Mesmerised by the movies: An interview with David Bordwell

David Bordwell was one of the world’s most respected film scholars with a reputation for being thorough, rigorous and serious. He had another side, however – an irrepressibly enthusiastic film buff with a boyish excitement about movies and an eternal hunger for film experiences. The point of departure of this large 2004 interview, which has never before appeared in English, is how we are experiencing a film, but it will encompass many of his interests in cinema, ranging from the 1910s to the year of the conversation, from Hollywood via European art films to Japan.

The interview was conducted by the film critic Dag Sodtholt in the autumn of 2004 when Bordwell visited Oslo to participate in a seminar organised by the Norwegian Federation of Film Societies about style in cinema. Except for some additional material, mostly in the discussion of his book on Ozu, it has previously appeared in Norwegian in the film periodical Z no. 1, 2005, an issue of which Sodtholt was the editor and Ingrid Rommetveit was editor-in-chief. The theme for this particular issue was “the film experience” and the Norwegian version is here. This English version is published in connection with Bordwell’s passing away at 76 years of age on 29 February 2024. (The picture of him comes from one of his “Observations on Film Art” videos from the Criterion Channel and the screenshot was taken by Matt Zoller Seitz.)


David Bordwell has been described by Eric Rentschler of Harvard University as “undoubtedly the most productive and influential film historian at work today,” in connection with Bordwell’s 2005 book Figures Traced in Light: On Cinematic Staging. We are not going to use space on presenting him (instead have a look at his Wikipedia page and even better his massive website), just establish that several of his books, many of them written together with his wife Kristin Thompson, are part of the Film Studies syllabus at countless universities around the world.

The 47 Ronin (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1941)

One of the most distinctive aspects of movies is perhaps a certain type of slow, contemplative film, by directors like Tarkovsky, Angelopoulos or Hou Hsiao-hsien from Taiwan – films that, like the latter’s Flowers of Shanghai (1998), might transport the audience into an almost hypnotic state. Is that something you can only find in cinema, or is it comparable to other art experiences?

That’s an interesting question. I don’t attend a lot of plays, but my sense is that people who like theatre or opera get the same kind of experience with the best productions they go to. At least, one often says, “the entire audience was mesmerised”, “you could hear a pin drop”. It’s an indication that they experience this intense fascination.

But they are perhaps more mesmerised by the performances…

Or, in opera, maybe the scale of the production. But I think you’re right, it’s not that common. It seems to be something about cinema that creates this kind of hypnotic hold. If we think back, Wagner had the theory of the “gesamtkunstwerk”, the total art work, and that opera should be a display that satisfies all the senses. In Bayreuth he hid the orchestra so the source of the music was not seen, making you completely absorbed in this world of the opera. And later, the Russian composer Skriabin tried to extend that by adding smell, actually leading odours into the audience to enhance his music. Eisenstein argued that cinema was the next logical step: light, movement, the human element, the story element, the music element, the dance component, colour, with all these things together you could sort of seize the spectator in a kind of rapt engagement, and in his later films he made an effort to do that, in for example Ivan the Terrible (1944).

But I do think there are some filmmakers who tried to create this intense engagement. The Japanese directors Mizoguchi and Ozu created this absolute, total focus of attention. However, I do not think it is inevitably a part of cinema, but maybe it is easier in cinema than in other art forms. One can say one gets lost in a book, but it’s not quite the same. You could be fascinated by a painting, but still it’s not the same thing. In the cinema, it may have something to do with the movements on the screen and the pulsations of light in your eyes. Certainly some filmmakers have this absorption as a goal.

But it also has to do with your taste and sensibility. Many people would look at Flowers on Shanghai and be bored, if they lack the background of knowledge and skills about how to watch a film. You and I are cinephiles, we find a film that completely satisfies one aspect of how we have learned to watch movies, and this rhythmic camera movement around the tables, around the characters, the intense music, and the lights, because in that film many scenes have oil lamps as a central element of the shot. It is almost like hypnosis, you know, “look into this light – this lamp”. It is a fascinating question that maybe someone should do some research on – actually show some sequences from films to people and try to measure their brainwaves and their skin responses.

So there has not been any research in this area?

There is perceptual research in cinema, but it has very much to do with low-level responses, or with narrative comprehension, how we understand the story, what happens if someone takes the shots and puts them in a different order, but as concerns the kind of thing you’re talking about, I am not aware of anything.

In music, you have this ambient music…

Which is, interestingly enough for this discussion, sometimes called trance music.

… but in cinema, in addition to the purely audiovisual (movements, music, light) one also has thematic connotations. What we see and hear may represent something meaningful or important to us, and the resonance this creates in us may feed into the hypnosis.

That is true. One of the fascinating things about cinema is that it engages us on so many levels. The way I tend to think about it is that there are three levels. One that is purely perceptual: we see movements, shapes, recognisable human beings and so on. That’s of interest in itself, because we like to exercise our visual system.

And then there’s another level, which is about stories and how these visual elements are translated into actions, events, scenes and characters, with their own purposes, in addition to a puzzle-solving element and an element of “what will happen next”, “why did he do that”, “what will the outcome be”. This is another level of engagement, above the purely perceptual.

In the end there is the third level, which is more abstract, about the meaning of what we see, what does it signify, what are the implications, for my life, for other people’s lives, what is the film trying to say, what do I want the film to say (laughs).

