Self-Review Essay


I have always found the evolution of movies fascinating to study because, by understanding not only their plot but also the context of the time period they were released in, they become a sort of moving time capsule from which a viewer can gather some sense of daily life and the worldview of the era. This course gave me the opportunity to delve into not just film history, but also into more technical aspects of both film and the industry which I did not know existed, such as film form and the influence of the auteur. My study of both the socio-historical influence on films and the formalist approach to analyzing their meaning and purpose allowed me to effectively use various mediums to formulate arguments about certain films, and specifically strengthened my ability to support and communicate these arguments nonverbally. The formalist analysis essay tested my grasp on elements of film form and gave me a chance to form a convincing written argument using only evidence from film style. The film poster challenged me to design a visually striking, persuasive work that could stand on its own and communicate my argument before I even gave the accompanying oral presentation. Finally, the film trailer was an opportunity for me to completely alter the characteristics and storyline of an already existing film and display these changes through a reimagined and well-edited trailer.

Our focus at the beginning of the course was familiarizing ourselves with the formalist framework for analysis of films. Elements of narrative combined with elements of cinematic style is the foundation for a formalist analysis, which disregards outside influences and uses evidence based on the interaction between elements to formulate a thesis. My written artifact, a formalist essay on the 1955 film Rebel Without A Cause, made the argument that the film conveyed a sense of frustration and a solemn mood to its audience, and used evidence based on cinematic style to support this. It was exciting to put to use the terms we had studied to break down a film of my choosing, but it was difficult for me to select which scenes and sequences to focus on in the essay. I decided on a chronological organization, giving a play-by-play of the scenes I chose with my analysis as the commentary. Additionally, I included screenshots where I believed a visual aid would help clarify my description and strengthen the quality of my evidence. During peer review, I received feedback from my partner that my organization worked out smoothly but the essay was lengthy; however, the chronological order helped it to still flow smoothly, and both of us had difficulty identifying potential areas to make cuts. In the end, I made very few changes to the body of the writing, and instead rewrote my thesis to make my argument more clear. I realized afterwards that a better approach, which would have both cut my essay length and improved my argument, was to shorten the scenes I chose and dig out all the details related to cinematic style I could in every frame. In my desire to include as much analyses as possible on five- to ten-minute scenes, I ignored many smaller details in sequences only a few seconds to half a minute long. Overall, the formalist essay strengthened my organizational ability, and I learned that it is sometimes much more efficient to completely wring out the details from a few seconds’ worth of film than it is to try to throw in as much information as possible. It helped me recognize this flaw I had in making a well-supported nonverbal argument, improving my ability to communicate and persuade through a writing medium.

Using a visual to communicate nonverbally is definitely more challenging than using a written medium; a viewer needs to be able to draw information just by looking at the layout, colors, and graphics of the work instead of simply reading what the author’s mind is thinking. For the film poster component of my second artifact, I worked with a partner to craft something that could stand out visually and still convey our argument through our graphics and design. We expanded to include cultural analysis after formalism, taking into account socio-historical and industrial context, and studied films of the Hollywood Renaissance era that began in the mid-1960s and died out in the mid-1970s. From a list of Renaissance films, my partner and I selected a Mafia-based character study from 1973, Mean Streets. The protagonist, Charlie, is torn between his Catholicism and the Mafia, and the film explores his trying to be both saint and sinner and the consequences that arise from his contradictory life. My partner and I decided to make this primary conflict the message we were going to convey in our poster, and set about looking for inspiration for our layout from the film. Our first idea was a birds-eye view of the last scene in the film, which contains a major symbol in the film: hands; Charlie burns his on candle flames as a means of penance. We devised a title that resembled crosswalk lines, spelling out “streets” using a crucifix and a pistol with ammunition. The overall design looked too choppy and cluttered when we put it together, and consequently we scrapped the idea, opting instead for a simple design with one main graphic (a cross made from guns) that would represent the conflict and our message. Our final design, made using GIMP, Adobe Illustrator, and Inkscape, only features this one graphic symbol with the intention that it would make our visual communication very direct. We actually asked other students for feedback on earlier drafts, and many of them said our red lighting (another prominent symbol representing wrongdoing and sin) was too strong and drew too much attention to the unimportant top and edges of the poster; others said the excess light brought viewers’ eyes to the bottom of the poster instead, where the title and credits were. These opinions helped us improve our design in a way that made our communication less distracting; we altered the positioning of the light so its appearance was not as harsh. Unfortunately, the light still caused the cross of guns to blend in too much with the background, the exact opposite of what we wanted to achieve; this is something we would have worked on fixing with more time. However, our process in designing and continuously revising the poster gave me plenty of insight into the importance of seemingly simple concepts, like color intensity and graphics size, and their underestimated contribution to how a viewer will interpret the overall visual. I learned how to manipulate these concepts to create a product that nonverbally communicated the desired ideas to viewers.

