English 345/Comparative Literature 357
FILM STUDY QUESTIONS
Buster Keaton, 1924.
With Buster Keaton (the hero), Kathryn McGuire (the girl), Ward Crane (the
- How is this a film about the experience of film-viewing? What differentiates
the film-within-the-film (Buster's dream) from the surrounding plot? What
do the movements between film space and the space of 'real life' tell us about
the nature of cinema?
- What kind of fantasy of the self is involved in the projection into film
space? How does the Buster of the film-within-the-film differ from the Buster
in the framing narrative? Why is he a detective in his fantasy, and how actually
effective are his detective skills?
- Why and how is Buster Keaton funny? How does he set up his gags and jokes?
What mechanisms are involved? What uses of time and space? What does he do
with his body (since most of this is quite definitely physical comedy)? What
about his facial expressions (or lack thereof?)
- Remember that this is a silent film. How are action, humor, ideas, and emotion
communicated without the use of words?
FROM OUTER SPACE
Edward D. Wood, Jr., 1959.
With Tor Johnson (Inspector Clay), Vampira (Vampire Girl), Tom Keene (Col.
Edwards), Gregory Walcott (Jeff Trent), Mona MacKinnon (Paula Trent), Bela Lugosi
(The Old Man).
- This film has often been called the "worst" of all time. What
is it about its badness that is noteworthy? Why is it so often (unintentionally)
funny? After all, most bad works of art are simply boring and stupid. What
about this film has allowed it to become a cult classic, instead of merely
- Try to pay attention to how the film is put together. What techniques does
Wood use (or abuse? or misuse?) to create his vision? What is wrong with the
film, from a point of view of effective communication and good craftsmanship?
What ‘mistakes' does Wood make? Is it the script? The acting? The scenery?
Does it have to do, not just with particular parts of the film that are badly
or wrongly done, but also with how those parts are articulated into a whole?
- If this film seems unnatural, obviously phony, etc., to us as viewers, then
what are the things that make other, more competent films seem in contrast
to be coherent, believable, and convincing?
Alfred Hitchcock, 1954.
With James Stewart (L.B. Jeffries), Grace Kelly (Lisa Fremont), Raymond Burr
(Lars Thorwald), Thelma Ritter (Stella), Wendell Corey (Thomas J. Doyle).
- How is Jeffries' act of looking out the window across the courtyard similar
to our act of watching a film?
- What point of view does Hitchcock's camera establish in the course of the
- Consider the roles of glances and gazes throughout the film. Who looks at
whom, who is seen by whom, who watches without being seen in return? What
technological devices aid or impede vision in the course of the film?
- How does the uneasy banter between Jeffries and Lisa (discussing issues
of marriage, committment, the roles of men and women, etc.) relate to the
drama unfolding across the courtyard?
- In one of its aspects, this is a detective film, its story concerned with
the discovery of a crime. But Hitchcock seems as concerned with the motives
of the amateur detectives as he is with those of the villain. What does the
film suggest about Jeffries' & Lisa's (& Stella's) desires and motives? How
does Hitchcock make use of the personas of his two big stars (Stewart and
- Do we feel any sympathy for the villain, Lars Thorwald?
- Hitchcock was famous for making cameo appearances in most of his films.
Where does he appear in this one?
Michael Powell, 1960.
With Karlheinz Boehm (Mark Lewis), Anna Massey (Helen Stephens), Maxine Audley
- What is the relationship between the films that Mark Lewis makes and watches,
and the film that we (the spectators) are watching?
- More generally, how and why does the film relate the acts of filmmaking
and filmviewing to the act of murder? What is the relation between Mark's
making of his 'perfect film,' and the other types of images (those of pornography,
of major-studio filmmaking, of the images from Marks' father's research, of
the pictures supposedly taken by the 'magic camera' in Helen's childrens'
- How are male and female gender roles apportioned in the course of this movie?
- What motivates Mark to commit his crimes? Do we have any sympathy with him?
Is he a victim in any sense as well? Why does Mark feel naked without his
- What is the role of blindness in this film which is so insistently about
ways of seeing?
Jean Renoir, 1931.
With Michel Simon (Maurice Legrand), Janie Marese (Lulu), Georges Flamant (Dede),
Magdelaine Berubet (Adele).
