Film criticism as we know it tends to fall into a handful of time-worn categories: an expression of one’s personality, politics and taste, with traces of social critique and memoir (Pauline Kael, James Agee); or a kind of performance art on the page, using individual films, actors or filmmakers as springboards for sustained riffs on art and life (Manny Farber); or a scholarly attempt to draw connections between films and film movements, rank filmmakers by aesthetic significance and put works in historical context (Andrew Sarris).
All these approaches have merit. But when you zoom out from the here-and-now and think about what cinema is — about its dazzling totality, and the characteristics that distinguish it from novels or plays or paintings or dance or music, all of which feed, and are fed by, cinema — you’re struck by how much we’re not reading about, by how much our critics either can’t see or are not inclined to look for. Critics tend to fixate on content, as if film criticism were a book report or an op-ed piece. Form goes begging. And that’s nuts. If anything, the emphasis should be reversed. To quote Martin Scorsese, “Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.”
David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson have turned Scorsese’s maxim into a career. The husband-wife team of film critics and scholars teach at the University of Wisconsin, publish books, maintain an indispensable and routinely astonishing blog, and lecture regularly at film festivals around the world. They’re strangers to the general public, but well known (if not always properly appreciated) by aficionados of film history and technique. Their great book “Film Art: An Introduction” — originally published in 1979, republished in a seventh edition in 2003 — is an indispensable primer on the history of screen composition, photography and editing, the cinema equivalent of Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style.”
Bordwell’s 2006 book “The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies” is the definitive work on the evolution of English-language film storytelling. Thompson’s “Storytelling in Film and Television” (2003) is just as strong. Bordwell’s 2005 “Figures Traced in Light” — about the evolution of film acting, and directors’ attempts to frame and shape performance — is the best survey of blocking on film and all the factors (photographic process, shifting social mores, movie star egos) that affect it.
And that’s just a smattering of the team’s output. Between their books and their blog, Bordwell and Thompson publish more original, engrossing, often startling work in a year than most critics manage in a lifetime. Their specialty is writing about form plus content and how one fuels the other; with mainstream film criticism as we know it being so boringly literary, at times it seems they’re just about the only accessible mainstream film writers who still care. (One conspicuous exception is Jim Emerson, who blogs on Roger Ebert’s web site).
But they aren’t boring statisticians or trivia buffs. They cut to the heart of what movies are and what they do to us. They speculate on how a filmmaker’s creative choices produce (or aim to produce) certain emotional and intellectual responses in the viewer, often using screenshots, quotes from critics and historians, and even hard scientific data to support their claims. Then they go further, writing about how the symbiotic, ever-shifting relationship between filmmakers and viewers drives the medium forward over time — and about how a movie might not have produced a certain personal response, or had a lasting cultural or artistic impact, if not for what came before that.
Bordwell and Thompson’s approach reverses the usual critical strategy of formulating a thesis — sex is the new violence, TV drama is better than movies — then looking for films and filmmakers that “prove” it. (Thompson slags off this approach in the introduction to her 1988 book “Breaking the Glass Armor”: “Preconceived methods, applied simply for demonstrative purposes, often end by reducing the complexity of films.”) Instead, Bordwell and Thompson start by looking — actually looking, with open minds — at movies. Then they think about what the movies are saying and how they’re saying it. Then they compare the perceived statement to what movies used to say and how they used to say it. Then they try to figure out what factors (in the industry, in technology, in the culture at large) might account for the shift.
This description makes Bordwell and Thompson sound overly dry and scientific, and their writing is largely bereft of the glib pop zip that’s become nearly mandatory in the post-Kael era. But their simple (but never simplistic) output is thrilling in a different way because it teaches. It gives the reader tools to arrive at his or her own understanding and then apply that understanding to the act of watching films. Their work has aspects of social observation, industry criticism and personal axe-grinding. But these aspects are subtle and they tend to emerge long after you’ve read an article — often weeks later while you’re watching a film, noticing something you hadn’t noticed before, and realizing that you wouldn’t have noticed it if Bordwell and Thompson hadn’t warned you to keep an eye out.
Bordwell’s writing on “intensified continuity” has been especially valuable. He crystallized the term in a 2002 Film Quarterly article, then elaborated on it in books, including “Poetics of Cinema.” It describes a relatively new (and now pervasive) type of storytelling with fragmented visuals and quick editing — one that that prizes “energy” over everything else and supplants classical filmmaking techniques (careful compositions and editing, purposeful and thematically apt camera movements) with what my colleague Steven Boone calls a “snatch-and-grab” approach. In films that employ intensified continuity, intense physicality is conveyed not with carefully positioned shots that capture an entire action, but in a barrage of snippets — a flurry of motion signifying that two people are shooting at each other or that somebody got hit by a car. Think Steven Spielberg vs. Michael Bay, or “Raiders of the Lost Ark” vs. “Transformers 2”; or, if you prefer, a scalpel vs. a weed-whacker.
Intensified continuity isn’t just used in action and suspense pictures, Bordwell says; it gets applied to simple exposition as well. “Conversation scenes [now] feature very little movement of actors around the set,” Bordwell writes, in a piece that shows how Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” exemplifies the new way of making films, and compares the film unfavorably to its source material, “Infernal Affairs” and “Infernal Affairs 2.” (Just because your work evokes a Scorsese quote doesn’t mean you can’t spank Scorsese.) “Performers sit or stand and deliver their lines in isolated shots (singles) or over-the-shoulder (OTS) setups. The visual stasis is compensated for by lots of cutting, camera movements, and tight close-ups.” Not content to announce the bottom line and expect the reader to trust his accounting, Bordwell shows his math. This benign obsessive actually turned on his DVD player, sat there in front of a monitor with a stopwatch and timed the shot length in several Scorsese films made over a period of 33 years, then compiled a little chart showing how the average length of a shot in a Scorsese film has dropped from 7.7 seconds (in 1973’s “Mean Streets”) to 2.7 seconds (“The Departed,” 2006).