Corrigan, Timothy. A Short Guide to Writing About Film.
5th. ed. New York: Longman 2004. ISBN: 0-321-09665-7.
Chapter 1: "Writing About the Movies" (pp. 1-16):
We go to the movies for many reasons: 1) to think, 2) not to think, 3) to stare at them, or 4) to write about them.
Film can help you 1) to understand your own response to a movie better, 2) to convince others why you like or dislike a film, 3) to explain or introduce something about a movie, a filmmaker, or a group of movies, 4) to make comparisons and contrasts between one movie and others as a way of understanding them better, and 5) to make connections between a movie and other areas of culture.
When writing about film, it is essential to keep your audience in mind at all times.
The movie review: The film review is a type of film analysis which aims at the broadest possible audience (the general public with no special knowledge of film). Its function is to introduce unknown films and to recommend or not recommend them. Much of the essay is descriptive and, at most, it places the film in another context (e.g., the director’s other works or films of the same genre).
The theoretical essay: The theoretical essay aims to explain some of the larger and more complex structures of cinema. Its target audience consists often of advanced students or people who teach film studies.
The critical essay: The critical essay falls between the theoretical essay and the movie review. The writer of this kind of essay presumes that his reader has seen or is at least familiar with the film under discussion, although that reader may not have thought extensively about it. The writer may remind the reader of key themes and elements of the plot, but a lengthy retelling of the story of the film is neither needed nor acceptable (hence, this kind of essay is less descriptive and more analytical). The purpose of this essay is not so much to convince his readers to like or dislike the film but to add to their understanding of it. The writer uses technical cinema terms and chooses very specific parts of the film for analysis. The writer also places the film in the context of other critical and scholarly views, announces his aims, and then moves from an analysis of, e.g., character and acting style to some general conclusions about how to understand this style. The audience for this type of writing is your fellow students, individuals who have seen the movie and may know something about it, but who have not studied it closely.
Opinion and Evaluation: When you write about film, personal opinion and taste will necessarily become part of your argument. However, don’t linger there. Use your opinion or taste to provide a solid critical position based on an objective observation. Use rigorous reflection. What is interesting is not pronouncing a film good or bad, but explaining it.
Remember there is pleasure in analysis, in unraveling, in thinking.
Chapter 2. “Beginning to Think, Preparing to Watch, and Starting to Write.” Pp. 17-34.
There are many things to write about when dealing with film: the story, the acting, the editing, even the music. One only has to watch a film very attentively. After all, as an art form, the movies involve literature (The Passion of Christ), the pictorial and plastic arts (Goya in Bordeaux), dance (Tango, Moulin Rouge), theater (Hamlet, The House of Bernarda Alba), music (Evita, Saudade do futuro), and architecture (any Sergei Eisenstein or Peter Greenaway film).
Also, remember that film technology, production, and distribution are commercial and economic enterprises. Hence, no film is intrinsically good or bad because of its commercial or economic constraints and freedoms. For some African and Latin-American films, the rough and unpolished look of a film may be a byproduct of financial constraints, but also a conscious political choice to distinguish it from the glossy products of Hollywood. On the other hand, commercial Hollywood films may have gargantuan budgets that prevent them from taking too many risks that might alienate their audiences. In both cases, one has to be open-minded and flexible. One question worth posing might be: who is the film’s intended audience? Teenagers, the middle class, the working class, intellectuals, men, women? Etc.
The images one sees on film are the product of certain influences and conditions. Also, since images are constantly moving, one has to determine which images are special or worth noting. Images that are perplexing or unfamiliar, as well as images that are repeated for emphasis probably fit into this category.
Elementary questions to ask when watching a film are:
It is important to take notes of some kind during the first and only showing. Recognize key sequences, shots, or narrative facts. Look at the figures and objects in the frame (the content), as well as the frame itself and its photographic qualities (the form). Some abbreviation of key technical terms in film follow:
Technical Film Terms:
In writing about film frame refers to the rectangle that contains the image. The camera frame changes regularly. The camera frame includes certain actions and excludes others. It also views things from a certain angle and at a distance.