- Try to pay attention, in this film, not just to the story--the narrative--itself,
but to the way in which the story is conveyed to us. To what extent is the
film realistic or naturalistic, and to what extent is it theatrical and self-consciously
- How does Renoir present the action to us? How is the film edited? How often
are close-ups used, and how often long shots, which let us see the whole action
at once? What is the effect of using real-life settings for the most part,
instead of studio sets? What is the significance of the various choices the
director has made?
- Closely consider the murder scene. What do you notice about the editing
and camera movement in this scene? How does it differ, or stand out, from
the rest of the film?
- What is our attitude towards the three main characters? Sympathy and identification?
Distance and impartiality? Does the film consistently focus on one point of
view, on one character's perspective, or does it shift between viewpoints?
What about the great variety of social milieus depicted in the course of the
Fritz Lang, 1945.
With Edward G. Robinson (Christopher Cross), Joan Bennett (Kitty March), Dan
Duryea (Johnny), Margaret Lindsay (Millie), Rosalind Ivan (Adele Cross).
- This film is virtually a remake of La Chienne, since it is
based upon the same source (a novel), and tells the same story; yet the effect,
the feel, of the two films is radically different. What sort of differences
can you draw between the two movies? How are these differences produced?
- How are the characters making up the triangle different in this film from
how they are in La Chienne? Consider especially how Lang uses
Edward G. Robinson (who until this time had mostly played either gangster
or comedy roles), in contrast to Renoir's presentation of Michel Simon. What
attitudes do we adopt towards these characters? Sympathy? Derision? What is
our point of view?
- How does Lang's visual style compare to Renoir's? Consider especially the
lighting of this film (all those nighttime scenes), the style of editing (the
sorts of shots, the frequency of cuts and close-ups), the use of studio sets.
- How does the ending of this film compare to the ending of Renoir's?
Josef von Sternberg, 1934.
With Marlene Dietrich (Sophia Fredericka, later Catherine II), John Lodge (Count
Alexei), Sam Jaffe (Grand Duke Peter), Louise Dresser (Empress Elizabeth), Ruthelma
Stevens (Countess Elizabeth).
- How would you describe the look of this film, its painterly sense of visual
composition? Is it realistic or artificial, deep or shallow, full or empty?
What sort of lighting does the film use, and what emotions does this evoke?
Does so extravagant an overall look forward the story, or interfere with it?
- What do you make, in particular, of the sets representing the Russian court?
How is the viewer positioned with regard to these sets? What point of view
does the camera present?
- How do we respond to the central figure of this film, the star, Marlene
Dietrich? How does the film foreground her? What kind of sexual presence,
and what sort of gender patterns, does she suggest? What kind of character
does she play? Does she lose herself in the role, or do we remain aware of
her as an actress and as a star?
Vincente Minnelli, 1948.
With Judy Garland (Manuela), Gene Kelly (Serafin), Walter Slezak (Don Pedro),
Gladys Cooper (Aunt Inez), Reginald Owen (The Advocate), George Zucco (The Viceroy).
- This film is a musical. What sort of expectations do you bring with you,
knowing that you are going to see a musical? How are these expectations fulfilled
or violated by the actual film?
- To what extent is the story being told by the film important in itself,
and to what extent is it only an excuse for the elaborate dance and production
numbers? How is this affected by the fact that the narrative itself revolves
around issues of performance, of actuality versus fantasy, and so on?
- How do Minnelli and Kelly use space and movement (both of the actors and
of the camera) in the musical sections of the film?
- In the interchanges between the two stars (Kelly and Garland), who is doing
the looking, who is being looked at, and under what circumstances? How does
this compare to the patterns established in other films we have seen this
WRITTEN ON THE WIND
Douglas Sirk, 1957.
With Rock Hudson (Mitch Wayne), Lauren Bacall (Lucy Hadley), Robert Stack (Kyle Hadley), Dorothy Malone (Marylee Hadley).
- This is a film that fits into a particular genre (melodrama, or soap opera). What kind of expectations do we bring to a film of this sort? How does the film fulfill and/or frustrate these expectations?
- Consider the relations in this film between the inner lives of the characters, and the outer (visual) expression of those lives via elements of mise-en-scene (especially the use of color and set design, as they help to establish the decors of the Wayne mansion & the film's other settings). How are such relations established? How are style and decor translated into theme?
