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Critical Film Writing


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Title: Critical Film Writing

Critical Film Writing
Sunset Boulevard (1950) Directed by Billy Wilder
  • Professor Michael Green

This Lecture
  • Three Types of Film Writing
  • The Thesis
  • Gathering Ideas to Make your Argument
  • Structuring the Essay
  • Tips and Suggestions

Barton Fink (1992) Directed by Joel Coen
Three Types of Film Writing
Adaptation (1956) Directed by Spike Jonze
  • Part I

Three Types of Film Writing
  • Remember, there are three major types of film
  • Descriptive a neutral account of the basic
    characteristics of the film.
  • Evaluative which presents a judgment or opinion
    about a films value.
  • Interpretive which presents an argument about a
    films meaning and significance.

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
  • While descriptions do not offer judgments, they
    may go beyond plot summary to describe genre.

Functions of Descriptive Film Writing
  • Descriptive film writing can be found many places
  • 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

Evaluative Writing
  • An evaluative claim presents a judgment,
    expressing the authors belief that the film is
    bad, good, mediocre, flawed, etc.
  • Reviewers grades A, B or C, two thumbs up,
    number of stars, etc. often summarize the
    critics 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
  • This statement is more convincing than the first
    assertion because it provides a basis for the

Evaluative Criteria
  • Evaluative claims are always based on the
    evaluators criteria, even if they remain
  • Here, the unstated but implicit criterion is that
    exciting, well-crafted action scenes make a film
    great. Given the tremendous diversity of viewer
    preferences, its 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.

Bordwells Take
  • Film studies, it seems to me, is an effort to
    understand films and the processes through which
    theyre 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, doesnt
    ask Why? questions, or pursue them very far.
  • David Bordwell, Studying Cinema

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

  • 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.

Interpretive Writing
  • An interpretive claim presents an argument about
    a films meaning and significance.
  • These kind of claims address a films 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.

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.

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

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
  • Interpretive claims can be important socially and
  • Finally, they can help us develop logical
    thinking and writing skills.

Writing About Film The Thesis
Permanent Midnight (1998) Directed by David Veloz
Part II
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.

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 films effect on specific audiences?
  • Such questions will help you come up with your

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 films relationship to the film industry
  • How the film is historical

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.

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.

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 Thesis supported by
    Reasons, which rest upon Evidence and Examples.

Writing About Film Gathering Ideas to Make Your
Wonder Boys (2000) Directed by Curtis Hanson
Part III
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.

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 films overall structure or
  • You should make an outline that reflects
    structural elements.

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
  • A build to a final match designed to resolve the
    protagonists moral conflict and bring him
    squarely into one world or the other.

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.

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

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.

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
  • Often, film analysts are unsure as to what
    techniques are most relevant to their thesis.
  • This is where planning your papers 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.

  • 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 films 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.

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.

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.

The Introduction
  • A critical papers must include a short
    introduction that concludes with your thesis
  • 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, dont start with
    a broad introduction that discusses the career of
    its director or its Oscar wins.

  • Your paper must be organized into paragraphsthe
    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.

  • In Annies 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, Annies 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

The Conclusion
  • The conclusion of your argumentative essay should
    restate your thesis skillfully, not
    repetitively and remind your reader of its
  • The ending is also an opportunity for you to try
    for some eloquence, a telling quotation,
    historical context, etc.
  • In other words, you should make your conclusion

Writing About Film Tips and Suggestions Part I
The Quiet American (2002) Directed by Phillip
Part V
Context and Definitions
  • Whenever you critically engage specific topics
    and terms, you must provide definition and
    context for those topics and terms.
  • Never begin your analysis assuming that your
    reader knows what you mean.
  • For example if your thesis investigates the
    representation of whiteness in The Searchers, be
    sure to define whiteness high in your paper,
    supporting that definition with applicable

Plot vs. Representation
  • In critical film writing, understand the
    difference between plot and representation. 
  • The plot is the movies story and may be about a
    topic such as racism. Representation is how that
    story is represented beyond the plot through
    filmmaking techniques. 
  • So, the plot of The Searchers might purport to
    be about how destructive racism is, but might be
    advancing opposite ideas through representation. 

Keeping the Thrust of your Argument
  • Every section in your paper must reiterate your
    thesis you must weave the strand of your
    argument all the way through to the end, as a
    roadmap for your reader and for yourself to
    help you stay on topic.
  • Essays that fail to do this almost invariably
    stray off topic and/or become vague and

Staying Organized
  • Every paragraph has one topic sentence (usually
    the first sentence) and every other sentence in
    that paragraph is about that topicelaborates,
    analyzes, explains the topic. Dont include more
    than one topic per paragraph.
  • Stick to the film to be analyzed. Dont bring in
    extra films or ideas that have no relevance to
    your topic as you dont have enough space to
    write about them.

Plot Summary
  • Do not include more than a few lines of plot
    summary in your paper.
  • While it is necessary to set the context of the
    scene or scenes you will be analyzing in the
    scene in which Murtaugh cradles Riggs in his arms
    . . . you need no more than a few sentences to
    do this.
  • If you must summarize the films entire plot, do
    so briefly high in your paper just below the

Avoid Opinion
  • In a critical paper, dont include opinionated
    language.  In other words, keep evaluations of
    the movie out of your paper! 
  • Dont write, The Defiant Ones is a fantastic
    film, one of the best about racism that there is,
    which really made me feel the power of hate in
    the world!
  • This is opinion it does not advance your
    argument nothing concrete backs it up. 

  • The revision process is fundamental to the
    writing process.
  • No first draft is a good draft! Or at least,
    its not as good as it could be.
  • Revising is more than looking at grammar,
    punctuation and formatting errors although that
    is important!
  • It is most crucially about streamlining and
    enhancing ideas and arguments to make them
    strong, clear, organized, convincing.
  • .

Questions to Ask of Your Paper During the
Revision Process
  • Read over your essay thoroughly several times
    after youve written a draft. Does it
  • Follow the assignment guidelines?
  • Present a clear argument that is easily located
    in the intro. and woven through each section?
  • Use sufficient evidence and analysis to
    persuasively support your thesis?
  • Develop all critical points to their logical

Copy Editing
  • Of course the details matter too proof read for
    correct grammar, spelling, punctuation and paper
  • Double check all information related to your
    films names of actors and filmmakers,
    production information, box office, year of
    release, etc.
  • The titles of movies are always in italics
    followed by the year and the director.
  • Star Wars (1977), directed by George Lucas
  • .

Get Help!
  • For even better results, have someone else a
    friend, a family member, a writing tutor, a
    teaching assistant or an instructor read over
    your essay.
  • Before turning in your essay, make sure you have
    included all required information including
    title, author name, due date, page numbers,
    correct bibliographic citations and the
    bibliography itself.

A Few Last Points
  • Your paper should demonstrate depth, not breadth.
    Analyze a few examples in detail. Especially in
    a short paper, dont try to take on the whole
  • Always be specific. Stay away from vague
    generalizations such as Guess Whos Coming to
    Dinner was a great film that showed many great
    things about racism.
  • Write on a topic you care about or have interest
    in it will be a lot more enjoyable!

Summary of Interpretive Writing
  • An interpretive claim presents an argument about
    a films meaning and significance.
  • These kind of claims address a films 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.

Now Start Writing!