Film Criticism Lecture

Film Criticism
Film Assignment Overview
• Your assignment is to critically analyze the
class film, using either the semiotic or
structuralist method of film criticism.
• It is very important that you NOT write a
movie review.
– You are to assume that your readers have already
seen and are very familiar with the film.
– Therefore, do not include any plot synopsis or
character and scene descriptions in your paper.
Critical Analysis
• Your job is to conduct a critical analysis of the
class film.
• In everyday usage, when the words “critical” or
“to criticize” are used, it implies that something is
being evaluated in a negative manner.
• However, when “criticism” is used in an academic
sense, as we’ve been doing throughout the
semester, remember that it means to analyze
something in depth, using higher-level critical
thinking. It does NOT necessarily imply a
negative point-of-view on the subject at hand.
Film Review versus Film Analysis
• We are NOT writing a film review for this
– The goal or purpose of a film review is to help
readers decide whether they want to see a movie.
Therefore, film reviews provide the following
things for the reader:
A plot synopsis—what happens in the movie
A discussion of the movie’s target audience
A list of which stars appear in the movie
An evaluation—an overall thumbs-up or thumbs-down
Film Review versus Film Analysis
• Instead, we ARE writing an academic film analysis for
this paper.
– A film analysis differs from a movie review in that it
No plot synopsis
No discussion of the target audience
No focus on the movie stars
No personal evaluation of the movie
– Film Analysis focuses on the film as a “rhetorical artifact,”
which is an academic term that means that the film is
assumed to have meanings and messages beyond its
surface appearance and entertainment components.
Types of Film Criticism
• There are 3 types of film criticism:
– 1. Contextual Criticism
• This is not one of our two options, but I’ll mention it briefly, just so
if you run into the term again, in another class, for instance, you’re
familiar with it.
– One type of Contextual Criticism is a Genre Study. This type looks at
multiple films from a particular genre, such as Westerns, Romantic
Comedies, Action-Adventures, Dramas, etc., and defines the elements of
that genre, as well as talks about the movies in terms of how they meet
and differ from the expectations of that genre.
– Another type of Contextual Criticism is an Auteur Study. An auteur study
looks at multiple films by the same director, and analyzes the director’s
style over the course of his or her body of work.
• Obviously, we don’t have the time available to do either of these,
as they would require watching multiple films.
Types of Film Criticism
• 2. Semiotic Criticism
– This IS one of your two options for the Movies Paper.
– This type of criticism analyzes the symbolism and meaning
of some aspect of the film.
– If you choose this option, you’ll select one element and
analyze its symbolic use throughout the film.
– You’ve already conducted this type of analysis if
• you’ve ever taken a literature class that looks at the symbolism in a
novel or a poem
• you’ve taken an art appreciation course that looks at what the
various images and colors on a canvas mean
• you’ve ever tried to discern the meaning of various images in your
Types of Film Criticism
• 3. Structural Criticism
– This IS one of your two options for the Movies
• If you’re not into analyzing symbolism in things like
texts or art or dreams, you may prefer to do a
structuralist study of the film.
• Sructural criticism looks at things like the inner
workings of characters and their relationships. It can
also use major theories in various academic fields of
study to analyze what’s going on in films, such as
psychology, sociology, political science, economics, or
Types of Film Criticism
• Now that you have an overview of our
assignment and the two types of film criticism
that you’ll be choosing between for the
writing of our Movies Paper, let’s look at some
concrete examples of how you might employ
semiotic and structural criticism in the analysis
of our class film.
Semiotic Criticism
Films are full of things that you can analyze semiotically, looking for ways that these things could be
symbolic or representative of more than their surface suggests. Here are some concrete ideas:
Colors can tell us a lot about the importance and meaning of things like characters, places,
and scenes.
For instance, the color red may mean passion, love, anger, blood, or war, depending on the
Blue could represent sadness or depression, or it could mean calm and trustworthiness.
If you chose to analyze the colors in a film, you may look at the colors of costumes, props,
and settings.
For example, in the film The Wizard of Oz, one could analyze color in the following ways:
What does the black-and-white of Kansas mean and symbolize?
Life in Kansas is drab, boring, the same every day
What does the Technicolor of the Land of Oz represent?
Life in Oz is exciting and unpredictable
The green of The Emerald City represents money—the wealth of the society
The sunny color of the Yellow Brick Road signals optimism, new opportunities,
and happiness
Semiotic Criticism
– What do the colors of the characters’ costumes mean?
