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Movie Lovers We Love: David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson Are Rock-Star Film Scholars

Movie Lovers We Love: David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson Are Rock-Star Film Scholars

Husband-and-wife film studies team David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, now retired from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, have published editions of their “Film Art” textbook since 1976. It’s a classroom standard, one that freshmen often react to with some eye-rolling derision: Certainly we’ve all watched so many films that we know everything there is to know about film form and film language.

Dive into it, however, and in no time you’ll realize that you don’t. Now Bordwell and Thompson are preparing to release the 10th edition of “Film Art,” this one with annotated film clips from the Criterion Collection as an online supplement. 

Bordwell said he’s not surprised the book has maintained its relevance. “There’s a fork in the road in studying film and media, whether you want to look at the cultural impact of film or at film-as-art-form,” he said. “Even in programs that emphasize the cultural more, many instructors feel they need the grounding our book supplied.”

After the couple retired, Thompson began to split her time between writing about film and Egyptology (she was out of the country on an archaelogical dig in Egypt during our interview). And Bordwell found it wasn’t long before he missed the core of his work.

“When I retired, I had just finished a couple of books, ‘The Way Hollywood Tells It’ and ‘The Poetics of Cinema,’ and Kristin and I decided we’d start a blog partly as a way to get supplementary information out there in a more immediate way,” he said. “First, I missed teaching. I’ve been lecturing since the 70’s. And second, this was a way I could pursue anything I was interested in. I didn’t need the typical formal apparatus — the academic journal, conference paper, academic book.”

The result was Observations on Film Art, which has become one of the most respected personal film blogs (and a particular favorite of Roger Ebert’s). Bordwell says the blog is fueled by the fact that he and his wife are “compulsive writers. We’re writing essays on the blog once a week. At first, writing such long essays penalized us. But now, with things like Twitter have provided a place where people can show just say the five things that come to their mind in a day, and people go to blogs expecting to read something longer.”

Their interests are diverse. Thompson has been keeping up with her interest in industry studies, recently publishing an analysis of “bad box office trends” and Bordwell has been writing a lot about digital conversion in theaters.  

“I was starting behind with the digital convergence stuff,” Bordwell said. “I understood the economics and culture of 35mm, but I didn’t understand the cultural and dynamics of digital projection. So I decided to conduct some investigations in public. I began to ask my friends who own and work in local movie theaters to show me their booths, and I asked them really film-geeky questions.”

Here he put on his historian’s hat: “When I was doing research on the transition to sound or to widescreen, I would have been happy if someone documented it at the time. So I’m doing that with the digital transition.” (Bordwell will soon publish his work on the digital transition in theaters as an e-book.)

And while blogs can be criticized for their navel-gazing capacities, Bordwell’s site proves that the internet has plenty of room for erudite film scholars: The blog’s most popular post to date was an eye-tracking analysis guest post that Bordwell asked of a psychologist Tim Smith, in order to prove his own theories of staging and the long take in “There Will Be Blood.” (It turns out Bordwell was right about what people looked at in the scene.)

Said Bordwell, “Since retiring, the blog — just seeing how interested people would be in what we had to say — has been the most gratifying thing for us.”

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