Themes point to the main ideas in a movie. Some questions one can ask about a film’s main (or minor) ideas are:
Film is similar to literature. Hence, we use literary vocabulary to refer to film, e.g., we talk about plot (the narrative), characters, point of view.
A classical narrative has the following components:
Character: A movie may focus mainly on one or two characters (any biofilm, like Napoleon or The Motorcycle Diaries), or on many (Battleship Potemkin, Das Boot, Stalingrad, Rodrigo D: No Future, Winged Migration), in which case there is no central character.
Point of View: The point of view (in film) refers to the position from which something is seen, and, by implication, the way that point of view determines what you see. Usually, movies have an “objective” point of view, so that most of what is shown is not confined to any one person’s perspective. This is particularly notable in bioepics like Troy, where the point of view shifts from the Greek [Achilles, Agamemnon, Helen] to the Trojan [Hector, Priam, Paris] perspective. But some scenes may be viewed only from a character’s point of view (e.g., the camera in Tango) and, hence, are “subjective.” Hence, films are about seeing the world in a certain way. In a film, observe how and when the camera creates the point of view of a character. Notice also if the story is told mostly from an objective point of view or from the subjective perspective of one person. Some films have a “roving point of view,” as in any story that re-creates a situation from multiple perspectives (Kurosawa’s Rashomon).
MISE-EN-SCÈNE AND REALISM:
The mise-en-scène (“What is put before the scene or before the camera”) includes lighting, costumes, sets, the quality of the acting, and other shapes and characters in the scene. In a film, nothing is placed accidentally before the camera, even if the film is a documentary and, hence, more “realistic.” If a phone is placed on a stage, it is meant to ring at a certain point in time. Nothing forming part of the mise-en-scène is selected casually or accidentally.
The elements of the mise-en-scène are as follows:
Werner Herzog's Nosferatu
COMPOSITION AND THE IMAGE:
Framing refers to how the camera represents (frames) the action. It can do it from a high angle (tilting the camera down at the object of representation), hence giving an impression of superiority of the viewer (who looks down at the observed object); or from a low angle (tilting the camera upward, in the direction of the object of representation), giving the impression of inferiority on the part of the viewer as s/he observes an object positioned in a superior position (with respect to the viewer).
The framing may also seem unbalanced in relation to the space and action (in the case of a canted frame), giving a diagonal instead of a vertical view of things. This suggests a lack of harmony and balance and may be found psychologically disturbing by the viewer. It is also called a Dutch frame.
Canted frames or Dutch angles:
The framing shots may use different distances: close-ups (e.g., showing just the character’s face); extreme close-ups (showing, e.g., an eye or a mouth only); medium shots (showing most of a character’s body); long shots (showing a full body), and ¾ shots (showing ¾s of a body). Obviously, the “closer” the shot the more intimate or “subjective” it is; the “longer” the shot, the more “objective” and “distant.” Love scenes might require close-ups; while war scenes might require long shots.
A reframing shot may change the tone of a shot if, e.g., it starts with an intimate close-up of a couple and then the camera moves to include a theater full of people viewing the two lovers (a serious intimate moment is reframed into a comic public shot). This is a shot exploited in comedy.
A crane shot (or aerial shot) looking down on the action creates a perspective of superiority on the part of the viewer by emphasizing the smallness or vulnerability of the object being viewed. A tracking or dolly shot is not stationary (like a pan shot that follows the action by tilting the camera in its direction, without moving the camera itself) and follows a character e.g., through a crowd. The same effect is carried out by a hand-held-shot, although the shot may be jerkier on account of the movement of the camera operator (this, however, gives a shot a more realistic look than a dolly shot would).