- Reality and fantasy seem to be opposite poles of attraction in most of the films we have been viewing this semester. How, in particular, is the conflict between fantasy and reality played out in this film?
- How much of our response to this film is conditioned by the fact that it seems to be very much of its period, nearly 40 years ago? What do we see in it that might not have been seen by audiences in 1957? To the contrary, what aspects of the film might be not directly available to us today, which were meaningful for audiences in 1957?
- This film is noteworthy for its bravura performances. (Indeed, Dorothy Malone won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role here). To what extent are we sympathetic with any or all of the four main characters? To what extend do we identify with any of them? And to what extent, on the contrary, are we distanced or alienated from them?
PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET
Samuel Fuller, 1952.
With Richard Widmark (Skip McCoy), Jean Peters (Candy), Thelma Ritter (Moe Williams), Murvyn Vye (Captain Tiger), Richard Kiley (Joey).
- What is distinctive about the visual style of this film, in terms of lighting, editing, camera angles, and camera movement? How does Fuller create a sense of the big city? How does he convey action? How does he create excitement and tension?
- What points of view does the director set up? Where are we, as spectators, placed in relation to the events of the film? What sense do we get of the film's characters? How do we respond to the political aspects of the plot? (Remember, this film was made at the height of the Cold War).
- What do you make of the film's dialogue? To what extent does it seem realistic and immediate? To what extent, on the contrary, does it seem formulaic and contrived (more like a comic book dialogue than like actual speech)? To the extent that it is the latter, what purposes do you think dialogue of this sort might serve?
- How is gender treated in this film? How do the female characters (Candy and Moe) fit into the (traditionally male-oriented) crime/action drama? How is the developing relationship between Candy and Skip portrayed?
- What do you make of Moe's death scene? How does it affect us? How does it fit into the overall structure of the film?
KISS ME DEADLY
Robert Aldrich, 1955.
With Ralph Meeker (Mike Hammer), Albert Dekker (Dr. Soberin), Paul Stewart (Carl Evello), Cloris Leachman (Christina), Maxine Cooper (Velda), Gaby Rogers (Lily Carver/Gabrielle), Jack Elam (Charlie Max).
- What sort of genre does this film fit into? What kind of expectations does it fulfill or frustrate? What do you make, especially, of the ending?
- Where are we placed in relation to the action of the film? To what extent do we identify with the protagonist, Mike Hammer (taking 'identify' in the strictest film sense--sharing his point of view or perspective)? And to what extent to we like or dislike him, feel sympathetic with him or not (taking these terms in a much broader sense than 'identify')? Is our quest, as an audience, for "the great whatsit" analogous to Hammer's?
- How would you characterize the style of this film? Consider especially the use of lighting, the camera angles, the complex relations of foreground and background in many scenes, the pace imposed by the editing, and the overlapping of sounds. What emotional effects does Aldrich achieve through these techniques?
- What do you make of the way gender roles and gender attitudes (particularly Hammer's and Soberin's interactions with various female characters) are presented in this film?
Ridley Scott, 1982. (Director's cut released 1992).
With Harrison Ford (Deckard), Rutger Hauer (Batty), Sean Young (Rachel), Edward James Olmos (Gaff), William Sanderson (Sebastian), Darryl Hannah (Pris), Joe Turkel (Tyrell).
- This film combines elements of two genres: film noir and science fiction. How are both genres affected by this combination? Do they blend or clash?
- How would you describe the very distinctive look of this film? What sorts of lighting and composition does Scott employ? How do they work, together with the sets themselves, to create the appearance and set the mood of this futuristic world? Also, in what ways are looking and vision themselves given importance within the film?
- What is the difference between human beings and replicants in the world of this film? How does this distinction change (if it does) over the course of the film? What characterizations and plot devices contribute to how we think about this question? In what way is the debate about 'what is human?' central to the themes of the film, rather than merely a plot device?
Jean-Luc Godard, 1965.
With Eddie Constantine (Lemmy Caution), Anna Karina (Natascha von Braun), Akim Tamiroff (Henri Dickson), Howard Vernon (Professor Leonard Nosferatu, alias von Braun).
- On what level of awareness or involvement do we 'take' this film? How does it refer back to itself, or to the very process by which it was made? In what ways does it make us aware that we are watching, not real life, but precisely a film?
