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Critical Film Writing. Professor Michael Green. Sunset Boulevard (1950) Directed by Billy Wilder. This Lecture. Three Types of Film Writing The Thesis Gathering Ideas to Make your Argument Structuring the Essay Tips and Suggestions Gathering Sources Constructing a Bibliography.

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Critical Film Writing

Professor Michael Green

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Directed by Billy Wilder


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This Lecture

  • Three Types of Film Writing

  • The Thesis

  • Gathering Ideas to Make your Argument

  • Structuring the Essay

  • Tips and Suggestions

  • Gathering Sources

  • Constructing a Bibliography

Barton Fink (1992)

Directed by Joel Coen


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Three Types of Film Writing

Part I

Adaptation (1956)

Directed by Spike Jonze


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Three Types of Film Writing

Remember, there are three major types of film writing:

Descriptive – a neutral account of the basic characteristics of the film.

Evaluative – which presents a judgment or opinion about a film’s value.

Interpretive – which presents an argument about a film’s meaning and significance.

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Descriptive Writing

As it suggests, descriptive writing describes a film, without evaluation or judgment.

Most descriptions of narrative films relay plot events, while a description of a documentary might describe not only the topic of the film, but also the approach (i.e. how the material is presented).

While descriptions do not offer judgments, they may go beyond plot summary to describe genre.

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Example


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Functions of Descriptive Film Writing

  • Descriptive film writing can be found many places including

    • Television and movie guides

    • DVD cases

    • Programs for film screenings

    • Books about film

  • Its function is to give potential viewers an idea about what a movie is about.


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Why Descriptive Film Writing is Important

  • Descriptive film writing is the first essential component in all writing about film. You must be able to describe a film before you can say anything evaluative or interpretive about it.

  • Often, descriptive writing is one component of more complex forms of film writing.


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Developing Skills

  • Descriptive writing helps you build skills in

    • Close viewing

    • Critical Analysis

    • Synthesizing and synopsizing

  • You will use descriptive writing in all your critical papers at the university level.

  • Accurate, concise well-articulated description is also crucial to any job, in the film industry or otherwise.


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Choosing Descriptors


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Evaluative Writing

  • An evaluative claim presents a judgment, expressing the author’s belief that the film is bad, good, mediocre, flawed, etc.

  • Reviewer’s grades – A, B or C, two thumbs up, number of stars, etc. – often summarize the critic’s judgment, while a longer review lays out the specific reasons.

  • “The Dark Knight is a great film” is an example of an evaluative claim.


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Stronger Evaluative Claims

  • A stronger evaluative claim includes the reasons why the evaluation is positive or negative.

  • “The Dark Knight is a great film because it includes exciting and well-staged scenes of combat.”

  • This statement is more convincing than the first assertion because it provides a basis for the judgment.


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Evaluative Criteria

  • Evaluative claims are always based on the evaluator’s criteria, even if they remain unstated.

  • Here, the unstated but implicit criterion is that exciting, well-crafted action scenes make a film great. Given the tremendous diversity of viewer preferences, it’s important to be clear about the evaluative criteria so the reader can compare the criteria to his or her own.


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Evaluative vs. Interpretive

  • Evaluative criteria is most often seen in the movie review, which takes a number of forms in print, on TV and on the Internet.

  • Though some critics bring a sophisticated level of film discourse to the culture, their discussion of a film generally comes down to whether they think it is “good or bad,” i.e worth your time and money.

  • These evaluations are often ahistorical and not very analytical.


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Bordwell’s Take

“Film studies, it seems to me, is an effort to understand films and the processes through which they’re made and consumed. Film scholars mount explanations for why films are the way they are, why they were made the way they were, why they are consumed the way they are. Most ordinary talk about movies, and most film journalism, doesn’t ask ‘Why?’ questions, or pursue them very far.”

David Bordwell, “Studying Cinema”

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Bordwell (Continued)

“When film scholars talk about movies, they usually also offer interpretations: claims about the non-obvious meanings that we can find in films. Interpretations can be thought of as particular sorts of functional explanations. An interpretation presupposes that aspects of the film (style, structure, dialogue, plot) contribute to its overall significance.”

