Going skills based? Tired of flat, dull writing that lacks any evidence of higher-order thinking? Check out two ways to go beyond the film review for true, in-depth analysis of film.
There’s an unfortunate perception that anyone can write a movie review worth reading. Not so.
A movie review is a specialized type of personal essay that requires an understanding of film technique including (but not limited to): storytelling and plotting techniques, cinematography and camera work, sound design and the soundtrack, acting, the history of film, and the history of the director, the actors, the screenwriter, the source material, and the film’s genre. Wow.
That’s a tall order for any adult who loves movies, but for a class of high school students? That may be A Bridge Too Far.
There’s also a great deal of prior knowledge that the analyst has to bring to the table. There’s a reason the late Chicago Sun-Times reviewer Roger Ebert was so good at what he did. He’d seen, thought about, and written about thousands of films over his career. Even before he started writing about films, he had spent countless hours watching, reading, and thinking about them.
Without drawing on a huge amount of background information, I don’t think any film review is much more than a shallow opinion piece without serious analysis.
Want to see another master in action? Look at how A.O. Scott of the New York Times deftly weaves analysis into a review of John Boorman’s Queen and Country.
If you’re trying to get students to go deeper with film, let me suggest an alternative that I used in a semester-length Film Studies class for high school juniors. These students didn’t have much background knowledge about film beyond knowing what kinds of movies they liked. These activities could also be used in miniature within a unit you already have.
I divided my course into two units: analysis of what the viewer sees on film and analysis of how the film was influenced by the time and culture in which it was made. Neither method requires a deep knowledge of cinematic technique, cinema history, genre, or anything else a well-prepared reviewer would need.
Studying Film As Text In Isolation
By focusing only on what is seen on screen, I can introduce students to looking at films as pieces of literature and texts. How do filmmakers deliver a message? By looking at just four elements—mise en scene, acting, camera work, sound/music—we look at how a theme can be created, developed, and even destroyed by the filmmaker.
Students’ lack of “film background” isn’t a problem in doing this kind of analysis.
I also use a series of three commercials which together act as a single short film: MacGyver and the New Citan. Our analytical essay assignment works to prove a theme statement based on the film like this one from one of my students: a hero puts others before himself even when in danger. How does the director deliver this message? What shots? Edits?
Let me give an example. Early in the short film MacGyver is fixing the A/C in an insurance firm. The way the director edits the film together and the actor’s voice over helps create the “MacGyver” character as someone who is capable and experienced. The A/C is easily fixed, however, MacGyver discovers a gas cylinder. The rapid editing makes the scene feel tense and fast. Yet, his calm tone of voice in the voice over suggests he’s seen worse. He spots the gas cylinders and says, “Kolithol-1, military-grade, non-fatal. Definitely not part of the standard A/C package.”
This focus on technique is not unlike New Criticism-style literary analysis that ignores the author, the time period, and other elements outside the “text.”
Studying Film as a Cultural Artifact
The second unit looks at film as a cultural artifact. What can we see in the movie that illustrates the era’s influence on the film’s content? In my class we analyze “Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” from the anthology series Twilight Zone. It’s a 25-minute stand-alone episode, and it’s perfect for investigating paranoia.
The characters are driven to murder after the power goes out—but not for everyone on the street. The parallels between the neighbor-against-neighbor paranoia and the anti-Communist paranoia of McCarthyism are quite clear. My colleague, Damian Gessel, composed an exemplar essay for students to illustrate the kind of analysis this assignment required.
This type of analysis requires more time and research. However, by using film as a cultural artifact, I can give my students a window into fields of study that don’t normally feature in a high school curriculum, such as anthropology, ethnology, and sociology.
Both methods I’ve outlined require more analytical skill than a ham-fisted attempt at a film review, but they still require almost no deep film knowledge. Teach your students to “read” a film and their analysis will be much deeper and more fulfilling.
Personally, I love how this kind of work opens students’ eyes to how analysis and analytical method can be applied to “texts” beyond traditional English class fare.
But what do you think? Be part of the conversation by leaving a comment below.
This post is in response to “Using Film to teach Analysis Skills” by Heather Wolpert-Gawron.