Bordwell and Neoformalism


Neoformalism:  a method of film criticism that moves away from the interpretive theory and towards a more empirical analysis of film.  

Bordwell Notes the genesis of the interpretive school which was borne of literary studies.  Marxist, psychoanalytic, reader response, structuralism, post-structuralism and deconstructionism are all types of the “method” Bordwell notes; the aim of which is to bring to light explicit and implicit meanings in literature and film. Conversely, Bordwell argues that cinema has not gone through the rigorous semantic structures that literature has.  Instead, Bordwell asserts that Aristotle’s poetics provide a useful interrogative with which to derive answers of production, the effects of film’s principles (it’s underlying concepts and the conditions that govern the use of material in film).  Next Bordwell outlines the the shift from a formal/theoretical examination of film (e.g. a humanist approach to interpretation) by noting that the heuristic of Aristotle’s poetics allows for the possibility of an empirical approach to film study.

In order for Bordwell to transition from an interpretive school of film criticism he cites Andre Bazin’s, “Evolution of the Language of the Cinema” which focuses on the “options” a director has. Bordwell notes that Bazin’s work on film allows he and Kristen Thompson to craft the concept of Neoformalism.  Specifically, Bazin’s work, which concentrates on the material uses that the director has at his/her disposal, provide a platform for Bordwell and Thompson to examine film using a set of assumptions about the material conditions that exist when a film is in production.

Neoformalism–Bordwell notes that he and Thompson have been processing the concept of Neoformalism.  In contrast to specific types of humanistic Grand Theory interpretive approaches within the humanities, Neoformalism operates as an empirical approach to examining film and seeks wholly to identify “facts” about the film.

Bordwell takes pains to note that Neoformalism is an attempt to move away from the concept of a “fixed point” which is present in traditional theoretical methodologies.  As such, the positivist approach of “disproving” a supposition according to the data set is no longer a function of the empirical approach.  Instead, Bordwell offers the concept that Neoformalism’s dialectic provides an “active” heuristic as its theoretical foundation.  This is likely because the nature of the object of study is one which is in constant “motion.”  The production of the film is one which constantly moves from pre-production, production, and then to post-production.  It’s phenomenological experience is one which is constantly in motion, or at least, appears constantly in motion (i.e. persistence of motion).

Among the problems that arise with an active heuristic with no fixed theoretical points is the problem of continually shifting objects of analysis.  Bordwell and Thompson say that they provide “stylistic/narrative devices” and “systems” which help the analyst identify conditions of production.  These categories provide teleological normative functions that poetic Neoformalism positions its object against.  In short, a film must be scrutinized both as a subject and within the range of genre it is positioned against.  This antagonism allows the analyst to provide indices of variance among the film in question as it is positioned against its normative counterparts.

Bordwell and Thompson have constructed three expository models for the Neoformalist heuristic.  These include:

1.  Rational-Agent Model–The purpose of which is to reconstruct the historical conditions present at the time of the filmmakers employment of his/her agency.

2.  Institutional Model–the social and economic system of filmmaking examines the filmmaker’s “constraints” in filmmaking.  These would include, labor, economics, and technology available to the filmmaker.

3.  Perceptual-Cognitive Model–This model attempts to explain the effects of film as it is constructed and against the inferences of the viewer.  These include elements of style, narrative norms and technique, as well as continuity editing.

These models allow Neoformalist poetics to move away from thematic interpretation and toward dynamic systemic constructional effects of film criticism.


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