Dorothy wears a blue-and white pinafore, and red shoes: red, white, and blue, the
colors of the United States of America. She represents the all-American child. She
fantasizes that her boring aunt and uncle aren’t her real family, and wants to run
away to find people that really understand her. She is brave and adventurous, just
like Americans are supposed to be.
Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, wears a frothy, pale pink gown, which is the
color of femininity, and shows that she is kind and motherly.
The Wicked Witch of the West wears black, which is symbolic of evil. She casts spells
on people and covets their belongings. She is feared. Her green skin could represent
sickness or envy—the green-eyed monster of jealousy.
Another area of Semiotic study is the various settings in a film.
Where the director chooses to set the scenes of the film are significant:
Is the film set in an urban, suburban, or a rural area? All have different symbolic meanings
and associations.
The country or city in which a film takes place is important. Take into account the history,
the politics, and the associations one has with the place when analyzing it (You’ll remember
that, during our Advertising Unit, we talked about how different it would be to set a
diamond engagement ring commercial in three disparate cities: Paris, Tokyo, or New York
City, and what each place would mean to the viewers.).
Semiotic Criticism
On a smaller scale, you can analyze the specific houses or apartments or rooms of the
characters. In this case, look for symbolic clues in the décor, the props, the placement
of things.
Other locations are also significant—for instance, think of the different meanings in
the locations of meetings or conversations taking place in
• Cars (transient, private, both safe and dangerous)
• Parks
• Homes
• Boardrooms (warm woods or cold glass and steel?)
• Hotels (a Hilton vs. a Motel 6)
• Restaurants (fine dining vs. McDonald’s)
• Lighting can be an important indicator, telling us more about people or things than what’s
immediately evident on the surface.
– It means one thing if a character’s face is brightly lit (maybe they’re open and honest, or
happy), versus if a character’s face is partially or totally in shadow (perhaps they’re
conflicted, evil, depressed, or unimportant).
– The angle and source of light can also be analyzed: light beaming from behind the crown
of a character’s head might look like a halo; light from beneath a person’s chin might look
– Examine how the scenes are lit: are they full of sunshine, or artificial light? Is everything
easy to see, or are lots of things concealed in darkness?
Semiotic Criticism
– Music can be analyzed symbolically: the lyrics of the
soundtrack may be meaningful, or the beat, rhythm, tone,
or style of the instrumentation may be significant. Is the
film’s music obvious, drawing attention to each song, or is
it so subtle that viewers barely notice it’s there? Different
meanings are evoked by different choices.
– Costumes and Props: What characters wear or carry or use
can be very important, and shed light on their symbolic
meaning in terms of the film.
• A man dressed in a suit and tie has a very different symbolic
meaning than a man dressed in a T-shirt and jeans.
• Think about how a woman’s skirt length or neckline plunge reveals
things about her character.
Semiotic Criticism
• Props that a character uses or carries or keeps in their home, car, or office can tell us a lot
about that character, as well as his or her position, power, relationships, etc.
– One example of meaningful props are Phallic Objects.
» You’ll remember from psychology that a phallus is not LITERALLY male genitalia,
but rather, representative of male genitalia, in the way that being male has
signaled having power throughout history of Western Civilization.
» Phalluses and phallic objects are often, but not always, penile-shaped, and
represent that traditional male power.
» Some concrete examples include
• Guns—imagine a scenario in which two people are of equal height and
build, but only one of those people has a gun. The gun—the phallus—
automatically renders that person more powerful.
• Similarly, if a scene depicts a huge man and a tiny woman, their power
imbalance can be mitigated by the presence of a gun: if the tiny
woman possesses one—a phallus—she suddenly can be on equal
footing with the huge man.
• Remote controls are a common phallic object, for they render power to
whoever holds them: power to choose which channel is viewed, how long
each channel is displayed, how quickly they’re scrolled through, and how
loudly they’re listened to. People have power struggles over who gets
control of the remote.
Semiotic Criticism
• Cars are only vaguely phallus-shaped, but they definitely represent the
power and prestige usually associated with men in our culture. Their
names are often very suggestively phallic: Ram, Cobra, Charger, Probe,
Viper, Dart, Talon, Mustang, and Lancer. The guy with the bigger
fancier, or more expensive car is “better”—more powerful—than the
guy driving a beater.
