This brief guide to a method of taking and working with notes from screenings was prepared by a Bryn Mawr College student of film studies and draws on Timothy Corrigan's helpful Short Guide to Writing About Film, references to which are cited parenthetically in the text.
You are seated in a dark room with your classmates, watching a film that you might later have to write about. Few media offer the vividness of experience that film offers, and though it is tempting to believe that every aspect of the experience will remain forever imprinted upon your mind in useful, easily retrievable detail, the truth is that these details and the patterns and structures they fit into will all begin to fade as soon as you walk out into the light. Screening notes help you remember interesting shots, lines of dialogue, plot discrepancies, and other elements of the film's form, style, or contents that intrigue or confuse you (Corrigan 26, 32-36). You can draw upon these notes later, whenever you need to refer to the texture of a film and the experience of viewing it: to prepare for class discussion, to make detailed arguments for an essay, or simply to develop a record of your own movie-watching history (Corrigan 37).
When first taking notes at screenings - an unfamiliar practice for most of us - it's tempting to try and write down everything you see. However, this is not the most advisable idea, as you'll end up with a cramped hand and missing half of what transpires on screen because you were so busy writing. A happy medium can be reached by breaking the task of writing about what you've seen into stages. Think of your note-taking as a work in progress, and by the end of the semester, you will have refined it into something very efficient indeed.
When I watched the film Magnificent Obsession (Douglas Sirk, 1954), I knew that I might want to be able later to discuss the film - in class, or in a piece of critical writing - in terms of its history, form, gender roles, and/or genre. I took my notes with an eye to those issues (Corrigan 20-25), and thus the notes I left my screening with looked like this:
Thrill ride on boat--"150"
Extreme macho-ness of Hudson
--"Doesn't he have any brains?" -- "Doesn't have to, he has 4 million bucks"
passively standing by, accident, -- "I knew that would happen".
narrative in dialogue & foreboding action @ house
heavenly choir when debtor tells story
ritual mantra of one alive because the other is dead
time lapse shown via hospital calendar
new mystical philanthropic way of life
comparison to Jesus ... but to pick up women
is this supposed to be funny?
"I feel better if I don't see him at all"
Instant snow as Hudson leaves
spring, flutes, blossoms
references to "Ode to Joy" in score
ethnic music tells us we're in a foreign city
Aural flashbacks on beach, in house
Jane Wyman is always referred to as a "girl"
friend in observational theater like God
shot in mirror of room
If I wanted later to produce a more detailed and coherent analysis - of, for instance, the way that gender structures the characters' development and the relationships between them - I could use these notes to get to something like this:
The Douglas Sirk melodrama Magnificent Obsession (1954) is a far from subtle film when it comes to 1950's notions about gender roles. Rock Hudson's character is the embodiment of a macho playboy, who loves nothing better than to race his expensive boat around the pond his extensive property seems to front onto. He has money, power, and a devil-may-care attitude that seems typical of male heroes of his era. In the film's opening scene, during which Bob Merrick (Hudson) crashes his speedboat, setting off a tragic series of events, one of his servants asks rhetorically, "Doesn't he have any brains?," to which another replies "Doesn't have to, he has four million bucks." It seems almost inevitable that Merrick will get what he wants, despite his general carelessness, because money and male power clearly drive the world of this film. By contrast, grown women like Helen Phillips (Jane Wyman) are repeatedly referred to as "girls," always in full makeup, and expected to act somewhat helplessly.
Another approach I can take to the same material stresses the relationship between the film's soundtrack and its narrative:
The presence of the divine in Magnificent Obsession (Douglas Sirk, 1954) is cued to the viewer throughout the film by a series of visual, auditory, and narrative elements. The mysterious friend of the late Doctor, as he recounts how one might go about connecting with some mystical "source," speaks of one such follower of this plan, who is clearly meant to be Jesus. An off-screen heavenly choir intones even as he speaks of the matter to the Doctor's widow. The fact that Hudson's character seems to want to use this divine connection to pick up women, or at least a specific woman, is easily brushed aside in a flood of Christian religious imagery. Small and constant phrase references to Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" in the film's score follow Hudson's character everywhere as he performs his good works, and in the dramatic operation scene, we see the benevolent visage of the family friend hovering above in the observational theater at a moment of crisis.
In both cases, my starting point is the notes I took during and immediately after the screening: the first impressions that I'm recording there - impressions not only of the film's plot, but of its look and sound as well - form the basis of the more involved analysis of theme, structure, or ideology that I embark on later.
Keep in mind that there is no single correct method of making notes about, or writing about, film. These suggestions are simply meant to demonstrate how an initial set of brief and apparently disconnected observations served as an important reminder to the writer of the range of cinematic elements on which she could draw, in beginning a properly critical or historical interpretation.
Corrigan, Timothy. A Short Guide to Writing About Film. 4th ed. New York: Longman, 2001.
Magnificent Obsession. Dir. Douglas Sirk. Universal, 1954.
Prepared by Marianna Martin '02, Fall 2001.