At the end of the course, we examined films from the New Hollywood era (emerging in the 1980s and extending into the present), using a combination of formalist and cultural analyses as well as the concept of three tiers of film. The tiers are high-budget action-filled blockbusters, moderately priced star vehicles from major studios developing talent, and unorthodox cheaper independent films. Our final project, the film trailer, combined everything we learned about analyses as well as the tier system. It challenged us to transform an existing film to a different tier and to use a video medium, a revised trailer, to communicate these changes to our audience. My group of three chose to convert the 1990 film Goodfellas, a moderately priced star vehicle, into an independent film. We began by altering the focus of the plot so protagonist Henry Hill’s Mafia activities are merely a side job, with his primary conflict becoming his relationship with his family and his marital woes. The change was made in order to fit the independent film characteristic of a plot concerned with the interiority of a character. The scenes we chose to include were showed either Henry’s life and appearance slowly declining or Henry arguing with his wife over his activities; we wanted only these scenes so viewers would not be distracted by vagueness about the storyline. In other words, we wanted the trailer to be focused solely on our revised plot so our argument that Goodfellas was now an independent film was communicated clearly and directly. With the storyline established, we chose background music that highlighted scenes where Henry’s wife, Karen, was especially upset; this was to support our plot and evoke a sense of intrigue and curiosity in our audience. We also used a credits sequence from another alternate trailer that was visually more unusual and artsy in order to emphasize this specific independent film characteristic. Essentially, once we had decided on our altered plot, the rest of our creative decisions were made to prominently display independent film characteristics so that our argument was straightforward and supported with an abundance of evidence. This strategy worked very well since we knew what to look for and where to edit it in the trailer, and I was able to apply the lessons I learned from the film poster project (manipulation of components of the product, such as sound and colors) to a video medium.

Through the processes of creating my artifacts, I have undoubtedly improved my ability to communicate nonverbally through different mediums. My written artifact proved to me that, in regard to length of analysis, less is more. A detailed breakdown of something small can produce more than enough evidence to sufficiently support a nonverbal written thesis. From the creative and revision processes that went into finalizing the visual component of my second artifact, I learned that even the most basic aspects of a poster will end up influencing what message a viewer will get. Something as simple as too much red light can overshadow the intended argument and draw viewers’ eyes to an insignificant area of the visual, completely negating the persuasive effect of it and miscommunicating the purpose. Putting together an entire film trailer strengthened my takeaways from the film poster experience and allowed me to put these new lessons to work in a new medium. Additionally, I have had the opportunity in this course to practice nonverbal communication skills through the study of film history, a subject I have always enjoyed, and I have further developed and honed them by creating my artifacts and learning from their respective creative processes. The course has been a significant help to me in growing and reinforcing my ability to communicate effectively through different mediums, and has enabled me to discover successful strategies for formulating an effective argument through written, visual, and electronic means. I have only just begun to utilize these strategies in actual assignments, and they will certainly be put to good use not just in academic work but also in the professional world.

Screenshot in Formalist Analysis

A visual of a scene I analyzed in Artifact 1. Part of protagonist Jim's internal conflict is feeling disconnected with his parents, and analysis of this screenshot helps strengthen this interpretation.

Drafting Graphics for the Film Poster


Scene Selection Process for Film Trailer