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David Bordwell's new book is at once a history of film criticism, an analysis of how critics interpret film, and a proposal for an alternative program for film studies. It is an anatomy of film criticism meant to reset the agenda for film scholarship. As such Making Meaning should be a landmark book, a focus for debate from which future film study will evolve. Bordwell syst David Bordwell's new book is at once a history of film criticism, an analysis of how critics interpret film, and a proposal for an alternative program for film studies. It is an anatomy of film criticism meant to reset the agenda for film scholarship. As such Making Meaning should be a landmark book, a focus for debate from which future film study will evolve. Bordwell systematically maps different strategies for interpreting films and making meaning, illustrating his points with a vast array of examples from Western film criticism. Following an introductory chapter that sets out the terms and scope of the argument, Bordwell goes on to show how critical institutions constrain and contain the very practices they promote, and how the interpretation of texts has become a central preoccupation of the humanities. He gives lucid accounts of the development of film criticism in France, Britain, and the United States since World War II; analyzes this development through two important types of criticism, thematic-explicatory and symptomatic; and shows that both types, usually seen as antithetical, in fact have much in common. These diverse and even warring schools of criticism share conventional, rhetorical, and problem-solving techniques--a point that has broad-ranging implications for the way critics practice their art. The book concludes with a survey of the alternatives to criticism based on interpretation and, finally, with the proposal that a historical poetics of cinema offers the most fruitful framework for film analysis.


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David Bordwell's new book is at once a history of film criticism, an analysis of how critics interpret film, and a proposal for an alternative program for film studies. It is an anatomy of film criticism meant to reset the agenda for film scholarship. As such Making Meaning should be a landmark book, a focus for debate from which future film study will evolve. Bordwell syst David Bordwell's new book is at once a history of film criticism, an analysis of how critics interpret film, and a proposal for an alternative program for film studies. It is an anatomy of film criticism meant to reset the agenda for film scholarship. As such Making Meaning should be a landmark book, a focus for debate from which future film study will evolve. Bordwell systematically maps different strategies for interpreting films and making meaning, illustrating his points with a vast array of examples from Western film criticism. Following an introductory chapter that sets out the terms and scope of the argument, Bordwell goes on to show how critical institutions constrain and contain the very practices they promote, and how the interpretation of texts has become a central preoccupation of the humanities. He gives lucid accounts of the development of film criticism in France, Britain, and the United States since World War II; analyzes this development through two important types of criticism, thematic-explicatory and symptomatic; and shows that both types, usually seen as antithetical, in fact have much in common. These diverse and even warring schools of criticism share conventional, rhetorical, and problem-solving techniques--a point that has broad-ranging implications for the way critics practice their art. The book concludes with a survey of the alternatives to criticism based on interpretation and, finally, with the proposal that a historical poetics of cinema offers the most fruitful framework for film analysis.