Editing is linking two different pieces of film (two different shots). The break between them is called a cut. A shot can be held on the screen for any length of time, the result being a certain editing pace or rhythm. One expects a chase scene to be rapidly edited (with lots of quick cuts and brief shots). Shots focusing on a scene or character for a very long time are called long takes. A series of shots can be carefully joined into a single scene, which is usually an action confined to one place and time. When these shots describe significantly more action and more time and more than one location, the interwoven and unified group of shots or scenes that results is often called a sequence. Continuity or invisible editing occurs when the “cutting” is done in such a way that we do not notice the editing process. Here there are no sudden cuts or transitions. Establishing shots are those shots that begin a scene or sequence. The shot/reverse-shot or shot/countershot is used to give continuity to, e.g., a conversation between two persons (cutting from one to the other and vice versa). In older movies, continuity editing relies also on fade-in or fade-out (an image is darkened or lightened so that it appears or disappears); iris-in or iris-out (the new image appears as an expanding circle in the middle of the old image or the old image becomes a contracting circle that disappears into the new image); wipe (a line moves across an image to gradually clear one shot and introduce another); dissolve (a new shot is briefly superimposed on the fading old shot). A fade might be saying, “later that day.” A wipe could suggest, “In another part of town.” A jump cut (e.g., lighting a scene suddenly) may suggest the passage of time. A match-on-action consists of two images being edited together as parallel actions or motions.
Direct sound is recorded when the image is being shot. Postdubbed sound occurs when sound and dialogue are added later in the studio. Movie sound can take the form of dialogue, music, or noise. It can be background music. It can even precede or follow the image to which it is linked (as when a character’s remark forms a bridge into the next image). A sound-match occurs when a sound is connected to link disparate images.
Questions to ask about sound in film:
Chapter 4: “Six Approaches to Writing About Film.” Pp. 79-105.
There are at least six approaches to writing about film. These are as follows:
Chapter 5: “Style and Structure in Writing.” Pp. 106-123.
The “pre-writing” stage consists of taking good notes. The next most critical element of the essay is a clearly focused topic—a thesis—that will allow you to get at the film or films from a workable angle. Even if your instructor presents you with a general topic, you will usually have to refocus it so that is more specific and personal. Another central task of the first stage of writing is outlining your topic. Outlines can provide real assistance with the logic of an argument. When the paper is written, it will probably depart from the outline and will certainly become more defined and more specific. Yet, an outline of any kind can be the foundation on which you build more complex ideas.
THE RIGHT WORDS
Sensitive and accurate use of words is paramount. Concreteness is the heart of some of the best film writing, largely because the reader depends so much on the visualization of a scene or sequence. Also, the accuracy with which a writer describes what he or she sees is often the most convincing way to make a point.
DENOTATION AND CONNOTATION:
A denotation is the dictionary meaning of a word; thus, “film” and “movie” have the same denotation. However, “shot” and “sequence” do not. Be precise. Say what you mean and avoid words that have little denotative value like “thing” and “aspect.”
A connotation is any association or implication of the word you use. “Film” has for many people sophisticated, intellectual connotations, while “movie” has connotations associated with mass entertainment.
The tone of an essay can vary considerably from the jaunty sarcasm of some newspaper reviewers to the pretentious didacticism of some film theoreticians. Be conscious of the tone of voice you are adopting in your argument; some tones are less appropriate than others. Sarcasm, humor, and anger are among the least effective tones to use in formulating an engaging and convincing argument. A writer needs to find the right compromise between a casual voice and a formal one. Too much slang won’t work, nor will pretentious words that you normally don’t use. Finally, beware of using quotation marks around words to try to create an indirect or clever tone or sarcasm.
REPETITIONS AND CLICHÉS:
When you find yourself locked into unnecessary repetitions, vary your descriptions and phrases. Do not depend on clichés.
A writer should aim at two key stylistic goals: to be economical and to be interesting. Being economical means saying precisely all that you need to say and cutting words and expressions that add no information or serve no stylistic purpose. You can usually eliminate wordiness by watching out for redundancies, wordy constructions, correctable uses of the passive voice, or merely words that could be deleted without changing the sense of a sentence.