These three levels are like layers of a cake, and then throughout all of them you have emotion. So the perceptual experience can be quite emotional, particularly in an action film, where there is a heavy emphasis on affecting your sensory equipment to create emotional arousal. On the story comprehension level, there is an enormous emotional investment: I like this character, I don’t like that character, I want this character to succeed and the other to fail and so on. On the third level, of intellectual understanding and interpretation, you have a great deal of emotional investment. It would be wonderful if the films you liked had large-scale meanings that you approved of, and things like that. There’s emotional investment on all of the levels, but maybe sometimes you’d find a film that so satisfies all of our engagements on all of those three levels, and gives an emotional thrill as well. Maybe that is a definition of a really important and outstanding film.

Do you have other examples of films that evoke this kind of fascination?

I think there are directors whose aesthetics works on this. Béla Tarr, Dreyer’s late films, Antonioni to some degree. Angelopoulos would like to work on this and hope to achieve it. What we think of as the contemplative directors, who give you little bit, and a little bit, and a little bit and hope that you will take each of these parts and make a whole. But this fascination you’re talking about is not that common. It’s not the same as when someone goes and sees, say, a very well made Hollywood movie, and gets so interested in the story that they forget what time it is, does not notice who’s next to them – they just get absorbed in the story. The story element is part of the phenomenon you’re talking about, but it’s not just about the story, it’s something about how all these images are put together to create this absorption, it is more akin to ambient, or trance music.


Flowers of Shanghai (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1998)

We touched upon opera, where an important part of the experience and enjoyment is observing singers mastering technical challenges in their performances, and therefore overcoming limitations and pushing boundaries. Do you think that an awareness of the technical difficulties involved in making a film is adding to the experience of it? I am just thinking about some of the Mizoguchi films, The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums (1939) or The 47 Ronin (1941), where you have these complex, highly choreographed camera movements, around and around and then in the end the camera may rise into in the air…

For me, it would be part of this third, upper level. We have this knowledge that we project onto the films, or, as in The 47 Ronin, if you know a lot about Japanese visual art you’ll recognise right away that some of the compositions recall some great Japanese paintings. In the example you give, if you know a lot about cinema and how films are made, you will watch these technical elements and go: “Wow! This is an incredible technical feat to make these shots”. So at this higher level of understanding, in my view, we bring a lot of our knowledge of external contexts to the film. In your example, there is a kind of connoisseurship, an awareness on the part of people who have studied cinema, how difficult it is to do things.

You appreciate the virtuosity in the same way as someone who knows a lot about music goes to a concert where there might be a solo violinist. Myself, I can hear it’s very beautiful and I might understand the structure of the music, but I don’t have the expertise to tell an outstanding, brilliant performance from a good, solid but not great one. However, a connoisseur can tell those things, so my view would be that we in this case bring a body of knowledge to bear on the art work that allows us to see virtuosity and the fine points of the work.

Moreover, in those levels I talked about, the more we go up those levels, from perception, to story comprehension, to interpretation, the more we bring to the film from our own stock of knowledge. Perceptually, most people are pretty equal. In terms of story comprehension, there are some who are better than others, that might say “Oh, I see, this character is going to come back later”, or, in an action movie, some people can say, this character is D.B.T.A., “Dead By Third Act” (laughs). In other words, if you’re an action movie connoisseur, you know this guy is going to die, because he’s the hero’s best friend, so he has to die to provide to the plot. So these are kinds of things you can bring to bear on stories, so it seems to me that the kind of thing you’re talking about is something that we bring to the film as film fans or cinephiles that the ordinary audience does not see – my students, when I teach a course, do not necessarily notice these things, but they add to the enjoyment if you’re really into film.

If you take your earlier example, Flowers of Shanghai, the camera is co-ordinated with the characters leaning forward and leaning back. Just at the right moment, the camera is on the spot to capture it, without forcing it, without suddenly going here, going there. The camera just “happens” to be there. That sort of thing most people don’t notice, but you and I can notice that. Does this presence of mind break our fascination – I don’t think so, it enhances our fascination, it allows us to engage on another level at the same time. We’re still absorbed by the imagery, but also there’s another part of our brain that is appreciating how difficult it is to acquire these images.

Analysis and enjoyment

Collateral (Michael Mann, 2004)

As a very experienced film watcher, are you still able to get this basic enjoyment of films, without analysing all the time?

Like we said, there is a part of your mind that can be devoted to noticing certain things, things that experts would notice, but I would not think that takes away from the pure enjoyment. I certainly see a lot of films that I just enjoy in a very uncomplicated way, to which I can respond on a gut level. But there’s also a part of me that, if the film’s well done and achieves an effect, tries to see “how did they do that”, “how did they achieve this effect”. A good example is Michael Mann’s Collateral (2004), where, at one level, it’s a rather conventional story, but I am watching all the time for certain elements. It’s a good example of the auteur genre film: many other people could have directed this film, but they wouldn’t have done it the same as Mann.

So I am absorbed in the story, I am interested in the characters, I am feeling the suspense, but at the same I notice those directorial elements, the ingredients that Michael Mann brings to it that’s very distinctive to him. It is a certain way of handling urban landscape in the Cinemascope format; a certain self-conscious pictorialism in the visual design; blocks of colour almost as if it was a painting, blocks of colour laid out with vertical lines dividing them; reflections; coloured light – all these design elements that Mann works so much on in his other films. The film is having an effect on me, I understand the story, I am following what’s going on, but another part of my mind is noticing “ah, every environment in the film has its own distinctive look, colour scheme, tonality or texture, and every one of those works against you to recall other ones”.

I suppose a good example would be an architect that goes into a new building. He experiences the building as anyone else would, goes from place to place, the building is unfolding in space as he moves. But at the same time, the architect is noticing “Ah, I see, we’re going through this narrow passageway now that, when we arrive later in a very wide space, the effect of that wide space is magnified”. So the architect can appreciate that, even though he’s experiencing it at the same time.

