Films present a unique set of considerations when it comes to analysis. This week, English teacher Kylie Nealon explores what you need to look for when analysing film.
Ah, film, the seemingly ‘easy’ choice to write about in an assessment or exam. Where many students go wrong is that they fall into the trap of retelling the story. Film needs to be analysed in the same way as your written texts, using the appropriate terminology and apt selection of examples to support your ideas and your response to the topic.
When analysing film, it’s useful to think of scenes in place of chapters, sequences instead of paragraphs, and shots instead of written phrases.
Make sure you know some film vocabulary (metalanguage), so that you can apply it in your analysis clearly and with relevance. When talking about a specific technique, use the appropriate term to describe it. This will help make your analysis concise and show a deeper knowledge of the text.
So, when responding to film, what are some of the key areas that need to be addressed?
Symbols and motifs
The films on the VCAA text list for English/EAL all have great motifs and symbols that you can respond to in order to show off what you know about your text and support your interpretation. For example, in Made in Dagenham the hotpants worn by Sandra are a reference to Britain’s changing social landscape in the 1960s, a time of emerging sexual and gender freedoms. The Biba dress that Rita borrows from Lisa and the C&A suit that Barbara Castle wears are symbolic of class and wealth, giving the viewer an insight into the earning capacity of these characters as well as their awareness of the importance of social status at the time.
- Make a list of symbols and motifs that are used in your text; note where they appear and what they represent.
Sound – diegetic and non-diegetic
Diegetic sound is also known as ‘environmental’ sound; it refers to sound that occurs naturally within the scene. Sound that has been added post-production (such as music, sound effects or voice-overs) is referred to as non-diegetic.
Sometimes the absence of non-diegetic sound can be as effective as its inclusion. In Rear Window, for example, in the scene where Thorwald makes his move, we hear lots of diegetic sound (car horns, the telephone ringing, traffic noise) and Hitchcock lets the tension build by not adding anything to that.
- Look for key scenes where sound has been used, and scenes where sound is absent. How does this create tension in the narrative or provide insight into characters or relationships?
Music is always a great element to weave into your response. Look at where refrains of central pieces of music are used at particular points of the narrative, and how they’re used. Are they slower, to indicate a melancholic interpretation of the film’s action? Or upbeat, to indicate that a character has achieved what they were after? In Made in Dagenham, for example, the lyrics of the song accompanying the final scene, ‘You Can Get It If You Really Want’, summarise the women’s determination and success in their fight for equal pay, just as its buoyant tone reflects their feelings of triumph and optimism.
With your film text, look at the playlist, the lyrics that are linked to the text (or specific parts of it) and where a refrain of a key piece of music is used to create a mood or emotional state. If a piece of music begins as diegetic sound in one scene and then becomes part of the soundtrack accompanying the next scene, think about why this sound bridge has been used to connect two ideas or sequences together.
Knowing your shot types and incorporating them into your discussion to explain why they’ve been used at particular points in the film will really add depth to your analysis. Again, don’t just list them. Rather, select a few effective examples to show that you can analyse the ‘why’ factor.
For example, camera distances in Rear Window vary from close-ups (such as that of Jeff’s face covered with perspiration near the start of the film) to long shots (such as that of the courtyard); the camera angle is often straight on, but there are also low-angle shots (looking up) and high-angle shots (looking down). A high-angle shot of Jeff near the film’s climax emphasises his vulnerability as Thorwald’s slow, inexorable footsteps are heard climbing the stairs. Hitchcock is preparing the audience for a confrontation between these two characters, but he allows the tension to build for as long as possible. Thorwald’s steps come to a halt as Jeff moves himself back to the window, ‘hiding’ in the shadows, referencing his voyeuristic interest in the murder.
- Identify some key scenes that you can use to talk about how the director uses specific camera shots. What do these distances and angles add to the audience’s understanding of the characters? How have they been used to create a particular atmosphere or evoke a certain emotion?
It is, of course, essential to consider what the characters say and how they say it. Think about the use of accents to differentiate time, place and class. For example, in Made in Dagenham the female machinists with their East End, working-class accents are initially shown in sharp relief to those in power, who have educated, upper-class accents. But, as the women of the former class gain agency, it’s worth exploring what this says about the social and cultural context of the times. Consider the changing social landscape created by the increasing presence of women in the workforce and the changes in class structure post-World War II, for example. You might also note that, in this text, the women still require men in positions of authority to assist them (both in a positive and negative way): Bob Hoskins’ character Albert, as the women’s supervisor, is essential in pushing Rita to take a stand; Lisa finds her voice when she feels compelled to confront the arrogant teacher Mr Clarke; and union representative Monty’s obsequious behaviour at the TU Conference in Bournemouth serves only to enrage the women, propelling Rita up on stage to address the issue of equal pay as a matter of urgency and importance.
- Know a few good quotes that your characters use, look at how they’re delivered, and examine how they reveal aspects of character, influence relationships or advance the narrative.
Film can be a stimulating type of text to respond to. If you can use the right metalanguage, and select points in the film that illustrate your contentions and analyse them thoroughly, you’re definitely doing what the examiners are after. Keep it fresh and don’t be afraid to put forth your interpretation of the text!
Studying a film text, but don’t know where to start? Insight’s Film Analysis Handbook 2nd edition by Thomas Caldwell covers in depth everything you need to know when analysing film. With excellent strategies and straightforward models for writing about film genres, techniques, narratives, intertextuality and more, Insight’s Film Analysis Handbook 2nd edition is a one-stop reference for film analysis.
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