– The editing of a film can also be symbolic. Editing refers to how film images are cut and where
they’re placed: what comes before or after? How quickly do the images flash before the
viewer’s eyes?
• One style of editing that could be analyzed is called montage
– Montage is the fancy, academic, film-studies name for a sequence of images that is
edited together and shown in rapid succession, like MTV-music-video-style editing.
The speed and juxtaposition of these images can be symbolic and important.
» If a film shows a person alone, thinking, viewers may not know what the
person is thinking about. But if the film shows that same person, and then
cuts to an image of another character, viewers may realize that Character A is
thinking of Character B.
• If, when Character A thinks of Character B, the lighting is all soft, fuzzy,
diffused, and golden, it may symbolize feelings of tenderness and love.
• But, if after Character A pictures Character B, the next image in the
montage is a knife, that may suggest that Character A has ill will or
intentions toward Character B.
Semiotic Criticism
» The speed of the montage is also important: rapid cuts can signal excitement or
confusion; slow cuts can equate to relaxation or dreamy states.
• Mise-en-scène refers to analyzing still, freeze-frame images or scenes from a film, as if you hit
“pause” and very minutely examined the items and their placement onscreen. Lots of
symbolism can be culled from such careful analysis. Entire academic film studies papers have
been written about a single significant freeze-frame image in a film.
Names often signal something about the characters themselves, or the relationships between
• For instance, there was a character in the television show Cheers named Sam Malone. If one
plays with his name, taking into account how the final “m” in Sam meshes with the initial “m”
in Malone when one is speaking, the result is “Sam Alone,” and this character was perpetually
single, perpetually alone and looking for love.
• Another famous character is Mrs. Robinson from The Graduate. She is a 40-something woman
who has an affair with the 21-year-old son of her best friends. Knowing this, one sees that
“Robinson” may be fidgeted with to produce “Robbing son”—she is robbing the cradle, stealing
the son of her dear friends.
– Mrs. Robinson’s lover, Ben, actually calls her “Mrs. Robinson” throughout the film,
showing the lack of intimacy between them
• You might also consult baby name books to discover the origins and meanings of names, and
determine whether the characters in the film you’re analyzing possess symbolic names.
Semiotic Criticism
– Camera Techniques can also reveal symbolic meanings.
• For instance, if a character is shot from way down below, they appear bigger,
stronger, more forceful and imposing, because we’re looking up at that character
from a child’s perspective.\
• On the other hand, in film language, shooting a character from above, from a
God’s-eye view, signals viewers that something bad is coming up for that person,
because they look small and insignificant and vulnerable from the camera’s allknowing vantage point.
• Hand-held shots can signal chaos and confusion, or lackadaisical, laid-back freedom
from convention.
• Long takes—camera shots that last for an extended period of time----can lend a
languid, slow tone to a scene or film, whereas short, quick cuts add a sense of
urgency, or even fear.
Summary of Semiotic Criticism
– So, if you choose to do a semiotic study of our class film, you’ll be choosing one of these
categories—or something similar—and analyzing it throughout the film.
Structural Criticism
Films depict intricate character studies and relationships, and they are often
guided by particular philosophies.
Here are some examples of what you’d analyze in a structural criticism of our
– Mythic approach
• To analyze the mythical influence upon a film requires that one have
an in-depth knowledge of some branch of mythology; for example,
Greek mythology, Roman mythology, Christian mythology, Native
American mythology, or Nordic mythology.
• The writer then takes a myth—a story or a character from that branch
of mythology—and applies it to the film.
– For instance, Christian mythology occurs frequently in popular
culture. Many times protagonists are imbued with Christ or
savior-like qualities.
Structural Criticism
» In The Matrix, critics have pointed out that Neo is a very Christ-like
figure, and that the Christian trilogy can be seen throughout the
» In Edward Scissorhands, Edward also mirrors Jesus, in that he’s
fabricated by a “Creator” who lives separately from the rest of
society. Edward has other-worldly capabilities, and he “comes down
to earth” from his hilltop mansion, just as Jesus comes down from
heaven, to help humanity. Both men are often outcast from their
new society and ridiculed and misunderstood, even though they’re
both very good and pure at heart.