Many art forms in one

Germany Year Zero (Roberto Rossellini, 1948)

For you then, as a person – if it is possible to answer that at all – what is the most important element? Are you more fascinated by pictorial design…?

Not necessarily. I admire some films just because they’re very good stories, other films because of the performances. One of the great things about film is that it is many, many art forms in one. From one angle, it is theatre, it’s a performance art, it gives us the chance to look at extraordinary performances.

From another angle it’s a storytelling art, it’s telling great stories. There are not that many great performances in Hitchcock movies, but they’re tremendously good stories. Once you start watching, you don’t want to stop because the story is so intriguing.

Then there’s another dimension, the kind that André Bazin emphasised: the purely photographic dimension, in which the stories and performances are not that interesting, but we see something that seems real, it could be simply a documentary film, but it could be a fiction film as well. Think about a film like Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero (1948). The performances are okay, but I don’t think we go and see it for the performances, what we’re seeing is a kind of documentary reportage approach to the contemporary condition of Germany after WW II, in a fictional format. We see what it’s like to live in Berlin in 1946. But it is reality, you’re seeing the real thing.

And then there is the angle that our interview started with, cinema as a visual art, as images. Story, performances, reality are nice, but cinema is also a visual design art, and in some films we respond to it at that level, that is what those films are most adept at doing.

However, I think there’s another angle, harder to pin down, harder to understand, but it’s becoming more and more prominent. That is cinema as a kind of audiovisual experience. It is not just a pictorial art like painting, I am thinking more in the direction of video games. There are not that many striking images in The Matrix (1999) films, as artistic images, certainly the performances are nothing to write home about, and even the story is not that interesting, but there is something there that grabs you as an experience. If you’re going to criticise it you might say it is a roller coaster ride, but there is a kind of audiovisual, kinetic experience that a lot of modern films offer. We find the same thing in animated cartoons: they are obviously not documentary, maybe the story is okay and maybe it isn’t, the performances don’t exist as such, they’re just drawings.

But in The Matrix, this Agent Smith character, although cartoonish, is an admirable performance, at least in the first film.

That’s true. But on the whole, there is a way to think about The Matrix, or the more recent Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004), or even going back to Star Wars (1977): they are really like animated films, they are more about giving you an audiovisual experience than about capturing reality or even telling a story. Sky Captain does not have a very interesting story, but pictorially it’s quite striking. However, the sound element is just as important as the images, so it is not just about film as a visual art, it’s about film as a kind of sensory… plug-in, like in The Matrix (laughs).

Cinema can be enjoyed from all of these angles, so for me, when I go and see a film, I ask myself, is this interesting because of the story, performances and so on. It could very well be a mix, obviously, with a very good story, excellent performance and ditto visual design. To use Hitchcock as an example again: he has very good stories, sometimes the actors are not that good, but when he has a good one, like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window (1954), he’s got it extra, and you can add to that his skill as a pictorial filmmaker. A film can combine several of these appeals, I think, but sometimes you can watch a film, like Sidney Lumet’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (1962), not a particularly well made film it seems to me, but which documented some amazing performances by Katharine Hepburn, Jason Robards and so on. To my way of thinking, we’ve got to be open to all these different things that cinema can be.


Cast Away (Robert Zemeckis, 2000)

You seem very unprejudiced, compared to a lot of critics. Many pan almost every Hollywood film.

I couldn’t do that. It’s not nationalism, chauvinism or anything like that. Hollywood cinema is really important historically and it continues to be so. Even if you hate all Hollywood movies, Hollywood is always something for all the other filmmakers in the world to respond to. It’s like the centre of conversation, and filmmakers who want to do something else have to reckon with it. We have to understand the importance of Hollywood in world cinema, if only because other filmmakers’ work takes off from Hollywood in various ways. But I believe that one of the things cinema can be is a popular art form, and every decade of Hollywood cinema has really great films.

Even the eighties…?

Absolutely also in the eighties! We don’t have to count in certain filmmakers, like David Lynch, because they do not belong to the mainstream. But in the eighties, let’s see: Robert Zemeckis, Tim Burton, Oliver Stone to some degree, with Platoon (1986), Philip Kaufman… Zemeckis is quite a good filmmaker, but underrated. I would not say some of his most famous films were the best he made, but look at a film like Cast Away (2000) – not in the eighties, admittedly – it’s some sort of Bressonian experiment! For the whole central hour of the film, the protagonist is alone! He’s alone! For half an hour he’s travelling, and then the plane crashes, and for the next hour of the film, he’s all alone! On a deserted island. And Zemeckis said “I’m not going to have any camera movements while he’s on the island”. Up to that point, there’s a lot of camera movement, and then bang! the movement stops – so this is kind of an experimental film. A very expensive, experimental film! How can I tell a story that audiences will be interested in, with a character with no other humans around him for an hour.

(Interviewer’s note, discovered later: there is in fact one single camera movement, and a highly deliberate one at that, while the hero is on the island, but it does not invalidate Bordwell’s argument; on the contrary it could be said to be an exception that emphasises the rule.)

Hollywood can afford to experiment, and needs to experiment, and, I will argue, has always needed novelty. We tend to think of Hollywood as a standardised, routine, repetitive cinema, but every decade of American cinema is full of experiments in narrative, pictorial design, sound experiments… think about some filmmakers of the thirties: Josef von Sternberg or Busby Berkeley – completely wild stuff! Or Fritz Lang films like Fury (1936) or particularly You Only Live Once (1937). In every decade, Hollywood embraces novelty, to a considerable degree. It’s quite surprising!

