Film analysis: Man with a Movie Camera

ASSIGNMENT: Write a detailed shot-by-shot analysis of a short (about 5-minutes) sequence from Nanook of the North, Man with a Movie Camera, or The River. This type of writing is a basic building block of being able to write about film. I am looking for a very specific approach in this formal analysis. Each paragraph should focus on a shot or two at most. In that paragraph be sure to explain how the shot works to create meaning in the film. For example, if the shot is a long shot rather than a close up—how does this contribute to the message of the film? Be sure to cover three aspects of each shot: the visual elements, the textual/verbal elements, and music/sound. This paper should be about 4 pages, double-spaced, 12-point font, with 1-inch margins.  DUE: Monday 26 October.


Nanook of the North:

Man with a Movie Camera:

The River:




Before going on to conduct a critical analysis of the ideas, themes, issues, or social context of any film you have to be able to analyze the documentary as film.  This assignment asks you to focus on the form, style, and techniques of film making in order to better understand the content and meaning of the film.  As you watch the first three films we are viewing, pay attention to the visual elements of a particular sequence (a clear though perhaps arbitrary section of the film made up of a series of scenes which are themselves made up of a series of shots). In this assignment, analyze or “read” that sequence for what David Bordwell and others call its “poetics.” In this usage, “poetics” has little to do with what you might think of as poetry. The term goes back to Aristotle who developed a way of explaining how classical Greek tragedy did what it did–have an emotional effect on the spectator.  A couple of millennia later, Russian literary critics applied this “poetics” to literature, and shortly after that to film.  The poetics of film refers to how the film is made and how it “works.”  Pay attention to details!


Sequence: A sequence refers to a series or sequence of scenes in a film, and each scene is made up of individual shots. Sometimes, shot, scene, and sequence are one-and-the-same when you have a long single continuous shot.  There are famous examples of this, such as the first few minutes of the film noir movie, Touch of Evil, in which a camera on a dolly with a crane follows the characters through the streets of Tijuana, Mexico all the way to the city’s border with San Diego, CA.  The shot lasts for almost four full minutes and concludes dramatically.  But usually, even for sequences shorter than a few minutes, you have a number of shots, and maybe a few self-contained scenes.  Where one sequence ends and another begins is somewhat arbitrary. However, if you watch a film carefully, looking for its narrative or rhetorical pauses, you will see how it is similar to other kinds of “language.” In fact, some film scholars have, since early on in the development of the technology, talked about film language or the grammar of film.  This doesn’t mean we’re dealing with words, sentences, and paragraphs. However, we are dealing with units of film that have a similar relationship to each other in terms of scale and meaning as those terms do for written language.


Diegetic vs. Nondiegetic Space: The diegetic aspects of the film are those that occur within the action or story-world of the film. Nondiegetic aspects happen outside the story-world of the film. The best way to understand diegetic vs. nondiegetic aspects of film is to consider things like music or narration vs. dialogue.  For example, in the recent romantic comedy Yesterday, the protagonist often plays music and sings. This is diegetic music because it is part of the story-world of the film: one of the characters performs the music. But in other scenes, we hear music play to set the mood of the action—no one is playing it on screen. This is nondiegetic music: it happens outside the story-world of the film.  We hear it, the characters don’t. Similarly, almost all voiceover narration is non-diegetic: even though it might tell the story of the film, it is outside the story-world the characters inhabit. The subjects in the film don’t hear the voice. By contrast, dialogue is always (with rare exceptions) diegetic: it occurs within the story world of the film.  For documentary film, this difference is more complicated.  In Michael Moore’s films, sometimes we hear his voice non-diegetically, as a disembodied speaker outside the visual action of the film. But at other times, he appears on screen and talks to other subjects, and occasionally to the camera.  The usual ways in which documentaries have nondiegetic content is through voice-over narration and music, though other possibilities exist.  For example, subtitles or captions are non-diegetic.



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