', their 'empty shelf space . . . quickly packed with works by Foucault and the Frankfurt School' (140-1). Virtually all of Bordwell's account of the LAP and its critical aftermath is uncharitable (and I mean this both generally and in Donald Davidson's specific sense of that term), and some of it is simply wrong. [2] The 'internal contradictions' Bordwell cites, for example, could be seen to indicate that those working within Grand Theory occupied a more diverse range of critical vantage points than he allows (we can think here of the differences between feminist theorists such as Laura Mulvey and Pam Cook and their male counterparts within the LAP on the key idea of spectatorial subject position -- differences that led to the *refinement* of this idea, not, as Bordwell asserts, its abandonment). Grand Theory also looks less monolithic in the context of Bordwell's assertion that it could not withstand 'persistent criticism by skeptics' (140); a more generous (or charitable) way of putting this might be that Grand Theorists were open to revising their positions in light of provocative work done by critics coming from other perspectives (I recently had occasion to re-read Mulvey's monograph on _Citizen Kane_, and was struck by her cheerful and intelligent use of insights into the film by Barry Salt and Noel Carroll, two of the LAP's bitterest foes). [3] In this respect, critics working within or developing out of the LAP may have shown greater theoretical flexibility than have their sternly dismissive opponents.


An apparently more niggling, but finally quite revealing criticism of Bordwell's account involves his pointing to the abandonment of Lacan and Althusser in favor of Foucault and the Frankfurters (the former pair, according to Bordwell, seemingly erased from historical memory, like some out-of-step Party bureaucrat in a Kundera novel). One problem with this claim, of course, is that it is erroneous; as Kaja Silverman, Slavoj Zizek, Parveen Adams, and Teresa de Lauretis forcefully demonstrate, Lacan and Althusser live still in film and cultural studies. Moreover -- and this will seem the niggling point -- the Frankfurt School, with the exception of peripheral member Walter Benjamin (whom I'll discuss in a moment), has not played nearly as important a role in cultural studies as Bordwell's glib formulation suggests; in order to be historically accurate, where Bordwell says 'Frankfurt School', we should substitute the name 'Antonio Gramsci'. This substitution, however, has implications going beyond mere historical accuracy. The intense interest in Gramsci's thought on the part of cultural critics signalled their increasing awareness of significant limitations in Althusser's theory of ideology, at least as it had most often been construed (Zizek's recent work has shown that this theory can be deployed in remarkably supple ways); and that these critics turned as a rule to Gramsci rather than Horkheimer/Adorno indicated a more general suspicion regarding theories of ideology and the 'culture industry' that saw them as working in strict, unilateral, 'top-down' fashion. Cultural studies' Gramscian inflections show critics' growing concern with the varieties of spectatorial agency, with the complex and often quite flexible modes of engagement viewers bring to the films they watch. Such a shift in emphasis strikes me as another example of theoretically informed criticism's ability to question and revise itself (a key moment for film theory, at least symbolically, may have been the interview Stephen Heath conducted with Raymond Williams in 1986, the LAP's greatest English-language avatar there making common cause with one of British cultural studies' towering figures). [4] This shift also strikes me as demonstrating the willingness of cultural studies to attend to an aspect of film that Bordwell has rather notoriously elided in his own work (he certainly does so in _Film Style_) -- the particularities of experience among film audiences. Bordwell's mention of the Frankfurters and omission of Gramsci is an especially telling argumentational maneuver in _Film Style_: it allows him to characterize cultural studies as simply engaging in more of that gloomy and monolithic old ideological claptrap; and it allows him to claim of culturalism that it has a reductive view of audience response -- a claim, as we shall see, that can much more accurately be made about Bordwell himself.


