Notes on Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema

An Autumn Afternoon (40:08)

These are some quotes and brief notes that I typed up awhile ago but never really made into anything complete…

Bordwell. Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema. Princeton UP, 1988.

I tend to read film books with an eye towards comics, how ideas might crossover from one art to another. I’ve found a lot of David Bordwell’s work to be particularly rich in this area. Here are some notes I took from his book on the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, whose films I have a growing appreciation for. You can actually download a very large pdf of this book at the link above.

Early on Bordwell discusses the notion of a poetics of cinema:

‘Poetics’ refers to the study of how films are put together and how, in determinate contexts, they elicit particular effects. A narrative film exhibits a total form consisting of materials — subject matter, themes — shaped and transformed by overall composition and stylistic patterning. (1)

To get a better idea of what he means, here’s a quote from his “Historical Poetics of Cinema” (pdf of the article):

The poetics of any medium studies the finished work as the result of a process of construction–a process which includes a craft component (e.g., rules of thumb), the more general principles according to which the work is composed, and its functions, effects, and uses. Any inquiry into the fundamental principles by which a work in any representational medium is constructed can fall within the domain of poetics. […]

A historical poetics of cinema produces knowledge in answer to two broad questions:

1. What are the principles according to which films are constructed and by means of which they achieve particular effects?
2. How and why have these principles arisen and changed in particular empirical circumstances?

Historical poetics is thus characterized by the phenomena it studies–films’ constructional principles and effects–and the questions it asks about those phenomena–their constitution, functions, consequences, and historical manifestations. Poetics does not put at the forefront of its activities phenomena such as the economic patterns of film distribution, the growth of the teenage audience, or the ideology of private property. The poetician may need to investigate such matters, and indeed many others, but they become relevant only in the light of more properly poetic issues. Underlying this hierarchy of significance is the assumption that, while in our world everything is connected to everything else, one can produce novel and precise knowledge only by making distinctions among core questions, peripheral questions, and irrelevant questions.

I have to explore this concept further. A quick google search reveals very little by way of “poetics of comics.” All the hits I see are referring to comics as poetic (as in, poetry), which is a much different arena.

I noticed how some of his analyses make me think of manga.

One convention of Japanese classical cinema thus became the crisp, economical cut to synecdochic details of action. Some filmmakers turned to haiku’s atmospheric brevity as a model for cutaway shots of nature or objects. (29)

Cutaways are inserted shots that interrupt the main action by enlarging a detail not present in the prior shot; they do not represent any character’s optical viewpoint. (106)

This reminds me very much of McCloud’s aspect-to-aspect transitions which he found so often in manga. I like the ring of “synecdochic details.”

In the editing phase, Ozu dictated absolute shot lengths often independent of what was on screen. He gave strict instructions to his editor about the length of each speaking shot and he insisted on a 6-8 frame interval after every line of dialogue. Ozu would time his ’empty shots’ of scenery by abstract metrical patterns. (75)

I love this idea of a lingering on a subject after the words are spoken.

According to Burch, the transitional passages achieve this goal [suspending the progress of the narrative] by their stillness, their prolonged duration, and their lack of a compositional center. (‘They demand to be scanned like paintings.’) (104)

Film v comics: Film can have subtleties to it that hide in the bg. In comics since everything has to be drawn little can be taken for granted.

Dominant/overtone cutting, being purely pictorial, creates a non-causal means of guiding viewer expectations through intermediate spaces. (134)

I talked about this in a previous post without realizing there was a term for it.

Themes are important as material for the work of art, but thematization tends toward ‘recuperation’, toward pulling the work back into our most anodyne habits of thought. To treat interpretation as the highest goal of criticism is to foreclose the possibility that a work may challenge us not through new meanings (what new meaning are there?) but though new patterns, processes, and effects. (137)