Is it a myth then that there was a big clampdown towards the end of the seventies…

I think it is a myth. I think there is a way of telling a story that baby boomers like very much. Baby boomers like to say they changed the cinema, that in the late sixties, early seventies, well, maybe directors a little older than baby boomers, like Scorsese or Coppola, Bob Rafelson, all these people came along and revolutionised the cinema. Then when the blockbusters came in the early eighties, it was over. Well – I think that’s too simple. Because what happened was, to my way of thinking, certainly the blockbusters were an important element, but right along them we have directors like Ridley Scott. Blade Runner (1982) and Alien (1979) are pure genre films and yet extremely interesting movies. You have a lot of directors coming in through horror, like Sam Raimi and John Carpenter. And look at James Cameron, a very important director of the eighties. Who’s going to argue that The Terminator (1984) is not a fine piece of filmmaking?

Once the movie brats split into two camps, the arty movie brats (Scorsese and so on) and the mainstream movie brats (the Lucas/Spielberg axis), the latter rebuilt Hollywood cinema. Once that was done, there was a lot of room for new directors and innovation. For example, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985) – what kind of film is that? That is an extremely strange movie! The fact that it used an established TV character, Pee-wee Herman, is really a pretext for Burton to make this extremely strange film. Beetlejuice (1988) is pretty strange as well. And Zemeckis made some really bad-tempered films, with really savage criticisms of American society, like Used Cars (1980) and I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978). I think that the eighties is as interesting as any other decade! And it was a time when a lot of young directors got started.

The nineties are similar, with films by Cameron Crowe and Steven Soderbergh. Crowe’s Jerry Maguire (1996) works very well as a romantic comedy. I think it’s a perfect Hollywood movie – there’s nothing you can change in it! But, you know, the nineties filmmakers become very experimental. There are a lot of narrative experiments, around the time of Pulp Fiction (1994), but also before and after, and other experiments with genre mixing, new kinds of neo noir and so on. Certainly, some genres have died, the live action musical and westerns are, by and large, not made any more. But other genres have flourished: Science Fiction, horror, action adventure, just take John McTiernan, who is another director of the eighties and a very fine filmmaker.

High and low art

My Darling Clementine (John Ford, 1946)

How do you relate these Hollywood films, which are mostly entertainments, to the experience of the “high art” film?

To me, cinema is one of the few arts where there’s a continuity, a smooth transition from high art to popular art. If you think about someone like Ophüls or Kubrick, or classic directors like Murnau. His Nosferatu (1922) is at the same time a German expressionist film…and a horror movie! In a way, these are really doing two things at once. Ophüls is making a romantic comedy like La Ronde (1950), but which is based on what you think of as a middle or high-level play. We think of John Ford as a great director, but he only made genre films, except for two: The Informer (1935) and The Fugitive (1947). They were his own pet projects, but they’re very pretentious, very arty, and most people don’t think they are very good, whereas My Darling Clementine (1946) is a masterpiece. “Artistic” directors like Bergman, Kurosawa, Miklós Jancsó, they all say: John Ford – you cannot do better than John Ford, and all Ford did was to make these westerns or masculine comedies or whatever. The same goes for Hawks and Hitchcock, it’s all genre films.

So there is another level then to these films, beneath the surface…

As I see it, the great thing about cinema is that you can say “this is a popular film, but it is also a masterpiece”. It is able to stand with masterpieces of what we think of as more artistic films and that’s something other art forms find very difficult. However, it’s starting to happen in music; when people think about popular music, Americans say jazz: Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington in the twenties – maybe that was the best music written in the entire world at that time. They start to say: maybe Ellington is the best American composer in the first half of the 20th century. And all he does is making this popular music!

So to me, whether a film is popular or not, designed as entertainment or art, I think it’s very likely that sometimes a good genre film is better than a film with aspirations to high art. Towards the end of last year, I saw four films on two nights. The first night I saw 21 Grams and Love Actually. To me, the last one was better. 21 Grams seemed to me a by-the-numbers “artistic”, psychological movie, completely predictable, completely steeped in a certain new fashion for how chance occurrences lead people together and pull them apart. Love Actually is also about chance occurrences, but in the framework of a very formulaic romantic comedy, with about fifteen major characters circulating through. I preferred that, because it was believably done, amusing, there were stronger emotions – and even though it was addressed much more to an ordinary audience, I thought it was a better film!

The second night I saw School of Rock followed by Lost in Translation. There’s no question in my mind which is the better film – School of Rock! (laughs uproariously) It seems to me that Lost in Translation was everything that’s bad about contemporary serious cinema. It’s pretentious, hollow, shallow, trying to make you feel it’s more there than it is. Of course, this is just my personal opinion. A lot of my friends love the film, but all I’m saying is that the potential is there for a popular film to be much more rewarding and better artistically than a serious art film. And that’s something you would not find in other media.

In literature, no one says that John Grisham is a better writer than Philip Roth. But it’s possible that Grisham might be a better writer than some of the people we put up on the pedestal, but it’s very contentious and controversial to say such things about literature. But in cinema, this is nowhere near as controversial. To me, if you draw up a list of the twenty greatest directors, certainly Buster Keaton, Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford would be on that list, right beside people like Antonioni. Another interesting thing is that directors we think of as high art directors, is because we have lifted them out of their context. For example, at the start of his career, Fellini just made movies – commedia all’italiana! And to speak of the great Japanese directors Ozu and Mizoguchi: they’re traditional directors, they work within the studio system, they use stars, they work within genres – they do exactly what everyone else is doing. The same with Renoir, during the thirties and forties, he’s just trying to make ordinary movies – Rules of the Game (1939) came out just like every other film! So, to me, the idea of the art film is a creation of the post-war cinema, when state subsidies and film festivals start to appear – suddenly a body of films appear that, basically, audiences aren’t that interested in (laughs). However, intellectuals are interested, a certain coterie is interested.

