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Responding to an assignment for a film

Film is difficult to explain because it is easy to understand - Christian Metz

Films, especially commercial releases, are generally assigned either as social documents or aesthetic objects. In the first case, films can be thought of as similar to diaries of the nineteenth century, documents that give insight to life at the time. In the second case, films are more like paintings in a museum, objects that reflect artistic concern. When responding to a film assignment, it is helpful to know the primary role for the film in the class. Note especially, primary role, the two aspects of film, documenting and aesthetic, cannot be fully separated and writing in response to a film requires awareness of both. It is difficult to be coherent and compelling if you cannot describe a shot or put a scene in context.

Writing about film is challenging in part because moving images are so familiar. Even before YouTube, young adults from most cultures have spent more time watching films, videos, and hours of TV than almost anything else except sleep. It is very difficult to write about something so familiar and requires developing critical viewing habits. These are a set of practices that are very different from casually watching moving images.

Tips for viewing a film

Recognizing patterns is part of the film critic’s tool kit along with a good pen to take notes in the dark. You have to take in a lot of information when you watch a movie just once. The easy stuff is usually the story (boy meets girl) and characters (Romeo and Juliet). The tricky part, when I get to scribbling, is everything else, including how the boy and girl met and what happened next. (That’s the plot.) Was the lighting soft or hard, the editing fast or slow, the camera shaky or smooth, the acting broad or not? Also: Did they dance like Fred and Ginger, shoot like Angelina and Brad? Was it a musical (but funny) or a comedy (with dancing)? Mostly, how does the narrative work?  - Manohla Dargis (NYT, 10 July 2011, Arts & Leisure, p 13)

First, watch the film however you like. It can help to watch first with friends, and listen to what they talk about. It is best to watch without interruption or trying to multitask. Set aside the time to watch the film so that you can see it all the way through. Enjoy the experience. Talk with those who watched it with you. During this first viewing, you want to become familiar with the plot, main characters, and action. You also want to become familiar with the director's choices - it is a continuous narrative? is it a jumble of flashbacks? how is the film cut? how is it filmed - color, black and white, naturalistic lighting or dramatic? is it an imagined reality (sci-fi, fantasy, etc.) or is it representative of our lived world? what is the audio track - support, commentary. realistic, emotional?
In this initial viewing, you want to generate a synopsis of the film - the characters and intentions, the director's purpose, the film's main themes,

Second, watch the film again. This time with the controller close at hand and something to take notes with. (If you are viewing on a computer you can have your notes in one screen and your note taking software in another.) New technologies have made critically viewing a film much easier. Pause, rewind, replay, if you need to. Your note taking should be very specific -- this is collecting data; it is similar to library research. The notes are so that you can find the sequence again. Here is a form that works well - the Time In is the start of the scene, the Time Out is the end:

Time In /Time Out   -  Description  -- Notes


For example,
Time (H:M:S)
Description
Notes


Characters:
Seth, cat burglar type, steals cars on contract
Iris, his love interest
Howard, the failed cop, aims to find Seth and prove his ability
0:03
2:47
Seth breaks into yellow car - exotic, maybe Ferrari and speeds off
Dark parking lot with harsh lighting - don't see his face. Long dolly shot finishing with crane shot of his driving away. Lyrical music counterpoint to scene


Opening credits -
5:19
Urban car chase - Seth driving stolen Ferrari
Early morning, sky lightening. Light traffic. Residential neighborhoods with people doing morning things - startled by zooming car -- cut to commercial neighborhood - high rises - it's a Miami or Houston, not NYC or Detroit. First one, then five police cars involved. Seth escapes with a J turn into an antique looking neighborhood fire station. Techno music - very loud - 120 building to 160 beats.

You do not have to detail the whole film -- this is not recreating the script from a viewing. You want to focus on those areas that you will be writing about. The above two scenes may be important because they establish Seth's competence and his surety. You are interested in showing the contrast between the criminal's confidence and the bumbling of the cop. a common trope in noir films.