Brief Note on David Bordwell

David Bordwell (1947 – 2024) exists enigmatically in my writings as an inspiration for taking a form-based understanding of film seriously. But as someone who did not take film as an undergraduate, I must learn about him the hard way. Since my entry in critical writing was through French / European theory, my Bordwell encounter was never easy. 

Bordwell was somehow “elementary” for film majors since he’s one of the first they encounter through his co-written textbooks Film Art and Film History. That’s part of the reason, I think, that his thoughts are often neglected, at least in the local context, since the mode of “criticality” here resides in the “theoretical” approach that Bordwell himself abhors. Besides, no one really goes to film school here to be a theorist anyway.

The writings of Bordwell appealed to me first as a hurdle. As someone who came from just learning semiotics, poststructuralism, and psychoanalysis, his condescension made me back off at first. It does not help that in the cultural Cold War, he positions himself with the empire. It does not make sense at the time when I was starting criticism to align with Bordwell if you think of yourself as a leftist since the mode of leftist criticism here often align themselves with European theory.

But then I read Making Meaning (1989) and Poetics of Cinema (2000), and suddenly, I understood Sergei Eisenstein’s admiration for D. W. Griffith.

As someone observing film theory from the third world, we must take the “common-sensical” approach of Bordwell’s “poetics” with an understanding that it comes from a different context than ours, despite the attempts of the local “industry” to emulate the same industry that Bordwell was observing in his texts. Similarly, the non-Hollywood in Bordwell exists imperialistically within his writings as extensions of Hollywood — but this doesn’t mean that his writings must be dismissed wholesale. After all, Bordwell himself recognized the importance of contextualizing history within formal readings, a learning carried on by later disciplines of pragmatism in America. 

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