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WGSS481 syllabus


Spring 2022 ENGL150

Introduction to Film as Narrative


A Short Guide to Analyzing Film.

This guide is not meant to replace the texts assigned for this class. Do not expect it to tell you everything you need to know about writing a paper or doing a presentation on film. Timothy Corrigan's book A Short Guide to Writing About Film (recommended) is a helpful guide, and he goes into far more detail than I do here. I hope, though, that you will find this short guide useful in providing a few basic guidelines for the development of a properly focused discussion of film.

Form: Passing papers have all the usual attributes of college essays: a TITLE; an introduction; a thesis; unified, coherent and developed body paragraphs; a conclusion; and standard documentation of quotes (following MLA rules). Standard grammar and usage are also expected. All composition textbooks offer help with these things, as does the Writing Center.

The Topic: The topic is different from the thesis. The topic is what you are going to talk/write about; the thesis is your idea about the topic.

1. The topic should directly concern assigned films and how they are made, in other words how specific details of the films work to create specific effects. For example, your topic might be the use of sound to convey a specific idea about time and its passage. If you don't want to talk about technical details, you can focus on development/organization of the narrative, just as you might with a literary text. You need not retell the story or stories presented in the films. I know these stories. Instead, I want to see your ideas about how the stories are presented. Therefore, your paper must focus on the assigned films, not on your life or other things watching the film made you think about.

Also avoid focusing a paper on explaining how the characters and their experiences resemble or differ from those of our contemporaries and the experiences most familiar to us. For instance, you would make a mistake if the central claim (thesis) of your paper were that The Future realistically portrays the lives of Generation X urban Americans in 2010. Such a paper would have to be founded in a great deal of sociological research, and so would take you away from talking about how the film works. A better topic would be the ways the film creates believable characters despite its use of surrealistic images and references to the spirit world. Also inappropriate, would be an essay on the topic of, for example, the immorality of the protagonist of Rear Window since such a topic implicitly asserts that your way of seeing things is naturally moral and correct. A better topic would be the vision of morality and immorality conveyed by the film.

2. The topic should be limited to fit the scope of the paper. Don't try to say everything possible about any film. The title of the film you are discussing can't also be the title of your paper; this implies you are going to say everything that can be said about the film.

The Thesis: Your thesis is the main point you make about your topic.

Your thesis cannot be the use of color in Get Out. That is a topic. A successful thesis derived from this topic could be something like this: Get Out has a very distinctive color pallet in which specific colors and tones represent different moods and even ideas about the characters and events. This aspect of the film is especially important because of its focus on American racism, which is color based. Note that a thesis for a paper longer than 2 pages generally contains more than one assertion.

Your thesis must make a different point about your topic than the film does. For instance, if your topic is the intersections of concepts of gender and mental illness in Spider, your thesis cannot be that subscribing to the traditional idea that women are either evil or good based on whether or not they show sexual desire can drive men dangerously mad. This is a bad thesis for two reasons. First, the film is fictional and thus cannot prove anything about real life; it can only express an opinion about cause and effect in real life. Second, the film itself makes this point overtly, so if you were to develop it as your thesis, you would just be repeating, in your own words, the plot of the film. Instead, you might look at the techniques used to convey this point indirectly, perhaps focusing on such things as the film's use of lighting and misé-en-scène.

In choosing a thesis, ask yourself not only what ideas the film conveys but how they are conveyed. Ask yourself what details cause you to interpret the film the way you do. The most important rule to remember is that your paper should not focus on that but on how. By this I mean that although you will often have to say THAT something happens in the film or THAT a particular piece of information is conveyed, what is most important for you to focus on is HOW the film gives us information.

Originality: I know that it's hard to believe, but a paper that argues with me is more interesting for me to read than one that just restates what I have said in class. Note, however, that I want you to argue, not simply contradict my views or tell me that you don't like some film that I like. You must explain why you have the opinions you do. If you find yourself in complete agreement with things I say in class, remember that my personal interpretations of film are just that, personal interpretations, not facts, so you still have to explain why you think so and give supporting evidence for your claims.

Supporting Evidence: You need to present your own ideas and also to convince your reader that they are reasonable and worth considering. You do this by presenting supporting evidence for your claims in both of the following two ways:

1. Working with material from the assigned readings and from published essays on the films. Notice that I say working with rather than quoting. In English studies we treat expert opinions as OPINIONS, not facts, consequently they CAN NEVER PROVE a point. Therefore, when you quote a film critic's idea about a film or about films in general, you have not shown that this is the correct view to have. If you agree with the critic you still have to explain what in the film being discussed causes you to agree. It is not necessary to do outside research for your papers, but it is allowed.

2. Referring directly to the film you are discussing. Quote or describe sections relevant to your points. When doing this, avoid providing too much material so that you seem to be summarizing the whole film plot. Also avoid providing too little material (so that your reason for thinking what you do is unclear). When it is not clear why you think that a particular scene, quote, or feature of the film supports your claim, you must explain how it does. Students in English classes often fear that they will explain something unnecessarily. This almost never happens. When in doubt, explain.

If you are unused to watching foreign films or films without linear narratives, you may have difficulty getting details right. You may find that you have to watch specific scenes several times, you may need to refer to newspaper or magazine reviews, but don't indicate in your paper that you couldn't follow the film you are writing about. If you consult film reviews be especially careful not to plagiarize actual words or general ideas.

Anticipating Objections: The best way to convince other people is to anticipate their arguments with your claims and provide material that will answer those arguments. In an English paper, just as in conversation, you don't convince others by repeating the same idea over and over, emphasizing it more each time. For instance, if you want to argue that Gun Crazy is not really concerned with the ways stereotypes of femininity undermine the ethics of male identity construction, and you anticipate from what I've said in class that I will strongly disagree, you cannot hope to convince me by writing: The film is just entertainment meant to make money. It doesn't have any message about gender relations. However, I would be impressed and willing to consider your view if you wrote something like, While Gun Crazy features a central male character struggling to recover a sense of self after a traumatic experience and show how he is impeded in his struggle by his ideas about women, his problems are presented as universal ones that any audience member who has ever been in love or felt desire, irrespective of gender, might have. So the film's dramatization of the tragedy that results for the protagonist seems designed to cause (lucrative) audience identification. This would be especially persuasive if you went on to discuss the techniques the film uses to universalize the main character's experiences.

Issues and Problems: Some students taking this class in the past have seemed to feel that because they typically think of watching movies as a form of casual entertainment, the primary purpose of this class is to entertain students. Instead, like all other English classes, this class has as its primary purpose helping students develop analytical skills they can use to create critical essays about a specific art form. Here, cinema is that art form. So, just as in a literature class, you may find that you do not enjoy all the assigned material. Nonetheless, you will be required to see all the films (or substitutes I find for them in the case of your preference not to see R rated films) and write about/present on at least two of the films chosen for the class. Please do not ask if you can write about films you like better than the ones on the syllabus. All that said, I hope you do like these films and find them entertaining!


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