First Year Film – Term 2 Part 1

This is the first half of the second term from my Introduction to Film class.

You can navigate to any other section here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 4

Week 14 – Film Artists/Auteurs

Films: Vertigo (1958)


Reading: BT p418-23; Hayward terms – auteur; article “Ideas of Authorship” by Buscombe

This week we were introduced to Auteur theory. This is the dominant approach in both formal film critique and informal conversations about movies: it’s the tendency to consider movies as the individual expression of one person, usually the director, and looks at the commonalities between all of their films. We looked at the history of this theory, which has its roots in a circle of French film critics and directors following World War II – hence the use of the French word “Auteur.” We particularly looked at the contributions of Alexander Astruc, François Truffaut, André Bazin, and Americans Andrew Sarris, and Pauline Kael. We talked a length about the advantages of this critical approach as well as the criticism of it. Here’s a summary of classic Auteur theory:

  1. The director is the significant expressive personality in a film
  2. Finds a unity in a body of films by a director’s unity of vision
  3. To discover meaning in one film, you have to look a the filmmakers other work: wholeness
  4. The personality of a director comes to the fore precisely because of the barriers he struggles against (exalting the myth of the “struggling artist,” and the “creative genius”)
  5. Where the director has real control is on the set, so the art of cinema is only the art of style
  6. Economic, political, social and cultural forces that shape the work are not considered
  7. Auteurism is dependent on value judgements: good/bad, superior/inferior
  8. One must see all of the work of a director to appreciate a single work by the director, cross-referencing is crucial. You can’t see one and say anything about the filmmaker, you must be able to compare his works
  9. Auteurism privileges the film text as the source of meaning, the meaning is IN the text waiting for us. Thus, there is no sense of agency for the audience, no sense that we bring something to the film

The reading was a close analysis of North by Northwest, another Alfred Hitchcock film, in order to compare Hitchcock’s techniques and tendencies across several of his films, we also recalled Rear Window from week 6.

Week 15 –

We didn’t have a screening this week because we had a test.

Week 16 – Genre/Political Cinema

Films: Isle of Flowers (1989) and Night of the Living Dead (1968)

isleofflowersposter       nightdeadposter

Reading: BT p108-27; Hayward terms – genre, horror; articles “The Genius of the System” and “Film Genres and the Genre Film” by Schatz and “Night of the Living Dead: It’s Not Just a Wind That’s Passing Through” by Dillard

We began our look at grouping films by genre this week by discussing various definitions of genre. At a basic level, genre study means studying a group of films. This group can be unified by subject, theme, style, plot patterns, or emotion among others, genres are typically thought of as “formulas.” In relation to film form, genres can be considered recurring patterns of:

  • Similarity and repetition
  • Difference and variation
  • Development
  • Unity
  • and Function
  • BUT, across a body of films rather than within an individual film

We also spoke briefly about how genres develop, including roots in the classical Hollywood studio production system, conventionalization, and the role of audience feedback. We also discussed the importance of iconography: symbolic images that carry meaning from film to film.

We then specifically talked about political cinema and the extent to which all films are political because every film and filmmaker are products of their specific cultures and societies. We talked about how all films reproduce ideology, and specifically talked about the satire and parody genres. We screen Isle of Flowers as an example of satire and parody, and Night of the Living Dead as both a horror film, and a comment about American society.

The reading this week covered how to define genres, the history of various genres and the social functions of genres.

Week 17 – Revisionist Genre Films/The Horror Genre

Films: Ginger Snaps (2000)


Reading: none!

This week we continued our discussion of genres in general and took a closer look at the horror genre, we also spoke about revisionist works within a genre (in our case, horror). Reviewing from the Schatz article we read last week, we talked at length about the typical plot structure of genre films:

  1. Establishment (via various narrative and iconographic cues) of the generic community with its inherent dramatic conflicts
  2. Animation of those conflicts through the actions and attitudes of the genre’s constellation of characters
  3. Intensification of the conflict by means of conventional situations and dramatic confrontations until the conflict reaches crisis proportions
  4. Resolution of the crisis in a fashion that eliminates the physical and/or ideological threat and thereby celebrates the (temporarily) well-ordered community

We also talked about the two different types of genres:

  1. Establishment of Order – ex: Western, gangster, mystery/detective
    1. Hero: individual (male dominant)
    2. Setting: contested space (ideologically unstable)
    3. Conflict: externalized (violent)
    4. Resolution: elimination (death)
    5. Thematics:
      1. mediation – redemption
      2. macho code
      3. isolated self-reliance
      4. utopia-as-promise
  2. Integration/Maintenance of Order – ex.musical, screwball comedy, family melodrama
    1. Hero: couple/collective (female dominant)
    2. Setting: civilized space (ideologically stable)
    3. Conflict: internalized (psychological), emotional
    4. Resolution: embrace (love/marriage)
    5. Thematics:
      1. integration – domestication
      2. maternal-familial code
      3. community cooperation
      4. utopia-as-reality

We then turned out attention to ways of revising genres, and specifically revisionist works. Revisionist genre films intentionally play with conventions, are usually self-reflexive, but are still recognizable as part of their genre. They comment on and critique their own genre and typically signal a shift in social norms since the genres inception. We screened the Canadian horror film Ginger Snaps as an example of a revisionist horror/monster movie.

