Film studies concerns the academic treatment of the formal and thematic properties of the cinematic medium. Consequently, the discipline requires equal appreciation for the technical crafts (the physical production and treatment of sounds and visuals) as well as the theoretical dimensions (the meaning conveyed by what is seen and heard) of filmic narrative. As a result, the subject is multidisciplinary, borrowing from musicology, art and literary theory, as well as numerous other disciplines which deal with aesthetics. When we speak of “aesthetics”, we are essentially concerned with the craftwork of producing artistic meaning. In a fundamental sense, all critical writing on film seeks to establish how such meaning is achieved, by looking at the ways through which various compositional choices work to evoke specific physical and psychological sensations. So, one might for example observe that a close-up shot of a protagonist’s face draws the viewer’s attention very closely to that subject’s emotional experience in the same way that a wide-angle shot of the same person in a crowd would do the opposite. The point is not merely to describe these compositional properties but to explain their purpose and how that purpose fits within the film’s greater narrative framework; what emotional effect is summoned by a close over a wide shot and how this services the story.
Because film (in most cases) combines moving images, music and soundscape all at once, the depth of meaning which may be attained is remarkable, allowing numerous avenues of approach for the critic. Indeed, entire books have been dedicated to analyses of a single scene – the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho – and new articles on same appear regularly. While one need not go to such lengths of precision in order to write effectively on film, some degree of honing in is necessary so to avoid becoming lost among the many strands of meaning available. One might focus on a specific theme or technical quality, various structural properties, characterisation or other performance-based concerns, or any number of alternate critical dimensions. As an example, one might look at ovular and circular imagery in Psycho – shots of eyeballs, drain holes, peepholes, toilet bowls, and so on – alluding to ideas of maternity, with the egg-shape connoting female fertility, a theme reiterated in the foregrounding of the female body. One might then assess the significance of such symbolism insofar as it relates to the protagonist’s warped relationship with his own mother and, in consequence, all women. If following this line, Freudian interpretations start to suggest themselves, especially in regards to oedipal motivations. In researching the Oedipus complex, other Freudian concepts might become apparent, which one would then trace back to the original research question, and so on the process goes. In this way, one builds layers of analytical complexity, probing strata of meaning while keeping to a defined critical through-line, the sum of which should embody a solid scholarly argument.
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