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Film Analysis Essay Guidelines

For this assignment, you will write a 6-page analysis paper OR create a 10-minute video essay that analyzes a single film, demonstrating your mastery of the critical skills and terminology you are learning in this course. Your analysis should extend the skills and terminology used for analyzing our weekly class films, but now you'll combine all of our learned techniques to analyze one film. (Graduate essays require more original thought and critical thinking—not a compilation of someone else’s ideas. So graduate students will complete a longer 8-10 page paper, in which you perform your analysis of one of the assigned films.)

For examples of how to write film analyses, examine the sample analyses in your textbooks: Film Art and A Short Guide to Writing About Film.

Be sure to carefully read through this Comments Guide for a key to understanding my notations on your papers and for suggestions on how to write your very best work.

Plagiarism Warnings:

How to Complete the Assignment in Three Steps

STEP ONE: Screen at least one of the following films:

(Sebastián Silva 2018, 86 min; USA/Chile)
via Swank

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On
(Dean Fleishcher Camp 2021, 90 min; USA)
via Swank

Little Women
(Greta Gerwig 2019, 135 min; USA)
via Swank

I recommend that you watch more than one of these films--not only because they're all great films, but also to give you the most options when you choose your essay topic. For your study, you will find a streaming link to each film on D2L. They may also be streaming online through Netflix or other online sources, but be VERY careful about free streaming sources on YouTube and other sites, since the quality is often poor and it may not even be the complete film for which you are responsible. You may wish to purchase the film on your own as well, since you will be viewing it multiple times. You should not need to watch the film you analyze more than 4 or 5 times total. You should begin watching the film this week to prepare for approaching deadlines.

STEP TWO: Analyze the Film's Motifs to Prove Your Thesis

1) Parallels, Motifs, and Meaning

    a) Take notes on major parallels and motifs.  What outstanding motifs and parallels emerge for the film's plot, settings, characters, etc.? What parallel traits do the characters share? How are they contrasted? How does the film encourage us to feel about and understand them?

    b) Noting these will help you come to your interpretation of the film's subject, paying attention to its explicit, implicit, and symptomatic meanings. Your entire essay will revolve around your implicit meaning/thesis, so really spend some time thinking through what you think the filmmakers are trying to say--the film's message. Then formulate your ideas about this message into a clear thesis: your interpretation of the film condensed into one sentence that argues a definite opinion about the film. Note that to say the film is "about" something is not enough for your thesis; that's the starting point. Then you must take that noun that you think the film is "about" and argue a point or opinion about it. All of your examples from the film in the rest of the essay will then work to illustrate and prove your thesis. For help formulating a solid thesis, see this Purdue website; and for general advice for academic writing and how to avoid plagiarism, see the Dartmouth College Writing Guidelines. You may also visit The Writers' Studio on the CSU campus.

    c) Here’s a tip for honing your thesis statement into a clear, concisely stated implicit meaning for the film: think in terms of "fortune cookie" language for this sentence. So, for example, you wouldn’t find something like "It's about love" or even “Love is important” in a fortune cookie; these are too vague and bland. But you might find something like “Only through love can we find happiness.” While a bit clichéd, this statement clearly makes its point and thus become easy to illustrate with examples from your film.

2) Narrative and Narration

    a) Characterize the overall range and depth of narration as the film progresses, noting whether the film's narration employs generally restricted or unrestricted range, objective or subjective depth. Be sure to say why these choices are significant for your implicit meaning. Also, be sure to note when exceptions to the prevailing modes of narration occur and why they're significant.

    b) For your benefit only, segment the film's narrative into sections. What are the major unified blocks of action? (Fade-outs and fade-ins will typically punctuate each block of action, though films sometimes use other transitional edits such as cuts, wipes, or dissolves here.) What events transpire in each block, and what new information do we obtain about each character? What kinds of manipulations do you find in the relations between plot and story?
    Note: The information from this segmentation is to help you only; it should not figure in your written analysis. As always, be careful to avoid plot summary in your essay.

3) Film Techniques
Choose at least three film techniques from mise-en-scène, camerawork, editing, and sound that best exemplify your essay's thesis, and note the general patterns within each, as well as any significant counter examples.

    a) The filmmakers carefully selected their film's individual, particular, stylistic techniques--and rejected others.The film looks and sounds like it does for a reason. Its patterns of camera movements, lighting, music, cutting, etc. all logically contribute to the implicit meaning of the film. How do the filmmakers' technical choices express and support the film's message (your implicit meaning)?

    b) Note examples for each of your three selected techniques. That is, you should choose the three best categories of mise-en-scène, camerawork, editing, and/or sound for your film, and then note patterned motifs and examples under each of these categories. Be sure to note when exceptions to the prevailing patterns occur and why they're significant. Every example should clearly illustrate your implicit meaning; if it doesn't, then cut it.