The researcher’s perspective

The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1939)

But these unprejudiced, unconventional views you have on this, is that the result of you being a researcher?

I do think the researcher aspect makes me more unprejudiced. To me, it’s all part of film history and I want to understand it. If a prejudice comes in the way of my understanding, it is easier for me to discard it. However, popular critics depend on judgements. What they’re selling to audiences and readers are their opinions. I certainly have my own judgements and opinions, but I also think that my work is not mainly concerned with finding out which are the best and worst films, but understanding the flow of film history. Why is this film the way it is? What has created that trend? Why, in this context, are certain films made?

Mizoguchi, for example, makes commercial films within various genres for the first fifteen years or so of his career. Then in the mid-30s he gets together with a single producer and they make a few films together, like Sisters of the Gion and Osaka Elegy (both 1936), socially critical, social realist films that are censored heavily. Then Mizoguchi goes back to making other kinds of films for a while. Later he realises it’s possible for him to do what he wants to do even in the context of late 1930s Japan, because he can make films celebrating indigenous Japanese traditions. So The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums is the story of the greatness of Japanese theatre – it’s a serious film about Japanese culture, but it’s in an “official” format and the government gives it a prize. Then he makes The 47 Ronin and several films now lost, all about Japanese arts.

So Mizoguchi found a niche: he figured out that he could make a certain kind of film if he had government approval. The same thing happens after the war, when the Americans came in. Mizoguchi says “Fine, I can make films about the oppression of women”, because it’s part of US policy to emphasise this bad part of Japanese culture. So for the Japanese authoritarian government he can make the films he wants if he packages them in a certain way; after the war he can make films others want, so he packages them in another way. But he still gets to make the movies he wants. So these contexts make a huge difference, I think. But again, all those movies were intended for the general public.

So, in ten or fifteen years, we may look back and have a totally different view on the nineties cinema.

Exactly, and on the eighties as well. We always have this historical perspective, and that’s what I am trying to capture. But I think that this historical perspective does make me, and not just me for that matter, more open to seeing films in a slightly different way. But, finally, I don’t mind judging films.

Personal taste

Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003)

What you said about Lost in Translation is very much like what a critic would say, in the same kind of language.

That’s what it is. But my only point there is that we should not be prejudiced against popular films in favour of more artistic films. However, as a researcher, what I would do is try to ask: what makes it possible for a film like Lost in Translation to be made in 2003 America, to be distributed widely, to win awards, what is the context that allows this film to be made, whereas fifteen years ago, it could not have been made or received so well. So, as a researcher, I try to be objective, even if I don’t care for the film.

Might not your opinion on a film sometimes change during this process?

It’s possible. I do find that when I research and study films more closely, I tend to like them a little better. I grew up in an era when the “criticism of enthusiasm” was important. Cahiers du Cinema, Jonas Mekas, Andrew Sarris in The Village Voice: these were the people I read and their idea was it’s always better to err on the side of favour, rather than disfavour. The Cahiers policy was that people who like the film should write about it, the people who did not should not write. In this way, the film gets the best possible chance with an audience. Sarris felt the same way and tried to find some good in every film. Mekas was also like that, so I have to say there’s a side of me that feels once I get to know a film better, I will probably like it better.

So has it happened a lot then? Do you have any examples of films you disliked and changed your opinion about after a closer look?

I do tend to go the other way. The films that attract me are the ones I tend to study, to try to understand historically. However, I think it’s due to my studying it that I have a better attitude towards the eighties and nineties American cinema now than before. I always liked Burton, but I was not that interested in Tarantino, Zemeckis, and several of these directors until after examining their work more closely…

I can give you an example. My first Michael Mann film was Thief (1981). I thought it was okay and interesting, but I didn’t really appreciate it. Manhunter (1986) I did not care for. I did not really start to appreciate Mann until the mid-nineties, when I saw Heat (1995). And then I went back and revisited Manhunter, The Last of the Mohicans (1992) and his other films – okay, there was more there than I thought, but that was because I was interested in studying the cinema of 80’s and 90’s from the viewpoint of visual style. Then I suddenly came to realise that Mann, at the level of visual style, was doing something very original (in addition to his use of music, among other things). So that is an example where I did not have a very strong attraction from the beginning, but on studying it I became more and more appreciative.

Maybe if I studied them closer, it would happen with Sofia Coppola’s films. I have not seen Virgin Suicides (1999), but many people like it. But I think there is a certain kind of self-congratulatoriness about Lost in Translation: “look at me, I am making a film about these very vulnerable characters”. I also have some objections as to how she portrays Japan. On the whole, I have a big problem, because the way I feel about her characters is not the way I think she wants me to feel about them. I really do think they’re superficial people.

…that could be the intention…?

