WRITING A FILM ESSAY: OBSERVATIONS, ARGUMENTS, RESEARCH, AND ANALYSIS
Describe the difference between reviews and critical essays.
Practice taking notes on films and how to organize those notes.
Choose a topic and develop it into a thesis and argument for a paper.
Conduct research and integrate sources.
Acquire the skills to turn your work into a polished essay.
Since the beginning of the movies, writers of reviews, scholarly essays, and philosophical books have debated the
achievements of individual films and the cultural importance, function, and value of this young art form in
general. The second section in Part Four, chapter 12 shows how writing about movies can become a rich extension of our
fundamental film experiences. It begins by making a distinction among the subject matter
of a film, the
material that directly or indirectly comprises the film, and the meaning
or the interpretation a writer discovers within that
film. The chapter describes the steps a writer takes in preparing to write about a film: asking questions, taking notes, and
selecting a topic. It then examines the elements of the analytical film essay in detail, from interpretation, argument, and
evidence to outlines and topic sentences. Finally, it offers a writer’s checklist as well as guidance for research, citation,
revision, manuscript formatting, and proofreading.
This chapter exposes students to aspects of writing about film that they may not have considered analytically
before. It provides them with the tools to construct analytical essays with confidence.
TEACHING THE OPENING VIGNETTE
To teach the opening vignette, you may want to place Adaptation (2002) in the context of the challenges
inherent in adapting a book for the screen. Examining the ways in which writer Charlie Kaufman and director Spike
Jonze make manifest the challenges of writing, by creating a character named after the screenwriter and then
inventing a twin brother for him, may help students situate their own writing on film. There is passion, panic, false
starts, breaks for coffee, bad writing, cliché, and a lot of staring at a blank page involved on the road to writing
something that works. To provide additional context and encourage students to approach their own writing with a
critical eye for telling details, you could assign the passage from Susan Orlean’s book in which she encounters the
orchid thief in the Florida Everglades. Another approach might be to distribute reviews and critical essays (or
excerpts) about the film, including Orlean’s own comments about being played by Meryl Streep.
TEACHING THE CHAPTER
The aims and mechanics of good writing about film may be familiar to students who study literature or history. But
competence in this kind of writing can benefit students in all disciplines. We live in an increasingly visual
culture, and the importance of identifying an audience, of balancing subjective and objective perspectives, of taking notes,
and of sketching an outline that develops a particular argument and interpretation is universal and
transferable. With the aid of the many genuine student papers reproduced in this chapter for reference, students can
observe that actual writing requires a clear and detailed thesis, strong topic sentences, and concrete evidence from the
film, and that a first draft is always followed by a series of revisions that work to clarify the argument, its ideas, and its
presentation. Careful proofreading then follows final revision, with special attention paid to easily missed
mistakes in mechanics, such as spelling and punctuation.
When teaching this chapter, it can be useful to root examples in the films you’ve already watched for the
course. Ask students to collect reviews and critical articles and dissect individual writers’ prejudices and points of
view. Encourage them to write often, in class and at home, to overcome their inhibitions and insecurities and provide
you with diagnostic material that will allow you to adapt this chapter’s concepts to accommodate their specific
Teaching Students How to Prepare to Write about a Film
Encourage students to approach each film that is screened for class as though they might write an essay about it.
What do they think they will see? Why are they watching it? What is the relationship between the film and the
material being covered in class? Have them jot down their speculations before the screening and encourage them to
take notes while watching the movie. In the next class, ask them to share their observations and any revelations.