From Notes to Essay:  Writing a Film Analysis

(From A Short Guide to Writing about Film)

 

I.  Prewriting

          A.  If you have taken good notes, you have gone a long way in the “prewriting” stage.  The next crucial element of the essay is a clearly focused topic--a

                 thesis--that will allow you to get at the film from a workable angle. Even though I have given you general topics to guide your analysis, you will have to

                 refocus those topics so that it is more specific and personal.

            B. The scope and focus of your essay will depend on the audience you foresee for it.  An informed audience will not be interested in a thorough plot

     summary or such information as “the Coen brothers are American filmmakers.”

C.     Another central task of the first stage of writing is outlining your topic.  Many skillful writers do not work with an outline, finding it too constricting.   

      Others find outlining absolutely necessary.  Outlines can help you organize your argument into a more logical form. Consider the following outline for a

      paper on Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful (1997):

 

                                                            Life Is Beautiful as Comedic Horror

 

                   I.  What was most shocking and brilliant about Life Is Beautiful  is that it uses language of comedy to depict the horror

                         of the Holocaust.

                   II.  Normally Holocaust films have been strenuously serious:

                             A.  This is a historical event that was and remains incomprehensible.

                             B.  Some examples:  from Night and Fog to Schindler’s List.

                   III.  Life Is Beautiful does not avoid showing these painful and unimaginable images of fascism and the Holocaust.

                             A.  The brutality of individuals.

                             B.  The monstrous dehumanization of the camps.

                             C.  Spectacles of death.

                   IV.  The temporary salvation from these images of horror becomes the language and wit of the father.

                             A.  The language of romance.

                             B.  Language as comic translation.

                             C.  The language of the son as the voice-over frame of the film.

                   V.  Conclusion:  Although there never has been or ever could be anything funny about the death camps of World War II,

                        Life Is Beautiful describes the defense of the human through the comic language of the father’s love for his son.

 

II.  The Right Words

A.  Use Concrete Language:  The actual writing of the essay involves guidelines that are basic to all writing and are important to rehearse and recall frequently.  Since a film critic is re-creating a film and a perspective on it through language, a 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.

 

                  After seeing a striking sequence from Fata Morgana (1970), an inexperienced writer may be tempted to write:

 

                        There was a series of strange shots, with crazy dialogue and odd characters.

 

                 An experienced writer revitalizes the images in order to comment on them:

 

                        The strongest sequence may be a catastrophic metaphor of hell on earth:  a catatonic drummer and a tacky female pianist on a tiny

stage in a brothel perform a piece they have played a thousand times without any emotion, endlessly, off-key.  “In the Golden Age, man and wife live in harmony,” the commentator says, as they are photographed head-on, with all the merciful cruelty of a humanist filmmaker who must show everything.  At the end of the piece, they remain immobile.  There is no applause (Vogel 76). 

 

III. Repetition and Clichés

A.     A common difficulty in word usage is to keep the diction fresh and varied. 

      For example, repeated references to “the director” in a short passage can be                

      irritating.  You can easily correct such repetition by substituting a proper

      name (Joel Coen) or an article (he). When you find yourself locked into 

      unnecessary repetitions, vary your descriptions and phrases, but don’t force a

     change by using terms that don’t fit your style.

            B.  Avoid using clichés as a substitute for precise expression. 

 

IV.  Effective Sentences 

      A.  Economy: 

                        1.  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.

2.      A critical eye notices that the following sentence is unnecessarily 

      wordy:

 

                                    There are many difficult and demanding scenes in this film by Lina Wertmuller’s, Swept Away (1975), which give the movie                           an operatic quality.

 

                              Cutting and economizing, the writer should revise it to:

 

                                    Lina Wertmuller’s Swept Away (1975) is a demanding, operatic film.

 

      B.  Varied Sentence structures:

1.      An interesting style requires more than just an interesting subject to      

      write about.  It also requires a way of presenting the subject in                          

      sentences that emphasizes your material in the strongest way possible,                

      since holding the reader’s interest--always a goal of any writer—

      requires  sentences that present your analysis in its most effective

      form.  Most of us, however, tend to get stuck in stylistic ruts, such as

      the unvaried use of simple declarative sentences (A sentence that

      makes a statement.  For example: The Coen brother’s O Brother,

     Where Art Thou? uses comedy to address issues of American poverty,

     prison, oppression, and despair during the Great Depression.)

                        2.  Use the following stylistic strategies to vary your sentence patterns:

 

¬     Parallels draws attention to the relation between, or the equation of, two or more facts or ideas:

 

       Hollywood movies have three purposes:  to entertain, to make money, and to advertise a way of life.