But if the story is to make any sense, you have to be on the side of the Scarlett Johansson character. You have to sympathise with her, because her husband is apparently playing around with this other woman, because she’s all alone in this big city… As I sat watching it, I got very uncharitable. I thought this is really about Sofia Coppola, about her as a young girl being dragged along on her father’s trips, stuck in hotels with nothing to do while her father goes out and has a good time. The Bill Murray character is a surrogate for her father, who she’s trying to get back in touch with. And I felt that this is no fun: “I am not going to think about this any more”. (laughs) Maybe I’m just too close to the subject matter: the idea of going to one of the three or four most interesting cities in the world and then stay in your hotel, leafing through magazines, go channel surfing…

So maybe Coppola tries to set up a paradoxical situation then…

I think it just reflects a certain class, a certain American provincialism that is amazing, and it does not necessarily belong to the lower classes, the rich are just as provincial. When she steps outside the hotel she goes to a karaoke bar, she goes to a Japanese temple – these are the postcard pictures of Japan. The question is: is it a film about superficial people, or is it a superficial film about people? (laughs) This is the problem we often have with F. Scott Fitzgerald or other writers portraying a very hollow lifestyle. However, with someone like Antonioni, you always know there’s an element of social criticism there, in films like La Notte (1961) and L’avventura (1960), but here…

But Coppola does not really have to be up there on the Antonioni level to be interesting…

I agree, I agree. Partly it’s probably just a visceral reaction to the over-praise I thought the film got. If the film just had come out to the reception of “nice movie”, but the intense praise it got probably made me overreact in my negativism, not an uncommon phenomenon. But as a historian, I would be interested in it as a chapter of the history of the independent film in America, that a film like this can be made at a certain point, and I would echo it back to other films with a similar kind of success in America, although they usually have not been American films. A Man and a Woman (1966), Elvira Madigan (1967), mood films, films about atmosphere and lost love, romantic yearning, done with a very… you know, sort of taking themselves very seriously. (laughs) Now we make our own wistful, romantic, melancholy films, we don’t need Bo Widerberg or Claude Lelouch to tell us how this works.

So there is a side of you then that tries to look at films as objectively as possible, as part of your work, and then there is this other, more gut reaction kind of thing…

I have tastes like everybody else. On some levels, my research is driven by my taste. What I research is often a filmmaker or a film that I love, or that I’m very, very interested in. At other times, the research question I’m asking does not crucially depend on my taste, but it can, as we touched upon before, educate my taste. To give you another quick example: once I became very interested in the cinema of the 1910s: Danish film, Russian film (tsarist pre-revolutionary film) and some German films. I watched films from this period just to fill gaps in my viewing, in addition to having an objective interest in the development of film language. But then I became a real fan of 1910s films; some of them were very beautiful films, and the upshot of that is that now I’m feeling I have a better appreciation of those films. However, it came from an objective, academic question I was asking. So it can definitely change your taste the other way. However, normally I am drawn to write and think about films and filmmakers that I already instinctively like. When I saw Hou Hsiao-hsien (snaps his fingers) – City of Sadness (1989) was my first – I said to myself: “This is my kind of guy, this is the kind of film I like”.

For you as a person, is researching that type of film more rewarding than genre films?

No, no, not at all. I would say it goes both ways. Sometimes your research is driven by your own fondness for certain things, sometimes you feel that you just have to know more about this and that area, and when you do discover more, you do like more. It opens you up. This is the great thing about being an academic scholar: you can ask questions that change or broaden your taste. The luxury I have as an academic and a university person is that after my day job, I can use the rest of the time to look at things I’m interested in. I feel sorry sometimes for contemporary critics who only have time to see recent films. They lack the time to say that “I will now spend some time to look at old silents” or go and have a look at Portuguese cinema.

As enthusiastic as ever

Tokyo Story (Yasujirō Ozu, 1953)

There seems to be a tendency among those kinds of critics that they get a bit tired and bored about the whole thing. But you seem to still have a great enthusiasm even after so many years of dealing with films.

Oh, yeah, yeah! I have been writing about films since the mid-60s. I went to college in ‘65 and was a film reviewer for the college newspaper, reviewing current films. But there was also a Film Society, so I got to see a lot of older films, trying to educate myself. But I think if you were a daily reviewer and saw everything that came out, it would deaden you.

So your interest in films has not waned at all since the start?

No, no, no! There’s just so much more to see…! We’re constantly making discoveries about older directors, directors from other countries, films of various genres we know little about. Look at, say, Indian cinema – it’s a whole new world. Frankly, it’s one that I’m afraid to enter, because it could swallow you up, with all these three- and four-hour movies. But I have to say that when my wife and I worked together on a textbook about film history, I just had to start watching films I had not seen before, and I really came to love Indian cinema of the 40s and 50s, the classic Hindi cinema. After the 60’s films, I’ve only watched selectively, because to jump in all the way would take the rest of your life.

There was a story we used to tell people about the history of film, and that was a bedtime story for children. It was a story that bore almost no relation to reality. Porter, Griffith, the twenties directors, the coming of sound – it is very Eurocentric and American-centric. It’s very much about certain directors and not other directors, certain films and not other films, and that story was really the standard story until the 1970s. Then suddenly, film museums and archives became more open and started to show films that were not the most usual ones. And people went “Wait a minute – that changes the story”. Now some people still tell the old story, because they don’t know better or maybe they just don’t want to be bothered. These days, everything is more complicated.

So once we know more, things get more and more complicated, more interesting, more murky. For example, until the 1980s, one said that Ozu was inherently the most Japanese filmmaker. This was the reason that no one at his film company Shochiku thought about exporting his films: “Foreigners can understand Mizoguchi and certainly Kurosawa, but Ozu is ours, he’s too difficult”. But in the eighties, we found that Ozu was completely influenced by American cinema! He hated Japanese cinema! He did not think there was good national filmmaking at all. He admired King Vidor, and if you look at some of his early silents you’ll find that they’re like American college comedies. “Okay – we have to change the Ozu story!”