STEP THREE: Organize Your Essay

Clearly organize your essay within your six written pages (use MLA format) or your video essay within your twelve minutes, following these guidelines:

1) Introduction. State a thesis that offers your interpretation of the film's implicit meaning and **briefly** assert how the film's formal and stylistic components shape that meaning. Be very clear about your argument/thesis and how you will support it. Your essay's title should reflect your theme; feel free to be clever or witty with your title. Your introduction should include NO PLOT SUMMARY.

2) The Body of the Essay. Discuss the film's meaning, character parallels/motifs, narration, and three techniques categorically. That is, discuss parallels among the protagonists & motifs in terms of your implicit meaning, then analyze details of narration, then analyze the details of mise-en-scène, camerawork, editing, and/or sound to back up your points. For each of these technical categories:
    a) explain the general patterns/motifs over the entire film
    b) describe 2-3 scenes or shots that serve as important examples of that technique
    c) explain why any significant deviations from the technique's general pattern are important
    **Always be sure that your examples clearly support your implicit meaning/thesis in each section.

    Cautions and requirements for this section of your essay:
    a) Do not discuss the film chronologically. An achronological, categorical organization will allow you to be more concise and to resist the temptation to simply provide a plot summary. Again, NO PLOT SUMMARY should appear in this assignment. Your audience has seen the film, so refer only briefly to the scene/shot so you can get right to your analysis and interpretation of it. Refer to plot elements only to illustrate and/or briefly situate your examples within the film.
    b) Your primary task in this assignment is to demonstrate your sensitivity to visual and aural techniques as they relate to the film's overall form and meaning. You must demonstrate your mastery of the material by thoroughly employing the terms we've learned. The terms are your friend!
    c) Do not catalogue all of the techniques and features you noted as you watched the film. Discuss ONLY those techniques that are outstanding and contribute significantly to the meaning of the film. For example, if you find that the lighting in the film has no particular logic or pattern which makes it support your interpretation, do not discuss it in your essay.
    d) Edit all sections of your essay to relatively equal lengths. Don't spend 3 pages on motifs & parallels, leaving room for only one paragraph each on the techniques. Balance the sections of your essay.

3) Conclusion. Use your final paragraph/minute to bring to a close your analysis of the film's outstanding stylistic systems. However, do not simply repeat your introduction. Rather, restate your thesis in a conclusive (as opposed to introductory) manner, only **briefly** summarizing the evidence you have marshaled in support of your arguments. Then discuss its broader implications--including the symptomatic meaning(s) you find to be significant.

For this concluding symptomatic meaning, go deeper than the implicit meaning. The symptomatic meaning should address the ideologies and social values that the film conveys. This is much deeper than the implicit level of “Only through love can we find happiness”; instead, the symptomatic level might address, for example, how the film valorizes heterosexual love to the exclusion of homosexuality, which is a **symptom** of heteronormative ideologies. Think in terms of race, class, gender, sexuality, nationality, postcolonialism, etc.; what is the film subconsciously teaching us about one, two, or more of these ideologies? Or think about why the film was made when it was; what social issues does the film respond to, even if it’s not explicitly or implicitly addressed by the film? For example, is it a war film that surreptitiously supports a more recent or current war? What does the film betray about its social context?

In short, your essay will follow this outline within the 6-page/10-minute timeframe:

    A) Introduction to your Thesis/Implicit Meaning
    B) Parallels & Motifs
    C) Narration (Range & Depth)
    D) Film technique 1 (one of M/C/E/S, including its examples and counter-examples)
    E) Film technique 2 (one of M/C/E/S, including its examples and counter-examples)
    F) Film technique 3 (one of M/C/E/S, including its examples and counter-examples)
    G) Conclude with your Symptomatic Meaning

Be sure to incorporate/respond to any comments from this outline as you write your essay. An asterisk (*) on your paper means "see my comment on the previous draft or outline." If there are many asterisks, then there are multiple comments from a previous draft that were not incorporated into this more recent version of the essay. Frequently ignoring this feedback risks losing points on your essay.

VIDEO ESSAY OPTION: Your visuals may include moving images, still images, PowerPoint slides, animation, etc., but be creative! (Bonus points if the style of your video reflects the style of your film.) Note that your own voiceover must narrate your images, unless there is a compelling reason why you cannot (for example, if you are registered with Disability Services for spoken word accomodations). See many examples online, like this one on Guillermo del Toro's films, but do not research anything on your own film! Submit your video via D2L in the separate Assignments folder for "Video Essay," and be sure to submit your script in the Assignments "Film Analysis Paper or Video Essay Script" folder.