David Bordwell, “Studying Cinema”

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Importance

  • It is important to be able to clearly, concisely and efficiently articulate your evaluation of something as you often will be asked to do so in both your student and your professional work.

  • In any society, it is important to be able to trade informed opinions and have an intelligent dialogue about art and culture.


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Final Point

However, it is crucial to understand and recognize the difference between evaluative and interpretive film writing - the difference between pure opinion and a claim supported by analysis and evidence.

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Interpretive Writing

An interpretive claim presents an argument about a film’s meaning and significance.

These kind of claims address a film’s themes and abstract ideas, its social relevance, its historical context, and its influence, among other topics.

But they do more than identify themes; they go further, making an argument about what a film does with those themes.

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Interpretive Example #1

After careful critical analysis, a viewer might conclude that one theme in Transformers relates to technology.

An interpretive claim might suggest:

“Transformers questions the notion of technological progress by showing that technology actually controls people rather than the other way around.”

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Interpretive Example #2

Another theme of the film is people working together to achieve goals. Are the themes related? Can we connect them in our claim?

A more complex interpretive claim might be:

“Although an over-reliance on technology proves dangerous, Transformers assures viewers that a small group of people united by a common purpose can defeat the most powerful technological system.”

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The Importance of Interpretation

While description and evaluation can be helpful when deciding whether to see a film, interpretive claims are important because they seek to understand the ways in which film art produces meaning and how meaning is interpreted by viewers.

Interpretive claims can be important socially and culturally.

Finally, they can help us develop logical thinking and writing skills.

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Writing About Film : The Thesis

Permanent Midnight (1998)

Directed by David Veloz

Part II

23


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The Thesis Statement

A thesis statement is the central claim of your paper - an assertion or argument that you try to prove through evidence. You must support the thesis statement in every paragraph and section of your paper.

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Developing a Thesis

In developing a thesis, start by asking yourself questions, such as:

How is the film intriguing or disturbing?

What makes the film noteworthy?

Does the film use filmmaking techniques in an original or pronounced way?

How is the film situated historically?

What is the film’s effect on specific audiences?

Such questions will help you come up with your thesis.

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Purpose of Your Thesis

Though the thesis is technically your opinion, it is not evaluative the way a film review is.

In a critical essay, your thesis is designed to help others understand:

How the film functions

How meaning is constructed

How audiences interpret meaning

How the film produces social and cultural effects

The film’s relationship to the film industry

How the film is historical

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Thesis Example #1

In this paper, I argue that Blonde Venus (1932) presents a traditional representation of gender roles, using narrative and visual elements to perpetuate an ideology of patriarchy and naturalize the idea of women as dependent mothers and homemakers.

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Thesis Example #2

Despite the fact that Blonde Venus represents traditional gender stereotypes, the movie is both progressive and subversive in representing women. In this paper, I will argue that Blonde Venus, through narrative and visual style, challenges patriarchy by criticizing the traditional social roles of women as mothers and homemakers.

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Supporting your Thesis

Once you have your thesis laid out, you need to start thinking about how you are going to support it using evidence - both from the movie or movies you are analyzing and from outside sources.

You can sum up the structure of an argumentative essay with the acronym TREE: Thesissupported by Reasons, which rest upon Evidence and Examples.

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Writing About Film: Gathering Ideas to Make Your Argument

Wonder Boys (2000)

Directed by Curtis Hanson

Part III

30


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Summary of Interpretive Writing

An interpretive claim presents an argument about a film’s meaning and significance.

These kind of claims address a film’s themes and abstract ideas, its social relevance, its historical context, and its influence, among other topics.

But they do more than identify themes; they go further, making an argument about what a film does with those themes.

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Summary: The Thesis Statement

A thesis statement is the central claim of your paper - an assertion or argument that you try to prove through evidence. You must support the thesis statement in every paragraph and section of your paper.

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Outline/Segmentation of the Film

We experience a film scene by scene, but if we want to know how the scenes work together, we need an idea of the film’s overall structure or shape.

You should make an outline that reflects structural elements.

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Structure of Body and Soul

What principles of development connect Body and Soul from one scene to another?

Flashback/non-chronological narrative.

