Skill Taught: Moving past summary in film analysis
My English 9s are working on an essay on the theme of a Pixar short film of their choosing as an entry point into the world of analytical, academic writing. The films are brief, easily accessible, and yet full of moments to pull apart and scrutinize. Plus, it’s a nice fun break in our spring countdown to the end of the year.
We covered thesis statements, structuring body paragraphs, finding copious evidence, explaining that evidence, writing introductions and conclusions. And still when I conferenced on their drafts I noticed the age old problem we all encounter when teaching this kind of writing: plot summary.
While I didn’t want to delve into the language of film criticism and camera angles, students needed help knowing what they could talk about in a film beyond the simple plot. Sure, they could identify a theme, but what should their evidence look like?
How I Used It:
I gave a brief mini-lesson on close reading a film. Students took notes on how the close reading they have done this year in printed text (based on the work of Christ Lehman and Kate Roberts in Falling in Love with Close Reading, which I cannot recommend highly enough!) translates to the close reading that we can do on a screen.
Clearly, this is not an exhaustive list, but it gave my students a few concrete places to go in their interpretation that moved them past plot.
We then looked at Linda Holmes’ analysis of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). I love so much about this article: it’s truly analysis more than it is review, it spends much of its time focused on the film qualities of the story (particularly images), it takes something seemingly silly and reveals its potential for depth.
In short, this is EXACTLY what I want my students to do!
Students took to color-marking — looking for summary of the film’s action/plot versus analysis of film technique. The students made a number of interesting insights they could take right into their own writing:
- “There is only one paragraph made up of one long sentence that is pure summary of the plot. It must not be that important.”
- “The writer uses what she sees on screen to think about the theme of the movie.”
- “This is mostly about what the movie is about, not what happens during the movie.”
- “The writer helps us understand by making comparisons to other movies.”
- “If we were writing about a movie with actors in it, we should list their names in parentheses beside the character they play.”
Before students moved back into their drafts, they broke into groups according to the short film about which they were writing and watched again — this time for deeper, close reading of film elements. Armed with new evidence and a better sense of direction, they began revising.