30 review for Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema

  1. 4 out of 5

    Dane

    Disclaimer: This review is solely to record my thoughts and I do not assume anyone else should or would want to read this. You are in fact strongly recommended not to (this is mostly directed at you, Ai). Bordwell's book is a sort of Kantian critique of the practice of interpretation within academic film criticism, which attempts to lay bare it's basic forms and limitations. In short, his argument is that academic film critics are more akin to artisans than scholars or theoreticians and shares wi Disclaimer: This review is solely to record my thoughts and I do not assume anyone else should or would want to read this. You are in fact strongly recommended not to (this is mostly directed at you, Ai). Bordwell's book is a sort of Kantian critique of the practice of interpretation within academic film criticism, which attempts to lay bare it's basic forms and limitations. In short, his argument is that academic film critics are more akin to artisans than scholars or theoreticians and shares with those in their field a set of conventions, schemata, and rhetorical strategies (merely tools of the trade, at the end of the day) that are then used to construct sufficiently novel and convincing interpretations. The gist is that this fixation on and conventionalization of film interpretation has allowed film studies to sustain itself without any rigorous method for or commitment to producing knowledge about the function, practice, and history of film and, seemingly more important to the rhetoric of his meta-criticism, without any spark of genuine novelty and creativity. The book seems to be in a similar genre to Noel Carroll's Mystifying Movies, written around the same time, which sought to do away with the major theoretical fads within film studies by demonstrating their lack of internal or empirical validity and general irrelevance to the study of film. Bordwell takes the critique in a different direction by asserting that the bulk of academic film criticism has only a tenuous relation to theory to begin with. Film scholars, he argues, deploy theory very loosely as a rhetorical claim to authority and relevance and as an interpretive tool that relates neither inductively nor deductively to their work, but rather in anyway they see fit. These are the arguments he lays out in the opening chapter and, having set you up for an evisceration of the mainstay of film studies from the late 60s to the time of his writing, the bulk of the book proves to be rather exhaustingly myopic, repetitive, and ungrounded, as much as it is rigorous and convincing. The first two chapters outlining a loose history of film criticism, framed by Bordwell as the movement from explicatory to symptomatic criticism--a history that, unlike most of the book, lacks strongly in causal connections and actual evidence for his claims--serve mostly as a rather vindictive rhetorical turn to demonstrate that academic film critics of the 1970s, with their focus on symptomatic readings, grand social theories, and cultural critique, weren't nearly as novel as they thought they were. The point, which is largely the point of the book, is that the fundamental schematics of their critical approach, which he sees as ultimately more important than any methodological and theoretical divides within the field, have been in place within film criticism since at least the 1950s. The following chapters in which he actual goes about defining and explaining these schemata are much stronger and at times disillusioningly incisive. He certainly succeeds in producing a poetics of film interpretation and reveals certain fundamental practices that the field relies on and in some instances couldn't do without. He drives home the banality of certain semantic and interpretive practices, such as using puns to produce meaning or scouring filmic texts for any potential signs of framing and technological reflexivity. Other elements of this poetics, however, seem so fundamental as to wonder how any critical enterprise, let alone film interpretation, could do without them. At times, rather innocuous observations are framed as though they will scandalize the field. His articulation of two fundamental hypotheses of film criticism--that every part of a film bares at least some minimal coherence to every other part of the film and that every film bares at least some minimal relation to the world at large--as though scholars blinded by semiotic and psychoanalytic theories would be shocked to hear this seems a bit far-fetched and perhaps demonstrates that he misunderstands some of their theoretical assumptions. The final chapter, where he articulates at last some kind of positive position, alleviates much of the seeming ungroundedness and excess that preceded it. Much of my frustration in fact came from his assault on many of the assumptions and practices I had picked up in the academy without an illustration of why exactly they are wrong or should be done away other than they that they are conventions and more so from the fact that he offered no way out. In his conclusion, however, I came to see his project in a different light. For starters, he explains that some of the schemata and heuristics he seems to critique or dismiss for their conventionality are in fact essential or at least extremely useful, while others could be used less or done away with altogether. He further adds that he does not wish to do away with interpretation altogether, as Sontag had suggested nearly thirty years earlier. He believes some recourse to implicit or symptomatic meaning through interpretation is in fact necessary for understanding art. Lastly, he lays out a very specific and positive program for the future of film studies--a greater attention to film style and form that actually attempts to understand the aesthetic function and effects of the medium outside of symbolism and "content", methodological and theoretical rigor, falsifiability, an empirical and historical attentiveness--all of which for him are encompassed in his preferred method of historical poetics. Here one of my frustrations with the book also meets some relief. Bordwell seems to delight so much in taking things apart and determining the bare facts of how they are made and function that he dedicates far too much of the book to it when he could have consistently presented his program alongside his critique. In writing the book this way, however, he also lays out the basics of his approach. His systematic critique of film studies is also in part his map for redeeming it. And while Bordwell's work in general can be rightfully faulted for overlooking or dismissing the political and ideological components of film art, the list of possibilities for the future of film studies he gives here does not actually preclude such studies, provided they are rooted in historical knowledge of film's production and reception and not merely the ascribing of abstract meanings to the immediate effects of film form via a closed hermeneutics. Besides being overly prescriptive and overly insistent on his brand of often reductive poetics, perhaps the weakest component of his book's conclusion is, ironically, his own recuperation of film interpretation. While I much admire the concept of interpretive criticism as a meditative and playful reflections on films as they relate to broader semantic fields and humantistic puzzles, yielding "verstehen" as opposed to knowledge, his conclusion that it is impossible to do away with interpretation in the understanding of art is more of a commonsensical appeal than actual argument and in no way lives up to Bordwell's own exhausting standards. More so, his lengthiest defense is merely that interpretive criticism is unwittingly self-reflexive because it is ultimately more concerned with the practices of the field itself than the production of knowledge, which is hardly a real defense. While in the thirty years since the book was written, the historical turn within film studies, empirical inquiries into modes of film practice and reception, and renewed debates around medium specificity and aesthetics wrought by the digital revolution has brought to fruition many of the hopes Bordwell expresses in the last ten pages, any student of film studies will quickly recognize the centrality of the forms of interpretive practice he captured in his book, at least to undegrad film studies pedagogy. I also commensensically accept that this is somewhat necessary and am more committed to that interpretive practice than I'm sure Bordwell is, but I often have to ask the same question I ask of Bordwell's obsessive neoformalist poetics--what's the point?

