How To Write About Film History, part I

I am teaching a film history survey. It's only my second time teaching this survey and the first time it's been historically limited (1945-present). One issue I've faced is that this is the first film history course many of the students have taken. As a survey, it's not really a methods class, nor does a larger primary research project seem fitting for this sophomore-level class, but I still want the students to write papers that make historical arguments as part of a research-based project.

To this end, I've developed some guidelines in how to write a film history paper. I thought I'd share them in case anything is useful for other teachers out there, but also I'm open to feedback or tips.

Also, are there guides somewhere that I'm overlooking?

This first part is on coming up with a thesis. The second part, on research, will be in a separate post.

How to Write a Film History Paper: The Thesis

The basics of a thesis

A thesis should make a claim that is not obvious and that one could disagree with. You should be able to put (I intend to prove that) in front of the statement and have it be meaningful. For instance, the following is not much of an original thesis:
(I intend to prove that) The French New Wave was a movement of filmmakers who were inspired by Hollywood.
since few would disagree, but
(I intend to prove that) The French New Wave adopted a trademark black-and-white style because of cost and the influence of photojournalism.
gives a claim that asks the reader to understand the subject differently. (We think of New Wave films in relation to Hollywood, but perhaps Life magazine is just as important.) The thesis could be argued against: for instance, maybe New Wave cinematographers adopted their style mainly because of the need to show on B&W television or as a reaction against Tradition of Quality style. In any case, it's up to the author to present evidence to prove her/his case.

How to come up with a thesis

I have a lot of practice with coming up with thesis statements. It is easier to write a focused, specific thesis if you have read a number of other arguments in the field. Ideally, you should be reading materials for this class (and others) with an eye for figuring out their arguments, not simply absorbing information.

In the meantime, there are a few questions you can ask about your topic to help you come up a thesis:

- Is there some pattern of filmmaking that others haven't written on?
- What historical causes can you pinpoint behind some aspect of a film or group of films?
- Why could this film have only been made when it was made? (If you think the answer is obvious, it's not.)
- How can we think about the film/films as economic products in addition to art or entertainment?

Scope of a thesis

The scope of the paper will determine the length it takes to provide enough evidence. If the thesis is broad, a shorter paper will be too general. For a 5-6 page paper, narrow down your argument. You won't be able to talk about a whole movement or period in general. Find, instead, some aspect. You can focus on particular case studies (directors, films, etc) - this approach works better if you can do a little extra research into production, exhibition, or reception of the film.

Or, you can focus on a formal or ideological aspect - like New Wave cinematography (above), screenplay form in 40s Japanese cinema, or racial casting in 80s Hollywood. It's up to you and your creativity - and what's previously been written on the subject.


David Salmanson said…
First time commentator. I will be teaching a Film History course to honors level high school seniors in an independent school this fall and started following this blog as part of my prep work. My background is academic history and cultural studies (grad school in the 1990s) but I know precious little about film. I do, however, know about thesis statements having taught HS for 11 years now. I teach my students that a thesis should do five things: ACODA.

A. Answer the question asked.
C. Clarity - it should be clear.
O. Overarching - It should contain an overarching idea that connects the paper, and not merely a list of ideas.
D. Doable in the space allowed.
A. Answerable or provable. There has to be evidence to make the argument.

I think you are collapsing two steps here that it would be helpful to break apart. You're talking about how to generate a question and how to generate an answer to that question. Those are two different things and require two different strategies and techniques.

I really enjoy the blog and am finding it helpful as I develop my course.
Unknown said…
Hi is there a theory on writing film history?
for example: Giorgio Vasari in the visual arts

Hope you can recommend a theory that study on writing film history.

thank you!!!!!
Chris Cagle said…
Somehow, I've overlooked these earlier comments. Thanks to you both.

Western Dave, I think for me, these two processes are connected, since I tend to develop my arguments based on the sense of how I might achieve it (the Doable part of your pneumonic). But you're right, it might be worth exploring presenting these as separate parts for my students.

Karen, two main works that come to mind is the Allen/Gomery textbook on Film History and David Bordwell's methodological work, particularly On the History of Film Style. The latter you might find useful, since it traces a genealogy of film historiography in earlier writings.
Unknown said…
Thanks Chris!

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