§ Cover Art:
Somehow, of all the movies I've seen (and reviewed) The Dark Knight is one to leave a lasting impression. I can't help but cringe to see Batman and The Joker on the cover of Timothy Corrigan's A Short Guide to Writing About Film, Seventh edition (2010). Isn't The Joker someone you just love to hate?
I have to hand it to Cover Design Manager John Callahan for integrating the title with a picture. The Joker in whiteface wearing a green vest is posed in front of Batman in his black suit. The book title is white on black except for the word FILM in large green letters—a perfect visual complement.
According to Corrigan the “word[s] … *film* and *movie* have the same denotation [but] … *Film* has for many people sophisticated, intellectual connotations, while *movie* has connotations associated with mass entertainment” (118). His choice of *Film* in the title conveys his focus on “sophisticated, intellectual” works such as student essays, but The Joker's color coordination with the word presages the book's mass entertainment value.
Indeed, just as Batman is a one man crime fighting unit to be reckoned with, so is Corrigan's Short Guide well equipped for its job. Then there's The Joker who shows up in the guise of the author's relentless fight against “sexism,” which only makes matters worse. Although I personally don't have a dog in that fight, I can't help but shudder at the collateral damage it does to the English language. Such is the style of The Joker to disrupt the social order without accomplishing anything, not even for himself.
One. For all his sophistication Corrigan starts with the basics (“We all understand movies, but how do we explain them?”) He directly addresses a seeming prejudice against writing about a visual/audio medium (“an unspoken assumption that any kind of analysis might interfere with our enjoyment of the movies.”) Through example and reasoning he allays our fear (“analyzing our response to a movie does not ruin … it”), shows us how natural it is to analyze (“we search for words to match what we saw and how we reacted to it”), presents the benefits of said analysis (“Analyzing our reactions to themes, characters, or images … can be a way … of understanding a movie better”), and leaves us raring to go (“What exactly has happened, and what does it mean?”)
He goes on to considerations of the particular audience(s) we intend to write for and defines four traditional kinds of literary products: screening report, movie review, theoretical essay, and critical essay. The screening report prepares, say, a class for discussion. The movie review “appears in almost every newspaper” and is for “the broadest possible audience.” The theoretical essay deals with foundational movie issues and is for scholars already in the know. The critical essay “falls between the theoretical essay and the movie review” and being the kind a student is likely to write, the rest of the book is devoted mainly to it. Movie reviews on epinions.com are likely to fall somewhere between the ordinary “movie review” and the “critical essay,” the good ones offering more depth than found in a newspaper, say.
Corrigan ends the chapter with considerations about personal opinion (“Most writing about film involves some personal opinion and evaluation.”)
Two. The second chapter prepares us to watch a film and to start thinking about writing about it.
Three. The third chapter covers “film terms and topics for analysis and writing.”
Four. Chapter four gives us six approaches to writing about film (“identify the limits of the approach, the needs of your audience, and the goals of the essay”): Film History, Cultural/National Character, Genres, Auteurs, Formalism, and Ideology. The author ends it with sample essays.
The ideological approach seems to run contrary to “the majority of movies … [that] present themselves as mainly entertainment,” but Corrigan assures us that “any cultural product or creation carries, implicitly or explicitly, ideas about how the world is or should be seen.” The Batman character understands perfectly that there's a lot happening beneath the surface. (“In this kind of [bat] analysis, the intentions or claims of the filmmaker should not necessarily be accepted as what the movie truly is about.”)
Corrigan lists “six … principal ideological schools of film criticism today”:
Studies of Hollywood hegemony
He tells us there are more (“other approaches to … add to the list.”) My ideological approach in my movie reviews is regularly based on biblical studies. It would be a mistake, I believe, to try to force major biblical ideology onto movies that don't support it, but since the Bible as a whole covers such a broad spectrum of life, there is usually no problem finding a correspondence somewhere—especially if one is willing to include trivial or arcane topics.
Five. Chapter five covers “style and structure in writing.” A lot of good stuff in here.
Six. Chapter six is on “researching the movies” including Web research (“When using the Internet for research, students need to distinguish substantial and useful material from chat and frivolous commentary.”)
Seven. Chapter seven is on “manuscript form.” Don't neglect this one.
§ In summation
Along with various helps at the end, these chapters provide a lot of very useful material to someone wanting to write about film. Many sample essays are given—along with commentary—and there is a plethora of stills from movies used for illustration. Corrigan did a good bat job of cramming a lot of helpful info into this little book.
Yes, let's not forget about The Joker. First a disclaimer: I hold no objection to someone, say, using Corrigan's recommendations for a non-sexist style as a matter of literary license when addressing a movie like 9 to 5 where he or she wants to emphasize that women should be considered for the fast track to promotion. What I do mind is seeing this license applied to writing about films in general without regard to “the needs of your audience, and the goals of the essay” (87). It's called biting off more than you can chew (“some subjects may prove too large for a paper”—138). A whole language is so complex that no one—certainly not Corrigan—understands all of its grammar and syntax, or what may happen when one starts changing the rules. Furthermore, that there are both males and females in the world is such a given that one hardly needs reminding at every movie. Corrigan gives no sample essays where sexism is addressed. On the other hand, he practices what he preaches for his own writing (of *A Short Guide*.)
Perceived “Sexist Language” is, in my opinion, largely attributable to a confusion between sex and gender. As Fowler puts it, “gender, n., is a grammatical term only. To talk of persons or creatures of the masculine or feminine g., meaning of the male or female sex, is either a jocularity (permissible or not according to context) or a blunder” (211).
