Summary-Review of The Film Experience Chapter 12, Writing a Film Essay: Observations, Arguments, Research, and Analysis

VIEWING CUE: Moonrise Kingdom
Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom (2012) tells, at first glance, a simple tale of young love in a small New England town, yet its uniquely offbeat characters and unconventional style create a charmingly unpredictable world.
Discussion Questions
After watching the clips from Moonrise Kingdom, consider the questions below.
1. Try to simply describe the different characters and actions in this sequence. Which are your subjective impressions and which are objective facts? How is that description already an act of interpretation?

2. How does the visual style—the circular pan, the point-of-view shot through the binoculars, etc.—add to the complexity and meaning of a sequence with the little action and little dialogue? How would you explain this sequence to a friend who hadn't seen it?

FILM IN FOCUS: Minority Report
Steven Spielberg's Minority Report (2002) is a futuristic look at how new technologies might anticipate and prevent crimes—and how their flaws might allow terrible injustices.

Discussion Questions
After watching the clips from Minority Report, consider the questions below.
1. In this sequence, John Anderton (Tom Cruise) orchestrates the elaborate technological pursuit of a crime about to happen. How does the editing make the activity and Anderton appear fascinating and powerful?

2. Imagine writing a short critical essay on this sequence alone. What would your thesis be?

Through four different perspectives, Akira Kurosawa’s complex 1950 film Rashomon explores the difficulty of discovering the truth about a heinous rape and murder.
Discussion Questions
After watching the clips from Rashomon, consider the questions below.
1. This sequence represents a portion of the wife’s testimony in the film. Beyond what she says, what details in the sequence make her claims convincing or unconvincing? What does the sequence reveal about her character?

2. There are four different shots in the sequence. Describe and analyze how they compositionally develop and work together.

FILM IN FOCUS: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
The well-known film from the German expressionist period describes the diabolic plotting of Dr. Caligari, the strange figure who enters and dominates the second half of this sequence.
Discussion Questions
After watching the clips from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Weine, 1920), consider the questions below.
1. Examine this sequence in detail. How does the framing, sets, blocking, and movement of characters support the contention that the film is about unrest and foreboding violence?

2. What kind of research might illuminate certain details or actions in this sequence? Which details seem foreign?

Chapter Summary
Writing about film has been a significant part of film culture since the beginning of movies and has facilitated numerous debates on the function and value of this art form. Writing about film can serve as a rich extension of our fundamental film experience.

Writing an Analytical Film Essay
The subject matter of a film is the material that directly or indirectly comprises the film, whereas the meaning of a film is the interpretation of that material. Good writing about film demonstrates a balance between one’s subjective opinions and a more critical objectivity that provides facts and evidence to support an evaluation.
Knowing or anticipating the identity of your readers is central to writing about film. Four questions that will help you gear your essay to certain readers are:

  1. How familiar are your readers with the films being discussed?
  2. What is your readers’ level of interest in the film?
  3. What do your readers know about the film’s historical and cultural contexts?
  4. How familiar are your readers with the terminology of film criticism or theory?

Two common forms of film writing are film reviews and analytical essays.
Film reviews are short essays aimed at a general audience that has likely not yet seen the film. Reviews provide plot and background information and pronounce a clear evaluation of the film.
Analytical essays, distinguished by their intended audiences and their levels of critical language, typically focus on particular themes in a film, providing interpretations of the material and offering careful analyses to demonstrate those interpretations.

Preparing to Write about a Film
An important first step is to identify your own interests before watching a film. Asking a series of questions (such as, Am I drawn to technological issues, or questions about gender?) can help you intellectually interact with the film and help shape the direction of your essay.
Note taking is an essential part of writing about film, because a good analytical essay must produce concrete evidence for your argument. Three general rules of taking notes are:

  1. Take notes on the unusual—events or formal aspects that stand out.
  2. Take notes on events or techniques that recur with regularity.
  3. Take notes on oppositions that appear in the film.

Narrowing your topic will allow you to investigate the issues fully and carefully and therefore produce better writing. Two primary sets of topics for writing about film are formal topics and contextual topics.
Formal topics concentrate on the forms and ideas within a film, and include character analysis, narrative analysis, and stylistic analysis.
Contextual topics relate a film to other films or to surrounding issues, and include comparative analysis and historical or cultural analysis.

Elements of a Film Essay
Whether your topic is formal or contextual, your essay needs to be shaped into a precise interpretation and argument.
The interpretation is your explanation of what the film or a part of it means. The argument consists of your presentation of evidence from the film—concrete details that convince readers of your point of view—and then your analysis of that evidence.
Perhaps the most important element in a good analytical essay is the thesis statement, a short statement (often a single sentence) that succinctly describes the interpretation and argument, and anticipates each stage of the argument.
Although not all writers use an outline, it can be a very helpful blueprint for the essay, allowing the writer to see and examine the different parts of the whole argument. Whether or not you work from an outline, a clear organization and structure—most notably, coherent paragraphs introduced and linked by topic sentences—are paramount for an effective essay.

Revision, Formatting, and Proofreading
A completed first draft of an essay is not a completed essay. The final stage in writing about film requires at least one revision of the paper, with special attention to manuscript format and proofreading.
With computer and Internet technologies, film images are increasingly available to incorporate into a critical essay. Images in an essay should be used judiciously to prove a point with visual evidence; they should not be included merely for decoration, as they could distract from your essay.

Researching the Movies
While personal reflection and careful consideration of a film can lead to successful essays, additional research is often necessary to sharpen and develop a writer’s interpretation and argument. Two types of research materials include primary and secondary sources.
Primary research sources include film scripts and films on videotape and DVD. These sources have a direct and close relationship with the original film.
Secondary research sources—including books, critical essays, and Internet sites—contain ideas or information from outside sources such as film critics or scholars.
Once research materials have been gathered, selected, and integrated into an essay, these sources must be properly documented.
There are two kinds of research material that require documentation: direct quotation from a secondary source and paraphrasing, in which the writer puts ideas from another source into his or her own words. Full documentation for every source quoted or paraphrased in your essay should be included in the Works Cited section.