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David Bordwell, Film Scholar and Longtime Criterion Collection Contributor, Dies at 76

David Bordwell, an influential film scholar and longtime professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, died Feb. 29 after battling a “long illness,” according to the university. He was 76.

UW-Madison described Bordwell as a prolific researcher, dedicated teacher and passionate cinephile — a man who helped guide “countless colleagues, students, and film lovers to heightened awareness of the medium’s artistic possibilities.”

For more than two decades, Bordwell penned commentaries, produced visual and written essays and interviews for films in the Criterion Collection and was seen and heard on 50 episodes of “Observations on Film Art” on the Criterion Channel, who described him as a “tireless champion of cinema,” in a statement.

He taught at UW-Madison from 1973 until his retirement in 2004 and was the university’s Jacques Ledoux Professor Emeritus of Film Studies at the time of his death.

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Damien Chazelle, Oscar-winning writer and director (“La La Land”), said that he “learned more about film from reading David Bordwell than from any other writer.”

“To me, he was America’s André Bazin, a thinker and historian who massively expanded the field and found a way to marry theory and criticism in a wholly new way,” Chazelle continued. “‘Narration in the Fiction Film’ changed how I think about storytelling in film, and ‘Figures Traced in Light’ changed how I think about framing. ‘The Way Hollywood Tells It’ changed how I think about Hollywood. He was a giant, and multiple generations of filmmakers, critics and theorists (for ultimately, we are all in this together) owe him a huge debt.”

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

Throughout his career, Bordwell would author, co-author or edit some 22 books and monographs and more than 140 journal articles, book chapters, introductions to collections and review essays, UW said.

“One thing that I loved and greatly admired about Bordwell was how – with passion, analytic precision and boundless enthusiasm for the medium – he carved out an inviting, sui generis intellectual space that could be enjoyed by scholars and general readers alike,” Manohla Dargis, New York Times film critic, said upon learning of Bordwell’s passing.

Other notable works of his 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.”

Bordwell was born on July 23, 1947, in Penn Yan, New York. After studying English literature, he graduated from the State University of New York at Albany in 1969. He joined the UW’s Department of Communication Arts faculty immediately after completing coursework for his Ph.D. from the University of Iowa.

Bordwell is survived by his wife, sisters Diane and Darlene, nephew Sanjeev and niece Kamini.

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