Dear SCSMI members,

It is with great sadness that I write to inform you that David Bordwell passed away Thursday morning at the age of 76. He died at home after a long battle with an incurable, degenerative lung disease. His wife, Kristin Thompson was at his side.

As many of you know, David’s association with SCSMI goes back several decades. The organization, originally known as the Center for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image, was founded by Joseph and Barbara Anderson and held its first international conference in 1997. As the leading scholar in cognitivist film studies at that time, David championed the organization and presented papers at several of these early meetings. Indeed, David was the first contemporary film scholar to draw on recent psychology to propose a theory of narrative film comprehension and interpretation in his celebrated and still highly influential books, Narration in the Fiction Film (1985) and Making Meaning (1989).

In 2006, the Society of Cognitive Film Studies established itself as a freestanding organization with bylaws, officers, and dues-paying members. David played an instrumental role in this process, becoming SCSMI’s second president, John Adams to Joe Anderson’s George Washington.

Among David’s first official acts was his proposal to host the next SCSMI conference at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2008. I still remember the “rough and tumble” aura of that conference as we asked attendees to bring cash for registration (a modest $80 for regular members, $40 for students) and we brought international standard DVD players from home to allow presenters to show film clips. David and I each pitched in to by a quarter barrel of Spotted Cow beer for the banquet, which ran out about an hour and a half into the reception. I remember remarking to David, “We should have gotten the half barrel.” The Madison conference became the first in a series of annual conferences, establishing our current pattern of one year in North America and the next year in Europe.

After finishing his term as President, David continued to serve SCSMI as a board member. He also was a fixture at each year’s conference, sharing his latest research, asking probing questions after panels or paper presentations, and sharing thoughts and encouragement over convivial meals and breaks between sessions.

I’m sure we all have cherished memories of our interactions with David at these conferences. He always came, even when he confided in me that he didn’t want to submit a proposal for the conference. David was so worried about the spotlight that would shine on him in a regular panel session that he feared he’d overshadow any early career researcher or graduate student who had the misfortune of being scheduled opposite him.

David always came to SCSMI – until the Gandia conference in 2022. It was our first in- person meeting after two years of virtual sessions. The location was so lovely and the vibe so upbeat. Fulfilling a promise to David I made before leaving for Spain, the first thing I said when welcoming everyone back was to offer his apologies for being unable to be there. He was deeply missed in Gandia. His absence felt even bigger at last year’s event in Wilmington. And our shared sense of loss will be even more palpable at this year’s conference in Budapest.

Reading the social media posts commemorating David’s death has been truly edifying. The outpouring of grief that I’ve witnessed in the last several hours has been remarkable. The words “titan” and “giant” are peppered throughout the many tweets that have
appeared. But so are the words “kindness,” “generosity,” “enthusiasm,” and “friendship.” Oscar nominated producer and screenwriter James Schamus observed, “…his enthusiasms never dampened his analytic regard; they were functions of each other. 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.”

Below you will find a link to a more formal tribute prepared by several of David’s colleagues in the Department of Communication Arts at UW-Madison: Vance Kepley, Lea Jacobs, Kelley Conway, and Susan Zaeske.

Remembering Professor Emeritus David Bordwell

It attests to the fact that he was as beloved and revered in that community as he is by the membership of SCSMI.

I invite others to add their memories of David to this thread as together we all mourn his passing.


Jeff Smith

SCSMI President