Viewing Film for the Purpose of Interpreting It:

A good interpretation is inclusive, accounting for as much of a text as possible.  A good interpretation is also plausible, in accord with the details of the work.  In developing an interpretation you might consider connections between the various elements of a work, between the work and others by the same author (if you have studied or have knowledge of other works), and between the work and other works by different authors, often from different eras and/or cultures, with which both you and the author are familiar.  From the analysis of such connections, meaning begins to emerge.


The more specific evidence you provide to support your ideas, the stronger your interpretation will be.  A strong interpretation persuades its reader to see the work as you see it.  Your perspective on a work will most likely begin with an intuitive, emotional response, what we might call a gut-level reaction (the work was sad, inspiring, boring, scary, etc.).  Examining the evidence to understand logically the initial response is one way to build a strong interpretation.


Your interaction with the text then becomes a process (much as essay writing itself is a process).  You respond to the text.  Then you examine your response in order to understand it, to deepen or expand it, and/or to modify or change it.  Applying such examination to literary texts is called criticism; thus, to criticize is to examine carefully.  Criticism requires skepticism about our own responses; we must look carefully at all of our assumptions and consider alternatives that the text may also suggest or even emphasize.


Critical thinking is a habit of mind.  It must be developed through ongoing practice, undertaken with an open mind, intellectual curiosity, and a willingness to work.[1]


More than likely you will find film to be one of the most fun genres for study; it is equally the most challenging. Studying film for the purpose of analyzing it requires that you view the film with an active eye for interpretation. While on some level you already have a broad fund of knowledge about film, you’ll need to become adept and proficient in understanding film terminology and identifying specific techniques. This requires time and patience. I encourage you to immerse yourself in the reading process offered in the trivium:


*    Grammar Stage: “What Happens?” View the film once without stopping or pausing. If necessary, take notes to help you remember basic plot events, details about characters, setting, time period, etc. Use a system of shorthand to notate important, confusing, or “climactic” scenes.


*   Logic: “What Is The Text Saying To Me?” Go back and watch the film again, this time with a more critical eye, writing down explanatory notes and annotating particular scenes. Evaluate the film’s message (implicit or explicit) and look for patterns of meaning, recurring ideas, tropes, images that seem to enhance the film’s message. Pay attention to how film techniques might also reinforce the film’s theme(s). I strongly recommend isolating scenes for close study. In the rhetoric stage, you draw broader “so what” conclusions about how a particular scene relates to the film overall.


Tips in analyzing a particular scene:

*   Watch the clip multiple times in order to develop a habit of looking for key moments, patterns, or images.

*   Watch the clip without the sound (put the sound on mute). This will help you to focus on the purely visual.

*   Watch the clip again, this time with the sound. How do sound and music add to the composition, meaning, and impact of the sequence and its images?

*   Take detailed notes upon second and additional screenings. Develop a shorthand system of notation that allows you to quickly record technical information.

*   Note which elements of the scene strike you as unfamiliar or perplexing.

*   Note which elements are repeated to emphasize a point or perception (an image in your scene may be repeated elsewhere in the film, often with a slightly different take to show an evolving perception).

*   Decipher why patterns and images are important.

*   Analyze the director’s use of technical elements: why a dolly shot? Why a long shot versus a short shot? Why no sound?


*   Rhetoric: “What Do I Say About The Text?” As an outgrowth of studying the film carefully, you are now ready to take an interpretive stance, drawing broader conclusions about the film’s purpose, message, and meaning. Develop conclusions and discuss them with your peers (don’t be surprised to find that any given scene may impact viewers differently—the beauty of interpretation is that there are multiple ways to interpret texts).




See student models:



[1] Reproduced from a handout by Dr. Jane Hill, Spring 2001 as adapted by Dr. Hill from A Short Guide to Writing about Literature, by Sylvan Barnet.  7th ed.  HarperCollins, 1996.