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Essays On Film Studies

Studying Cinema

2000

People talk about the movies they see, and some people write about those movies for newspapers and magazines. How does film studies, as an academic discipline, accord with these more common ways of talking and thinking about films? The two ways of thinking about film aren’t completely distinct, I think, but some differences are worth noting.

First, ordinary discourse about cinema centers on evaluative talk. “That movie was great! I loved it!” “Really? I didn’t think it was very good.” Likewise film reviewers take as their primary goal the evaluation of films, giving thumbs up or thumbs down, saying whether they regard them as worth the ticket price or not. Academic film studies can involve evaluation, but for most film scholars evaluating a particular movie isn’t, or isn’t always, the goal.

Secondly, ordinary conversation tends to be ahistorical, in the sense that this or that movie is not seen as part of a tradition or long-range trend. Most reviewers follow this tendency; they typically don’t have the space or the mind-set to put a film in the context of film history. When a reviewer does invoke a historical context, it’s usually the present: a reviewer often treats a film as reflecting current social trends.

Third, and most important, typical talk about movies isn’t very analytical. It doesn’t explore how the parts of the film relate to one another in systematic ways; it doesn’t dissect strategies of plotting or aspects of style; it doesn’t examine the ideological maneuvers the film might execute. A reviewer might mention such factors, described more or less evocatively (“jagged montage,” “incoherent motivation,” etc.) but again, there is seldom the space, or the inclination, to probe such matters.

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.

Explaining anything involves analyzing it, at least to some degree. Analysis is a matter of breaking up whole phenomena into relevant parts and showing how they work together. Thus a film historian interested in how a particular studio worked in 1930 will distinguish among the studio’s operations (studio departments, say, or phases of the moviemaking process). An academic film critic will divide a film into parts (scenes, sequences, “acts”) to see how the overall architecture works. Explaining something also involves describing it. A film historian trying to explain how a studio functioned in 1930 will describe the work routines; that’s a necessary part of the explanation. An academic film critic will describe a scene in detail, for that’s necessary to understanding why it carries a particular meaning or achieves a particular effect. Analysis and description are rare in ordinary conversation and in film reviewing because of limits of time and space, but also because the film scholar is interested in something that isn’t so pressing for other parties: explanations.

There are different types of explanation. Historians often look for causal explanations, the way that events or circumstances x and y shaped event z over time. Film analysts and theorists often seek functional explanations—how x and y work together, at any given moment, to create the whole z. Again, these are concerns that typically don’t arise in ordinary conversation or film reviewing.

When film scholars talk about movies, they usually also offer interpretations: claims about the nonobvious 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. I argue this in more detail in Making Meaning.

Finally, I think that film studies is best defined as a process of posing and trying to answer questions. Most ordinary conversation about films serves other purposes—to share information, to have social exchanges with people, to learn more about others’ tastes. Film studies certainly has these aims too, but like other academic disciplines, it seeks to answer questions in a systematic way, one that is open to discussion and criticism. So film studies centers on certain sorts of questions: those that require explanations as answers.

One type of talk about movies resembles academic film studies quite a lot, though: the talk of fans. Fan subcultures love to describe their favorite scenes, often in great detail, and sometimes they engage in analysis. Fans are also highly evaluative in their talk (“Wasn’t the lightsabre duel cool?”), but in intriguing ways the specialized discourse of fans runs parallel to that of academics. The arguments mounted elsewhere on this website presume that theories, historical arguments, and film analyses are efforts to mount persuasive explanations which are, in turn, answers to particular questions.

A common tendency among undergraduates is to short-circuit the process of writing a paper by ignoring what could be called the “prewriting” stage, which involves a number of steps that should be initiated LONG before the due-date. This “9-step program” is as follows:

Topic

The research stage actually starts with the selection of a topic, i.e., the broad subject area for investigation. It is often a good idea to start with a few films that you like, a filmmaker whose work you particularly enjoy or a period in history that intrigues you. The main secret to writing a good essay is to focus on a topic that interests you.

Issue

Refers to the specific focus of the research. An important first step in research is to narrow the topic to manageable proportions. You should limit yourself to a few films or a very specific historical period. Avoid being too broad (like trying to write the complete history of world cinema!). But you should also avoid being too narrow (although there are fine fine books on individual films, you should try to cover at least two or three productions). The nature of the issue selected is important in choosing the appropriate approach.

