A Brief Overview of David Bordwell’s Elements of the Art Cinema

Art cinema traces its lineage to, among others, the film-making schools of German Expressionism and French Impressionism as well as to modernist literature. The influence of these schools and the innovations within the mode have led to what David Bordwell calls the “art cinema,” which subverts and innovates upon many of the traditions of Hollywood screenplays. In his essay “The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice,” Bordwell discusses some of the major elements which Art Cinema films share, namely subversion of realism as conveyed through traditional means, high degree of authorial influence and direction, and ambiguity.

The realism of the art cinema differs from traditional cinema, which is typically given verisimilitude through its coherent motivations and direct plot course, by lessening the causal linkages in classical cinema, displaying realistic problems in complex characters, and lack of a coherent set of objective and path to achieve those objectives. Bordwell states that in art film, the causal linkages between events are loosened for the purposes of motivating narratives. One of the main purposes is to motivate the narrative of a film through the use of realistic conflicts, often real locations, and what Bordwell terms “’realistic’ – that is, psychologically complex – characters.” These complex characters, Bordwell claims, are driven to their objectives in a less direct way than a typical Hollywood film, further increasing their realism. Finally, art films tend to have several possible readings open to them due to their subversion of linear time and heavy subjectivity through ambiguity.

This subjectivity is driven, in part, by the author of the work whose creativity and freedom in the creation of the film force critics of the film to focus on his or her vision and direction of the film. As Bordwell defines it, “the author is the textual force ‘who’ communicates (what is the film saying?) and ‘who’ express (what is the artist’s personal vision?).” Essentially, any criticism or analysis of the film must attempt to engage with the author’s plan. This idea gave rise to, in part, auteur theory, or the criticism of films based largely on the influence of their director or author. A key element of the criticism of art film is the attempt to discern the motives of the author from the film’s every decision. The author’s influence is key, with criticism centering on each item included in the film as well as items excluded. Most importantly, each decision should be asked the question “why,” specifically why this way and not another. Bordwell does concede that this authorial influence can negatively impact the realism of a film.

The subjectivity created by the author, and even by some of the elements of realism, is typically created through inconsistencies in plot or in time and open-ended narrative. Bordwell states that art films foreground deviations from the normal editing and continuity conventions and that these deviations are purposely placed so that they may be examined. This can be done with innovative structuring, such as the flash-forward. This ambiguity often reaches a crescendo with the lack of any clear ending, aiding the open-ended narrative created by the plots non-direct nature. Bordwell cites several examples of this, often with endings that symbolically tie together the narrative without directly resolving the plot itself.

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