- Godard seems to mix the genres of film noir and science fiction. But what happens to these genres as a result of their mixture, and of the ways they are presented? Is Godard fulfilling our expectations, or violating them? Is he trying to renew these genres, or (gently) ridiculing them? Or perhaps both?
- To what extent does the film have a linear narrative, and to what extent is this narrative only the excuse for various digressions? What is the effect of Godard's mixing such diverse references, and such diverse moods and emotions, within the framework of this single film? How seriously do we take what seems to be the message of the film, about individual freedom and the escape from the master computer's tyranny?
Orson Welles, 1941.
With Orson Welles (Charles Foster Kane), Joseph Cotten (Jedediah Leland), Everett Sloane (Bernstein), Dorothy Comingore (Susan Alexander Kane), Ray Collins (James W. Gettys), William Alland (Jerry Thompson), Agnes Moorehead (Mary Kane), Ruth Warrick (Emily Norton Kane), George Coulouris (Thatcher).
- Think about what this film reveals of Welles' style as a filmmaker. How are space and time presented in this film? How doese the camera move? From what angles does it look at the action? What striking visual compositions do you notice? What is noteworthy in Welles' use of light and shadow? What about the role of editing? How often does Welles use extensive cuts, and how often does he convey a scene in one or several long takes? And what about his use of overlapping bits of sound?
- The film presents itself as an investigation into the life of its enigmatic main character. How well do we get to know Charles Foster Kane? What point of view, or points of view, are presented? How do the bits and pieces of Kane's life, narrated to us in flashback by various secondary characters, fit together? What special techniques are used to convey particular bits of information to the reporter, or to us, the viewers?
- What is Rosebud? How important is it to know this?
TOUCH OF EVIL
Orson Welles, 1958.
With Orson Welles (Hank Quinlan), Charlton Heston (Mike Vargas), Janet Leigh (Susan Vargas), Joseph Calleia (Pete Menzies), Akim Tamiroff ('Uncle Joe' Grande), Valentin De Vargas (Pancho), Ray Collins (District Attorney Adair), Mort Mills (Schwartz), Dennis Weaver (Motel Clerk), Marlene Dietrich (Tanya).
- In what ways does this film bear the authorial mark of Orson Welles? What elements of visual style, use of space and time, theme, acting, and treatment of character link it to Citizen Kane? In what ways is it different from Kane?
- Pay special attention to Welles' use of long, uninterrupted takes with a moblie camera in this film. What scenes or sequences stand out in this manner? How do they differ in structure and effect form what they would be if edited ina more traditional manner? How do they compare to other scenes or sequences in the film, in which Welles makes heavy use of cutting?
- Think more generally about the sorts of spaces depicted in this film: the town at night, the desert by day, the different sorts of rooms the characters find themselves in, the constant presence of the border. How does Welles use decor and setting to add to the meanings of the film?
- Where do our sympathies lie in this film? How do we regard Welles's character, Hank Quinlan? What kind of judgements does the film invite us to make?
Robert Bresson, 1959.
With Martin LaSalle (Michel), Marike Green (Jeanne), Jean Pelegri (The Inspector).
- What is unusual about the framing and editing of this film? How does Bresson play with and alter our expectations? What sorts of things that you would expect to find in a typical crime or action film are excluded from this film? What sorts of details are included, that you would NOT expect to find in a more straightforward narrative film?
- To what extent could this film be considered realistic or naturalistic, and to what extent not? How does Bresson make use of actual locations (as opposed to using a studio set)? How does he use ambient sound (the traffic on the street, etc) on one hand, and non-diegetic music, on the other?
- How is character developed in this film? What sense do we get of Michel, the protagonist? What is conveyed by his voice-over narration and writing in his diary? What is conveyed by his physical presence on screen, his facial expressions, his gestures? How does this differ from the ways in which character is conveyed through expressive acting in more conventional films?
- Why does the film pay so much attention to the actual techniques of the pickpocket? More generally, what sorts of information is the film giving us about Michel and his world? How do these technical details relate to the overall meanings of the film?
Jane Campion, 1989.
With Genevieve Lemon (Dawn aka Sweetie), Karen Colston (Kay), Tom Lycos (Louis), Jon Darling (Gordon), Dorothy Barry (Flo), Michael Lake (Bob).
