Be an Armchair Critic!

Most of us are so accustomed to looking at film strictly for entertainment that we forget what an exciting art form and challenging mode of expression it can be!

1. Start off by picking a film you love (a narrative film--one that tells a story--might be easier to start with). Watch it at least 2 or 3 times (great films get better with multiple viewings--you see something new about it every time). List all the reasons why you love that film. What do you think the film's appeal is for you? What do you think the film is saying? If this were the filmmaker's one and only chance to get a particular message across to the world, what is that message? What major events (political, cultural, artistic) were going on in this filmmaker's culture when this film was made? Can you see any relationship between the message and those events?

2. Look at the story. How is it structured (narration)? Could you draw a diagram or lay out a plot line of how the story builds, where the "struggle" is, where the climax is, and how it's resolved (exposition, conflict, climax, resolution)? Do the actions follow a straightforward timeline? Does the story line follow a recognizable pattern? Is the story dramatically appealing? If not, why might the director choose to set it up this way? Are all the actions logical (cause and effect)? Do we know why all the characters are doing what they're doing (motivation)? From whose point of view are we seeing the story? Is there a narrator? If so, is the narrator a character in the story? How do you feel about the narrator? What do you know about this person? What attitude does the narrator take toward the audience? What does this attitude imply about what the narrator thinks of the audience?? If there is no narrator, how does the film let you know what's going on? Does "the film" have an attitude toward the audience, and what does this attitude imply about what "the film" thinks of the audience? Does the film end in a satisfying way? Are all the loose ends tied up neatly (closure)? Are you comfortable and reassured about the world and your values, or do you feel uneasy about anything?

3. Now pick your favorite scene in your favorite film. Watch this scene at least 5 times. Look at what precedes and what follows this scene. What role does this scene play in the story line--how exactly does it help move the story along? How does it affect you emotionally as it helps move you through the story?

4. Watch the scene again, noticing only the photography (focus, framing, angles, movement, space, sets, light, color). Write down everything you notice about these elements. For example, are characters typically alone in the frame, or crowded in with lots of other people, or in significant pairs? Are there strange angles used that attract your attention? Do people and sets look attractive, or dingy in some way? Is the camera up close to the characters or set apart from them? How does the use of each element add to the story line, the emotional impact on you, the message?

5. Watch the scene again, noticing only the sound (music, dialogue, silence, language, narrator, sound effects). Write down everything you notice about these elements. For example, is there music? Does it call attention to itself, or does it take great attentiveness to even notice it? How does it relate to the action and emotions? Does the dialogue reveal the story line? the motivations of the characters? Is silence used in any noticeable way? If so, does it feel uncomfortable? Are different languages used in the film? If so, are they all translated? How does the use of each element add to the story line, the emotional impact on you, the message?

6. Watch the scene again, noticing only the editing (order, cuts, duration, rhythm, continuity, montage, motifs). Write down everything you notice about these elements. For example, does the film make use of repeated motifs? When and why do they appear? Does the film follow a chronological ordering of scenes? Do cuts occur when you expect them? Do scenes last longer than you think they should??? How does the use of each element add to the story line, the emotional impact on you, the message?

7. Ask yourself, what are the values behind the message of this film? If Martians were trying to figure out what Earthlings were like by watching this film, what would they think? We're a happy-go-lucky bunch of creatures, and things always work out for us in the end? Life is full of misery, and it's all up to chance anyway? We're wonderful caring creatures taking good care of our world and each other? You get the idea. Now go back and look at all the elements you've analyzed so far, and see if they are consistent with the value system you've identified. Are these values contrary to the mainstream of our culture? of the culture they originated in?

8. How does this film try to "make its case" or persuade you of its message? --for example, by emotional appeal [plays to your emotions rather than intellect or logic--can be warm & fuzzy, or a 3-hanky tearjerker], documentary authority [is or pretends to be based on real events, and calls your attention to this fact or pseudo-fact], alienation effect [using discomforting, unfamiliar techniques to distance you from the emotional impact so that you'll THINK about the film and ANALYZE the causes of whatever's happening], symbolism [using visual or narrative aspects of the film to represent something larger than what's being portrayed on screen], manipulated point of view [putting you-the-viewer in the role of a character with a particular perspective----actually, I think ALL films have a manipulated point of view, and some of them are just obvious!] Is the method used persuasive? that is, whatever point the filmmaker is trying to make, does the approach chosen work on you? Maybe you're put off by the technique, or angry that the film got you to cry? Maybe you disagree with the values espoused by the film, and so the method doesn't work on you?

9. Read up about the film---when it was made, any controversies in the production, the original book or play it might have come from, how it was received, where it was distributed, etc.

10. See other films of the same director to look for patterns. Hitchcock is a great place to start. Others: John Ford, Fritz Lang, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Lina Wertmuller (Italian, not German!), Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, Ulrike Ottinger, Margarete von Trotta.

Start treating films like this, and pretty soon, you won't be able to stop yourself from noticing these things! And whether you love the film or hate it, you'll have some great ammunition to argue your points!
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