Critical Film Writing Professor Michael Green Sunset Boulevard (1950) Directed by Billy Wilder
This Lecture • Three Types of Film Writing • The Thesis • Gathering Ideas to Make your Argument • Structuring the Essay • Tips and Suggestions • Gathering Sources • Constructing a Bibliography Barton Fink (1992) Directed by Joel Coen
Three Types of Film Writing Part I Adaptation (1956) Directed by Spike Jonze
Three Types of Film Writing Remember, there are three major types of film writing: Descriptive – a neutral account of the basic characteristics of the film. Evaluative – which presents a judgment or opinion about a film’s value. Interpretive – which presents an argument about a film’s meaning and significance. 4
Descriptive Writing As it suggests, descriptive writing describes a film, without evaluation or judgment. Most descriptions of narrative films relay plot events, while a description of a documentary might describe not only the topic of the film, but also the approach (i.e. how the material is presented). While descriptions do not offer judgments, they may go beyond plot summary to describe genre. 5
Functions of Descriptive Film Writing • Descriptive film writing can be found many places including • Television and movie guides • DVD cases • Programs for film screenings • Books about film • Its function is to give potential viewers an idea about what a movie is about.
Why Descriptive Film Writing is Important • Descriptive film writing is the first essential component in all writing about film. You must be able to describe a film before you can say anything evaluative or interpretive about it. • Often, descriptive writing is one component of more complex forms of film writing.
Developing Skills • Descriptive writing helps you build skills in • Close viewing • Critical Analysis • Synthesizing and synopsizing • You will use descriptive writing in all your critical papers at the university level. • Accurate, concise well-articulated description is also crucial to any job, in the film industry or otherwise.
Evaluative Writing • An evaluative claim presents a judgment, expressing the author’s belief that the film is bad, good, mediocre, flawed, etc. • Reviewer’s grades – A, B or C, two thumbs up, number of stars, etc. – often summarize the critic’s judgment, while a longer review lays out the specific reasons. • “The Dark Knight is a great film” is an example of an evaluative claim.
Stronger Evaluative Claims • A stronger evaluative claim includes the reasons why the evaluation is positive or negative. • “The Dark Knight is a great film because it includes exciting and well-staged scenes of combat.” • This statement is more convincing than the first assertion because it provides a basis for the judgment.
Evaluative Criteria • Evaluative claims are always based on the evaluator’s criteria, even if they remain unstated. • Here, the unstated but implicit criterion is that exciting, well-crafted action scenes make a film great. Given the tremendous diversity of viewer preferences, it’s important to be clear about the evaluative criteria so the reader can compare the criteria to his or her own.
Evaluative vs. Interpretive • Evaluative criteria is most often seen in the movie review, which takes a number of forms in print, on TV and on the Internet. • Though some critics bring a sophisticated level of film discourse to the culture, their discussion of a film generally comes down to whether they think it is “good or bad,” i.e worth your time and money. • These evaluations are often ahistorical and not very analytical.
Bordwell’s Take “Film studies, it seems to me, is an effort to understand films and the processes through which they’re made and consumed. Film scholars mount explanations for why films are the way they are, why they were made the way they were, why they are consumed the way they are. Most ordinary talk about movies, and most film journalism, doesn’t ask ‘Why?’ questions, or pursue them very far.” David Bordwell, “Studying Cinema” 15
Bordwell (Continued) “When film scholars talk about movies, they usually also offer interpretations: claims about the non-obvious meanings that we can find in films. Interpretations can be thought of as particular sorts of functional explanations. An interpretation presupposes that aspects of the film (style, structure, dialogue, plot) contribute to its overall significance.” David Bordwell, “Studying Cinema” 16
Importance • It is important to be able to clearly, concisely and efficiently articulate your evaluation of something as you often will be asked to do so in both your student and your professional work. • In any society, it is important to be able to trade informed opinions and have an intelligent dialogue about art and culture.