When Bordwell deals directly and at length with culturalism, he concentrates on critical work that falls into what he calls 'the 'history of vision' approach' (141), which argues that the way subjects perceive the world is conditioned by the socio-economic circumstances of their given historical moment. Bordwell discusses three versions of this approach: Benjamin's, in his famous essay, 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction'; Tom Gunning's, developed in a number of articles on the early 'cinema of attractions'; and Regis Debray's, in his 'massively epochal' book _Vie et mort de l'image_ (139-49). As Benjamin is clearly the best known and most widely influential of these thinkers, I'll restrict my comments here to Bordwell's treatment of his work. Of specific concern to Bordwell is Benjamin's claim in the 'Work of Art' essay that modernity had effected whole-cloth changes on the human experience of social reality, now perceived for Benjamin as an unending series of sensory shocks that result in the ongoing psychic 'distraction' of modern subjects; Benjamin sees the volatile visual dynamics of film (*motion* pictures) as both contributor to and register of this distraction. Bordwell's core criticism of Benjamin's essay is two-fold: its view of film's visual operations is predicated solely on Eisensteinian theories of editing in which images exist in collisional relation to each other; and it posits that all subjects living under the modern dispensation experience social reality in exactly the same way, and thus neglects distinctions that should be drawn among members of the modern socius on the basis of class, region, etc.. Moreover, Bordwell sees much of the culturalist work in film studies as carrying forward Benjamin's overbroad assumptions (141-3).


Bordwell's criticisms have some merit: Benjamin, in this thirty page essay which is, among other things, a historically specific assault on the fascist aesthetics of the 1920s and 30s, certainly speaks in sweeping terms at times. But granting this, there is much in Benjamin's piece, even within his too-broad assertions, that can bear significantly on our understanding of history, culture, and film form. First, we must note that Bordwell's correlation of Benjamin's view of film as perceptually disruptive with film editing is itself an overbroad claim: Eisenstein, as Benjamin would have known, argued that montage can take place not just between but within shots (through compositional strategies, movement within the frame, etc.). Moreover, Benjamin does not locate the shock of the film experience solely in film's editing procedures, but discusses it in terms of 'the moving image', a capacious formulation that can encompass editing, camera movement, and action within the shot. [5] This is an important point in that it is this extended sense of film's formal mobility and dynamism that a number of significant contemporary critics (e.g., Anne Friedberg, Steven Shaviro) have taken over from Benjamin; such critics are not, as Bordwell argues, locked into a paradigm of film that privileges editing above other of its formal features. Second, while Benjamin's phenomenological claims about modernity are inarguably highly general, even Bordwell acknowledges that the Benjaminian model of modern perception 'does seem phenomenologically convincing' (301). But he then goes on to 'hypothesize' that this perceptual shift might best be seen in biological terms -- human cultural developments (e.g., the rise of the modern metropolis) having outstripped the physical evolution of the human sensorium (301). That this line of speculation is any more empirically verifiable than theories that point to the transformative cultural energies of industrial capitalism seems quite debatable. But even if Bordwell's hypothesis could be proved correct, why it would then negate 'culturalist' lines of inquiry is not at all clear (the last I heard, even such rigorous neo-Darwinians as Richard Dawkins were still leaving a place for culture's effects on human experience).


Bordwell repeatedly maintains in _Film Style_ that he is open to considering film in larger social and ideological contexts. As I think the above example illustrates, however, he is in fact willing to go to great lengths to resist such considerations. This is nowhere clearer than in the final chapter of his book, 'Exceptionally Exact Perceptions: On Staging in Depth', in which he traces the way the use of cinematic depth of field has changed over the course of film history. Bordwell develops the methodology he will employ in this chapter at the end of the previous one, offering it as an alternative to the purported excesses of the theory and culturalism he has there discounted. For Bordwell, the place we must go for a properly nuanced understanding of film style is the filmmaking process itself. This process, he argues, is an unpredictable, frequently *ad hoc* affair in which directors are confronted with myriad problems to which they must find solutions, such problem-solving taking place against a background of institutionally established filmmaking norms (Bordwell uses as a model figure here the harried director played by Francois Truffaut in his _Day for Night_). These institutional norms result in certain stylistic 'schemas' within which directors work; the problems directors encounter -- which include such 'non-technical' matters as narrative coherence, the depiction of characters' psychological states, and the highlighting of important actions and events, etc. -- can bring about modifications to those schemas. The task of the historian of film style is then to look with scrupulous precision at a voluminous body of films, charting the way in which, over time and as a result of specific logistical problems, schemas emerge, consolidate, and undergo revision. 'The model I propose', writes Bordwell, 'seeks to be more delicate [than theoretical or culturalist approaches], building from patterns of task-governed decision-making to schemas and thence to norms and their open-ended dynamic across time' (157).


