My name is Eli Sands, class of 2018. On Saturday evening, while on a break from working on a senior thesis film, I read the Argus piece titled “Technically, I Don’t Care: The Merits of Informal Film Analysis”. The thesis of the article is “I don’t think that lacking technical knowledge of filmmaking makes me less qualified to assess a film.” I object to this stance as anti-intellectual. The article wanders on to several other points that, though they are not necessarily organized under the supposed focus of the article, I will address for their fallacious nature.

Firstly, I reject the notion that having no technical or theoretical knowledge of film makes someone equally qualified to “assess” movies as someone who has studied and practiced filmmaking (I will later propose an alternative to the broad term “assess”). There is no reason to say that someone with less experience in a field is more apt in that field than someone with experience; that is inherently erroneous. I am not more qualified than a painter to comment on a painting. Or, outside of art, I am not as qualified to discuss genetics as a geneticist. Why is film any different?

Ah, but then the point is raised that “every viewer sees a film with a different perspective.” How, then, to “assess” films? I propose a method of breaking down film assessment into four categories, on both objective and subjective scales, that takes into account the factors the author includes in the hazily defined “formal” and “informal” analyses:

• Describe: Consider the formal elements and surface transcript of the movie, its narrative story and structure.

• Analyze: Consider how formal qualities of the movie work and why they are employed, both for the intentions of the movie and effect on the audience.

• Interpret: Find meaning in the context surrounding the film (culture, time period, film history).

• Evaluate: Assess for value, objective or subjective.

The author is mostly concerned with subjective evaluation. To be so narrowly focused ignores vast swaths of film analysis that may get more to the core of what makes a movie have its worth. Film can be discussed on an objective level, on its cinematic technique, cultural or historical significance, that provide a sounder scale of assessment than subjective evaluation. This is not to say that subjective evaluation is wrong; it’s not. But it’s not all there is to examining movies. Considering the formal qualities and theory behind their employment can yield more fruitful evaluation. Beyond that, I’m not sure how to address the categorization of “formal” versus “informal” analysis, as it isn’t elaborated on much or brought up again later in the article.

I must clarify a misinterpretation the author makes concerning how film functions. The author states that “I’m not thinking about the technical backend of it all; instead, I’m entirely focused on character arcs and plotlines.” I object to this on the grounds that in film (and every other medium of art) at its best, form fits function. That is to say, the technical backend works together with the character arcs, plotlines, and other elements to create the story. Even before we get to that concept, the author fails to identify technical elements in the example of The Lobster—in making the point that a film fails when technique rises above story, the author identifies the narrative path of leaving the hotel as a shortcoming. Anyhow—to illustrate how film form shapes its substance, consider two scenes with the same dialogue and acting, a man saying hello to a woman and walking away. One has soft lighting and focus, swelling orchestral music, and is shot in close-ups that get tighter: that style of typical Hollywood glamour connotes that this story is about love at first sight. The second scene has dark and moody lighting, is edited in choppy, short takes and canted angles: that edgy style says that this could be a tale of revenge or animosity. With those examples from classic Hollywood cinematic language, the form clearly affects more about the story than the author acknowledges or even realizes.

In conclusion, the position of the article as it stands is anti-intellectual, close-minded and simply wrong about film. It encourages speaking on topics without proper knowledge, a stance that is antithetical to that of our university and inadvisable anywhere else. If you “love watching, absorbing, interpreting, predicting, and being surprised” by movies as you profess, then you should ask the questions “Why? What techniques do movies use to make me feel this way, in both substance and structure; how do those techniques function within the film; why did the filmmaker choose to make me feel this way?” Subjective evaluation is only one level. If you love an art form or academic study as you say you do, you want to break it down to its molecular level to know how it works and be able to discuss it to the best of your ability. This isn’t just for those who want to work in the field in question; it’s for everyone (there’s no shortage of free online content that can provide a basic understanding of film for any level of movie conversation). Anyone who loves movies should want to learn about them; how their forms fit their functions, what cinematic languages filmmakers use to communicate emotions and ideas. To pretend that the “camera angles, shot composition, color scheme, or soundtrack” which you list aren’t as important in film as more popularly recognized elements like acting or narrative arc is to ignore how film works and what makes it a unique art form. In the end, though the article may be scattered, its message boils down to “if I’m unaware of the nuances that make film, then I don’t need to acknowledge them.” That stance is against intellectual pursuit, cinematic literacy, and the simple notions of frank curiosity and good taste.

  • johnwesley

    The two of you raise some interesting points. I certainly don’t think that as a spec script writer it’s my responsibility to tell the director how to score the movie or where to place the camera for every scene. Before you can get a shooting script someone has to sit down and choose a few simple words that will convey what the scene is about. More often than not it is the filmmaker hirself, but, that doesn’t obviate the need to think non-technically as a first step. In essence, both of you are creating false dichotomies in that there’s no need to disparage technical virtuosity in the name of narrative clarity or character arcs. It depends on whether we are analysing “Last Year At Marienbad” or “A Wonderful Life”.