Fight scenes at crucial junctures in the life of the protagonist.

Alternation between the worlds of family and boxing.

A build to a final match designed to resolve the protagonist’s moral conflict and bring him squarely into one world or the other.

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Noting Outstanding Formal Techniques

As you watch a film, you should also jot down brief, accurate descriptions of the various film techniques used.

Once you have determined the overall organizational structure of the film, you can identify salient techniques, trace out patterns of techniques across the whole film, and propose functions for them.

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Some Formal Techniques

For example, Body and Soul makes strong use of:

Harsh lighting contrasts

A more realistic acting style than was customary for Hollywood film

Mobile cameras during the fight scenes

A great deal of dialogue

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Purpose/Meaning in Structure and Techniques

Once you have a solid idea of how the film is structured, and have carefully noted any outstanding use of film techniques, you can begin to make a case for the purpose of the structure - in other words, what meaning is being produced as a result.

This exercise can also help you if you want to be a filmmaker yourself.

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Identifying Salient Techniques

At any moment in a film, so much is going on that it is easy to be overwhelmed by all the technical elements.

Often, film analysts are unsure as to what techniques are most relevant to their thesis.

This is where planning your paper’s thesis in advance helps you. Your thesis will make some techniques more pertinent than others – although this process can often just as easily lead you to a thesis.

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Example

For example, if your thesis asserts that Body and Soul advances the idea that economically depressed neighborhoods create a criminal class, than you may want to concentrate your formal analysis on elements of the film’s mise-en-scene – props, setting, costumes and lighting.

You can then refine your identifications from there, perhaps bringing in analysis of other film elements and how they work together.

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Summary: Noting Outstanding Formal Techniques

As you watch a film, you should also jot down brief, accurate descriptions of the various film techniques used.

Once you have determined the overall organizational structure of the film, you can identify salient techniques, trace out patterns of techniques across the whole film, and propose functions for them.

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Structuring the Essay

The Front Page (1931)

Directed by Lewis Milestone

Part IV


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Typical Critical Essay Structure

Broadly speaking, an argumentative essay has this underlying structure:

Introduction: This is typically background information (context) or a vivid example of your topic leading up to your thesis.

Body: Reasons to believe your thesis – evidence and examples in support of it.

Conclusion: Restatement of your thesis and discussion of its broader implications.

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The Introduction

A critical papers must include a short introduction that concludes with your thesis statement.

The introduction seeks to lead the reader into the argument to come. It usually includes some contextual information.

Sometimes introductions can be longer than one paragraph (5-6 sentences), but not usually in a short paper (2-5 pages).


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Be Specific in Your Introduction

Make sure that an introduction sets up your thesis in terms of the topic of your paper.

If you are writing about the representation of race in GoodFellas, for example, don’t start with a broad introduction that discusses the career of its director or its Oscar wins.


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Being Specific (Continued)

Instead, lead into your thesis with related content, such as a discussion of the film’s reception by Italian Americans or a few sentences about the historically common cinematic practice of stereotyping Italians as gangsters.


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Paragraphs

Your paper must be organized into paragraphs—the building blocks of any piece of writing.

The introduction is 1-2 paragraphs; the body several, depending on length; and the conclusion 1-2 paragraphs.

Do not double space between paragraphs.

Do not write your entire paper as one paragraph!


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The Body

Normally, the introduction does not include concrete evidence in support of the thesis.

It is in the body that the writer begins to offer reasons to believe the thesis.

The reasons are backed up by evidence and examples from the movie and extra-textual sources such as other films, scholarly readings, books and interviews.


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Example

In Annie’s death scene in Imitation of Life, aesthetic elements serve once again to empower whiteness and weaken racial minorities. For instance, in strategic low-angle shots, white characters tower over Annie as she dies; meanwhile deep focus photography allows us to clearly see a photo of Sara Jane, Annie’s fallen daughter and the implicit cause of her death.


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Film Language

As in the previous slide, be sure to use technical film language when analyzing shots, scenes and sequences.

This includes how cinematography, editing, narrative, sound and mise-en-scene serve to convey meaning and support your thesis.

Remember, form and content are always linked.


