David Bordwell (born July 23, 1947) is an American film theorist and film historian. Since receiving his PhD from the University of Iowa in 1974, he has written more than fifteen volumes on the subject of cinema including Narration in the Fiction Film (1985), Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema (1988), Making Meaning (1989), and On the History of Film Style (1997).
With his wife Kristin Thompson, Bordwell wrote the introductory textbooks Film Art (1979) and Film History (1994). With aesthetic philosopher Noël Carroll, Bordwell edited the anthology Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies (1996), a polemic on the state of contemporary film theory. His largest work to date remains The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (1985), written in collaboration with Thompson and Janet Staiger. Several of his more influential articles on theory, narrative, and style were collected in Poetics of Cinema (2007), named in homage after the famous anthology of Russian formalist film theory Poetika Kino, edited by Boris Eikhenbaum in 1927.
Bordwell spent nearly the entirety of his career as a professor of film at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he is currently the Jacques Ledoux Professor of Film Studies, Emeritus in the Department of Communication Arts. Notable film theorists who wrote their dissertations under his advisement include Edward Branigan, Murray Smith, and Carl Plantinga. He and Thompson maintain the blog "Observations on film art" for their recent ruminations on cinema.
Drawing inspiration from earlier film theorists such as Noel Burch as well as from art historian Ernst Gombrich, Bordwell has contributed books and articles on classical film theory, the history of art cinema, classical and contemporary Hollywood cinema, and East Asian film style. However, his more influential and controversial works have dealt with cognitive film theory (Narration in the Fiction Film being one of the first volumes on this subject), historical poetics of film style, and critiques of contemporary film theory and analysis (Making Meaning and Post-Theory being his two major gestures on this subject).
Bordwell has also been associated with a methodological approach known as neoformalism, although this approach has been more extensively written about by his wife, Kristin Thompson. Neoformalism is an approach to film analysis based on observations first made by the literary theorists known as the Russian Formalists: that there is a distinction between a film's perceptual and semiotic properties (and that film theorists have generally overstated the role of textual codes in one's comprehension of such basic elements as diegesis and closure). Much of Bordwell's work considers the film-goer's cognitive processes that take place when perceiving the film's nontextual, aesthetic forms. This analysis includes how films guide our attention to salient narrative information, and how films partake in 'defamiliarization', a formalist term for how art shows us familiar and formulaic objects and concepts in a manner that encourages us to experience them as if they were new entities.
Neoformalists reject many assumptions and methodologies made by other schools of film study, particularly hermeneutic (interpretive) approaches, among which he counts Lacanian psychoanalysis and certain variations of poststructuralism. In Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies, Bordwell and co-editor Noël Carroll argue against these types of approaches, which they claim act as "Grand Theories" that use films to confirm predetermined theoretical frameworks, rather than attempting mid-level research meant to illuminate how films work. Bordwell and Carroll coined the term "S.L.A.B. theory" to refer to theories that use the ideas of Saussure, Lacan, Althusser, and/or Barthes.
Many philosophers have criticized neoformalism, notably Slavoj Žižek, of whom Bordwell has himself been a long-time critic. Their criticism of neoformalism is generally not based on any internal inconsistencies. Rather, critics like Žižek argue that neoformalism understates the role of culture and ideology in shaping the film text, and that analysis should reveal the problematic values of the societies in which these films are produced.
The David Bordwell Collection is held at the Academy Film Archive and is particularly noteworthy for the strength of its Hong Kong holdings.