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Writing about film

an introduction to writing about film for the course: "Working with the Real" (LiU)

Johanna Sander

on 20 September 2014

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Transcript of Writing about film

Writing about film
conscious viewing process, approaches to writing

2) conscious viewing process

- Reader:
no knowledge of specific film and/or little knowledge of film in general
- Aim:
introduce, recommend, convince, explain
1) type of text?
audience and aim:
what type of text you will write is based on
-who is you audience (how much do they know)?
-what is your aim?
“screening report”
"Critical essay"
Critical essay = comparative essay
watching the film: researching the primary source
- watching and taking notes
- general issues and questions
starting to consciously watch films
"Movie review"
journalistic VS academic texts about film
- Reader:
knows of the film, seen at least parts of it, has deeper knowledge of film in general
- Aim:
argumentative rather than summarize, present deeper understanding (and context)
- preparatory purpose
- descriptive summary of a film(s elements)
(theme, narrative/plot, audio and visual composition)
story + technical elements
- avoids strong opinions or particular argument
- recites facts = no interpretation

-Who are the central characters?
_What do they represent in relation to each other?
(ex.: individuality vs society)
- Does the story emphasize the benefits of change or endurance?
- What kind of life/what actions does the film wish you to value or criticize and why?
-How does the movie make you feel at the end?
(happy, depressed, confused - why?)
general overview
general film analysis

- argumentative rather than summarizing
- summarize the film AND put it into a context of information that is beyond the screen
(ex.: filmmakers other work, production information...)
- explain some of the larger and more complex
structures of the cinema = prove understanding
more specific focus than that of the review:
writer hopes to reveal subtleties or complexities
that may have escaped Casual viewer
purpose is to add to the readers understanding of the film

HOW the story is told and WHY it is told this way.
- Might focus on short sequence or camera angle or other detail

!add to your own critical argument by placing the film
in context of other critical and scholarly views

critically analyzing
compares the film with
- other kinds of art (ex.: literature)
- another version of the same film/story told in the film
- with other films by the same director
- ...


look for
- Unfamiliar or perplexing elements
- Repeated elements

make a list:
- describe the shots without any interpretation
(Composition, juxtaposition, materials, sounds)

1 – absorb and enjoy:
during or after: what stuck out especially?
2 - consciously:
write down as much as you can (color, sound, camera, story…)
3- Questions: (after research)
focus on specific points of interest.
(3b – whilst writing the essay: parts/scenes)
4 – Check: finished or almost finished your essay,
missed or misunderstood something?

1)-train yourself on watching consciously
(to find patterns and key moments)
2)-learn to take notes
in the dark cinema/during watching.
- learn or create a shorthand
(=highlighting & notes in the margins of a literary text)
Questions to ask - before - during - after - the film
topics to be conscious about before and during
1) Which art forms interest you most and which do you know the most about?
2) The film industry depends on and responds quickly to changes in technology
- ex: year of production: limitations or advantages

3) Film technology, production, and distribution are commercial and economic enterprises.
Adjust your expectations: low budget vs blockbuster…
4) audience
5) history: values
...of that time as well as technology
ex.: family
ex.: terms evolve
General Questions
3) research and context (secondary sources)
- When was the film made?
- Who made the film?
- Why does the movie start the way it does?
- Why are the opening credits presented in such a manner against this particular background?
- Location in the story: Time – when? Place – Where and why are they important?
- Is the film in black/white, color or mixing both?
- Who are the characters/subjects?
- Whose perspectives are shown?
- How is the story structured? (story thread, chronology, standard narrative arc/three-act play: B-M-E)
- Narrative: What shaping devices are employed? (events, seasons, crisis, …)
- What other creative shaping devices are employed? (text...)
- Source: what materials and where gathered? What types of footage are used in the film?
- Sound: Music - what kind and how is it being used? Where does the sound come from (diegetic vs non-diegetic sounds)?
- Voice-over? Who is talking and what kind of information?
- How is this movie similar to or different from other (documentary) films you’ve seen? (When were those made?)
- What films from other countries does this film resemble?
- Is there a pattern of camera movements, perhaps long shots or dissolves or abrupt transitions?
- Is continuity editing employed? (invisible)
- What is noticeable about the lighting?
- Which three or four sequences are the most important?
- Why does the film conclude on this image?

What questions would you like to add?
see Glossary
-course literature,
-Timothy Corrigan “A short guide to writing about Film” (chapter 3)
- “Oxford Guide to Film Studies”
- David Bordwell “On the history of Film Style”
- Anthology "Writing About Movies" (Karen Gocsik, Dave Monahan, Richard Barsam)
- John E. Moscowitz "Critical Approaches to Writing About Film"
- http://www.cod.edu/people/faculty/pruter/film/
- …
(summary of Corrigan [ch.3] http://faculty-staff.ou.edu/L/A-Robert.R.Lauer-1/Corrigan.html)

“A well-researched argument, one that brings to bear facts and observations outside the [knowledge] of the average viewer, is often all that distinguishes the text and what gives it authority and sophistication”

- Primary sources
(video/DVD,… scripts) (streaming: Netflix, Snagfilms…)
- Secondary sources
(books, indexes, journals, DVD-extras):
production circumstances
What have others said about the film?

