The Hollywood Revue’s Guide to Surviving a Film Theory Class

Late August/early September can only mean one thing — back to school season!   A new school year means new classes and I’m sure plenty of students out there are venturing into their first film theory class this semester.  If you are one of those people, I have five pieces of advice that will hopefully make your semester a little easier.

Of course, this advice is only coming from my personal experience with film theory classes.  Since everyone teaches differently, I certainly can’t speak for every film theory class in the world.  Your experience might be completely different from mine, but I hope these tips serve you well, no matter what your class may be like.

1.  Never assume a film class will be an easy ‘A’. 

When I was in college, our general education requirements mandated that everyone needed to earn a certain amount of cultural enrichment credits.  Things like humanities, foreign languages, and yes, film theory courses all counted toward those credits. My school offered an intro-level American Film class, so every semester, tons of students would sign up for that thinking it would be a really easy ‘A’ and a fun way to get those cultural enrichment credits.  When I took American Film, the first thing the teacher did on the first day of class was point out the exit to anyone looking for an easy ‘A’.

Some film theory classes involve tests with multiple choice and true or false questions, but not all of them are like that.  In fact, I’d say all of the film theory classes I’ve taken were some of the most challenging classes I’ve taken just because there weren’t many opportunities to earn points.  The teachers I had weren’t the types to give you points just for showing up nor did they give a lot of homework assignments you could use to bolster your grade.

In the case of that American Film class, it was sort of an academic tightrope.  Our final grades were based on two very long essay tests, one a midterm and one a final, that was it.  Some of the other classes I took were based on two long essay tests plus two papers.  So in either case, if you completely blew it on one of those assignments, there really wasn’t a way to recover from it.

When I say these were long tests, I mean they were exhausting.  A week or two before tests, one teacher would give us a list of maybe five or six topics and we could pick any three of them to write about for the test.  We could do all the research we wanted before the test, but we couldn’t use notes for the test and we had to write all our essays by hand.  My hand always felt like it was about to fall off after those tests.

2. Don’t underestimate the lecture part of class.

I don’t advocate skipping classes, but if you’re in a position where you’re overwhelmed with work for other classes and feel like you have to skip your film class to work on other things, try to at least go to the lecture part of class and skip the movie.  The lecture is probably going to provide context and tell you what you need to watch for in the movie. You’ll have an easier time finding a copy of the movie to watch later than you will to get completely filled in on the details of the lecture.

3. Take good notes. Not only on the lecture, but be very detailed about the movie.

You’re going to watch quite a few movies over the course of a semester, and when it comes time to study for a test or write a paper, you might have a hard time remembering specific details about a certain movie.  If you take detailed notes about the movies while you watch them in class, those should help jog your memory and will hopefully save you the trouble of having to watch the movie all over again.

This is where being attentive to the lecture really pays off.  For example, if you watch The Postman Always Rings Twice while discussing film noir style, there’s a good chance you’re going to be asked to explain which characteristics make The Postman Always Rings Twice a film noir.  So take very specific notes about the structure of the film, the lighting in certain scenes, what makes Cora a femme fatale, etc.  Trust me, when it comes time to study and you need to remember an example of something like chiaroscuro lighting, you’ll be glad you took those notes.

4.  Have your own opinion, but be prepared to argue it well.

Occasionally, you might get a question that is opinion based.  I remember one test I took had a question along the lines of, “Citizen Kane is widely considered the greatest American film of all time.  Do you agree?  Why or why not.”  This kind of question might seem like an easy way to get some points.  After all, it’s your personal opinion, can you really be wrong?  Actually, these questions are probably the hardest to do well on.

The thing you have to remember about a lot of film theory classes is that they are critical thinking classes more than anything and questions like these are where that really comes into play.  In this case, it’s not what you argue, it’s how you argue it.  You’re not necessarily going to get marked down for saying you don’t think Citizen Kane is the greatest American film, but you won’t get many points if you just say you thought it was long and boring.  You have to give a more educated and thoughtful argument than that.

5. Sometimes it helps to get an outsider’s perspective.

One thing you might do in a film class is examine how movies portray different groups of people.  If you’re not used to thinking critically about film, you might have a hard time seeing exactly what message a movie sends about that group of people.  If I was ever struggling with that, I just tried to approach the movie with the mindset of, “If some aliens with no understanding of our society came to Earth and watched this movie, what exactly would they learn from it?”

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5 comments

  1. I took three film classes in college as electives, and I definitely agree with your points. That was back in the late ’90s, but I’m guessing it still applies. I took the first one, a summary of movies after 1945, in my freshman year. It was quite a rude awakening and one of the toughest classes of that year. I took the pre-1945 class in my senior year, and I was ready at that point. I think both (plus the German film class I took) offered great examples to so many movies that remain some of my favorites today. Interesting post!

    1. I think a lot of people get that rude awakening on the first day of class. It was always interesting to see just how many people dropped the class after the first day when they realized it wasn’t going to be so easy after all.

  2. Number two is the essential, but number four’s important too.

    I took two film classes in undergrad. Had the wonderfully embarrassing situation where the prof had me come up and read my essay on “The Searchers” out loud because he couldn’t read my handwriting. It was the example of the A.

    You learn a lot in film classes, even if you watch a lot of movies. Being open-minded is the important part and not being a complete smart-ass.

    Though I was a complete smart-ass.

    1. I’m glad I never had to read any of my essays in front of the class, haha.

      I don’t think I was ever so nervous to get a test back as I was for my first film theory class test. First of all, the teacher started off by saying, “I have your midterms to hand back, and I’m disappointed to say, there were very few ‘A’s.” I wasn’t having a good day in general that day, so of course I automatically assumed the worst. It was a huge class in a big auditorium, so then we all had to file down the stairs to get our tests back and as I waited for my turn, I watched a lot of disappointed people walking away. Then my turn came and the teacher said, “Congratulations, you’re one of the few ‘A’s!”

  3. These are all great pieces of advice. I would venture to add, too, that besides taking thorough notes during lectures and film screenings, it’s really important that you do the readings for each class. One of the hardest parts about starting a film studies course is getting used to reading about films and THEN watching them. Knowing the whole plot kind of ruins the entertainment value of the films. The plus side, however, is it makes you a more observant and analytical thinker on film.

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