Final Point However, it is crucial to understand and recognize the difference between evaluative and interpretive film writing - the difference between pure opinion and a claim supported by analysis and evidence. 18
Interpretive Writing An interpretive claim presents an argument about a film’s meaning and significance. These kind of claims address a film’s themes and abstract ideas, its social relevance, its historical context, and its influence, among other topics. But they do more than identify themes; they go further, making an argument about what a film does with those themes. 19
Interpretive Example #1 After careful critical analysis, a viewer might conclude that one theme in Transformers relates to technology. An interpretive claim might suggest: “Transformers questions the notion of technological progress by showing that technology actually controls people rather than the other way around.” 20
Interpretive Example #2 Another theme of the film is people working together to achieve goals. Are the themes related? Can we connect them in our claim? A more complex interpretive claim might be: “Although an over-reliance on technology proves dangerous, Transformers assures viewers that a small group of people united by a common purpose can defeat the most powerful technological system.” 21
The Importance of Interpretation While description and evaluation can be helpful when deciding whether to see a film, interpretive claims are important because they seek to understand the ways in which film art produces meaning and how meaning is interpreted by viewers. Interpretive claims can be important socially and culturally. Finally, they can help us develop logical thinking and writing skills. 22
Writing About Film : The Thesis Permanent Midnight (1998) Directed by David Veloz Part II 23
The Thesis Statement A thesis statement is the central claim of your paper - an assertion or argument that you try to prove through evidence. You must support the thesis statement in every paragraph and section of your paper. 24
Developing a Thesis In developing a thesis, start by asking yourself questions, such as: How is the film intriguing or disturbing? What makes the film noteworthy? Does the film use filmmaking techniques in an original or pronounced way? How is the film situated historically? What is the film’s effect on specific audiences? Such questions will help you come up with your thesis. 25
Purpose of Your Thesis Though the thesis is technically your opinion, it is not evaluative the way a film review is. In a critical essay, your thesis is designed to help others understand: How the film functions How meaning is constructed How audiences interpret meaning How the film produces social and cultural effects The film’s relationship to the film industry How the film is historical 26
Thesis Example #1 In this paper, I argue that Blonde Venus (1932) presents a traditional representation of gender roles, using narrative and visual elements to perpetuate an ideology of patriarchy and naturalize the idea of women as dependent mothers and homemakers. 27
Thesis Example #2 Despite the fact that Blonde Venus represents traditional gender stereotypes, the movie is both progressive and subversive in representing women. In this paper, I will argue that Blonde Venus, through narrative and visual style, challenges patriarchy by criticizing the traditional social roles of women as mothers and homemakers. 28
Supporting your Thesis Once you have your thesis laid out, you need to start thinking about how you are going to support it using evidence - both from the movie or movies you are analyzing and from outside sources. You can sum up the structure of an argumentative essay with the acronym TREE: Thesissupported by Reasons, which rest upon Evidence and Examples. 29
Writing About Film: Gathering Ideas to Make Your Argument Wonder Boys (2000) Directed by Curtis Hanson Part III 30
Summary of Interpretive Writing An interpretive claim presents an argument about a film’s meaning and significance. These kind of claims address a film’s themes and abstract ideas, its social relevance, its historical context, and its influence, among other topics. But they do more than identify themes; they go further, making an argument about what a film does with those themes. 31
Summary: The Thesis Statement A thesis statement is the central claim of your paper - an assertion or argument that you try to prove through evidence. You must support the thesis statement in every paragraph and section of your paper. 32
Outline/Segmentation of the Film We experience a film scene by scene, but if we want to know how the scenes work together, we need an idea of the film’s overall structure or shape. You should make an outline that reflects structural elements. 33
Structure of Body and Soul What principles of development connect Body and Soul from one scene to another? Flashback/non-chronological narrative. Fight scenes at crucial junctures in the life of the protagonist. Alternation between the worlds of family and boxing. A build to a final match designed to resolve the protagonist’s moral conflict and bring him squarely into one world or the other. 34
