Screening Checklists

  1. Be aware that there are many ways to look at movies. Are you primarily interested in interpreting the ways in which the movie manipulates formal elements such as composition, editing, and sound to tell its story moment to moment, or are you concerned with what the movie has to say in broader cultural terms, such as a political message?

  2. Whenever you prepare a formal analysis of a scene’s use of film grammar, start by considering the filmmakers’ intent. Remember that filmmakers use every cinematic tool at their disposal; very little in any movie moment is left to chance. So before analyzing any scene, first ask yourself some basic questions. What is this scene about? After watching this scene, what do I understand about the character’s thoughts and emotions? How did the scene make me feel? Once you determine what information and mood the scene conveyed, you’ll be better prepared to figure out how cinematic tools and techniques were utilized to communicate the scene’s intended meaning.

  3. Do your best to see beyond cinematic invisibility. Remember that a great deal of a movie’s machinery is designed to make you forget you are experiencing a highly manipulated, and manipulative, artificial reality. One of the best ways to combat cinema’s seamless presentation is to watch a movie more than once. You may allow yourself to be transported into the world of the story on your first viewing. Repeated viewings will give you the distance required for critical observation.

  4. On a related note, be conscious of the fact that you may be initially blind to a movie’s political, cultural, and ideological meaning, especially if that meaning reinforces ideas and values you already hold. The greater your awareness of your own belief systems (and those you share with your culture in general), the easier it will be to recognize and interpret a movie’s implicit meaning.

  5. Ask yourself how expectations shaped your reaction to this movie. Does it conform to the ways you’ve come to expect a movie to function? How did what you’d heard about this movie beforehand—through the media, your friends, or your professor—affect your attitude toward the film? Did your previous experience of the director or star inform your prior understanding of what to expect from this particular film? In each case, did the movie fulfill, disappoint, or confound your expectations?

  6. Before and after you see a movie, think about the direct meanings, as well as the implications, of its title. The title of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) is a specific geographic reference, but once you’ve seen the movie, you’ll understand that it functions as a metaphor for a larger body of meaning. Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko (2001) makes us wonder if Darko is a real name (it is) or if it is a not-so-subtle clue that Donnie has a dark side (he does). Try to explain the title’s meaning, if it isn’t self-evident.