WRITING ABOUT FILM

When they talk about film as an artistic medium, film critics as well as film historians tend to talk in the following terms: Think of a film as a series of motionless images projected onto a screen so that they create in the mind of a person watching the screen an impression of continuous motion, such images being projected by a light shining through a corresponding series of images arranged on a continuous strip of flexible material.

When we think of writers who set the standard for film reviewing, we think of: Kenneth Tynan, who wrote for the London Observer during the 1950's; Pauline Kael, who wrote for The New Yorker during the 1970's; Jay Scott, who wrote for the Toronto Globe and Mail during the 1980's. In the early 1970's, Scott wrote (under the name of Scott Beaven) for the Calgary Albertan, writing arts reviews and winning his first National Newspapers Award. He joined the Globe and Mail in 1977.

Getting Ready

  1. Much variation in detail and in emphasis is possible in defining film; however, two features run through all definitions: (a) a succinct description of at least the basic elements of the mechanism employed, and (b) an allusion to the creation of an illusion of motion.

  2. Making films--as opposed to "making" in the other arts, excluding opera--involves extensive collaboration. Below are some of the elements involved:

    a. scriptwriter
    b. director
    c. producer
    d. cinematographer
    e. make-up artist
    f. costume designer
    g. sound engineer
    h. music director
    i. editor
    j. actors

    Altogether, these people make the film as we know it. Today, this enterprise may be huge indeed. For example, reports suggest that Titanic (1997), James Cameron's disaster film, cost more than $200 million US to make. Apparently, about $40 million of the budget was spent on special effects; the film's opening was delayed so that Cameron and his team could complete the hundreds of digital tricks. They built a 236-meter, nine-tenths scale Titanic model near Rosarito Beach, Mexico, on Baja California's northwest cost and equipped it with exact replicas of the real ship's fittings. Yet, many of the film's most spectacular effects were filmed on a much smaller, museum-quality 14-meter model. The miniature was so detailed its lifeboats contained 24 tiny oars, a fact lost on audiences because the lifeboats were covered by tarpaulins.

    While Cameron filmed the actual Titanic wreckage over 21 days on the ocean floor, a significant part of the film's wreck footage comes from a 1/20th scale model, whose damage matched that of the actual wreckage Cameron surveyed.

    In fact, the wreckage model was filmed in a dry room by a camera travelling on an intricate, computer-controlled path. Effects specialists later added sediment-filled water to the print to make the model appear to be at the sea's bottom.

    The effects are too numerous to count, and what we might think are simple scenes of real life are in fact digital creations. One of the film's signature scenes--Leonardo DiCaprio and Danny Nucci riding the ship's prow, as the camera sweeps past them and over the Titanic's decks--is composed of no less than 200 separate effects.

  3. It has been argued (Martin and Jacobus, 1997, p. 327) that directing and editing are the most important jobs in film-making. The director is responsible for the acting and the photography, which is carried out by skilled technicians who work with such problems as lighting, camera angles, and focusing. The editor--usually assisted by the director--arranges the images or the frames after the photography is finished. The editor trims the shots to an appropriate length, then joins them with other shots to create the final, edited film. Films are rarely shot sequentially; only a part of the total footage is ever shown in a film. Understandably, much interesting footage ends up on the cutting-room floor.

  4. It is instructive to compare the elements that went into the making of a film during the early days of film-making with those that go into the making of a film these days:

    Easy Street (1916)

    Charlie Chaplin, director and scriptwriter
    R.H. Totheroh, camera
    cast:
    Chaplin as a vagabond
    Edna Purviance as a girl working at a missionary station
    Alberta Austin as the clergyman (and a policeman)
    Eric Campbell as the terror of the streets
    Henry Bergman as an anarchist who makes off with Charlie
    Loyal Underwood as the father of a poor brood of children (and also as a policeman)
    Charlotte Mineau as an ungrateful girl
    Tom Wood as the chief of policeman
    Lloyd Bacon as the drug addict
    Leota Bryan as the mother of the children
    Frank J. Coleman as a policeman and
    Janet Miller Sully and John Rand as visitors to the mission.

    Titanic (1997)

    James Cameron, writer and director
    James Cameron and Jon Landau, producers
    James Cameron, screenplay
    Russell Carpenter, director of photography
    Conrad Buff, James Cameron, and Richard A. Harris, editors
    Twentieth Century Fox Corporation and Paramount Pictures Corporation, production companies
    Rae Sanchini, executive producer
    Al Giddings, Grant Hill, and Sharon Mann, co-producers
    Josh McLaglen et al., assistant directors
    Mali Finn, casting
    Robert Legato et al., visual effects
    Digital Domain, special effects
    Industrial Light and Magic, additional visual effects
    Martin Laing et al., art directors
    Marco Niro et al., set designers
    I Solinisti, music
    Lynne Hockney, choreography
    Gwendolyn Yates Whittle et al., dialogue editors
    Ethan Van der Ryn et al., sound effects editors
    Sled Reynolds et al., animal trainers
    the cast, including:
    Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Dawson
    Kate Winslet, Rose De Witt Bukater (young)
    Billy Zane, Cal Hockley
    Kathy Bates, Molly Brown
    Frances Fisher, Ruth DeWitt Bukater
    Bernard Hill, Captain Smith
    17,514 feet [35 mm]
    Prints by DeLuxe Laboratories