'Exceptionally Exact Perceptions' attempts an epic scope, its one hundred-plus pages ranging over almost the entirety of film history and across numerous national cinemas. Bordwell's cinematic erudition verges on the preternatural -- he has not just seen but *scrutinized* an almost unimaginably large number of films. Unfortunately, the extremely narrow analytical frame he has imposed on himself in _Film Style_ precludes his ability to say much of real interest about them: throughout this chapter Bordwell offers detailed descriptions of film images, but does so almost invariably in the service of their rudimentary functionality -- e.g., 'Preminger's four-and-a-half-minute *plan sequence* [i.e., long take] needs no shot/reverse shot. Characters take turns assuming an over-the-shoulder stance with utter naturalness, and the tightly confined camera movements present constantly changing foregrounds that hold or deflect our attention' (233). We encounter here (at least) two problems. First, Bordwell's functionalist formalism finally treats film style as little more than a matter of particular visual strategies that have been chosen in order to guide the viewer's eye ('hold or deflect our attention'). But in doing this, Bordwell is implicitly positing an abstract or 'ideal' spectator who can stand in as a representative for all spectators; or, to put this a little differently, Bordwell is assuming that all viewers will respond to specific visual strategies in more or less the same way. I'm not at all convinced that this is the case -- certainly much interesting work in feminist and queer theory suggests it is not. One of the advantages of the subject position model that Bordwell rejects, especially as it has been developed by critics such as Mary Ann Doane, Teresa de Lauretis, and D. A. Miller, is that it points to a wide range of possible modes of spectatorial engagement with and response to films. It is a bit of an irony, then, that Bordwell's approach presents us with a film viewer seemingly as unparticularized and manipulable as did the first generation of Grand Theorists.


Second, there is here once again the problem of the questions Bordwell chooses *not* to ask. For example, Bordwell argues that in US film production, an early reliance on single-take scenes with considerable depth of field gave way by the late 1910s to 'continuity editing', in which more-or-less seamless cutting strategies were used to jockey viewers into closer relation with that which appeared on the screen (this was the prototype for what would later be termed the invisible editing of the classical Hollywood film). Bordwell writes that the visual conventions developed in the US were soon taken up by other national cinemas: 'The eventual . . . assimilation of US continuity devices seems to be a pervasive tendency across the world's silent cinema. It is a testimony to the powerful appeal of classical cutting that a director like Victor Sjostrom, who in 1913 displayed subtle mastery of the one-take scene in depth, could half a dozen years later seize on the advantages in timing and emphasis yielded by delicate reverse angles and eyeline matching' (136-7). But is 'the powerful appeal of classical cutting' really a sufficient explanation for the international spread of this approach to editing? Is there not good reason to ask about the role of the market in this global 'assimilation' of what is both an editing technique and an industrial manufacturing strategy? Is there not a possible relation between the way the US style was imitated by other national cinemas, and the huge success American films enjoyed in foreign markets? And is this international success of American films not clearly linked to the enormous economic advantages held by the apparatus responsible for their production, promotion, and distribution -- to the ability of American film companies to lavish money on their movies so that they routinely looked slicker, had higher advertising budgets, and more extensive export networks than did films made in other countries? Whatever Bordwell's answers to these questions might be, he has in this book taken the questions themselves off the table. It seems to me, however, that, given America's historical hegemonization of so many other national cinemas -- and not just in terms of product but in terms of style -- these are questions that demand to be addressed (indeed, the current, spectacular success of American cultural and economic colonialism makes these questions more pressing now than ever; the history of American cinema is in many ways the pre-history of this colonialism).