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Examples of Film Language

Narrative – linear, flashback, dialogue, characters, act structure, plot, theme

Mise-en-scene – Costume, lighting, make-up, staging, blocking, color

Cinematography – Close-up, medium shots, low angle shot, establishing shot, zoom, wide angle lens, shot/reverse shot

Editing – cut, wipe, montage, wipe, rhythm

Sound – Soundtrack, sound bridge, music


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The Conclusion

The conclusion of your argumentative essay should restate your thesis – skillfully, not repetitively – and remind your reader of its value.

The ending is also an opportunity for you to try for some eloquence, a telling quotation, historical context, etc.

In other words, you should make your conclusion memorable.


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Writing About Film: Tips and Suggestions Part I

The Quiet American (2002)

Directed by Phillip Noyce

Part V


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Summary: Essay Structure

  • Broadly speaking, an argumentative essay has this underlying structure:

  • Introduction: Which can be background information (context) or a vivid example of your topic leading up to your thesis.

  • Body: Reasons to believe your thesis – evidence and examples in support of it.

  • Conclusion: Restatement of your thesis and discussion of its broader implications.


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Context and Definitions

  • Whenever you critically engage specific topics and terms, you must provide definition and context for those topics and terms.

  • Never begin your analysis assuming that your reader knows what you mean.

  • For example if your thesis investigates the representation of whiteness in The Searchers, be sure to define whiteness high in your paper, supporting that definition with applicable quotes.


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Plot vs. Representation

  • In critical film writing, understand the difference between plot and representation. 

  • The plot is the movie’s story and may be about a topic such as racism. Representation is how that story is represented beyond the plot through filmmaking techniques. 

  • So, the plot of The Searchers might purport to be about how destructive racism is, but might be advancing opposite ideas through representation. 


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Plot vs. Representation (continued)

  • For example, if all the white characters are shown communing at the homestead, but all the Comanche are shown engaged in violence, then this might be a racist representation, despite a progressive plot that nominally preaches against the harmfulness of racism.


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Keeping the Thrust of your Argument

  • Every section in your paper must reiterate your thesis; you must weave the strand of your argument all the way through to the end, as a roadmap for your reader – and for yourself to help you stay on topic.

  • Essays that fail to do this almost invariably stray off topic and/or become vague and confusing.


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Staying Organized

  • Every paragraph has one topic sentence (usually the first sentence) and every other sentence in that paragraph is about that topic—elaborates, analyzes, explains the topic. Don’t include more than one topic per paragraph.

  • Stick to the film to be analyzed. Don’t bring in extra films or ideas that have no relevance to your topic as you don’t have enough space to write about them.


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Writing About Film: Tips and Suggestions Part II

In a Lonely Place (1950)

Directed by Nicholas Ray

Part VI

59


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Plot Summary

Do not include more than a few lines of plot summary in your paper.

While it is necessary to set the context of the scene or scenes you will be analyzing – “in the scene in which Murtaugh cradles Riggs in his arms . . .” – you need no more than a few sentences to do this.

If you must summarize the film’s entire plot, do so briefly high in your paper – just below the introduction.

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Avoid Opinion

In a critical paper, don’t include opinionated language.  In other words, keep evaluations of the movie out of your paper! 

Don’t write, “The Defiant Ones is a fantastic film, one of the best about racism that there is, which really made me feel the power of hate in the world!”

This is opinion; it does not advance your argument; nothing concrete backs it up. 

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Revision

The revision process is fundamental to the writing process.

No first draft is a good draft! Or at least, it’s not as good as it could be.

Revising is more than looking at grammar, punctuation and formatting errors – although that is important!

It is most crucially about streamlining and enhancing ideas and arguments to make them strong, clear, organized, convincing.

.

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Questions to Ask of Your Paper During the Revision Process

Read over your essay thoroughly several times after you’ve written a draft. Does it:

Follow the assignment guidelines?

Present a clear argument that is easily located in the intro. and woven through each section?

Use sufficient evidence and analysis to persuasively support your thesis?

Develop all critical points to their logical conclusion?

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Copy Editing

Of course the details matter too: proof read for correct grammar, spelling, punctuation and paper formatting.

Double check all information related to your films – names of actors and filmmakers, production information, box office, year of release, etc.