  2. 4 out of 5

    Matthias

    One of the most important books on film criticism, if not on art criticism in general, ever written. Two books in one: a detailed history of film criticism, and an analytic take on each of its major schools of thought and their approaches. Bordwell seeks to identify and eliminate all the biases, ideologies and fallacies from the film criticism tradition, and to formulate an analytical, as objective as possible, innovative approach to follow instead. 25 years later, most film critics and tons of aca One of the most important books on film criticism, if not on art criticism in general, ever written. Two books in one: a detailed history of film criticism, and an analytic take on each of its major schools of thought and their approaches. Bordwell seeks to identify and eliminate all the biases, ideologies and fallacies from the film criticism tradition, and to formulate an analytical, as objective as possible, innovative approach to follow instead. 25 years later, most film critics and tons of academics have yet to catch up on it.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Jackson Childs

    This is a history and analysis of film interpretation, focusing on criticism in specialized or academic journals. Bordwell's basic argument is that interpretation is a conventional activity following identifiable cognitive practices. These practices may be informed by theory but they are not essentially a theoretical enterprise. Interpretation is rather an intellectual craft. Mastery of these practices allows the critic to solve problems of interpretation in institutionally appropriate ways, chi This is a history and analysis of film interpretation, focusing on criticism in specialized or academic journals. Bordwell's basic argument is that interpretation is a conventional activity following identifiable cognitive practices. These practices may be informed by theory but they are not essentially a theoretical enterprise. Interpretation is rather an intellectual craft. Mastery of these practices allows the critic to solve problems of interpretation in institutionally appropriate ways, chiefly by producing interpretations which are novel and plausible. The argument is very stimulating and frequently revelatory. The demystification one feels about interpretation perhaps makes reading the book valuable all by itself. However the book is perhaps overly complex and might have benefited from some editing. There are 882 footnoted references and at times the scope of the argument seems to overwhelm the text. And at other times the argument is both repetitive and diffuse. I found it hard to track the very large specialized vocabulary Bordwell was using in his analysis. In general his terminology is rather loose. A large number of conceptual schemes are introduced, and it becomes hard to distinguish their differences and relations to each other and the main argument. Bordwell spends the bulk of the book constructing a diagram of interpretive activity. The diagram does not show an important prior conclusion, that interpretation as practiced academically is primarily addressed at either implicit or symptomatic meaning. He argues that critics generate implicit and symptomatic meanings by applying semantic fields to a set of cues within the film via a set of assumptions and hypotheses which are then mediated by schemata and heuristics. He identifies many interesting concepts and arranges them in an interesting way, and the basic program seems plausible, but it is hard to say how accurate his specific picture is. The actual diagrams he provides do not incorporate important stages of his description of interpretive activity, for instance rhetoric and the model film. “Assumptions and hypotheses” is added to the diagram without any corresponding exposition, and the nature of filmic “cues” is taken as unproblematic, at least for the sake of this book.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Amanda

    An interesting examination of the histories and contexts of the way scholars have interpreted film, with a brief guide at the end to a better way of thinking about film studies.

  5. 5 out of 5

    mimosa maoist

    Reading Bordwell in high school taught me how to write well. This book helped me to make sense of everything I was doing in undergrad.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan

  7. 5 out of 5

    Jochen

  8. 5 out of 5

    Michele Raga

  9. 5 out of 5

    John

  10. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth Hornsby

  11. 5 out of 5

    Patrick Terry

  12. 5 out of 5

    Micah Grossman

  13. 5 out of 5

    Adriana Delgado

  14. 5 out of 5

    Jeff

  15. 4 out of 5

    Hesam Nasiri

  16. 4 out of 5

    Martin

  17. 5 out of 5

    Chandler W

  18. 4 out of 5

    Erik Kyle Loncar

  19. 4 out of 5

    Bacguffin

  20. 4 out of 5

    Venecia Proctor

  21. 5 out of 5

    Martin Andersson

  22. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer Scott

  23. 5 out of 5

    John Ernst

  24. 4 out of 5

    A Sharkus

  25. 4 out of 5

    Eglė

  26. 4 out of 5

    Caity

  27. 4 out of 5

    Ad

  28. 5 out of 5

    Ido

  29. 5 out of 5

    Haimaneltohamy

  30. 4 out of 5

    Michael Tapper

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