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Do not expect this guide to tell you everything you need to know about writing a paper or writing on film. I hope, though, that you will find it useful in providing a few basic guidelines for the development of a properly focused discussion of film.
Resources: The Writing Center will help you with grammar, organization, and documentation as well as more complex problems.
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: Choose your own topic, following these guidelines.
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 A Serious Man realistically portrays Jewish suburban experiences in the late 1960s. Such a paper would have to be founded in a great deal of sociological research, and so would take you away from talking about the film works. A better topic would be the ways the film makes an incredible plot seem believable through its use of recognizable details of ordinary life.
Also inappropriate, would be an essay on the topic of, for example, the immorality of Henry Reyna in Zoot Suit, 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. You could develop a fine thesis by relating this to the film's depiction of maintaining a strong and supportive community and what it demands of us.
To create a comparison between two films, you will need to find a topic as explained above. An inappropriate topic would be things that Picture Bride and The Wedding Banquet have in common. They do have quite a bit in common, but this is way too broad. You could pare it down to the way both represent the tensions between Asian American family values and the freedom determine our own relationships that the USA seems to promise. But you will also need to develop a thesis.
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, as 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 montage in Smoke Signals and The Handsome Man. That is a topic. A successful thesis derived from this topic could be something like this:
The assembly of shots into montage in several scenes of these two films works to suggest ways some Indigenous people experience story telling/oral history traditions. You would then need to make clear what these ways that are represented consist of.
Your thesis must make a different point about your topic than the film does. For instance, if your topic is the depiction of romantic love in From Prada to Nada and Daughters of the Dust your thesis cannot be that true love transcends social and economic class differences. This is a bad thesis for two reasons. First, the films are fictional and thus cannot prove anything about real life; they can only express an opinion about it. Second, the films make this point overtly, so if you were to develop it as your thesis, you would just be repeating, in your own words, the plots of the films. Instead, you might look at the techniques used to convey this point indirectly, perhaps focusing on such things as the films' uses of color and light.
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 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 from 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 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 a 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 the plot of To Sleep with Anger is not believable, and you anticipate from what I've said in class that I will strongly disagree, you cannot hope to convince me by writing:
Films are just entertainment meant to make money or
This film was just thrown together on a low budget and doesn't mean anything. However, I would be impressed and willing to consider your view if you wrote something like,
While the film's plot can be untangled and made sense of, as several discussions online show, it seems designed to require repeated viewings in order to make sense of what we see, which may be a strategy to generate more income from sales and rentals. This would be especially persuasive if you went on to discuss the techniques the film uses to make us question the meaning of what we have just seen.
Other 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 college 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 required films (or substitutes I find for them in the case of your preference not to see films rated anything other than G or PG). All that said, I hope you do like these films and find them entertaining!
Notes on revision:
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