Suggestions and requirements for this assignment:

* Get to work on this assignment as soon as you can. Watching a film 4-5 times at the last minute will not yield as productive a film analysis nor, consequently, as high a grade.

* Your essay is due on time; I strongly discourage late essays, as they will not earn you full credit for your work. For each day past the due date, your essay grade will drop by a letter grade; essays late in class lose 1/3 a letter grade and essays late the same day lose 1/2 a letter grade. That said, life often competes with school deadlines; so if you are struggling to meet this deadline, we can work it out! It's more important for you to complete this assignment to the best of your ability than to meet a deadline, so just come talk with me with as much advanced notice as you can.

* Draft an outline of your essay within the week that you first watch the film; it will be due shortly thereafter (see date on Schedule page). It is worth 10% of your overall essay grade. It should include your thesis (your interpretation of the film's implicit meaning), the three outstanding techniques you plan to emphasize, and the specific examples you will use to advance your argument. Don't worry about precision now; you can and will amend as you go. The goal of this outline is to hone your thesis and the examples from your film that prove it. Note that ignoring comments on your outline when writing your final essay reduces your grade significantly.

* You are responsible for knowing and correctly phrasing the cast and crew names. For example: "Lisa (Grace Kelly) and Jeff (James Stewart) investigate..." These include the characters' names, the actors who play them, and the major creative talents involved in the film. This information is available in the credits of the film, at www.imdb.com (use ONLY for cast & crew names and NO other research about the film), in my online comments guide, and in your textbooks: FA and SGWF. 

* Submit this assignment via D2L Assignments. Be sure to number all paper pages, and to follow the course policies for format (12-point font, 1" margin, double-spaced, stapled, extra credit for double-sided papers, etc.). Do not artificially shrink or increase your paper length via font size, margins,double spaces between paragraphs, etc.; you will lose points for page overages if you do.

* Write in active voice. Avoid passive voice (including "be" verbs) and awkward constructions such as "we see," "we get," "this is done to show," "this motif is seen throughout the entire film," etc. by using those terms! You must demonstrate your comprehension of and fluency with our terminology. For suggestions and correct phrasing, be sure to re-read both guides to writing about film and the online comments guide.

* I strongly encourage you to take a rough draft of your paper to The Center for Academic Success in CSU East or The Writers' Studio in A&S, particularly if your writing frequently includes grammatical and organizational errors. The CAS/Writer's Studio will help you write a more coherent, clear, and concise essay--really.

* If you would like feedback/comments on a draft of your essay before you turn in your final version, you may submit the draft a week or two ahead of the due date--NOT the week it's due!

Q & A

*Abbreviations: it's a good idea to use standard abbreviations for terms like CU, POV, etc. throughout; even at the first mention these professional abbreviations are okay. They will save you space and they're professionally recognized, standard abbreviations. But there shouldn't be much abbreviation beyond that. (Don't say "mise" for mise-en-scene, for example.) After first mention of names (character or director/personnel), you should truncate the name a bit from there, but be sure to be consistent about your abbreviation. For example, Charles Foster Kane should be truncated to Kane, but don't call him Kane in one place, then Charles in another later. Keep it consistent. The last name is usually appropriate, so use Welles, not Orson. But in some cases the first name would be more correct (Charlie, for example, if it is important to refer to Kane when he is a child). Don't use the characters' initials to abbreviate in a formal paper, though. Shorter film titles like Citizen Kane should be spelled out in full; use your best judgment here. But you can abbreviate longer films titles after the first mention. You could just say Mood, for example, but only after your first full mention spelling out In the Mood for Love. Keep this consistent throughout the essay too.

*Definitions of Terms: defining ideology or sound bridge or anything else would take up space that you need for your analysis of the film. No terms should be defined in your essay; you should just use them fluently and confidently in the course of your analysis.

*Quotations: Beginning with an epigraph quote from the film works only if it illustrates your implicit meaning/thesis. If you can quote dialogue **briefly** from the film to argue your implicit meaning, that’s good. Be careful not to quote too much or at length throughout the essay, though. Use quotes sparingly but effectively as evidence from the film to support your implicit meaning; this essay is too short for heavy quotation.

*Subheadings: there should be no sub-headings in your written essay. While they can be useful in much longer papers, this paper is too short for them. Shift from one section to the next via smoothly written transitions, not subheadings. Video essays may use onscreen titles to mark subsections, but these must work in conjunction with smooth transitions in voiceover narration.

*Bibliography: there is no need for a bibliography for this essay, since you are consulting no other sources beyond your film. (Graduate students excepted.)