Then the interesting question is: how does someone who begins that way become the director of Tokyo Story (1953), rather than the static question of Ozu, the most Japanese filmmaker. Moreover, Mizoguchi was clearly influenced by von Sternberg. If you put Shanghai Express (1932) alongside Osaka Elegy or Sisters of the Gion, you go: “of course, absolutely – it’s obvious!” Then suddenly, Mizoguchi is no longer entirely a director who loves classic, traditional Japanese art and tries to bring it all to his films, he’s a social protest director. This is another reason that Hollywood films need to be studied, because, after the 1920s, it’s constantly influencing world cinema, just because it’s seen everywhere.

The world’s most thorough book on cinema?

I Was Born, But… (Yasujirō Ozu, 1932)

Can we talk a bit about your book Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema. It’s very thorough…

Too thorough! (laughs loudly)

…but its thoroughness is admirable! Could you tell me about process of making it? For one thing, do you have any idea of how many working hours you used on it?

Oh, I’ve no idea. I worked on that book from 1976 to when it came out in 1988. I started to study Ozu in the early seventies, just accidentally really – a film distributor called New Yorker Films acquired several Ozu films and I had only seen Tokyo Story. And in another example of my research coming out of my interest, I liked that film very much, so I ordered these films to show in the courses I was teaching. But the more I looked at them, I thought those were really peculiar films…! They were really beautiful and interesting, and did not fit what everyone was saying about them, for example Donald Richie in his book on Ozu that had just come out (although, in its own way, it’s a good book). Also, the films had interesting things he did not touch upon. So I started to watch the Ozus in the mid-70s, and my wife Kristin Thompson and I wrote an article on him in 1976, published in Screen. Then I just sort of started accumulating information about Ozu, until I had gathered so much – I spent about two years working intensely on it – that I said to myself “I just have to write this book”. So I wrote the book over a couple of years, but it really represents about ten year’s thought on Ozu, from ‘76 to ‘86.

So how did you get to see the films – you did not have video copies in those early days?

No, I saw them all on film. I went to several archives in Europe – I did not go to Japan to write the book, because when I was researching Ozu, Japanese archives were very inhospitable. Now they’re much more open. So I could see all the Ozus in Europe and the US. But I also wanted to put them into context. Before, no one had looked at other films made at the same time, particularly in the thirties and forties. And, fortunately for me, the Library of Congress in Washington DC had a very large collection of pre-war Japanese films. They were captured, either when the Americans invaded Japan or during the war in the Pacific, so they had about 300 Japanese feature films from the period up to 1946. So I just watched as many that I could, about 150 I guess, and tried to compare them with Ozu.

So you watched 150 of them, over how long a period?

Probably four of five years…

So you did not have an intense period of watching, you did not see several a day for long periods…

No, no, I had other things to do, I had to teach. Nowadays, people are so used to video, but in the old days I had to travel to many archives to get to see films. When my colleagues and I wrote the book on the classic Hollywood cinema, we travelled all over the US to film archives, because video had not yet really caught on. We finished our writing in ’82, the year that video really took off. But anyway, the films we wanted to see, obscure American films, were certainly not on video, and they were not shown on TV either. So we had to go to archives to see them.

To get back to Ozu, in 1976 my wife and I went to London, where they did an Ozu retrospective, so we were able to see almost everything in projection. Additionally, the British Film Institute let us watch them on a Moviola, an editing machine and during these sessions I took a lot of notes. Then in the early eighties, I was able to see most of the films again, either at the Library of Congress, or by bringing them to my school, or by seeing them in Europe, particularly in the Belgian Film Archive, which was well stocked on Ozu. Later, the Museum of Modern Art acquired all of his films and I was able to see them yet again, on a flatbed, another editing machine. All in all, I saw each film probably three or four times.

So using this flatbed, with which you could stop the film at your will, was how you were able to measure the shot length of the films.

Exactly – and to study each shot by itself and make my photos for the book.

Not to tempt you into bragging, but do you know about any other film book that is as thorough? Tom Gunning’s book about Fritz Lang is very thorough…

Very thorough, but not visually thorough, his book has more to do with the stories and themes. The one I know best is Edvin Kau’s book on Dreyer, published in Denmark [“Dreyers filmkunst”, Akademisk forlag] – that’s also very, very thorough, also shot by shot, with very close readings. He was Danish and could see all the films at the Danish archive, on a Steinbeck editing machine. His book has probably the same level of thoroughness: it contains very careful drawings of the sets, layouts of camera movements and so on. What I was trying to do with Ozu, was also, for American readers, to introduce the context of Ozu’s filmmaking: the industrial context, what the studio system was like in Japan, the broader social context of the modernisation process in Japan and political pressures. It was too much – I tried to do too much…

So you really think it was too much.

Well, to me the whole thing was very helpful. What I was trying to say is if you’re going to do a very thorough study of a director, here are the questions that you should ask: about the aesthetics of the director, about the industrial context (the mode of production) and about the social context. It’s three circles: the films circled by the industrial context seen in the wider context of the culture. That is what a complete auteur study should be. You could probably write one book on each of them and I tried to write one book on all three, that’s why I’m saying it may have been too ambitious.

To me this was necessary, because, firstly, it was interesting, but also because so much of this had not been discussed before. Richie never talked about the industrial and cultural context – to him it’s just Ozu and the films. But to me, it was highly important to look at Ozu in the context of, say, how Shochiku tried to differentiate itself from other companies as a woman’s studio (like Cukor, Ozu was a woman’s director). That makes a very important difference with, say, Toho, which was much more oriented towards male genres, with Kurosawa coming out of that tradition.

