Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 1, 1998
David Bordwell On the History of Film Style Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997. 322 pp. Paper $60.00 (0674634292)
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A person can learn quite a bit by watching neighbors working on a similar task, and David Bordwell’s new book on the status of visual style in film history raises anew the issue for art historians, who supposedly invented the concept. Bordwell is a distinguished historian of film at the University of Wisconsin, who has authored and co-authored (usually with Kristin Thompson) monographs (The Cinema of Eisenstein), period histories (The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960), general histories (Film History: An Introduction), and critical appraisals of theory and method in his own discipline (Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies). He also makes frequent citations to fundamental art-historical publications, ranging from Gombrich to Baxandall, as well as a host of commentators on modernism and postmodernism. So there are many reasons to turn to this book for a thoughtful index of where style concerns stand in the sister discipline of film history.

In many ways this is, more precisely, a book of historiography, akin to the recent art-historical publications reconsidering the history of art history, from Vasari to Podro’s “critical historians of art.” Yet almost no field of the humanities has been so dominated by theory as film studies. Indeed, film history and the study of such technical concerns as “staging in depth” (the subject of a hundred-page concluding chapter of this book) is the very kind of topic disparaged by film theorists, dismissed as “discourse—of the technicians, pure positivism, and objectivism” in one quote (161).

Bordwell, the author of his own general history of film, sketches in his early chapters the development of a shifting grand narrative of film history, distinguishing what he calls “The Standard Version of Stylistic History.” Not unlike the account of Florentine art compiled by Vasari at the founding-moment of art history, this Standard Version was created to defend as well as to define film as a “liberal art.” Like Vasari, the Standard Version is a narrative (what Bordwell calls the Basic Story) marked by progress, from childhood to maturity, from simple to complex, and unfolding a pictorial essence in the process. It is marked by canonical works produced by great masters: Lumière, Porter, Griffith, as well as by subsequent contributions by leaders from distinctive national schools (German Expressionism, Russian montage). Like the High Renaissance of Florence and Rome, the “classic” mature phase of cinema was definable— as films of the 1920s. Later authors who dealt with subsequent developments had to contend with the issue of whether sound films and more recent cinema suffered from a decline from this height of perfection or provided a crystallization of technical possibilities and the essences of the medium. Indeed, one of the seminal articles on film, outlining “the fascinating spectacle of a new artistic medium gradually becoming conscious of its legitimate— that is, exclusive — possibilities and limitations” was written by none other than Erwin Panofsky in 1937 (repr. in Panofsky, Three Essays on Style, Ed. Irving Lavin, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 1995, pp. 91-125).

Along the way Bordwell summarizes and analyzes the major contributions to film history and theory advanced by André Bazin and Noël Burch. Like most serious criticism with strong preferences, these programmatic histories have ideological foundations, usually acknowledged. Bazin’s “dialectical program” of the early postwar years offered a supplement and alternative to the Standard Version. He asserted the fundamental importance of realism, storytelling, and commercial aspects of film, in essence endorsing the importance of Hollywood in the post-silents era and the importance of film as a “popular art.” New canonical directors— Renoir, Welles, Wyler, and Italian Neorealists — were credited with extending the potential of the medium, for Bazin purifying it from artifice. Such forms as the long take, the shot in depth, and fluid camera movement established the proper realistic and narrative trajectory of the sound film. An art historian (and Bordwell is conscious of the filiations here; one might also cf. Hollander’s Moving Pictures) might see such the project of such films as fulfilling the promise of Renaissance painting (or Northern naturalism, in the case of Hollander).

Burch, by contrast, writing during the 1960s, sees this dominant pictorial form of cinema as hegemonic in a negative sense. In what Bordwell calls the “Oppositional Version” of style development, an avant-garde cinema is defined against the mainstream narrative cinema, whose illusionism is pejoratively dubbed by Burch as the “Institutional Mode of Representation.” This moving picture extends the nineteenth-century bourgeois urge to illusionism, first pursued in photography, dioramas, and wax museums. Such illusion borders on harmful fantasy in this negative assessment, and Burch examined early film history (1894–1914) for an alternative “Primitive Mode of Representation” and looked to other national traditions, such as the cinema of Japan (particularly Ozu), for countercultural resistance to the dominant Hollywood consensus (one is reminded, of course, of the turn-of-the century interest in “the primitive” or Japonisme).

In a final historiographic chapter, Bordwell turns to more recent “revisionist” research, particularly into the early decades of cinema history, and he favorably contrasts this kind of meticulous, bottom-up seeking of patterns in the fullest roster of films and makers with the kind of theory-driven choice of preferred essences or canonical works. He particularly cites the fresh assessment of an early “cinema of attractions” advanced by Tom Gunning (who recently joined the Art History department of the University of Chicago) as an alternative formal and rhetorical norm to the eventual emphasis on film narrative after around 1908. He is critical of essentializing “histories of vision” (cf. recent studies by Crary and Jay, not cited) as well as Walter Benjamin-derived arguments equating film with the experience of modernization or, more recently, with postmodernism.

What Bordwell calls for in his own project of assembling a history of cinematic style is a consideration of the patterns of continuity and change, within the structure of “a network of problems and solutions.” This approach will sound familiar to older art historians, since it underlies some of the style theorizing taught in graduate schools during the 1960s through theorists as diverse as Gombrich, Ackerman, and Kubler. It is not yet clear whether art history is ready to return to more formal elements as objects of study (though such terms in the air as “visuality” might suggest this to be the case), but Bordwell’s efforts to grapple with style in relation to inherited rules and conventions as well as function in a case-specific instance offers a useful, heuristic return to our own disciplinary roots — without the emphasis on canonical artists or works. Rather than a theory-driven history of exemplification and essences, he seeks to spell out period norms and their dynamics over time, based on wide examinations of particular instances (what Bob Delaissé called for in the study of manuscripts —examining the full range rather than just the peaks). Similar research has been emerging in my own field of Dutch art history, with the pictorial inventory of works, the compilation of databases of written descriptions, prices, and other inventories, and the market settings of both these artworks and modern cinema promise fruitful cross-pollination for the understanding of genres and individual artistic “task-governed decision-making.”

In his final chapter Bordwell decides that he cannot content himself with making critical assessments of historiography and research projects but has in addition to add his own case study of how a particular formal question, “staging in depth,” evolves over a century of cinema. Here his emphasis, in his own account of it, sketches competing alternatives and divergences, crosses standard period boundaries, and turns up unexpected genealogies (e.g. that Citizen Kane offers a revision of preexisting schemes from various national cinemas of the previous two decades). Here his emphasis is on continuity, even from the early “cinema of attractions” into later cinema, which contrasts with the usual modernist preoccupation on the avant-garde and constant innovation. In the process, he nonetheless rehabilitates somewhat the idea of “progress,” as artists work together at the same moment to solve similar problems. But this does not result in the canonization of particular artists or works as paradigmatic, nor does it prescribe either an essence or a teleology to the history of film as a medium. Rather, it produces a cluster of related solutions to common problems across what Kubler called “the shape of time,” but without Kubler’s emphasis on “prime objects.” Moreover, with this emphasis on a single formal problem, Bordwell reminds us that formal choices also intersect with histories of technology and production practice (again, the Netherlandish example is making similar discoveries in its emerging project).

So style seems to be one of the topics for discussion again, at least in film history. Art historians might learn a lot from reading David Bordwell and listening to his version of how another historical discipline of visual imagery reconciles questions of style with both history and theory.

Larry Silver
Farquhar Professor of History of Art, Department of the History of Art, University of Pennsylvania

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