In concluding this review, I want briefly to return to three issues I raised in my opening paragraphs. I think Bordwell is correct when he says that style is an underexplored aspect of film studies and that it does play a crucial role in conditioning the experience of filmgoers. But looking at style in this context requires, I believe, a much wider and more flexible sense of the different ways in which different viewers may be coming at the films they see -- and the way certain stylistic approaches may be attempting to elicit various spectatorial modes among those different viewers (the films of Douglas Sirk, with their multi-leveled stylistic strategies, come readily to mind, here; that Sirk -- one of the most complex and self-conscious stylists in the history of Hollywood -- goes unmentioned in Bordwell's book is a curious omission). [6] I think Bordwell is further correct in calling for a 'self-conscious historical poetics of the cinema'. We have yet to see such a poetics fully developed in film studies, and Bordwell's own work in this area so far strikes me as an unpromising beginning. The powerful nexus between art and commerce that has from film's inception set it apart from other aesthetic practices (if only because of the vastly larger amounts of capital involved) necessitates a poetics capable of intricating matters of form, history, ideology, economics, and the social -- a tall order I know, but not an impossible one (the work of Kenneth Burke, for example, attests that such an intrication is achievable in the study of literature; I think it is for film studies, too). As the quotation from Michael Berube at the beginning of this review suggests, aesthetic form is indeed a crucial issue, but not one easily separable from a network of numerous others.


Moreover, such a historical poetics should indeed be self-conscious, attempting to attain exceptionally exact perceptions of its own historical presuppositions. Although Bordwell acknowledges the inevitability of some form of 'presentism' -- the reading back of the historical moment in which a critic lives onto the historical moment said critic analyzes -- he seems to have made no attempt to examine the way certain prevailing historico-cultural assumptions may have informed his own historical narrative. It is precisely the historico-cultural assumptions I see subtending Bordwell's project in this book that I find most distressing about it. Repeatedly while reading _Film Style_ it occurred to me just how happy my students -- especially those from non-humanities disciplines -- would be if I talked about films in the courses I teach the way Bordwell does in this book. His functionalist, 'goal-oriented', problem/solution approach to the formal and stylistic operations of films accords, all too neatly, with the instrumental approach to reason that is the operational logic of those students' business, economics, and pre-Law courses -- the logic they will then take to the life-world that awaits them outside the academy. Perhaps it is a self-delusion among humanities academics that their work represents any real alternative to this instrumentalizing logic. Perhaps humanities academics should just give up that ghost, accede to the brute economic fact that what a university education in the pan-capitalist moment mostly means is dressed-up vocational training, and teach accordingly -- Bordwell's book might then be appropriate. Perhaps. But for me, not yet.


University of Richmond, USA





1. Bordwell, _Making Meaning_, p. 266.


2. Bordwell's reductiveness and lack of 'charity' regarding 'Grand Theory' is especially disappointing here in that his earlier _Making Meaning_, while registering many of the same criticisms, did so with a filigreed intellectual sophistication, and through a real engagement and dialogue with the theory it took to task (as a result, although I often disagree with it, I believe _Making Meaning_ to be one of the most important contributions to film studies in the last decade).


3. See Mulvey, _Citizen Kane_, pp. 14, 17, and 20-1.


4. See Heath and Skirrow, 'An Interview with Raymond Williams', p. 3-17.


5. Benjamin, 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction', p. 238.


6. It occurs to me that Bordwell's striking elision of Sirk from his discussion may be an act of quiet provocation directed at the many Marxist, feminist, and queer critics for whom Sirk has been such an intriguing figure.





Benjamin, Walter, 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction', trans. Harry Zohn, in Hannah Arendt, ed., _Illuminations_ (New York: Schocken Books, 1969).


Bordwell, David, _Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema_ (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989).


Heath, Stephen and Gillian Skirrow, 'An Interview with Raymond Williams', in Tania Modleski, ed., _Studies in Entertainment: Critical Approaches to Mass Culture_ (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1986).


Mulvey, Laura, _Citizen Kane_ (London: British Film Institute, 1992).




James S. Hurley, 'David Bordwell's Iron Cage of Style',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 2 no. 26, September 1998 <>.


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