A standard dictionary will say there is a loose relation between gender and sex where a masculine, feminine or neuter gender corresponds with male, female, or no sex respectively. It is the looseness of that correspondence, which should inform our discussions of matching the two if we are to avoid gender chauvinism—a strict linkage. I realize that in the modern vernacular the two terms are used interchangeably, but it is harder to keep the two meanings separate when using the same word.
Let's take a case in point, from Massie: “I AM sorry that I cannot entertain the reader with any canvassing adventure, which he may possibly have expected” (208). Who is the reader? You, if you're reading his book. What is your sex? I don't know, but you do. What's the gender of the pronoun (he) that Massie uses? Masculine. Does it matter that it might be referring to a female? Not at all, because it's not a strict correspondence. We can consult Webster, if you like: “gender n 2 a: a subclass within a grammatical class (as noun, pronoun, adjective, or verb) of a language that is partly arbitrary but also partly based on distinguishable characteristics (as shape, social rank, manner of existence, or sex) and that determines agreement with and selection of other words or grammatical forms” (510). If we know the sex of the reader, we'd use he for male or she for female. If we don't know the sex, we use he (unless it's unlikely to be male, and then we may use she), this due to the “arbitrary” criterion and established usage.
The current propensity to use he or she when the sex referred to is unknown is, in my opinion—as well as Fowler's—a mistake “& the origin of the mistake is clearly reluctance to recognize that the right shortening of the cumbersome he or she, his or her, &c., is he or him or his though the reference may be to both sexes. Whether that reluctance is less felt by the male is doubtful” (648).
Corrigan clearly shows that reluctance when discussing Sexist Language: “When you are referring to a person or persons whose gender is unspecified, it can be offensive to use a masculine pronoun (Watching this movie, a modern spectator sees his world from a very different angle),” although he does admit “this [he or she] wording is awkward” (180). He is using the word gender to mean sex, à la Webster: “gender n 1: SEX <black divinities of the masculine ~—Charles Dickens>” (510). (That sounds to me like a jocularity on the part of Dickens, but what do I know?)
Corrigan goes on to discuss “gender difference involv[ing] nouns” where clearly he is comparing apples to oranges, gender to gender. His mistake wouldn't be so bad, but he's written a whole book addressing a reader, movie viewer, student writer, director, etc. of unspecified sex, and his efforts to make his references to them “non-sexist” result in a prolix style that's hard to manage. He seems to be blind to it so long as he pleases some unmentioned feminist influence, which Fowler could as well have been addressing in one of his articles:
These ladies neither are nor pretend to be making their objection in the interests of the
language or of people in general; they object in their own interests only; this they are
entitled to do, but still it is lower ground, & general convenience and the needs of the
King's English, if these are against them, must be reckoned of more importance than
their sectional claims. Are these against them? Undoubtedly.
The truth is perhaps that conscious deliberate [nonsexism] is folly, that the choice
or rejection of particular words should depend, not on their [gender inclusiveness] but on
considerations of expressiveness, intelligibility, brevity, euphony, or ease of handling. (515)
Corrigan in general agrees with that principle when telling a writer to “aim at two key stylistic goals: to be economical and to be interesting. Being economical means saying precisely all that you need to say and cutting words and expressions that add no information or serve no stylistic purpose. … [E]liminate wordiness … by watching out for redundancies, wordy constructions, correctable uses of the passive voice, or merely words that could be deleted without changing the sense of a sentence” (120-1).
I was able to put Corrigan's Short Guide into a more readable form by crossing out his wordy “non-sexist” constructions and substituting the short, correct pronouns as needed, per his advice: “When one or two words are incorrect, you can easily change them by simply crossing out the wrong words or letters and printing the necessary corrections above them” (166). One of the ways he fights “sexist language”—which he fails to mention—is his use of phrases like that writer, that reader, that individual, and on and on, when a simple pronoun reference is all that's needed. He does caution us about it, however: “Repeated references to ‘the director’ throughout a short passage can be irritating. You can easily correct such repetition by substituting … an article (he)” (119). He is a pronoun, not an article, but pronouns don't seem to be Corrigan's strong suit.
I'd like to be able to say the rest of his writing is easy to follow, but his “nonsexist” language has metastasized into a wordiness to make the other seem more natural. It would take me a-whole-nother paper to explain it, which I don't have room for. Don't you just hate that Joker?
I'll give just one example page (16):
No reader … will be satisfied with a writer who uses his personal opinions to …
Here the excess of I's and personal qualifiers weakens the point the writer wishes to make
… problems, such as the writer's limited experience with Shakespeare …
references to the writer's personal experience …
the writer finds the proper balance of personal experience …
integrating those personal experiences …
Taking it line by line, “a writer who uses his personal opinions” is correct as written. Next comes a needless use of the passive voice which should have read “the writer's excessive use of … weakens his point.” Then it should have been “his limited experience”—not a redundant “the writer's limited experience”—and “his personal experience(s)” three times. If “his personal opinions” works in the first case, why can't it work for his personal experiences? Duh.
I find Timothy Corrigan's *A Short Guide to Writing about Film* a valuable learning tool, one I certainly want to keep as a reference book. His style leaves a lot to be desired, though, suffering as it does from wordiness. I wouldn't put much stock in his section on “Sexist Language.” Remember: people have sex; words have gender. If you can handle his heavy intellectual style, you'll find a lot to improve your writing about film. If you really don't like the bat picture on the cover, there's an older version cover available.
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Fowler, H.W., A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. USA. Oxford UP. 1946. Print.
Massie, W., Sydenham [Vol. 2]; Or, Memoirs of a Man of the World. Memphis: General Books. 1830. Print on Demand.
Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary. Springfield, Mass.: MERRIAM-WEBSTER. 1984. Print.
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