Monstrous Methods for Closely Reading Film

Categories: Teaching Effectiveness Award Essays

By Morgan Jennings, Film & Media

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2023

In my Film R1B course we examine what monsters and representations of monsters in film and television reveal about the cultures that create and consume them. By looking closely at the various forms in which monstrosity appears on screen, we analyze how these imagined others are met with both fear and fascination. One challenge I’ve faced is how to reorient students to approach films as nuanced texts that can be actively interpreted, rather than objects that are passively consumed for entertainment. Last spring, my class was having a particularly difficult time focusing on the form, including the cinematography, editing, mise-en-scene, and sound, of the films we were viewing, rather than just the content. I developed an in-class close reading activity that helped identify why it is so important to read for the formal elements at play in the work and to explore how these formal elements come together to produce a different constellation of meaning. This activity also laid the groundwork for how to take notes on film, which provided the framework the students needed to collect evidence to construct and support their arguments in written assignments. 

For the exercise, I selected a two-minute sequence from Ana Lily Amirpour’s genre-bending Iranian vampire spaghetti-western film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), which I played for the class three different times. The first time I played the clip, I instructed students to take notes on what they noticed. Afterwards, they shared their observations with a partner, so that they could compare and compile the details. Once they shared their findings with each other, we re-convened as a class to perform a reading of the sequence together. At this stage, the students focused mainly on the plot, describing the objects that appeared in the frame, the dialogue and score. I told them that we would watch the clip again, but this time the video would be muted. To set up the second viewing, I suggested that the first time they viewed the clip, they were focusing on what they were seeing and hearing. For the second and third viewings, they would need to focus on how they were seeing and hearing. By taking apart the sequence, and stripping sound from image, the students were tasked with tending to the visuals alone. Without the familiarity of dialogue or a score to ground their understanding of the sequence, students began to notice elements like the interplay of light and shadow, the composition of the objects and bodies within the frame, and the pacing of the editing. We discussed the difference between taking notes in terms of content and form, and how their list expanded in the second viewing. Then, when we watched the video for a third time, unmuted, the students returned to the sequence with a newfound appreciation for how image worked together with sound to suggest both connections and dissonances. In our final discussion, they began to theorize how these different elements work together and noticed more nuanced formal details, for instance, the importance of silence that punctuated the soundscape, and the way that the pacing of editing between shots seemed to follow the rising and falling of the score. 

I was able to gauge the effectiveness of this exercise in our first graded written assignment, the sequence analysis. The students practiced this close reading skill by selecting a two-minute clip from a monster movie of their choosing, viewing the clip multiple times, and then writing a 3-4 page paper. Rather than beginning the paper with a thesis, for this assignment, the students begin with rich description of the audiovisual details from the clip. Then, they offer an analysis of how the disparate elements they identified come together to form different constellations of meaning. Only after these two steps of description and interpretation do the students write a working thesis statement. By placing the argument at the end of the assignment, students are able to explore the various elements and details at play in a sequence, instead of remaining focused on the plot.