Essays (book reviews)

Minding Movies: Observations on the Art, Craft, and Business of Filmmaking
by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson
(Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2011)


Woe to anyone who writes a textbook – or, more precisely, a successful textbook, one bought and used all over the world. For alongside the advantages of such success comes an almost inevitable backlash: whatever the content of the book, and however well it may fulfil its purpose, it comes to stand for the kind of grey orthodoxy that invites grumbling, rebellion and rejection.


David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson are the authors of the textbook Film Art: An Introduction (constantly updated, in print and via the Internet) as well as a solid guide to global film history. Film Art is comprehensive and even-handed in its approach; it is neither polemical (as, for instance, Bordwell’s Making Meaning certainly is) nor a statement of the pair’s own analytical position. But, through the odd logic of textbook resentment, all writings of Bordwell and Thompson have come, in some quarters, to represent a somewhat conservative status quo in cinema studies. Projected onto them is a phantom power (or menace) over the field that is vastly overstated.


I too have felt, and publicly expressed (see my 1998 review of Bordwell’s On the History of Film Style), some misgivings about the emphases and exclusions frequently wielded by this powerhouse duo: their downplaying of interpretation (whether old-fashioned or new-fangled) of a movie’s meaning; or their rejection of almost any kind of cultural reflectionism that tries to tie cinema into its socio-historical context. But, just like the turning point at the three-quarter mark of a typical film narrative (as Thompson outlines it so well in her Storytelling in the New Hollywood), the couple produced, just in the nick of time, an inspired move: they started a blog.


Minding Movies is a selection of pieces derived from Observations on Film Art (www.davidbordwell.net/blog), which has been running since September 2006. This is an intriguing gamble for a major university press to take, for it flies in the face of the given wisdom that people will not want to buy in print what they can read for free on-line; I hope this book can help set a trend.  It comes in six clusters, covering industrial matters; reflections on film criticism as an activity; storytelling and style; individual films; cinema understood as an art; and speculations on the medium’s future.


Those who follow the blog – and it has many loyal fans around the world, myself included – will not find anything new here except an informative update-postscript at the end of each piece. And they may also regret some of the results of the culling necessary to form this selection: since international film festival reports, for example, are off the table, the book skews itself towards the mainstream (The Bourne Identity, Slumdog Millionaire, Babel) and away from the diversity of world cinema.


It is the tone of the writing that is so striking here, and so different compared to some earlier works by this pair. As befits a blog, it is looser, funnier, digressive, essayistic. Its authors are still thumping the same tubs – their exasperating preference for cognitive psychology over psychoanalysis, for example – but even the most heated polemics have a friendlier air.  And a dominant concern of their recent books – the emphasis on craft or practical problem-solving in filmmaking – finds a more natural expression in the framegrab-friendly setting of the Internet. (Actually, I have one for them to solve: how to stage a scene in which some characters sit while others stand? Directors including Sirk and Preminger made that challenge the cornerstone of their styles.)


Minding Movies pulls off a difficult trick supremely well. It is, in its gentle and entertaining way, a pedagogical book – which often makes the case for Internet writing as a new forum for teaching – but it is rarely stuffy or superior. Best of all, Bordwell and Thompson enjoy “debunking, zeroing in on conventional wisdom”. They come up with striking, unexpected stances: blockbusters are good for the “economic welfare of the country as a whole”; and sequels are to be celebrated. If this is what cinephiles are today calling contrarianism, then I am all for it.


© Adrian Martin May 2011

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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