David Bordwell, Preeminent Film Scholar, Dies at 76

David Bordwell, the noted film scholar, teacher, author and researcher known for sharing his knowledge and enthusiasm of cinema with movie lovers everywhere, has died. He was 76.

Bordwell died Thursday after a long illness, the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced. He taught at the school from 1973 until his retirement in 2004 and was its Jacques Ledoux Professor Emeritus of Film Studies at the time of his death.

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For more than two decades, Bordwell supplied commentaries, visual and written essays and interviews for films in the Criterion Collection and was seen and heard on 50 insightful episodes of Observations on Film Art on the Criterion Channel.

In a statement, Criterion called him “a great, longtime friend and a tireless champion of cinema who spent decades imparting his wisdom and passion onto film lovers around the world.”

Bordwell wrote his essential textbooks Film Art: An Introduction, first published in 1979, and Film History: An Introduction, first published in 1994. Both were authored with his wife, Kristin Thompson, a fellow UW professor.

The couple also published an authoritative film blog at davidbordwell.net.

In all, Bordwell authored, co-authored or edited some 22 books and monographs and more than 140 journal articles, book chapters, introductions to collections and review essays, UW said.

Bordwell was born on July 23, 1947, in Penn Yan, New York. “I grew up on a farm and so didn’t have the easy access to movies that kids in cities would have,” he said in 2006.

“I began to watch classic movies on TV late at night while also reading books like Arthur Knight’s The Liveliest Art and Paul Rotha’s The Film Till Now. … So in a weird way I got more of my awareness of film from reading than from viewing.”

He graduated from the State University of New York at Albany in 1969 after studying English literature and joined the faculty at the UW’s Department of Communication Arts immediately after completing coursework for his Ph.D. from the University of Iowa.

His writings included 1980’s The Films of Carl-Theodor Dreyer; 1985’s The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960; 1988’s Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema; 2000’s Planet Hong Kong; 2005’s Figures Traced in Light: On Cinematic Staging; and 2006’s The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies.

Among Bordwell’s favorite films, according to IndieWire, were Passing Fancy (1933), How Green Was My Valley (1941), Sanshiro Sugata (1943), Song of the South (1946), Advise and Consent (1962), Zorns Lemma (1970), Choose Me (1984), Back to the Future (1985) and The Hunt for Red October (1990).

In addition to his wife, survivors include his sisters, Diane and Darlene; his nephew, Sanjeev; and his niece, Kamini.

Screenwriter, director and producer James Schamus, a three-time Oscar nominee, paid tribute to Bordwell in a statement to UW:

“As a filmmaker, I can describe David’s friendship as unnervingly generous. His astonishing critical intelligence never got in the way of his enthusiasms, and his enthusiasms never dampened his analytic regard; they were functions of each other,” he wrote.

“This meant that when talk came around to one’s own work, the effect was something akin to getting a loving bear hug from a nuclear-powered microscope. There will never be another like David again.”

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