VARIED SENTENCE STRUCTURES:
Holding a reader’s interest requires sentences that present your analysis in its most effective form.
Well-constructed sentences become unified and coherent paragraphs. A 500-word essay normally has four or five paragraphs, and a developed paragraph usually contains at least four or five sentences. Regardless of how many sentences it has, a paragraph must contain an idea that clearly unites its sentences. This unifying idea should be made explicit in the topic sentence of each paragraph, a sentence that pinpoints the guiding concept of the paragraph. A topic sentence generally anchors the paragraph and announces its central idea, even if that idea is then developed through two or three other related ideas. Finally, make sure your transitions between sentences and between paragraphs add clarity, coherence, and fluidity to your essay. Using words or phrases specifically suited for this purpose, like “furthermore” or “in fact,” is one way to increase coherence; a second method is repeating key words from the end of the previous paragraph. Always make sure that your reader can follow a logical transition from one paragraph to the next.
The first paragraph is very important, since it will serve to catch your reader’s attention immediately. It is similar to the first 10 minutes of any film. An essay must hold a reader’s interest if it is to communicate information or make a point, and the introductory paragraph is where that interest should first be piqued. The first paragraph is the ideal place to give your reader a clear sense of what your topic is and how you intend to develop it: the “thesis statement” that tells exactly and specifically what is the argument of the essay. Even in long and ambitious essays, the direction is clearly announced as a signpost and provocation for the reader.
Also, always make a title an informative and enticing entry into your first paragraph. It should be broad enough to suggest the scope of your topic, but specific enough to get your reader interested.
Introducing a provocative quotation or a specific image is one way to energize a first paragraph. Whatever method you use, your aim is to convince your reader immediately that you have something worthwhile to say.
Chapter 6: “Researching the Movies.” Pp. 124-153.
Research always improves any piece of writing. The more you know about a subject and the issues related to it, the more satisfying it will be to write about it. Research can be used in a number of ways. It can be integrated into your essay to support your own points with the authority of other writers, or it can be used to introduce a common perception against which you wish to argue.
The critics and reviewers interpret a film through their own analysis and feelings about the value of the movie and, hence, consider research unnecessary. But scholars and historians are concerned with the history of the movie’s production, critical responses to it, theoretical suppositions, and facts of information that are not at hand when they go to the movies.
HOW TO BEGIN RESEARCH:
Research should be done with an open and discriminating mind. A good writer is willing to be redirected down new paths and, if necessary, to change a position.
THE MATERIALS OF RESEARCH:
Research materials have conventionally been divided into primary sources and secondary sources. Primary sources are the films themselves and materials directly involved in the films (like film scripts). Secondary sources are the books, essays and reviews you read about the movie.
Today, videotapes, DVDs, and movies on cable networks substitute for or supplement the films themselves. But these forms of films must be viewed with caution and skepticism for images or sequences may have been edited out completely. Also, published scripts are a primary source for studying a film. However, published screenplays of films may differ significantly from the “shooting script” and from the film itself.
Secondary sources are books, indexes, journals, and electronic sources. When performing a search, look under “Movies,” “Film,” “Cinema,” and “Motion Pictures.” Note bibliographical information of your sources like the author, the full title, the publisher, the publication place, the date, and the page numbers. Consult the MLA International Bibliography and Magill Survey of Cinema. Other electronic database systems are Academic Index, Nexis/Lexis, and Comindex. Also, the most important and up-to-date sources for film research, along with scholarly books, are journals and magazines. Consult the following journals regularly: Cinema Journal, Film Quarterly, International Index to Film Periodicals, Camera Obscura, Cineaste, Cinema Journal, Sight and Sound, and Variety. For Internet sites, consult the Internet Movie Database <http://www.imdb.com>. To rent or purchase films, consult Facets Video <http://www.facets.org>.
Chapter 7: “Manuscript Form.” Pp. 154-170.
• Follow MLA Guidelines.
A. Robert Lauer