In-class Essay Prompt from Guide to Writing Papers
Midterm-Life Lessons (25 points)
You will watch a 45 minute film, Martin Scorsese's Life Lessons (1989) available at Google video on-line Life Lessons . Life Lessons is the first film in the Trilogy entitled New York Stories . You are assigned the first film only. After studying closely the Scorsese film, you then will write a 3-5 page essay on your own. The second stylized moment paper is exactly like the first paper, except you will decide on two additional stylized moments that you will discuss in addition to the moments assigned. The assigned stylized moments: You must identify, describe and interpret two different sources (points of view) of the iris fade in Life Lessons . This does not mean "iris in" and "iris out." Perhaps the best way to proceed prior to writing is to identify the two different sources, origins, or points of view of each iris--who's perspective are we seeing? and then discuss at least one of each. Describe the effect and interpret its meaning. Strong essays will successfully address "why employ the iris effect?" Some students do not properly address this requirement. It is not convincing to claim one of the sources originates from the "audience." We would have to somehow witness a "surrogate" audience member looking at what the iris reveals and that would have unconvincing ramifications of breaking the 4th wall. You should describe and analyze two additional stylized moments/scenes that use the camera in significant ways, or for things that can only been done in a movie rather than say a play or novel of the same story. Scorsese gives great weight to the soundtrack in the film. Strong papers will identify and interpret the music (titles, composers, performers available at imdb.com-- New York Stories ). Pay attention to any moment that sticks out, that breaks the illusion that you are watching reality rather than a film. Look for moments in the film that use style to make a point or develop a theme. Ask yourself how certain choices are accomplished and how they construct and affect meaning.
Keep in mind the difference between plot significance ("This is when we find out Judge Smails is dishonest") and stylistic significance ("This scene uses a canted angle and pov shots to convey Radio Raheem's brewing anger and frustration."). Most casual viewers can talk about plot, but a film student will attend to style, and that should be your field of inquiry. Some casual viewers might even be able to talk about what a film is saying `beneath the surface' or what the director was `trying to say,' but keep in mind that I am also teaching you oppositional and critical reading strategies in this course. You should, in other words, not exclusively worry about what the director was saying, but rather be open to issues and concerns that are on the screen nevertheless.
Also, keep in mind the difference between a shot that is just filmed in a "cool" manner (i.e. the drug sequences in The Big Lebowski )-- shots that are neat to look at, but don't really have anything substantive to say-- and scenes that use style to convey an explicit meaning (the use of tight close-ups in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf to encourage you to see Martha as a trapped animal). It is much more productive to analyze the second kind of cinematic moment than the first. Try to locate moments that have enough data to analyze, but that are manageable enough, allowing you to remain on topic. It is not effective to claim that a stylized moment "draws the audience in," "creates interest," "grabs our attention," etc. Refer to characters by their names not by the actor's name; often characters names are significant, eg, "Ty Webb." When citing the Textbook be sure to use quotation marks when reproducing his actual words, and provide page numbers. Be sure to distinguish between function and style. You only need to describe and analyze stylized shots (a minimum of two stylized moments for this assignment in addition to the two distinct categories of iris wipes/fades). Style usually does not advance the plot, it bears meaning.
Students who do poorly on this paper often `list' shots, such as several cuts in a row, but never say anything about the effect, the significance of those moments. Avoid listing shots, and instead have patience. Spend time discussing what every choice confers in the sequence, and what it contributes to the film as a whole.