|Media study - studying feature films|
This guide has been written to help you study feature films. It is specifically written for students in England and Wales, studying media for assessed work in English in Key Stage 4 of the National Curriculum (GCSE). It may be of interest to students of film generally.
Any way in which we communicate is a medium of communication. When we speak of these collectively (radio, television, the press, cinema and so on) we refer to the media. This word comes from Latin (which explains its irregular ending) but has been naturalized into English (become a standard English word). Sometimes you will read of the mass media (those aimed at a large public) but increasingly the qualifying adjective (mass) is taken as read.
The National Curriculum requires the study of the media in various ways. The Programme of Study for English in Key Stages 3 and 4 (11-16) contains general requirements for media study, as well as the following explicit (stated) requirements:
Studying media for GCSE
The GCSE syllabus which you are following requires (in line with the National Curriculum) that you have opportunities to study a range of media. If you are taking the NEAB/AQA course you must produce at least one complete piece of written coursework which is a media study of some kind. This could be a study which considers a single medium or one which looks at different media comparatively.
Sometimes your teacher may wish to direct your study very closely, especially in areas where you may not understand the terms in which the chosen media should be approached. For some kinds of study, it may be more appropriate for your teacher to show you some general principles to follow, but allow you to study autonomously (independently) as exam boards encourage original and independent work.
This study guide is designed to help you produce a written response to popular or classic feature films. It is not a blueprint which you have to follow exactly. You should draft and revise your work, and discuss it with your teacher at appropriate points. Do not forget to present your work attractively.
Recommended film titles
You may find it helpful to study works which are highly-regarded by critics, or which have achieved classic status. For the highest grades at GCSE, the NEAB/AQA criteria state that you should study significant achievement within medium or genre. Some titles are suggested here, arranged by theme or genre (type or category of film).
Films depicting outsiders: Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger); E.T., the Extra Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg); The Elephant Man (David Lynch); Edward Scissorhands (Tim Burton); Of Mice and Men (Gary Sinise); Babe (Chris Noonan)
Teen movies/rites of passage: American Graffiti (George Lucas); The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovich); Hairspray (John Waters); The Breakfast Club (John Hughes); Dead Poets' Society (Peter Weir); St. Elmo's Fire (Joel Schumacher); Gas, Food, Lodging (Allison Anders)
Science-fiction/fantasy: Star Wars (George Lucas); The Empire Strikes Back (Irwin Kershner); The Return of the Jedi (Richard Marquand); Close Encounters of the Third Kind; E.T. (Steven Spielberg), Alien; Bladerunner (Ridley Scott); Aliens; Terminator (James Cameron;Independence Day (Roland Emmerich); Mars Attacks (Tim Burton)
Epic drama: Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming); Citizen Kane (Orson Welles); Casablanca (Michael Curtiz); Brief Encounter; Lawrence of Arabia; Doctor Zhivago (David Lean); Cabaret (Bob Fosse); The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino); Chariots of Fire (Hugh Hudson); Jean de Florette; Manon des Sources (Claude Berri); Au Revoir les Enfants (Louis Malle); The Last Emperor (Bernardo Bertolucci); The Piano (Jane Campion); Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg); Apollo 13 (Ron Howard); The English Patient (Anthony Minghella)
Psychological thrillers/films noirs: The Third Man (Carol Reed); North by Northwest; Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock); Walkabout; Don't Look Now (Nick Roeg); Chinatown (Roman Polanski); Days of Heaven (Terence Malick); The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme)
Crime/gangster movies: The Maltese Falcon (John Huston); The Godfather, Parts I, II, III (Francis Ford Coppola); The French Connection (William Friedkin); Badlands (Terence Malick); Mean Streets; Taxi Driver; Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese); The Usual Suspects (Brian Singer); Trainspotting (Danny Boyle); Fargo (Ethan and Joel Coen)
Road movies: Easy Rider (Peter Fonda); Rain Man (Barry Levinson); Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott)
Westerns: High Noon (Fred Zinneman); The Searchers (John Ford); Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill); The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah); Once Upon a Time in the West; The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Sergio Leone); Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood)
These are only suggestions; there are many other films which are suitable for study - discuss your choice with your teacher. Many of the best feature films do not fit easily into genres - like the multi-Oscar winning American Beauty (Sam Mendes). A good way to find which films are regarded as classics, is to use a reference book like Halliwell's Film and Video Guide.
Writing about cinema
As with studying written texts, there are conventions (rules of thumb) for doing this. One simple way of finding out what these are is to look at published commentaries. Newspaper and magazine reviews may be helpful, as may broadcast (radio and television) cinema review programmes. Well worth watching is François Truffaut's 1973 film La Nuit Américaine (Day for Night) which tells the (fictitious) story of the making of another film, showing the workings of the studio fairly accurately. In your writing, what you should not do is simply retell narrative ("what happens/the story"). Below are some things you may or should wish to consider. If you discuss your films in terms of most or all of these, and finish with a personal judgement (did you like it, and why?) you will not go far wrong.
Who is the "author"?
In the case of a novel you can see from the cover who wrote it, and you probably know the names of authors such as Charles Dickens, Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl or Judy Blume. In the case of a film the person who gets the credit is chiefly the director. This person has overall artistic control (or is supposed to). The person who co-ordinates the business aspects (ensuring the film meets its budget, representing the studio) is the producer. The film will have a writer (or writers) who create the screenplay. In writing about a film, you are not expected to refer to the producer, but may wish to mention the writer (of the screenplay). You should refer to the director; finding out who he or she is should be one of your first tasks.
