Interview by Erik Lončar, 2016.
One of the most influential film theorists today, DAVID BORDWELL, is a professor at the University of Wisconsin, in the Department of communication sciences. He is the author of seventeen books, which meticulously dissect films and their directors’ entire body of work, emphasizing the cognitive processes that occur when watching a movie. theFILMitself made contact with David Bordwell, to explain the meaning of film analysis and how to use it. Read the exclusive interview in which Bordwell speaks about film analysis!
‘The analyst tries to answer the question by looking for strategies of storytelling, patterns of style, and so on.’
theFILMitself: In Croatia, most of the moviegoers are not aware of the special field of film analysis. What is the goal of film analysis and how important is it for film art?
David Bordwell: Film analysis examines films as wholes, or totalities, and tries to explain how the various parts function. Usually analysis starts with a question—e.g., what generates suspense in this sequence? or how does the filmmaker suggest the characters’ psychological states? or why are certain pieces of story information omitted? The analyst tries to answer the question by looking for strategies of storytelling, patterns of style, and so on. If we assume that film is an art form like music, drama, etc., then doing film analysis is parallel to musicology, drama studies and so on. We want to know how individual art works have the effects that they do.
How do you approach films? What is your method when analysing a film?
As above, I try to let the film suggest questions—usually aspects of the film that seem unusual or striking. On the basis of these unusual aspects, I try to frame questions that will help explain why the film works as it does. Sometimes the questions are historical, sometimes they are very specific to the single film. Readers can get a sense of what arouses my analytical curiosity by looking at our website.
What is the best analytical tool the audience needs in order to understand the deeper meanings of a film?
I think that the best analytical tool is for the viewer to think about how the film has affected them. What created an emotion or state of mind? Then the analyst can look for the causes of that. Alternatively, a more historically oriented analytical method would look at the film in relation to other films, both those of its time and place and from other times and places. The questions there are about changes and continuities in style, narrative form, etc.
How much does the audiovisual language or film grammar differ from country to country or is it mostly similar?
I think that filmmakers are part of an international community of creators. From almost the start cinema has been a global art form, and films circulated quite freely. Filmmakers learn from films made elsewhere. Historically, Hollywood cinema had an enormous impact on filmmakers in other countries, and so many national cinemas have borrowed techniques from American cinema. But US cinema has also been influenced by films from overseas.
With all that knowledge and a keen eye for details, do you enjoy films more or less since you are able to comprehend all layers of a film?
I enjoy films more! There is so much to see!
The two most influential Bordwell books on film analysis are Film Art: An Introduction (1979.), written in collaboration with his wife Kristin Thompson and Post Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies (1996.), written with an equally famous and influential film analyst, Nöel Carroll. Both books deal with the study of film with a special emphasis placed on highlighting the details that the average viewer fails to catch, and at the same time to explain their significance and importance in the context of film-making in a very accessible way.