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Writing About Film: Some Guidelines

• The plot summary problem

Film writing of necessity involves a certain amount of description: one cannot quote verbatim from a film image in written language. Beginning film students have a tendency toward plot synopsis: their instinct is to say “what happened” rather than to describe how actions, characters, places, and things are represented. This tendency can be even more marked than in literary studies courses, since many students have not yet been acclimated to consider films as authored works, much less approach them as texts susceptible to critical analysis.


As a corrective, try steering students away from sentence structures in which characters are the subjects of the sentence, toward sentence structures that place the camera, the director, or the film itself in the position of subject. When students describe filmic images as if they were naked perceptions, encourage them to think about how these perceptions are framed and crafted.


Example: “Charlie Kane enters Susan’s shabby apartment. He removes his hat and sits down, and seems uncomfortable in the working-class home.”


How to improve it: “The camera tracks forward to show Charlie Kane entering Susan’s apartment. The dark lighting and minor-key music create a feeling of shabbiness. A cut reveals a new shot filmed from a low angle, with the camera looking up at Charlie’s towering figure. This jarring perspective emphasizes how uncomfortable the wealthy Charlie is in the working-class home.”


In the second example, the text is the subject of the essay, rather than the raw events that are represented in it. The student has framed the description correctly for use as evidence in a textual analysis: perhaps an interpretation of Citizen Kane’s portrayal of class. In this example, the student has backed up her own (correct) impressionary reaction to the scene — that Charlie is uncomfortable with class difference — with textual evidence that shows she has understood how this impression was visually elicited by the filmmakers. It’s not simply that the apartment is shabby or that Kane seems uncomfortable; it’s that the filmmakers are emphasizing these qualities explicitly through their formal choices. This is not to say that student’s instinctive reactions to an image are somehow invalid or inconsequential. But the writing does not ascend to the level of a college film studies paper until they can tune in to the fact that the filmic text is aiding and abetting those reactions.


Note that the second example requires a repeat viewing of the scene, unless the student has taken exceptionally detailed notes. Also note that the second example relies on formal analysis terms — which are not absolutely necessary, but which do help to shift the focus of the writing from transparent reportage to textually attentive interpretation….


…make formal analysis an explicit requirement… asking questions about style (are the images cluttered or spare? gritty or pretty? naturalistic or fantastical? why is this world being shown in this way?), point of view (with which characters are we aligned in our sympathies? whose eyes do we look through and when? do we get access to any character’s internal thoughts or memories through flashbacks or fantasy sequences?), and enunciation (who is “narrating” this film, if anyone? is there a voice over? does the film seem to have a point of view, to be “for” or “against” certain characters or plot developments?).



Recommended Textbooks for Introductory Film Courses …

John Berger, Ways of Seeing. A classic introduction for students who are new to thinking critically about visual images: an “aha moment” text. Best suited to freshmen. Very clear, illustrated with examples ranging from classical art to advertising, suitable for use in any visual studies course. Reads like a photo essay. Encourages students to consider questions of power dynamics in representation, and gently weans them away from the idea that images provide a transparent window onto the world. Does not provide much in the way of context, does not provide entry into the discipline, conventions, or concerns of film studies as such.


…The Film Studies website has a resource page called “Writing with Film” …. The page contains links to sample student essays, college media and IT resources, tips on note-taking, and more. See