Week 18 – The Historical Avant-Garde

Films: Un chien andalou (1924), Very Nice Very Nice (1961), Mothlight (1963), The vyrotonin decision (1999), Monkey Drummer, Drumb and Drumber, She Puppet (2001); clips from Ghost World (2001), Ballet méchanique (1924), Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), It Wasn’t Love (1992), Alone: Life Wastes Andy Hardy (1998)


Reading: BT p146-62, p474-78; Hayward terms – avant-garde

This week we studied the avant-garde and experimental films. Experimental film was defined as follows: films that experiment with the film medium as a form of artistic expression, the subject matter/content, if there is any, need not be the point of experimentation. By comparison, avant-garde was defined as: a film that not only experiments with film form as a medium, but that challenges the conventions of film content as well. Avant-garde may also refer to artists who according to Hayward “break with tradition” and whose work is “intentionally politicized.” We discussed the 8 very general characteristics of experimental and avant-garde films:

  1. Made by a single artist of small group
  2. Financed by institutional grants, patrons, friends, relatives
  3. Not often shot on 35mm film, they experiment or rely on other film mediums
    1. 16mm or Super-8 format (8mm) is smaller and cheaper than 35mm, offers easy access should the filmmaker wish to paint, write, draw upon, scratch or otherwise mark each frame
    2. the artist may also use “scraps” or “found footage” of other films that they can then manipulate to make an entirely new film
    3. in the case of non-celluloid possibilities, video and digital video experimentations are also used
  4. Many films are deliberately very short, between 1-30 minutes, although some are deliberately long (for example, Andy Warhol’s film Empire is a shot of the Empire State Building in New York City in real-time for 8 hours)
  5. Films are not valued on the basis of commercial success but on the merit of their artistic expression, for example, innovations in the field as perceived by other artists and art critics rather than the general public
  6. Form: such films seldom tell a story, they are often non-narrative, or the narrative is deliberately contrary to our usual sense of what a narrative might look like (Un chien andalou, for example, follows the logic of a dream which bears little resemblance to conventional narrative logic)
  7. These films are often meant to shock or disarm, even sometimes disgust the viewer rather than focusing on entertaining us, they tend to challenge our perception of film and filmmaking as we know it, as well as cultural norms
  8. Screenings of such films do not follow conventions of theatrical distribution and exhibition, instead they tend to be shown in art cinemas, galleries, art centres or film programs in colleges and universities

We also spoke briefly about Dadaism and Surrealism and their relationship to experimental and avant-garde film.

The reading included more discussion of experimental form and history, and a close reading of Ballet méchanique, from which we screened several clips in class. We also read a section about French Impressionism and Surrealism.

Week 19 – Documentary/Observational Cinema

Films: Creature Comforts (1990), Dont Look Back (1967), Lonely Boy (1962); clips from Prelude to War (1943), Triumph of the Will (1935), Touching the Void (2003)

creatureposter    dontlookbackposter    lonelyboyposter

Reading: BT p128-40; Hayward terms – Cinéma-vérité, documentary

I very much enjoyed this week’s class because we screened the documentary Dont Look Back which follows Bob Dylan on his 1965 tour in the UK (and if you don’t know already I LOVE Bob Dylan). We started by taking a brief look at the history of documentary with emphasis on its development in Canada. We reviewed the 6 types of documentary according to Bordwell and Thompson in the reading:

  1. Compilation film: assemblage of images from archival sources
  2. Interview, or talking heads film: records testimony about events or social movements (Creature Comforts)
  3. Direct cinema or observational film: records ongoing events as it happens
  4. Nature documentary: National Geographic, typically
  5. Portrait documentary: A&E Biography series
  6. Synthetic documentary: pursues several of these options in one film

We discussed the different kinds of narration typically seen in documentaries, including:

