David Bordwell est mort le 29 février 2024. Grand théoricien du cinéma, nous lui rendons hommage grâce  un texte que nous a donné Dudley Andrew, son collègue américain.


Dudley Andrew’s homage to David Bordwell

On a September day in 1970, a very bright and energetic young man bounded through the creaky door of The Old Armory building at the University of Iowa to introduce himself.  I can still see David Bordwell’s eager face as he shook my hand and said he was ready to begin a professional career in Film Studies.  He had expected, no doubt, to find Ted Perry, with whom I had studied, but Ted had left for the University of Texas and, with my Columbia MFA in Film in hand and a dissertation on Bazin underway, I had been drafted to hold things together in a place where film study had been taken seriously for quite some years.

David was my first dissertation student for four years.  In fact, he was more like a brother-in-arms, taking on a burgeoning field that, while young, already felt outdated and in need of an injection of both zeal and discipline.  David had plenty of both. During his initial year of courseshe wrote and then published in Film Comment his first substantial article, Truffaut: A Man Can Serve Two Masters.” Suspending Truffaut between Hitchcock and Renoir was a lucid way to lay out enduring options filmmakers face, while tracking the stylistic evolution of the art form. He followed this with another text in the same journal, his still valuableCitizen Kane.”  EvidentlyI’ve been ruminating on these pieces ever since, given an article I just published in this month’s Adaptation that takes up stylistic evolution via La Règle du jeu and Citizen Kane, not to mention the outsized role Truffaut plays in French Cinema: a Very Short Introduction. Although David’s early enthusiasm for that director probably ebbed, mine never has

David is not particularly associated with French cinema, but his dissertation, which owed little to me and everything to a library he penetrated fiendishly, fixed permanently that gauzy period known as Impressionism.  I am certain I learned from my ‘student’ when looking for ways to corral Poetic Realism in Mists of Regret.

We had different sensibilities, while gravitating to the same kinds of films and topics: Japanese classics, Bresson, Narrative theory, Poetics, mise-enscène, historiography (Gombrich, and Baxandall especially). We came to spar over hermeneutics, openly so after an issue of IRIS that I edited on cognitive film theory” had angered him. As the principal contributor, he was livid when he read my lengthy introduction and wasn’t mollified when later I named The Classical Hollywood Cinema along with Gilles Deleuze’s two volumes to be by far the most important works in the field in the 1980s. It was his initiative that restored our friendship, although he was not about to concede a thing.  During an Eisenstein conference in Venice in 1992, he and Kristin Thompson joined my wife Stephanie and me for dinner.  Abruptly he looked me in the face and told me just how off-base I had been in introducing his work the way I did.  He didn’t try to hide the sting he still felt.  That, plus the sheer forthrightness of the confrontation, let me see his point of view.  I floundered trying to apologize for having isolated him to the benefit of a stance I was nevertheless not going to abandon. I had been wrong to use my power as editor to frame, then tilt, the field as I had.  He rightly admonished me for this, and we went on to enjoy a great meal and a comfortable rapport thereafter, though still disagreeing about interpretation vs. analysis.  

Our rapport may have reached its highpoint in Taipei in 2003 where we had another terrific meal, this time high in the mountains thanks to the largesse of Peggy Chiao. And then he took me to Infernal Affairs.  I finally understood the lure of Hong Kong cinema.  And I understood it better after reading Planet Hong Kong, a book I have often taught in my World Cinema class, and which I hold to be among the very best national cinema studies ever written.  This past weekend, in his memory, I watched Infernal Affairs again, the full trilogy.  It’s not the sort of cinema I would have latched onto by myself.  I consider my range quite wide, but he showed me there was more out there to digest.  

David digested films nutritionally, if I can say so. And the field is healthier for it by far. My graduate students chose him to deliver our annual lecture in 2005.  He spoke about CinemaScope and did so with his usual wide view, if I can say so.  That evening a dozen students laughed with him at my dinner table till past midnight.  He never stopped teaching.  Did he tell me early on that he aspired to be the Aristotle of film studies, or did I just think that about him, because he set out to turn his piercingly clear intelligence on one aspect after another of an amorphous field? This is how a discipline might come into existence. While our exchanges were not frequent, Ialways trusted his consistency and enthusiasm. From the outset in 1970 The Old Armory, he was on a mission to understand cinema; he never abandoned this art form or that mission.  Anyone who brushed up against him, and millions will continue to do so, knew that it mattered.  

Dudley Andrew (March 2024)