So, you know, it’s interesting to me in a studio of stories of home life and romantic drama, Shiro Kido, the head of Shochiku, really cultivated directors with a distinctive style. He liked Ozu’s style because it was so unusual, almost like a branding device: “look at Ozu’s films – this is one of Shochiku’s house styles”. So when Mikio Naruse came along, Shiro Kido said “we don’t need two Ozus (laughs), your films look too much like Ozu’s – leave!” Now, that’s really extraordinary in a film industry usually thought of as something that demands standardisation, like Hollywood (“we would like to have all our films look alike!”). But in Japan they said “we want product differentiation”, they wanted films to look very different – and that’s interesting to me, and partly explains why Ozu was able to keep going with this very unusual style.

An Autumn Afternoon (Yasujirō Ozu, 1962)

Did you have assistants helping with the research?

This is another advantage of being at a university. I had research assistants, in fact students from Japan. They could research Japanese literature and that sort of thing. Anyway, I couldn’t do this book again. For one thing, I don’t have the energy now – at age 57 I cannot do what I could at age 40.

Did you maybe get a bit obsessed by this book?

Absolutely. All of my three director’s books, on Dreyer, Ozu and on Eisenstein, have obsessed me. The latter two I feel psychologically very close to. I’m not sure I would want to know Dreyer, although I certainly respect him enormously, but Ozu and Eisenstein are two people I would love to have known. I suppose we all do this, you know, imagine how the minds of great directors work. And I find that my imagination of how they worked is close to how I would like my own mind to work. Ozu is so obsessive about every little detail, but at the same time very playful, very funny, having a good sense of humour – now these are qualities I admire in people. Eisenstein has the same kind of obsession, but also crazy stuff – the way he dresses the Teutonic knights in Alexander Nevsky (1938), like something out of a Disney cartoon or something, with these helmets, with something like hands or claws or weapons on top of them – it looks crazy! I have to say, that is the sort of temperament or sensibility I like.

But being obsessed, couldn’t that lead you into over-interpretation?

Sure. Being in an academic community is really great, because you can talk to other people about your ideas, they criticise them and make suggestions, or you write something and give it to others for feedback. If you only work by yourself, if you lack a dialogue with other people who can push you and challenge you, you’ll get in difficulties.

But this Ozu project was a side job, not a university project, but in addition to your daytime job as a teacher?

Well, no, I got some money for summer research to go to England and to rent films and things like that. But I did not take time off to write it, I did that in the summer vacations.

Was it difficult to find a publisher for it?

Actually that was easy. The problem, however, was to keep the book in print. I made a contract in beforehand – I approached the British Film Institute and said I wanted to do a book on Ozu, and they said “Fine, great” and gave me a contract, it was very easy. But when I turned the book in, it was huge, twice the length I had predicted. They expected a medium size book, but it turned out to be the largest book the BFI has ever produced on a single director. I said “Maybe you want to back out”, but I was lucky because they had not published many books that year, and they needed to publish books to justify their existence. Secondly, they got a grant from the Japanese government to produce it. So the book had to be produced, they had no choice in it. (I did not realise that.) So they accepted the book, and I still believe it is the biggest book on a single subject by one author they have ever put out. They’ve done bigger books that were collections of essays, reference books and so on. My book was a monster and they weren’t delighted. But I don’t think any other publisher would have allowed so many pictures.

You don’t write that many pages about each film – it could easily have been much longer.

Much, much longer. In fact, writing a chapter on each film was what made the book double the intended length. The first version of it was just the first half – the general discussion of Ozu with examples from a lot of different films, but no analysis of each film, step by step. But then I thought there are still many things I haven’t talked about yet, so I decided to have a second half, in which I could go film by film and I think people find that useful now. However, the BFI just looked at it in despair. But I came at a good time, due to the pressure on them to publish and the Japanese money they didn’t want to give back.

After publishing the book, have your opinions of Ozu changed a lot?

The book is out of print now and very hard to get, so I’ve been thinking about approaching a publisher to republish it. But it’s an extremely complicated book, with some mistakes that need to be corrected. But my general opinion about Ozu and his films haven’t changed. By the way, I’m going to do a commentary for one of the Ozu Criterion DVD releases, so I have to go back and look at the book again. I haven’t done that in probably ten years, so I need to see what I would change and what I disagree with.

There seems to be some controversy about the colour scheme on some of the DVD releases. Personally, I have seen some film prints in France with a kind of pastel hue to them. Also, the DVDBeaver website has examined some Japanese DVD releases with what’s been released in the West, and the colours on the Japanese issues look much more natural.

I know what the prints I saw looked like. They were starting to fade, but I tried to see good prints of everything, and I would say that pastel is not a prominent part of his aesthetic. He liked saturated colours – red was his favourite colour. He tried to put red into every scene. Most of the Japanese films of that period have a very Hollywoody look, in terms of most Japanese colour films being lit very flatly, with very bright colours, through the fifties and early sixties. It’s not until the mid-sixties and later that they started to change. But even look at early Oshima, they have pretty bright, hard colours, and Suzuki films from the same period have pretty hard-edge colour. So my sense is that the Ozu prints are much more saturated and bright, and the ones I’ve seen on DVD are pretty much like that. Of course, the problem is that video colour can never quite be the same as film colour.

The film I’ve got to comment on is Ozu’s last film, An Autumn Afternoon, and the colours in that are stupendous, just unbelievable, so hopefully I will have a chance to study these films.

When I come back from this trip, Criterion is sending me 35mm prints of all the colour films, so before I see the video versions they’ll come up with, I am, once more, going to sit down and watch them on the Moviola and study their colour. So this is my preparation for doing the commentary.

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