Context(ual knowledge)
example 1
example 2
What should you research?
- Culture
- Auteur/director/filmmaker – life and oeuvre
- Books (that are directly related, written by same writer/director, about same event…)
- History (technological circumstances & events)
- Film history (films from the same period)
- Production circumstances
- ...
production circumstances:

- what were the differing perspectives and
how did they shape the final film?
- economy
- Commissioned
- Collaborations

Film history - Conventions

knowing about the historic context in which the work you are analyzing fits helps you explain your conclusion and references to other films help you to more clearly illuminate arguments.
5 approaches to writing
1) Film history
2) National cinema
3) Genre
4) Auteur
5) Ideology

1) Film history
2) National Cinema
3) Genre
4) Auteur
5) Ideology
what approach works best in the context of this course?
- specific questions
- note-taking and screening rapport
- comparative analysis
- single element: concentrate on one technique within the film, describe then evaluate
- Role models
Summary of Questions
Before you have seen a particular film, write one or two paragraphs pinpointing your expectations about it. What do you already know about it? The country of origin? About the director? What will probably be the most important features of the film? Specific characters? The sound? Do these expectations lead you to look for certain themes or types of stories?

Did the film match your expectation?
themes - questions
5 dimensions/building blocks of movies
1) image: composition
Dramatic: The theatrical dimension of the film image.
(mise-en-scène = what is put in front of the camera: lighting, costumes, acting.
Cinematic: The compositions of the movie, achieved through for ex. camera positions.
2) editing. (images & sound & text)
3) sound: music, vo, dialog, background
4) materials: where do image and sound come from? i.e. produced or collected.
5) dramaturgy: structure of the story
- The historical relationships of films themselves
- The relationship of films to their conditions of production
- The relationship of movies to their reception
“the writer using this approach organizes and investigates films according to their place within a historical context and in light of historical developments.”
- be aware of historical issues in a more general manner in every type of approach
- Corrigan warns: “When using a historical method to help explain a film, beware of assuming that any particular movie, even a documentary, gives an unmediated picture of a society and a historical period.”
- discussing the film in terms of its cultural or national character.
- political and cultural setup of the country
in which the film was produced
- conditions for making the film there
- film or cluster of films from a foreign country
VS films produced in own country
- similar themes, characters, narrative structures, camera techniques linking together films within one category.
- genre identifiers (are connected to each other):
audiences emotional expectations
main conflict
setting: location, time, milieu/environment
structure and means of narration
- breaking genre conventions
- historical distinctions: genres change and evolve over time.
be aware of the aim in making the film as well of the reception in different periods of time
“identifies and examines a movie by associating it with a director
or occasionally with another dominant figure"

- historical roots in the claims of literary independence and

What is the main critique against this approach?

What is the main critique
against this approach?
1) director only rarely has this type of total control
(ex commissioned documentaries: outer influences changing the filmmakers vision)
2) term auteur differs in meaning over time and place (and medium):

Corrigan suggests to illuminate in your text who (and why this person) is the auteur in your understanding.
- Questions about communication of social values
Corrigan: 6 most dominant ideological schools of film criticism today: Each attends not only to the films themselves but also to the ways those movies are made and understood by audience:
- Feminist studies
- Race studies
- Class studies
- Postcolonial studies
- Queer theory
- (Hollywood Hegemony)

Not only content/story but also for example shape of narrative and implication of distance of the camera from the characters
Research: where?
essays, journals, books etc.
Film(s and information)
ex.: easy accessible online resources
"The Kid Stays In The Picture"
The Godfather-Sequence
"Tongues Untied"
(1989, Marlon Riggs)
Theoretical approach
- formalism
- Montage Theory
- Avant garde
- Film schools: example Frankfurt school
- Phenomenology of Realism
- Structuralist/semiotic
- Specific scholars/film theorists: Deleuze, Bakthin, …
- …
Other approaches
- Discourse
- Text, intertext, metatext…
- New media
- Mass culture
- Sound
- Cultural studies
- Reception studies
- Textual analysis
- …
“ideas or beliefs on which we base our lives and our vision of the world.”
Within the film text:
What is the film about? (story)
How is the story told? (plot, narrative shaping)
Why is the story told this way?
How is the film constructed? (audiovisual elements)

Outside the film text:
Who made the film? (career and personal biography)
When was it made?
How was it received? (awards, audiences, critics, your own)
Paratextual elements (title, opening theme, continuation for example on the internet – what happened then)

What can you as a filmmaker extract from the film?
Summary of Questions
Exercise: next time you watch a film try writing down as much as you can and try out what seems logical to you. For example b/w or vo or pov.
The connections between the movies and other artistic
traditions, such as literature and painting.
Full transcript