Another work from Borwell within his broader project of doing aesthetic/formal film history that doesn’t discount the industrial or economic aspects but nevertheless insists that aesthetics on its own demands its own account. As is becoming more customary for Bordwell’s work, it starts off on the defensive. In chapter 1, Bordwell responds to accusations that his method is (merely) empiricist. He acknowledges that certain features of it, such as arguments or claims, are empirical by nature, but this simply means that these arguments/claims can be disproven, given different evidence. So again, there is a scientific method at work here, but he rightly observes that when a method like this one continues to be supported by the films under scrutiny in the face of various other theories, it attests to its own validity. After all, he says, we’re all indebted to formalist historians who identifies movements like film noir or Italian neorealism, even if some don’t like the apparently anti-theoretical method.
Although there isn’t exactly a section devoted to “art cinema,” and this account doesn’t divorce classical and art modes like The Classical Hollywood Cinema, a late chapter in the book focuses on Noël Burch’s work on an “oppositional approach” to film style. This oppositional approach is essentially art cinema, or the “duality between the avant-garde and the mainstream cinema” (84). Bordwell situates modernist cinema within the larger context of art history, similar to how he situates classical Hollywood cinema in the other book. Atonality, the nouveau roman style, and Brecht’s notions on theater and spectatorship contributed to this oppositional version of film style (86). This style removes the transparency that “postwar critics had prized,” instead foregrounding the artifice of film form (89). Exemplary of the new shift is editing, according to Burch. “Découpage” stands as “the overarching organization of montage,” Burch says, which is evident in films like Hiroshima, mon amour, such as when “She” looks away from the camera while recalling memories of being locked in a basement a decade before. The camera cuts to her past self, also looking away, as if these selves are shot-reverse-shots through time, looking at one another. Edits like these undermine the classical Hollywood style by transporting us and the diegetic characters across spaces and times and rendering the film form highly visible. But Burch insists, ordinary/mainstream cinema is contingent and could have happened differently, a claim that takes him back to the “Primitive Mode of Representation” (PMR) of early cinema, as opposed to the “Institutional Mode of Representation” (IMR) of classical cinema (95). (Incidentally, Burch identifies Japanese cinema [Ozu, Kurosawa, etc.] as examples of PMR that survived early cinema, a dubious claim that may conflate historically- and socially-distinct film styles in a problematically Western kind of way [107ff].)