Sometimes a writer adapts an existing work: Kenneth Branagh has adapted Shakespeare's Hamlet, Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing while John Hodge has adapted Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting. Ian Fleming's (James Bond story) You Only Live Twice was adapted by Roald Dahl. Some directors you may have heard of are Alfred Hitchcock, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Tim Burton and Ridley Scott. Until recently directing was an all-male preserve, but women directors are becoming more prominent: some you may have heard of are Jane Campion (The Piano), Katherine Bigelow (Point Break, Strange Days), Amy Heckerling (Clueless) and Nora Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle).
What is the film "about"?
This question presupposes (assumes) that the film will be some kind of fictional narrative (as virtually all mainstream commercial cinema in the USA and UK is). If your chosen film is not a narrative work, try to explain what it is. You should summarize story but not retell it in detail; more than 300 words is excessive: if you find yourself writing "then" or "next" you are probably writing too much. The saying "more is less" applies here.
Characters and characterization
The (fictitious) people in the story are the characters, whom you should identify by their names in the film. When you first mention them (but not again) you should give the name of the actor/actress who plays the part, in brackets, after the character's name, in this way: Mrs. Doubtfire (Robin Williams). You should write about the principal characters, commenting on such things as their circumstances and situation, their personality and anything else which engages our sympathy (liking) or disapproval. Characterization refers to what the actor/actress or writer does to establish what the character is like: this means such things as physical actions or gestures, habits of speech or favourite sayings.
As important as the human characters in many cases, and often more so, are places where the action occurs both as identifiable locations and for what they represent or the feelings associated with them. In some kinds of film (the road movie, the Western) the setting is grand and panoramic while in others (like horror films) it may be narrow and claustrophobic.
In Edward Scissorhands Tim Burton depicts a caricature of small-town America, with elements from the 1950s to the 1980s, with identikit manicured lawns and suburban tidiness; but at the end of the town is a Gothic castle, complete with manic inventor - the effect of this juxtaposition (mixing) of details is surreal and unsettling. At the start of the film an Avon lady, doing her rounds, calls at the castle - and this is presented as perfectly normal.
In Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho the motel where the mad killer, Norman Bates, lives is almost a character. Other settings which are vital to the films in which they are found are Rick's café in Casablanca (originally to be titled Everybody Comes to Rick's), the Australian outback in Walkabout, "Elm Street" of the many nightmares, Gotham City (Tim Burton again) in Batman and Batman Returns or horrific imagined future worlds in the Mad Max and Terminator films, or Blade Runner.
Sometimes the setting is a spacecraft, train, ship or aeroplane: this has the effect of bringing together unlikely combinations of people, often in dangerous or romantic circumstances. Good examples worth discussing are the spacecraft in Alien or Star Wars or the bus in Speed.
Cinematography and artistic design
This refers to the "look" of the film and the way this contributes to its total artistic effect. Look at the lighting of particular scenes; look at use of colour; consider camera technique - steadicam or hand-held, long tracking shots, reaction shots and cutaways. Modern directors sometimes deliberately make films in black and white (e.g. Peter Brooke, Lord of the Flies; Peter Bogdanovich, Paper Moon and The Last Picture Show; David Lynch, The Elephant Man; Francis Ford Coppola, Rumble Fish; Steven Spielberg, Schindler's List; Tim Burton, Ed Wood). Can you think why they do this? Among many films remarkable for their artistic design or cinematography are Fritz Lang's 1926 Metropolis; most of the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; Hitchcock's North by Northwest; Terence Malick's Badlands and Days of Heaven; Ridley Scott's Alien, Bladerunner and Thelma and Louise; Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands, Batman and Sleepy Hollow, and Sam Mendes's American Beauty.
Music and soundtrack
Accompanying music is important for the mood of a film. This may be achieved by playing well-chosen "classic" popular music, to establish a sense of place and time or evoke nostalgia; or it may be done by original composition. Try to comment on the effect of any musical accompaniment in films you watch.
SFX is the conventional abbreviation for special effects. These may be techniques of animation or computer graphics. Companies such as Industrial Light and Magic or animators such as Jim Henson (inventor of the Muppets), Terry Gilliam (Monty Python's Flying Circus, Brazil, The Fisher King, Twelve Monkeys) or Nick Park (Creature Comforts, The Wrong Trousers, A Close Shave) produce visual effects which may contribute much to our appreciation of a film: make sure you explain what effects are used in any film you are discussing.
This refers to the kind or category of film you are discussing. Most directors choose to work within a recognizable convention (horror, road movie, teen romance, western, romantic comedy, costume drama, "chick-flick" and so on). Does the film you are studying belong to any such recognizable category? If so, how can you tell? Refer to any details which belong to this convention or genre.
Now all you need to do is choose your film and discuss it in some of these ways. You may wish to study several films and compare their treatment of a common theme or approach to genre. Draft your work and let your teacher see it, to ensure you are working in an appropriate manner.
Web links for studying film
www.academicinfo.net/film.html Mike Madin's excellent portal site for film and media.
www.cinema-sites.com Portal site for film and media.
www.indiewire.com Portal for independent filmmakers.
www.imdb.com The Internet Movie Database.
www.filmworld.co.uk UK-based site for film lovers.
www.mrqe.com Movie Review Query Engine - launch site for film reviews.
www.filmreview.co.uk UK film review site.
www.teleport.com/~cdeemer/Software.html Screenwriting software.
© Andrew Moore, 2000; Contact me