With a handful of significant exceptions like Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert, writing about movies in this country once seemed to fall into two main categories. First there was the consumerist newspaper review, a 300-or-so-word affair with a plot summary, typically some comments about the acting, and a short evaluation (“it’s a tour de force”) followed by a number of stars. At the other extreme were the scholarly books or articles full of vertigo-inducing sentences about Eisenstein or Ozu.
Happily, the past decade has seen the birth of a number of blogs about film that feature intelligent analysis, not just evaluation, but in a more accessible style than academic writing. David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s popular Observations on Film Art blog is one of them. A collection of updated posts from the blog, “Minding Movies: Observations on the Art, Craft, and Business of Filmmaking” looks more deeply into film than most journalists can even imagine these days. The fact that it does so in highly readable prose makes it all the more attractive.
Split into thematic sections that explore the business of moviemaking as well as more traditional film-theory topics, “Minding Movies” shows just how rich film criticism can be even when the subject isn’t some obscure foreign flick. A standout is Bordwell’s piece about why superhero films have become so much more popular in the last decade. Instead of falling back on easy pop-sociology—people need heroes after 9/11—he lists a variety of factors that relate not just to the content of the films but also to the business climate that Hollywood has faced in the naughts.
Other highlights include a dissection of “Mission: Impossible III” that reveals how complex even action movie narratives are, an analysis of Preston Sturges’ innovative use of flashbacks, and a fascinating essay about how Hollywood PR influenced the cinematic legacies of Orson Welles and Gregg Toland. Although the authors are both university professors, there’s no need to hack through thick tangles of jargon to get to the point, and very little prior knowledge about technical matters is necessary.
Reading through the essays, you get the sense that a larger thesis about how to look at movies is being developed. For Thompson and Bordwell, films are works of art, and like other works of art, they should be viewed in light of artistic tradition. The norms or traditions of narrative structure and of filmmaking technique—say, the classic Hollywood demand for double plot lines—shape the way any film is put together. The filmmaker’s task is to develop his or her approach to these traditions in order to tell a story.
Because the authors’ preferred way of analyzing movies is traditionalist in this sense, they are really adept at showing how a given film simultaneously embraces and tweaks narrative and stylistic norms. Yet they give relatively short shrift to the notion that movies convey ideas—that they have well-developed general themes or philosophical concerns. Granted, they do mention some ideas that directors and screenwriters use as premises: chance as hidden fate, or the butterfly effect. These are less full-fledged themes than shopworn tropes. By looking at a movie as an answer to technical or storytelling problems posed by the demands of tradition, Bordwell and Thompson tend to neglect the basic idea of what the filmmakers are trying to say on some deeper level.
There’s also the view that film, a popular art form, somehow captures the cultural mood more clearly than other, more elite arts. Bordwell and Thompson’s favorite axe to grind with journalists seems to concern just this kind of “zeitgeist” reading. It’s undeniable that a journalist’s simplistic version of this view is full of flaws—among others, that a cultural zeitgeist is hard to define meaningfully and that movie audiences aren’t a good cross-section of the general public.
Yet as Bordwell and Thompson are quick to point out, not only critics but most academics see movies as, in their words, “vehicles of social attitudes”—as reflective of a culture’s beliefs and anxieties. The authors contrast their own project with academic writing that neglects film as art, as opposed to film as artifact. Surely, however, these academics have a much more sophisticated variant of the zeitgeist reading that is not as vulnerable to their objections. Going after journalists seems like shooting fish in a barrel—necessary work, maybe, but not as interesting as taking on the pros. (Benjamin Rossi)
“Minding Movies: Observations on the Art, Craft, and Business of Filmmaking”
By David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson
University of Chicago Press, 320 pages, $22.50