- What is distinctive about the visual style of this film? Especially consider framing, camera angles, lighting, and editing. What point or points of view does the film establish?
- How does Campion treat narrative? To what extent does the film engage in conventional, linear storytelling, and to what extent does it depart from the usual ways of telling a story? Consider both the sequence of events, and what might be called the rhythm of these events. To what extent does the film present its story in fragments, and deliberately leave things out that we would expect to find in a conventional narrative?
- Where are our sympathies in the story? With Kay? With Sweetie? With Flo (the mother)? With Gordon (the father)? How do you feel about all these characters? Is it possible to judge them?
Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1982.
With Rosel Zech (Veronika Voss), Hilmar Thate (Robert Krohn), Cornelia Froboess (Henrietta), Annemarie Dueringer (Dr. Marianne Katz).
- In what ways is this film a melodrama? and in what ways is it a film about melodrama, or a commentary upon the nature and conventions of melodrama? Why does Fassbinder so self-consciously cast the film in such a form? What has Fassbinder learned from Douglas Sirk?
- How does Veronika's view of the world relate to the melodramatic roles she has played in the past? Why does she always seem to be acting, even in 'real life'? How is her idealized film image related to her predicament?
- What role does Robert play in the unraveling of Veronika's life? Why are his efforts to help her so ineffectual? What has happened to him by the end of the film, and how do we ultimately judge him?
- The two elements of film are "light and shadow," Veronika tells Robert early on in the film. Why is this film shot in black-and-white? What particular features of lighting, camera placement, and decor does Fassbinder use, and what purposes do these features serve?
- The film is set in West Germany in 1955. There are also many references to Germany's Nazi past (the Nazis ruled from 1933 to 1945). How does the film relate the personal stories of its protagonists to the larger background of German history?
DO THE RIGHT THING
Spike Lee, 1989.
With Spike Lee (Mookie), Rosie Perez (Tina), Bill Nunn (Radio Raheem), Danny Aiello (Sal), Richard Edson (Vito), John Turturro (Pino), Giancarlo Esposito (Buggin' Out), Joie Lee (Jade), Ossie Davis (Da Mayor), Ruby Dee (Mother Sister), Samuel L. Jackson (Mister Senor Love Daddy).
- What sorts of visual, cinematographic, and editing techniques does Lee employ in the course of the film? What points of view are thereby established? What perspective or perspectives does the film promote? Can we separate the action of the film from a particular stance or position concerning (and judging) that action? To what extent is the film 'realistic', and to what extent is it stylized, calling attention to itself as a film?
- How does Lee treat character and narrative? Which is more important for the overall structure of the film? Is the story told as a straightforward linear progression? If not, what sense do you make of the numerous digressions? How do we judge the various characters? Are they particularized as individuals, or are they identifiable general types?
- In what position does this film place the audience? Are we asked to make a critical judgement? If so, how? Does the film address all its spectators in the same way? Or do things like race and gender come into the relation of the film to its audience, as well as being themes in the film itself? (These are genuinely open questions, which might generate diverse and even opposed answers).
WINDOW SHOPPING (GOLDEN EIGHTIES)
Chantal Akerman, 1986.
With Delphine Seyrig (Jeanne), Myriam Boyer (Sylvie), Fanny Cottencon (Lili), Lio (Mado), Pascale Salkin (Pascale), Charles Denner (Mr. Schwartz), Jean-Francois Balmer (Mr. Jean), John Berry (Eli), Nicolas Troc (Robert).
- This film is, obviously, a musical. How does it play with the traditions of the typical musical? How does it conform to, divert from, or otherwise twist around the conventions of the genre? What is the overall mood and tone of the film? To what extent is it a parody, and to what extent does it ask to be taken seriously?
- Pay attention to the formal aspects of this movie: especially the setting and decor, the framing of the various shots, the precise movements of the actors (both in the musical production numbers and in the dramatic portions of the film), and the pacing. How would you describe Akerman's style as a director?
- Why is the film located in a shopping mall? What does such a space tell us about the characters, and how does it influence the actions of the characters? For that matter, how 'real' are the characters (given that a musical is never straightforwardly 'realistic'), and to what extent are they types or stereotypes? Why is there such an emphasis on shoes and clothing (and the mannequins that display them) in the course of the film?