  5. The matter of responding to a film is a complex one. We can think of responding to a film as "reading" a film (Monaco, 1981). Film is by definition the art of illusion: this means that in varying degrees a film obliterates the audience's sense of place, and sense of time. We can distinguish two kinds of responses, i.e., in terms of films which promote (see Martin and Jacobus, pp. 329-30):

    a. an emotional response, i.e., escapism

    In the Poetics, Aristotle argued that art imitates life. Films do this very well. The imaginary sense of reality generated by some films is so intense that actual reality seems dull by comparison.

    Naturally, the criterion we apply to experiencing a film is realism. We are familiar with the details of realism, because they permeate our lives; moreover, we are quick to respond to an appeal made directly to our images of ourselves and others.

    In The Hustler (1961) Paul Newman played a character who represented so many young people in the audience that it is not difficult to see why the film exerted a great appeal. Audiences tend to sympathize with the young hustler, "Fast Eddy Felsen," who takes on Jackie Gleason as Minnesota Fats.

    The plot echoes the plot of countless westerns, e.g., the young fast gun measures off against the old fast gun. What appeals to the (younger) members of the audience is the universal theme of proving yourself to the elders of your community.

    The same situation is exploited in The Sting (1975) and the series of Rocky films (1976), among the most commercially successful films of all time (p. 396). A measure of the former film's appeal is due to the attractiveness of the actors: Paul Newman and Robert Redford.

    These films promote a loss of self (this is a veiled appeal to the worship of self). These films promote hero worship, with ourselves as hero. Most films made for television depend upon this effect for their success. These films deaden our perception of content.

    The makers of these movies are keenly aware of this kind of response and they often exploit it, i.e., films which elicit this response are sure of financial success.

    Unfortunately, escape films help us avoid doing anything about achieving self-importance. In some ways these films rob people of the chance to be something in their own right.

    b. a critical response, i.e., the appreciation of the artfulness of film-making

    This kind of response is generated by the artfulness of films and has nothing to do with self-indulgence. This is the feeling of being removed from self-awareness, of being a part of the medium of moving images, i.e., compelling narrative action or dynamic images and sound.

    S.T. Coleridge claimed that A WILLING SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF constituted poetic faith, i.e., the capacity to believe in what the artist has produced. See ch. xiv of Biographia Literaria (1817).

    Critical approaches like semiology help us appreciate film as an artistic medium, i.e., see the fine points of form and meaning (p. 397). As reviewers, we want to ensure that we perceive those qualities that make films interesting and effective.

Writing

In order to write about a film, we have to ensure that our critical faculties are engaged during the viewing or reading. Below are some matters that need attention when writing up your response to a film, i.e., in conveying your insight into the film as a work of art. It is assumed that your job is to give the reader just enough information about the various elements that contribute to its effect so that the reader can decide whether or not he or she will see it.

  1. Be sure to establish a context for your remarks. For example, this means identifying the work and its subject-matter. You might compare it to other films made by the director/other directors.

  2. Very early on you'll probably summarise (very briefly) the action, if the film is a conventional one. This information--and the information about the matters which follow--will help the reader appreciate how--from your point of view--the director transforms his subject matter into artistic content/formulates his artistic statement.

  3. Sometimes the script transforms a film into a work of art. A good example is the script of The Third Man (1949), which was written by Graham Greene, the famous novelist.

  4. You will want to give your reader some sense of how the acting contributes to the impact the film makes. Remember, too much information, too much summary, especially if it confuses the actors and the roles they play, can confuse the reader.

  5. Also, the reader will want to know how the technical elements contribute to the film's artistic success. A brief mention of--where appropriate--the photography or the music will do.

  6. Finally, the reader will want some indication of how all these elements work together. Perhaps there are a number of loose ends, in terms of the story line, the action, the acting or the dialogue.

Following these guidelines as they fit the film under review--as opposed to applying them mechanically--will enable you to help the non-specialist reader appreciate the complexities of the work under consideration.

Sources

Corrigan, Timothy. A Short Guide to Writing about Film. 3rd edn. New York: Longman, 1998.

Martin, F. David, and Lee A. Jacobus. The Humanities through the Arts. 5th edn. New York: The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 1997.

Monaco, James. 1981. How to Read a Films. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

York, Karen, ed. Great Scott! The Best of Jay Scott's Movie Reviews. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1994.

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