4SIX APPROACHES TOWRITING ABOUT FILMTwo writers may both be interested in the lighting in Fritz Lang's ScarletStreet (1945), but they may use different methods to focus that discussion: A writer using formalist approach might analyze the repetitions ofan image or the variations of light and shadow within the film, a writer using a historical approach might show how those lighting patterns can belinked to Lang's beginnings in the German expressionist period. Likewise, different approaches are used when writers discuss stylistic similarities in the films of Renoir or historical changes in the musical. In the firstcase, the writer uses, implicitly, an "auteur" approach, which is based onthe belief that films can be linked through the style of the director, in thesecond, the writer practices genre criticism, which presumes certain accepted types of movies. An awareness of these methods implies a moretheoretical aim in your writing than many competent writers about filmhave (or even wish to have). Yet, even when you analyze a single film, it isimportant and useful to understand the approach you are using becausethis awareness will help you to identify the limits of the approach, theneeds of your audience, and the goals of the essay.As you consider a topic for an essay-such as an editing techniqueand as you begin to give that topic shape, consider also the assumptionsthat underlie your approach: Are you interested in a particular technique,such as parallel editing, because one director uses it regularly? Are youinterested in examining a series of images because they relate the film tosociological and cultural issues, as Lotte Eisner is when she suggests thatthe many staircases in German films of the twenties relate to the romantic ambitions of the SOCietyof Weimar Germany? Do you want to focuson how the use of a technique, such as Eisenstein's montage, challengedthe way editing had traditionally been used, and thus suggests an important change in film form? No matter what approach you find appropriate,you will always clarify your aims and limits if you get a sense of the largerissues. When comparing two films or parts of films, for example, deciding79
80CHAPTER 4SIX APPROACHES TO WRITING ABOlITFIL\1on the terms of that comparison-formal,historical, or other -can be animportant step in organizing that comparison.The following introduction to the major approaches or methods usedin "''Titing about film does not attempt to review the complexities of anysingle approach or the ways two or more approaches may overlap in onestudy. These sketches and examples should, however, help you to identifyapproaches that can direct your writing about film and give you a sense ofhow a particular method might organize and use information.FILM HISTORYA historical approach is one of the most widely used methods in film criticism. It can be employed with varying degrees of emphasis or consciousness, but in general, the writer using this approach organizes and investigates films according to their place within a historical context and in lightof historical developments. Such an approach might explore the following: The historical relationships of the films themselves, as when awriter compares and contrasts the use of sets in a film from thethirties with their use in a film from the seventies. The relationship of films to their conditions of production,perhaps allowing a writer to make connections betweenAmerican films of the eighties and the trend during thoseyears toward the ownership of studios by large corporationslike Gulf Western or TransAmerica. The relationship of movies to their reception. demonstrated inan essay that explores how television in the fifties changed theexpectations of movie audiences at that time.Although there are ways to write about film without emphasizing historical issues, some historical awareness informs most writing about film.An essay that examines Mildred Pierce (1945) in the context ofpost-World War II America and the changing sociological position ofwomen would be based on a historical method, even though the directionand point of the argument may be a feminist critique. Similarly, an essaythat presents a straightforward reading of the themes and style of TheWild Bunch (1969) could develop that reading by relating those subjectsto the Vietnam War, the history of the western in American movies, or innovations in movie technology during the sixties. Many exciting and informative historical essays have main topics that have little or nothing toFILM IIiSTORY81do with the analysis of specific films and instead concentrate almost exclusivelyon historical facts and complexities-aneconomic crisis, say. orthe political pressures behind an instance of censorship-whichonly indirectly figure in what an audience sees on the screen.When using a historical method to help explain a film, beware of assuming that any particular movie, even a documentary, gives an unmediated picture of a society and a historical period. To be sure, Our DailyBread (1934) tells us a great deal about the early thirties in America duringthe Great Depression, but what it tells us is bound up with historical questions concerning, for example, its style and intended audience. History is adelicate instrument; use it with as much discrimination as possible. In FilmHistory: Theory and Praaice, Robert Allen and Douglas Gomery notethat "Doing history requires judgment. not merely the transmission offacts" (iv). In this excerpt from their reading of F. W. Murnau's Sunrise(1927). they demonstrate how historical research can be used to fuel aninitial curiosity about the lavish and artsy techniques of the movie:William Fox's decision to hire F. W. Murnan and to give him virtuallycarte blanche in the production of Srmrise involved much more thanthe addition of one more "highly artistic picture" to the 1927-1928 Foxschedule. Fox used Murnan's considerable hiographicallcgend as partof a carefully orchestrated plan to elevate the status of his studio to thatof preeminence in the motion picture industry. In the mid-1920s, Foxoccupied, along with First National and Warner Bros . a middle echelon within the film industry both in terms of economic power and product prestige. (Prestige can be defined as the extent to which the films ofa studio are perceived to be of "quality" ill the critical discourse of theperiod.) In the mid-1920s Fox was known as a producer of unpretentious, "folksy" pictures. not highly regarded by critics but for the mostpart popular with the mass audience. Examining the "Best Films" listsof Film Daily Yearbook and Photoplay for 1925, for example. we findthat of 184 "best" pictures cited by 184 different critics, only 9 were Foxtitles; in both lists the films of Paramount and MGM predominate.In 1925. however, William Fox launched one of the greatest expansion plans in the history of the motion picture industry. The plan eventually collapsed with the stock market crash of 1929, but just before hisdownfall Fox controlled the production of Fox and MGM studios,Loew's Theatres, Fox's own large theater chain, and a one-third interestin First National Theatres, British Caurnont, and assorted other holdings. The Fox drive for economic power in the late 1920s was paralleled