The titles of movies are always in italics followed by the year and the director.

Star Wars (1977), directed by George Lucas

.

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Get Help!

For even better results, have someone else – a friend, a family member, a writing tutor, a teaching assistant or an instructor – read over your essay.

Before turning in your essay, make sure you have included all required information including title, author name, due date, page numbers, correct bibliographic citations and the bibliography itself.

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A Few Last Points

Your paper should demonstrate depth, not breadth. Analyze a few examples in detail. Especially in a short paper, don’t try to take on the whole film.

Always be specific. Stay away from vague generalizations such as “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was a great film that showed many great things about racism.”

Write on a topic you care about or have interest in – it will be a lot more enjoyable!

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Formatting

Paper formatting will vary from assignment to assignment; however, default to these specifications if none are provided:

Double spaced

Times New Roman

12 Point

1” margins

Separate page for MLA style bibliography

Always add a paper title, name and date

Page numbers in upper right corner

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Summary: Tips and Suggestions I

  • Whenever you critically engage specific topics and terms, you must provide definition and context.

  • In critical film writing, understand the difference between plot and representation.

  • Every section in your paper must reiterate your thesis.

  • Keep it to one topic per paragraph.

  • Stick to the film to be analyzed.


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Summary: Tips and Suggestions II

  • Do not include more than a few lines of plot summary in your paper.

  • In a critical paper, don’t include opinionated language.  In other words, no evaluations! 

  • The revision process is fundamental to the writing process. It is most crucially about streamlining and enhancing ideas and arguments to make them strong, clear, organized, convincing.

  • Get help!


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Writing About Film: Using Sources I

Shakespeare in Love (1998)

Directed by John Madden

Part VII


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Using Sources as Support

  • Sources should only support your argument; always proceed your own voice and thesis.

  • Use sources to:

    • Contribute to your thesis by supporting your argument point.

    • Provide context or background for your topic.

    • Offer a counterargument for you to refute.


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Use Sources Judiciously

  • Do not use sources to speak for you!

  • Do not use quotations that repeat your points.

  • Avoid quoting more than is needed.

  • Brief quotations are generally more to the point than long passages, as too many lengthy quotations weaken the flow of your argument and muddle your voice.

  • Integrate research into your argument; don’t let it stand for your argument.


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Integrate and Explain

  • Introduce direct quotations with your own words, which explain to your reader how to understand or interpret the quotation.

  • After quoting, explain the significance of quotations; never end a paragraph or section with a quote.

  • Use direct quotations only when the author's wording is necessary for your analysis or particularly effective.


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Example

“In The Devil Finds Work, James Baldwin argues that The Birth of a Nation ‘cannot be called dishonest; it has the Niagara force of an obsession.’ 5 The obsessive force of The Birth of a Nation comes as a logical consequence of its function as film legitimating the ‘common sense’ of white supremacy.” 6

  • George Lipsitz, “Genre Anxiety and Racial Representation in 1970s Cinema”


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Be True to the Original

  • End citation alone is not sufficient for direct quotations; place all direct quotations within quotation marks, as in the previous example.

  • Be sure to copy quotations exactly as they appear, using ellipsis to omit words or sections, and brackets for modifications to grammar.

  • “None of [the directors] intended either a purely ideological statement or a self-conscious innovation in genre form . . .”


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Get Help!

  • Using sources takes practice and it can sometimes be confusing so get help when you need it.

  • Review your discipline's main professional reference material on writing – MLA, Chicago, APA – among other.

  • Ask your professors and instructors.

  • Use the library support staff! They know this stuff very well.


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Writing About Film: Using Sources II

The Shining (1980)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Part VIII


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Summary: Using Sources I

  • Sources should only support your argument; always proceed with your own voice and thesis.

  • Use sources judiciously.

  • Integrate sources into your paper and explain how you are using them.

  • Betrue to the original source material.

  • Get help when you need it.


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What are Scholarly Sources?

  • Scholarly sources are scholarly journals and books published by university presses.

  • Scholarly journals are journals that are peer-reviewed by experts in an academic field. These experts make up an editorial board for each journal that reviews all articles before they are accepted for publication.