 

       NOT

 

       Hollywood movies have three purposes:  to entertain, to make money, and advertising a way of life.

 

¬     Coordination joins two related sentences with a conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for).

 

       Hollywood movies are meant primarily to entertain and to make money, and less obviously, they aim to advertise a way of      life.

 

¬     Subordination combines two or more points or sentences into a single complex sentence that redistributes those ideas to deemphasize some points and emphasize others.

 

       Although Hollywood movies aim to entertain and to advertise a    way of life, their primary function is to make money.

 

In the following sentences, the writer has got stuck in sentence structures, and the writing is choppy and tiresome:

 

Ingmar Berman is the premier Swedish filmmaker.  He has been active in film and theater since 1944.  His most famous movie is probably The Seventh Seal (1956), and this film dramatizes typical Bergman concerns with theological and social angst.  His most visually complicated film is Persona (1966), and it examines that angst as it relates specifically to images, personalities, and the cinema.

 

Revising these sentences, the writer communicates the material far more effectively and economically through parallels, coordination, and subordination:

 

Active in film and theater since 1944, Ingar Bergman is the premier Swedish filmmaker.  Although The Seventh Seal (1956) is his most famous movie, his most visually complicated is Persona (1966); while the first dramatizes typical Bergman concerns with theological and social angst, the second examines that angst as it relates to images, personalities, and the cinema.

 

V.  Coherent Paragraphs

A.  There is not set length to a good paragraph, nor is there an absolutely correct number of paragraphs for a given paper.  A 500-word essay normally has four or five paragraphs, and a developed paragraph usually contains at least four or five sentences.  However, the number of paragraphs and their respective lengths will depend on the ideas in your argument. (Although journalistic writing, such as a newspaper review, frequently relies on very short paragraphs, this is usually not the kind of paragraphing appropriate for a critical essay.)

B.     Use transitions (i.e., however, also, therefore, or words that link a sentence to a point cited earlier) between sentences in a paragraph and between

paragraphs to link your ideas together in a coherent manner.

 

VI.  Introductory Paragraphs

A.     An essay must hold a reader’s interest if it is to communicate information or make a point, and the introductory paragraph is where the interest should be first sparked (the essay’s title may also be used to draw the reader to your paper.)  Starting your paper with a string of commonplaces--that Joel Coen is an American director, that his films are very popular, and so on--is not likely to encourage your reader to continue reading.  Even when a reader is obliged to finish reading an essay with a dull beginning, that first paragraph creates an expectation about your paper.

B.     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.

 

                                                                        The Making of Cultural Myths:  Walt Disney and Frank Capra

 

In the late 1930s, public discussion about  Hollywood changed. Clergymen in backwater towns could still raise a crowd by railing against the sin on the silver screen, and judges and reformers here and there continued to maintain that movies led impressionable youth to crime.  Among academics and in literary circles, however, and in the principal newspapers and magazines, the moviemakers were regarded with considerably more respect, awe and even envy, as the possessors of the power to create the nations myths and dreams.

 

The title catches the attention of many readers who recognize both names but would not necessarily place them on common ground.  As with all good openings, however, the intro does not simple restate that title (“This essay will discuss cultural myth in the movies of Walt Disney and Frank Capra).  Instead, it introduces its topic with a specific historical reference (the late thirties), the paragraph describes a specific historical transition in the debate between those who thought the movies were frivolous and those who believed they were an important cultural medium.  With that debate in the background, the paragraph moves to its thesis about the power of the movies of Disney and Capra to create cultural myths.    

 

VII.        Conclusion

A.     For some students, a popular strategy for reaching a conclusion is to rephrase the opening thesis in slightly different words (“Thus, I have

shown . . .”).  This approach, however, frequently seems mechanical and dull.  Some summary is not necessarily a bad idea, especially when the argument has been a bit complicated, yet earlier ideas should be retrieved not merely to remind the reader of what has been said, but to emphasize a final point.  Conclusions often attempt to wrap up a complex argument too neatly.  Yet sweeping generalizations are risky.  Some of the most effective conclusions close an argument within the range of that particular essay, at the same time opening it to other questions.  The following conclusion combines both methods. 

 

            If M is, then, like other German films of the late twenties and early thirties, an indirect reflection of a German culture in crisis, it is also more than a simple reflection.  Combining the two traditions of expressionism and street realism, it makes nightmares real and reality a nightmare in a manner far more disturbing than most other German movies of the time.  Perhaps this is what the German authorities recognized when they forced Lang to change the original title, A Murderer Among Us, because they thought it was too politically provocative.  When Lang fled Nazi Germany a few years later, he probably realized, however, that no movie, even one as powerful as M, would be enough to stop they tyrannical darkness that was facing the streets of Germany.