82CHAPTER 4SIX APPROACHES TO WRITING ABOlITFILMNATIONALCINEMAS83by attempts to enhance the prestige of Fox productions, and it is in thiscontext that Murnau's hiring and his production of Sunrise must beviewed. Fox anticipated that Mumau's production of the highly artisticpicture would bolster his studio's "special" films category. Unless thespecials could attract greater critical attention, Fox would never havethe prestige to match his hoped-for economic status. (99)Observe how the author of the follOwing passage identifies the specific cultural heritage of the African films of Ousmane Sembene and MedHondo. While admitting the influences of other national cinemas (likethe French New Wave of Jean-Luc Godard), he Singles out an oral tradition that distinguishes and marks a range of different films as UniquelyAfrican:If you decide that yOUl'S will be a historical approach, ask yourselfspecific questions about the role history will have in your argument: Isthe historical information you use background or introductory information for your study? Are you concemed with how and why certain historical events are represented as they are in the movie? Does historical background help explain narrative or technical maneuvers in the film? Doesthe movie stand out in history, or is it part of a historical trend? Is yourargument intended to clarify that place in history? What is more important to your argument, the historical facts behind the film, how its successive audiences responded to it, or both? No matter what your specificsubject, ask yourself what part history might play in it.Although African filmmakers invoke oral tradition as a primary influence,they. have appropriated it and applied it in various ways to create paradigrilSfor addressing the broad range of social, political, cultural and historical issues of Africa. Although their styles are diametrically opposed to each other, this use of oral tradition and African film languagecan be identified in the films Ousmane Sembene and Med Hondo. WillieSembene's narrative is more linear than Hondo's and imbued withstraightforward didacticism (as ill Borrom Sarret, Mandabi, "The MoneyOrder," 1968, Kala, 1974, and Camp de Thiaroqe, 1987), Hondos films(Soleil 0, 1969 and West Indies, 1979) are . syncopated and eruptive intone, and reminiscent of the stylisticallydisruptive tone of black Frenchliberationist literature. The two filmmakers not only share a number ofWestern influences (such as Italian Nco-Realism, Hollywood, LatinAmerican documentary, and Soviet montage) but are indebted to indigenous oral storytelling techniques as well. Thus, while Western critics havetended to read Hondo's style as avante-garde and Godardian, Africanistdiscourse has emphasized its link with oral tradition. (Ukadike 571)NATIONAL CINEMASIf historical issues usually play some part in essays on the movies, anotherimportant (and related) way to discuss them is in terms of their culturalor national character. The presumption behind this approach is that filmcultures evolve with a certain amount of individuality and that to understand, for instance, the complexities of Alexander Dovzhenko's Arsenal(1929), one must locate it first in the political and aesthetic climate ofpostrevolutionary Russia. Similarly, to analyze an Indian film of SatyajitRay, such as Distant Thunder (1973), a writer should know somethingabout the society and culture of India. According to this approach, waysof seeing the world and ways of portraying the world in the movies differfor each country and culture, and it is necessary to understand the culrural conditions that surround a movie if we are to understand what it isabout. Because it employs many westero themes and formulas, an American spectator might have little trouble comprehending a film by AkiraKurosawa, but without guidance and some cultural background on Japanese SOCiety,the films of Kenji Mizoguchi or Mikio Naruse might seem tooforeign and confusing for the average American student.When deciding to discuss a movie or a group of movies from a foreign culture, a writer might begin by questioning, with an open mind,what exactly distinguishes these films from the American ones with whichshe or he is familiar. (This implies that, at the same time, the writer willsketch a sense of what is specific about the American cinema of a givenperiod.) How do the meanings of these films change when they are seenoutside their culture? In what ways might you, as an American, understand British films of the fifties differently from the English audience atthat time? What kind of cultural research might give you a better handleon the themes? Should you read something about the other arts, the politics, the economics of the movie industry there? Try not to oversimplifythe connections between a culture and its films; remember that an approach of this kind implies (perhaps falsely) a unity or a fundamental similarity between many different films from a country. Could you find asimilar kind of unity in American movies of the nineties?
84CI-tAPTER 4SIX APPROACHESTO WRITING ABOUTFILl"1GENRESA French word meaning "kind," genre is a category for classifying films interms of common patterns of form and content. Many of us casually practice the categorizing behind genre studies when we view movies: often,we identify a set of similar themes, characters, narrative structures, andcamera techniques that link movies together as westerns, musicals, filmnoir, road movies, melodramas, or sel-f films. Westerns feature cowboysand open, uncivilized spaces; sel-f movies deal with adventures in outerspace or intrusions by extraterrestrials. In analytical writing, a discussionof genre is frequently an effective way to begin examining how a film organizes its story and its audience's expectations. A western such as JohnFord's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) operates expressly outof a generic tradition, and although there may be many ways of talkingabout the film, one of the most important is to examine its subversion ofmany of the traditional patterns and expectations about the western. Thisparticular movie is the tale of a western hero, but we discover that thishero is not like tile usual western hero, and so we are surprised by the intentional generic variation.In the following passage, Vivian Sobchack discusses the genre of filmnoir. Rather than concentrate on well-known characteristics of this genre(such as stories of crime and the use of dark lighting), she highlights herethe more subtle contrast between a house and home in this postwar genre:AUTEURS85licity is echoed in her voice-over narration that accompanies a flashback: "I was always in the kitchen. I felt as t