  • Examples of preeminent university presses include Harvard University Press and the University of California Press.


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What is in a Scholarly Journal?

  • Scholarly journals contain articles written by researchers doing original work in a subject field. These articles contain bibliographic references to other articles and sources.

  • Most scholarly journals are devoted to a particular topic. Several important journals in Film Studies are The Journal of Film and Video, Film Quarterly, and Film Comment.


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Examples


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Primary and Secondary Sources

  • Primary resources – such as books and peer-reviewed journal articles – contain original research. They might also be literary works, autobiographies or original theories.

  • Secondary Sources – Compile or critique original works. Examples include literary criticism, biographies, encyclopedia articles, and journal articles critiquing others’ work.

  • Both are acceptable support for a critical paper, though primary sources are best.


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Popular Sources

  • Popular sources are books, magazine and newspaper articles – whether in print or online – written for the general public.

  • Examples of popular sources include The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine and Newsweek.

  • Though these sources are scrutinized by editors, they are not vetted by experts.

  • Wikipedia is never an acceptable source!


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Popular Sources (Continued)

  • Popular sources also tend to be written for profit, where scholarly work is typically written to contribute arguments, research and knowledge to a given field.

  • Though you can cite popular sources in your critical writing, you do not typically want to use them to support your critical argument.

  • They are not scholarly and should only be used in a supplemental way or perhaps as the subject of analysis.


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Finding Sources

  • Scholarly books and journal articles can be found in university libraries.

  • Scholarly articles can be found by searching computer databases such as JSTOR, Academic Search Premiere and LexisNexis, all of which can be accessed through university libraries such as the ASU library.

  • Searching is time-consuming and a good search requires patience and effort!

  • You can ask your librarian for search tips!


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Importance of Scholarly Sources

  • Scholarly sources are important because they are not simple opinion.

  • They are the result of a checks and balances system, in which experts critically examine and scrutinize each other’s work, asking crucial questions and examining the quality of the arguments.

  • They are also built on the existing research in a field, which has already been vetted by the experts in that field.


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Writing About Film: Constructing a Bibliography

A Face in the Crowd (1957)

Directed by Elia Kazan

Part IX


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Definitions

Attribution: The acknowledgement that something came from another source.

Bibliography: A list of sources used in preparing a work.

Citation:

1) A short, formal indication of the source of information or quoted material.
2) The act of quoting material or the material quoted.

From Carleton College website: http://apps.carleton.edu/campus/doc/honesty/terms/


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More Definitions

Cite:

1) to indicate a source of information or quoted material in a short, formal note.
2) to quote
3) to ascribe something to a source

Common Knowledge: Information that is readily available from a number of sources, or so well-known that its sources do not have to be cited.

From Carleton College website: http://apps.carleton.edu/campus/doc/honesty/terms/


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Endnotes

Endnotes: Notes at the end of a paper acknowledging sources and providing additional references or information.

Example:

“4.Research indicates that most women in American society fear sexual violence (Gordon & Riger, 1991), and one 1985 study found women under 35 feared being a victim of rape over fears of robbery, assault or even murder (Warr).”


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MLA Style

  • Critical film writers use MLA-style (Modern Language Association) bibliographies.

  • “Documentation conventions vary because of the different needs of scholarly disciplines. Generally simpler and more concise than other styles, MLA style features brief parenthetical citations in the text keyed to an alphabetical list of works cited that appears at the end of the work.”

    • MLA home page: http://www.mla.org/style


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Example of MLA Citations

  • In the text of your paper:

    “Rapping asserts that the primary significance of Thelma & Louise resides with its ability to challenge the “longstanding assumptions of classic Hollywood genres, which have always reinforced the gender inequalities upon which this society depends” (66).

  • In your works cited list:

    Rapping, Elayne. Mediations: Forays into the Culture and Gender Wars. Boston: South End Press, 1994.


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Resources

You will need to cite a number of different kinds of sources from your research, including edited books, journal articles, newspapers, popular magazines and web pages.

There are a number of online guides to proper MLA citation – the Owl at Purdue is a good one: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/747/01/.

For most accurate and up to date information, use the MLA Formatting and Style Guide.


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Now Start Writing!


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