Research Question

Start with a single, stimulating research question. Possible hypotheses may emerge at the working outline stage, but these should be based on wide reading and thinking – not on a “hunch”. The research question sets the direction of the assignment. The student’s task is to develop an answer or thesis (what is it that this paper will try to “demonstrate”). This stage is a crucial one. Besides setting the direction of the research, the phrasing of the question helps to establish the tone of the paper and defines its scope. Although the essay may contain descriptive, narrative, or biographical material, the solution to the problem requires analysis.

Working Bibliography

Students should develop a working bibliography – books, periodicals, magazines, newspapers, web sites etc. – before starting the working outline. Learn how to use a complex research library. There are many resources available to help you find articles and books on films and filmmakers. You should start by visiting the Carleton University Library Web sites devoted to Film-related resources: http://www.library.carleton.ca/

If you cannot find enough sources, change the issue immediately.

Working Outline

Developing a preliminary structure for the essay before you have finished collecting information is most helpful. The working outline is a tentative list of main factors around which you anticipate the final answer will be structured. Unlike the Plan (stage 7), the working outline puts less emphasis on a linear structure than on a fluid arrangement of ideas emerging from the research question. Points included in the working outline constitute parameters within which the thesis will be articulated. During later stages of research, these points will be tested, and their importance and relevance determined. A good working outline provides an analytical framework for the next stage – the collecting of information. It helps to ensure a disciplined and ordered piece of work. The preparatory reading associated with the development of this working outline provides a solid background reservoir of knowledge on the topic as well.

Collecting and Classifying Information

Only now are you ready to start the research proper – the gathering and weighing of evidence to develop an answer to the research question. Systematic information-gathering and recording are essential if you are to make the best use of your research time and apply your discoveries to construct a coherent and convincing essay. The working outline provides the structure not only for collecting information but also for classifying and evaluating it. If a piece of information does not fit into this framework, you have two choices – either discard it as irrelevant, or create another section in the working outline to incorporate the information. A comprehensive and organized system of research notes is essential for a successful essay.

Plan

At this point, the ideas from the outline must be arranged much more specifically as “arguments” founded on the information gathered in stage 6. Too many essays are of the “cut-and-paste” variety, composed of excerpts from a few books spread out on the table, or from “highlighted” photocopies of periodical articles. A good piece of work should have a clear linear structure that should be worked out at this stage. The plan might include five main sections: an introduction; three main arguments (it could be two or four); and a conclusion. Subsequently, each of the three (or two or four) central arguments could be subdivided into two or three specific points. If your notes have been classified according to the headings in your outline, the progressive breakdown of detail at each stage is not difficult.

Rough Draft

Drafting the material in the body to substantiate the thesis is a most important task. Many students seem determined to cram all their research notes into the paper. In doing so, they clutter and destroy their answers. If the research has been carried out properly, you should end up with far more material than you can possibly use. In the rough draft stage, there is a tendency to overwrite, and this is all right to a point, but be prepared, in the final stage, to prune ruthlessly. Ideally, every word, every phrase, every sentence, every paragraph must justify its presence. If you have prepared the ground properly, according to this model, the rough draft should very nearly “write itself”. Now is the time to let it flow without worrying too much about the niceties of style and form. Suppress the urge to polish your writing – one sentence at a time – at this stage. Get it out. Here, your subconscious plays an extraordinarily major role.

Final Copy

Along with the various stages of the prewriting process, this final stage is the one most frequently overlooked or wilfully ignored. Too often, the student submits what in effect is still a rough draft. This is insulting to the reader and, needless to say, simply unprofessional. A clean and polished final draft is important because readers are impressed by a neat, orderly, coherent piece of work. Imagine sitting down to read a section of your favorite Guide to Film Studies and being comforted wit numberous spilling terrors, vaulty gammar and tynsax, purky and caucasionally, nery vearly nicomprenensnible snapages with suspicious stains – gravy, jam, coffee, blood, sweat, tears, or worse – we have seen it all!! I suspect you would give it up in disgust and scream: “Who the &*#$ wrote this piece of &*!% ?” So the old saw applies here, too: you not only have to be professional, you have to appear to be professional. The “look” of your paper (cover page; standard margins; standard font; page numbers; titles in italics; appropriate indents for quotations etc.) is of the essence at this stage.

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