Noting Outstanding Formal Techniques As you watch a film, you should also jot down brief, accurate descriptions of the various film techniques used. Once you have determined the overall organizational structure of the film, you can identify salient techniques, trace out patterns of techniques across the whole film, and propose functions for them. 35
Some Formal Techniques For example, Body and Soul makes strong use of: Harsh lighting contrasts A more realistic acting style than was customary for Hollywood film Mobile cameras during the fight scenes A great deal of dialogue 36
Purpose/Meaning in Structure and Techniques Once you have a solid idea of how the film is structured, and have carefully noted any outstanding use of film techniques, you can begin to make a case for the purpose of the structure - in other words, what meaning is being produced as a result. This exercise can also help you if you want to be a filmmaker yourself. 37
Identifying Salient Techniques At any moment in a film, so much is going on that it is easy to be overwhelmed by all the technical elements. Often, film analysts are unsure as to what techniques are most relevant to their thesis. This is where planning your paper’s thesis in advance helps you. Your thesis will make some techniques more pertinent than others – although this process can often just as easily lead you to a thesis. 38
Example For example, if your thesis asserts that Body and Soul advances the idea that economically depressed neighborhoods create a criminal class, than you may want to concentrate your formal analysis on elements of the film’s mise-en-scene – props, setting, costumes and lighting. You can then refine your identifications from there, perhaps bringing in analysis of other film elements and how they work together. 39
Summary: Noting Outstanding Formal Techniques As you watch a film, you should also jot down brief, accurate descriptions of the various film techniques used. Once you have determined the overall organizational structure of the film, you can identify salient techniques, trace out patterns of techniques across the whole film, and propose functions for them. 40
Structuring the Essay The Front Page (1931) Directed by Lewis Milestone Part IV
Typical Critical Essay Structure Broadly speaking, an argumentative essay has this underlying structure: Introduction: This is typically background information (context) or a vivid example of your topic leading up to your thesis. Body: Reasons to believe your thesis – evidence and examples in support of it. Conclusion: Restatement of your thesis and discussion of its broader implications. 42
The Introduction A critical papers must include a short introduction that concludes with your thesis statement. The introduction seeks to lead the reader into the argument to come. It usually includes some contextual information. Sometimes introductions can be longer than one paragraph (5-6 sentences), but not usually in a short paper (2-5 pages).
Be Specific in Your Introduction Make sure that an introduction sets up your thesis in terms of the topic of your paper. If you are writing about the representation of race in GoodFellas, for example, don’t start with a broad introduction that discusses the career of its director or its Oscar wins.
Being Specific (Continued) Instead, lead into your thesis with related content, such as a discussion of the film’s reception by Italian Americans or a few sentences about the historically common cinematic practice of stereotyping Italians as gangsters.
Paragraphs Your paper must be organized into paragraphs—the building blocks of any piece of writing. The introduction is 1-2 paragraphs; the body several, depending on length; and the conclusion 1-2 paragraphs. Do not double space between paragraphs. Do not write your entire paper as one paragraph!
The Body Normally, the introduction does not include concrete evidence in support of the thesis. It is in the body that the writer begins to offer reasons to believe the thesis. The reasons are backed up by evidence and examples from the movie and extra-textual sources such as other films, scholarly readings, books and interviews.
Example In Annie’s death scene in Imitation of Life, aesthetic elements serve once again to empower whiteness and weaken racial minorities. For instance, in strategic low-angle shots, white characters tower over Annie as she dies; meanwhile deep focus photography allows us to clearly see a photo of Sara Jane, Annie’s fallen daughter and the implicit cause of her death.
Film Language As in the previous slide, be sure to use technical film language when analyzing shots, scenes and sequences. This includes how cinematography, editing, narrative, sound and mise-en-scene serve to convey meaning and support your thesis. Remember, form and content are always linked.
Examples of Film Language Narrative – linear, flashback, dialogue, characters, act structure, plot, theme Mise-en-scene – Costume, lighting, make-up, staging, blocking, color Cinematography – Close-up, medium shots, low angle shot, establishing shot, zoom, wide angle lens, shot/reverse shot Editing – cut, wipe, montage, wipe, rhythm Sound – Soundtrack, sound bridge, music