  • Direct address narration: the narrator, offscreen or onscreen, directs his/her comments to the viewer who is acknowledged either through the narration itself or by the narrator talking directly to the camera
  • Direct address onscreen: the narrator is identified, and he or she directs his/her comments directly to the spectator (eg. Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes; or Michael Moore in Bowling for Columbine)
  • Direct address offscreen: referred to as “voice of God narration”, a voice that is NOT attributed to a body (even if we recognize the voice) – usually a male voice
    • speaks directly to us, tells us what is going on, how to interpret the images
    • excludes spectator from any kind of active participation as a producer of meaning
    • we are presented with a situation that is made sense of by the narrator/filmmaker
  • Indirect narration: typical of fiction film and direct cinema docs, we are presented with images and dialogue, but there is no voice-over, no voice of God giving us additional information or telling us how to interpret what we are seeing and hearing

In reference to Dont Look Back, we then discussed the conventions of 1960s observational documentary:

  1. Open structure: film as “slice of life”
  2. Ambiguity/spontaneity over argument of a particular point of view
  3. Rejection of “pre-scripting” and staging
  4. Images filmed during observation
  5. Rejection of voice-over narration
  6. Filmed subjects speak in the “own voice”, synchronized location sound
  7. “Real time”: long takes, less editing
  8. Preserves “actual space”: deep focus, long shot, zoom lens
  9. Desire to record “authentic”, raw reality
  10. Social politics: show the “ignored reality” of the world

We then compared Dont Look Back, a portrait of Bob Dylan, with a Canadian documentary following singer Paul Anka at the height of his fame in 1962, Lonely Boy. Dont Look Back and Lonely Boy exemplify each of the two types of observational cinema:

  1. “Fly on the wall” (Dont Look Back): filmmaker as “impartial” observer, typically American approach
    1. principle of non-intervention: camera/filmmaker not supposed to affect what it is filming/observing
    2. telephoto or zoom lens to keep distance
    3. indirect address of subjects to camera: the camera “overhears” the subjects
    4. empathetic, non-judgemental attitude: filmmaker has the “trust” of the filmic subjects
    5. affinities with Hollywood fiction film
  2. “Fly in the soup” (Lonely Boy): filmmaker as “in your face” provocateur, typically Canadian approach
    1. acknowledges that process of filming affects subjects
    2. wide angle lens to get “in” action: intimate
    3. filmmaker part of action, asking questions
    4. more direct address by filmmaker and subjects to camera
    5. more reflexive (self-reflexive)

The reading went into great detail about the history, conventions, and politics of documentary in its various forms.

Week 20 – The Rhetorical Documentary

Films: Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (1993)


Reading: BT p140-146; Hayward terms – postcolonial theory; articles “The Truth about Non-Fiction” by Renov, “Alanis Obomsawin, documentary form and the Canadian nation(s)” by Jerry White

This week we continued discussing documentaries by looking at the rhetorical form, where the filmmaker makes an overt and persuasive argument and lays out evidence to support their point of view. We looked at the four basic attributes of rhetorical documentary:

  1. Addresses the viewer directly, trying to move him or her to a new intellectual conviction, a new emotional attitude, or to action
  2. The subject of the film will usually not be an issue of scientific “truth” but a matter of opinion
  3. If the conclusion to the argument cannot be proven beyond question, the filmmaker often appeals to our emotions, rather than presenting just factual evidence
  4. The film will often attempt to persuade the viewer to make a choice that will have an effect on his or her everyday life

We then talked about the three types of argument associated with rhetorical documentaries:

  1. Arguments from the source: the film is presented as a reliable source of information and the filmmakers as reliable, intelligent, etc.
    1. eg. using a narrator with a strong, clear voice, rather than soft and hesitating
  2. Subject-centred arguments
    1. appeals to commonly held beliefs
    2. using examples to support its points
    3. enthymemes: arguments that rely on widespread opinion and usually conceal some crucial premise
  3. Viewer-centred arguments
    1. appeals to the emotions of the viewer (patriotism, emotional sentimentality, etc.)

We also talked about how rhetorical documentary relates to and differs from propaganda – recalling clips from Triumph of the Will that we screened last week. And finally we discussed the questions that are helpful to ask of any essayist or rhetorical film:

  1. To what extent does filming alter reality, or change the behaviour of its subjects?
  2. What responsibility do filmmakers bear for the effect of their actions on the lives of those filmed
    1. corollary: what responsibility do filmmakers bear for the effect of their actions on the lives of those watching?
  3. What responsibility do filmmakers bear to telling the truth versus making a persuasive argument?
  4. What responsibility do filmmakers bear considering how an audience might react to their subject?

We screened a very important, and famous Canadian documentary called Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance by filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin (who visited one of my film classes a few years after this course and was absolutely lovely). The reading this week was specific to the rhetorical documentary form.

Week 21 –

We didn’t have any classes this week as it was reading week.

That’s it for Part 3, you can jump to any other part of this series here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 4

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

About Sinéad Donohoe

A writer from London, Ontario. These are her adventures in writing, movie loving, and general mayhem.