– Movies like Star Wars and The Wizard of Oz also lend themselves quite
nicely to a mythological study. Oftentimes myths are “Quest” stories,
wherein a young, inexperienced lead character (Luke Skywalker or
Dorothy Gail) sets off on a personal journey, encounters both obstacles
(Darth Vader or The Wicked Witch of the West, The Wizard) and sage
advisors (Yoda or Glinda, the Good Witch), and ends up learning valuable
life lessons about what really matters. These characters also tend to
increase their self-esteem and self-reliance as they’re challenged.
Structural Criticism
• Mythological studies are great if you’re already familiar with a
particular mythological branch or story or characters. If not, there
simply isn’t enough time for you to research mythology AND write
your paper.
– Political approach
• In this type of analysis, the writer examines the film’s relationship
to history, politics and ideology, economics, or social criticism.
• For example, perhaps a critic sees that the storyline of a film
seems to mimic the tenets of capitalism or communism.
• Maybe a particular film heralds the ideologies of rightwing or
leftwing political theories.
• Some famous political studies of The Wizard of Oz have been
conducted, wherein The Emerald City represents a capitalist, freemarket society, and The Yellow Brick Road is actually the Golden
road to riches—to the city that is green, the color of money itself.
Structural Criticism
– Feminist approach
• A Feminist approach analyzes the film’s treatment of
• It looks at how the women’s roles and characters in the film
support or negate the role of women in contemporary
• A feminist study might argue that women characters are
always victims, or temptresses, or mothers.
• Maybe a film portrays women as powerful, decisive, and
equal to men.
• Maybe a particular film has few or no women’s roles at all,
and even this lack makes a significant comment upon
gender, what it means to be a woman, the importance of
women in contemporary society, and so on.
Structural Criticism
– For example, The Wizard of Oz as a book was originally published
in 1900, at a time when women largely did not work outside the
home, could not legally vote, and had unequal rights.
– However, in both the 1900 novel, and the 1939 movie, women
are portrayed as
» Powerful—the Wicked Witch, Glinda
» Dominant—Aunt Em
» In control—Dorothy, Aunt Em, the Witches
– In contrast, men in The Wizard of Oz are shown to be
» Subservient—Uncle Henry
» Fakes—The Wizard
» Followers—Tin Man, Scarecrow, and Lion
– So, The Wizard of Oz ends up sending very powerful messages
about women, and is a great film to do a feminist study of.
Structural Criticism
– Psychoanalytic approach
• For this type, the critic is analyzing the psychology of an
individual—his or her character.
– What does this character really want?
– What motivates him or her?
– What scares or intimidates or energizes this character?
– What life situations have shaped who they are today?
– What incidents or forces from their lives are making them
behave in a positive or destructive way?
– Why is this person the way he or she is?
• You can use your own knowledge, insight, and experience to
conduct an analysis like this.
• You can also apply the established theories of psychologists to a
character analysis.
Structural Criticism
– For example, if you’re familiar with the theories of Sigmund
Freud, you could use them to show how a character is caught
in the anal, urethral, or phallic stage of development.
» Maybe a character is playing out Freud’s notion of an
Oedipal complex in his or her relationships.
– Maybe, instead of Freud, you like the theories of a
psychologist like Abraham Maslow, and his major contribution
to psychology, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
» In this case, you would use Maslow’s self-actualization
» You could discuss what stage of the pyramid a character
begins at, and how high that person ascends—do they
reach self-actualization, or not? And why or why not?
Structural Criticism
– Sociological approach
• This is similar to the psychological approach, but instead of
analyzing the psychology of the individual, as you know,
sociology examines the dynamic of groups.
• Here, you might analyze Mob Mentality in a film; that is,
how people behave differently when part of a large group,
as opposed to how they’d behave as a lone individual.
• Or look at how other groups act, react, and interact:
The men in the film.
The African Americans in the film.
The gay people in the film.
The immigrants in the film.
Structural Criticism
• A Sociological study can also look at relationships between or
among people:
Mothers and Daughters or Mothers and Sons
Fathers and Daughters or Fathers and Sons
Adult Children and their Parents
• Just as in psychological criticism, you can either use your own
insight, knowledge and experience to talk about relationships or
group dynamics, or you can apply professionally established
sociological theories to examine what’s going on between or
among people or groups in the film.
Structural Criticism
• Summary of Structural Criticism
– If you would rather examine the people and their
actions and relationships in the film, or the
ideologies or structures of the film, choose to
conduct a Structural study.

similar documents