In response to: The David Bordwell essay “The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice” from the journal “Film Criticism”
A response paper for my Advanced Film Theory and Criticism class
In the essay “The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice,” American film theorist and film historian David Bordwell primarily discussed how art cinema can be considered as a distinct mode of film practice by comparing it to classical narrative cinema (which can be traced to studio feature filmmaking in Hollywood since the 1920s) – highlighting the fundamental differences in their narrative structures as he moved on. I personally think that it is really quite challenging to define what art cinema is and how films can fall under this category, so I understand why he chose this route instead of focusing on the source of the art or what drives the art within its own circle. For him, the art film defines itself against the classical narrative mode, especially with how it deals with time and space, as well as the cause-and-effect relationship in the events of a story. He said, art cinema possesses “a definite historical existence, a set of formal conventions, and implicit viewing procedures.” Although he wasn’t able to make it very clear how to differentiate art cinema as a mode of narration and as an institution when considering how films are made and distributed, his relatively compact analysis on how art films differ from the Hollywood mainstream provides ample space for critical discourse.
Bordwell provided a good historical perspective on the development of art cinema, which is said to trace its lineage back to certain filmmaking schools including German Expressionism and French Impressionism. These had great impact on establishing art cinema in different parts of the world. Aside from the influence of film movements during the first few decades of cinema, he also cited the post-World War II decline in Hollywood’s dominance and how this opened the door to art cinema, alongside the challenges brought about by the rise of television and films coming from outside Hollywood. Historically, the movements of Soviet Montage, French Surrealism, and German Expressionism became the precursors of Italian Neorealism, Scandinavian Post-war Cinema, and French New Wave. Some decades later, the power of film movements slowly but surely expanded globally from the likes of Dogme 95 to the Iranian New Wave, Hong Kong New Wave, and Japanese New Wave, to mention a few. What did these movements share in common? They didn’t directly conform with Hollywood’s classical narrative mode. They all marked significant departures from the norms of the narrative mode that Bordwell analyzed in this essay. Filmmakers behind these movements often replaced narrative closure with narrative ambiguity. Instead of romanticizing the characters like in fairy tales, characters became more psychologically complex the way real people are.
Bordwell presented two principles in illustrating art films as compared to classical Hollywood films: “realism” and “authorial expressivity.” According to him, art cinema reflects realism in its characters by developing them as psychologically complex beings situated in real worlds and dealing with true-to-life conditions. Art cinema values these characters’ reactions to their state of affairs instead of the story focusing on their actions. As they survey the world they live in, these complex characters display realistic problems and each one’s journey explores a more psychological realm. With the lack of a coherent set of objectives and direct plot course to achieve these objectives, the causal linkages between events in a tale get loosened for the purposes of motivating narratives to go beyond the typically expected. Unlike a Hollywood protagonist who directly moves towards its target, complete with expected goals, motivations, and resolution, the art film becomes less concerned with action than reaction. Art film deals with a less direct way of storytelling that encourages several possible readings from the viewers because of its narrative ambiguity. I think, of all the elements Bordwell presented here, this kind of, if I may coin the term “creative ambiguity,” is the most powerful element in a film’s storytelling that makes it fall under what is called art cinema, as how Bordwell articulated it in this essay. As an art film deviates from the conventions of classical narrative storytelling, the viewers get motivated to further examine these deviations, making them more active viewers compared to the more passive viewers’ take on the mainstream cinema’s formulaic storytelling.
I agree with Bordwell’s stand that art cinema embodies a specific film construction and style with such a high degree of authorial influence. In art films, more often than not, there is that conscious attempt to create a new approach to storytelling. As he explained, “the overall functions of style and theme remain remarkably constant in the art cinema as a whole. The narrative and stylistic principles of the films constitute a logically coherent mode of cinematic discourse.” The art film has a subjectivity driven by the author’s creative freedom, which in turn, leads its viewers and critics to focus on the author’s vision and statement. This clearly acknowledges the author as a powerful creator who is the key source of the formal and thematic complexities of a film project. Indeed, reading the film requires engagement with the author’s plan, which brings the auteur theory on the table. In the modern film industry, this brings individualized branding of filmmakers as crucial part of their success. Their brand of authorship is expected to have an impact on international marketability of their films. No wonder the pioneering French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema discussed filmmakers and their works the way they did – and how the auteur theory thrived with such a mindset.
I also agree with Bordwell when he said that the difference between the art film and other modes of film ultimately lies in the role of the viewer. As I mentioned early on in this paper, the art film demands more active audience engagement, asking the viewers what they think, rather than telling them what to think. Instead of identifying art films based on their shared formal conventions, they are identified by what they are measured against. They also share the same intent in terms of overall audience reception. This validates how art cinema generally belongs to the film schools and the film festivals (the two institutions Bordwell presented in this essay), while classical narrative cinema belongs to the mainstream theaters.
Later in the reading, Bordwell expressed that some films combine formal principles from both art cinema and classical narrative cinema. As cinema further matures, its evolution really blurs the distinction between the modes utilized for art cinema and classical narrative cinema. Art cinema, being cultural products offering various cultural contexts, may be more identifiable with using the concept of realism and authorial expressivity to unify the text, but a number of works in mainstream cinema in different parts of the world already utilize them for many decades now as well. Although it happens not very often, an art film would win in film festivals and at the same time win big at the box office. At this point, what are the lines of distinction between classical narrative films and art films? These are the reasons why earlier in the reading, I actually didn’t agree with some of Bordwell’s key points. For instance, a classical protagonist, for me, can also apply to works I consider as art films. Moreover, some art films I know still followed the key elements found in the classical narrative tradition, yet the storytelling utilized in these works allowed them to be appreciated as art films. Bordwell also cited Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” (1972) as a classical narrative film, while “The Godfather II” (1974) as more of an art film. Furthermore, a good number of art films cast Hollywood actors. As the mainstream adopts traits of the art cinema and vice versa, such process should really be seen as not just simple copying but a complex transformation. In the Philippines, many people already heard of the statement “Indie is the new mainstream,” which can easily translate to art cinema as the new classical narrative cinema. It is a part of the evolution of the film industry, as it taps into various artistic, cultural, economic, and political dynamics in the society.
By the end of it, everything is a blur. Yet, this brings out more channels for further discourse, which for me is great. Despite all the setbacks and challenges of contemporary filmmaking at this point, it’s beautiful to discuss cinema and its further evolution. This means cinema continues to thrive.
Bordwell, David. “The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice,” Film Criticism, Michigan Publishing, Ann Arbor, 1979.