We will watch 3 films this semester and you will be expected to write blogs on each of them. Films are to be viewed outside of class. I will screen each film on campus at a time that works for as many of you as possible. If you cannot attend, copies of each film will be available online or by borrowing a copy from me.
We will discuss the films and your blogs in class. Blogs are due before class begins:
- August 28: The Snake Pit (1948): In this psychological drama, Virginia Cunningham is confused upon finding herself in a mental hospital, with no memory of her arrival at the institution. Tormented by delusions and unable to even recognize her husband, Robert, she is treated by Dr. Mark Kik, who is determined to get to the root of her mental illness. As her treatment progresses, flashbacks depict events in Virginia’s life that may have contributed to her instability.
- September 11: Secrets of a Soul (1926): Middle-aged chemistry professor Martin suffers a traumatic psychological break when a murder occurs next door while he is trimming his young wife’s hair. Soon after, Martin is possessed by images of murdering his wife with sharp objects. When he is then beset by fearful, inexplicable nightmares and paranoia, he consults renowned psychiatrist Dr. Orth. After pouring over details of Martin’s dreams, Orth struggles to get to the root of his patient’s disturbance.
- November 4: Titicut Follies (1967): Filmmaker Frederick Wiseman exposes conditions at a Massachusetts hospital for the criminally insane.
You might also wish to watch additional films, either to write extra-credit blogs on or to focus on in your final project. At the end of this page, you will find a list of films.
Your Film Blogs
You can write your blogs in one of three ways.
1. You can focus on one specific element of the film that interests you. For instance, you might want to write about what kinds of treatments are used in a film and how those treatments are represented.
2. You can write a more general overview of the film. If you choose this option, you should include the following elements:
- The major themes or purpose of the film, as you perceive it
- The historical context of the film
- A discussion of how the film uses or represents psychology (for instance, do you think it’s accurate for the time period? What does this film tell us about psychology? What does it tell us about how non-psychologists thought about psychology?)
- An overall evaluation of the film (for instance, did it successfully sell you on its theme or point of view? Did it make good use of any of the filmmaking aspects we’re discussing?)
3. You may focus on a particular film technique. If this interests you, see the next section on film analysis. I encourage you to look over this section even if you don’t plan to use it for your blogs. It will be helpful to have a sense of what goes into filmmaking when thinking about our films.
I also encourage you to include screenshots from the films and to incorporate external research or DH tools into your blogs. These elements are not necessary, but will enrich your writing. If you do external research, make sure that you cite it properly. Bringing in things you learned elsewhere is encourages, but plagiarism is not.
Film analysis is a complicated process. Most film critics watch a film multiple times in order to better analyze it. I’m obviously not going to ask you to do this. Instead, because we’re only watching these films once, you may want to focus on a single technique in each film. In addition to watching the film as you normally would (i.e., for the story itself), you would also pay attention to how a particular technique is used in the film and what the filmmaker is trying to communicate with that technique.
Below is a list of 12 techniques (there are many others!) and questions to help you understand the technique. They are divided into a few categories: technical, mise-en-scene (“placing on stage,” or the stuff that’s actually there in front of the camera), structure, and form and content. Filmmakers put things from each of these categories together to tell a cohesive story. Sometimes that story is obvious–for instance, knowing the genre can tell you what a director is trying to do–but others are not. Looking at both obvious and non-obvious factors and how they interact with one another can help you gain a deeper understanding of a film.
- Shooting angles, camera placement and motion
- Where is the camera placed in relation to the subject of the shot? Is it far away from or close to a person or object? Is a character shot from above, below or dead-on?
- How does the camera frame any given character? Do we see their faces, their whole bodies, or just parts of their bodies?
- Does the camera remain stationary or does it move?
- How quickly does the camera switch to a new angle? Does the speed correspond to the storytelling or mood?
- Depth of field and focus
- Which parts of the shot (foreground, midground and background) are in focus? Shots where objects that are close to the camera are in focus but objects that are farther away are fuzzy have a shallow depth of field. Shots where both the foreground and background are in focus have a deep depth of of field.
- How is focus versus fuzziness used to emphasize particular parts of the shot?
- Are they (or do they seem) historically accurate?
- What do they say about the character’s social standing?
What do they say about the character’s individual personality or role in the story?
- Do they seem historically accurate or are they more figurative?
- What do they communicate about the setting of the story?
- Is the acting naturalistic? Over-the-top? What might that say about the choices of the director or the era in which the movie was made?
- Do individual acting choices affect how you react to each character?
- Is time linear in the film? Do events we see occur simultaneously in the universe of the film?
- How does the filmmaker mark the passage of time within the story?
- Lighting & Color
- Does the lighting reflect or enhance the mood of the storytelling?
- Do the lights reflect the setting? E.g., are interior shots inexplicably bright or do they have a realistic amount of lighting?
- How is color used in the film?
- Pay attention to how colors change with the mood of the film, or how individual characters are color-coded (through dress, setting, lighting and so on).
- If the film is in black and white, does it have high contrast shots? Does it use bright whites or dark blacks to draw attention to particular things or evoke particular feelings?
- Music and sound
- Does the film use music to enhance the mood?
- Is the sound diagetic or non-diagetic? Diagetic means something that occurs within the film’s universe. An example of diagetic sound might be music being played by a character on their record player. Nondiagetic sound is a soundtrack that plays without any indication the characters can hear it or know it exists.
Form and Content
- What genre is the film? Does it stay in that genre or defy it?
- The Look
- Who in the film itself controls the gaze? Do we look where characters are looking, or do we only look at them?
- Pay special attention to gender here: do we look at female characters more than male characters? Whose gaze do we follow more?
- How do we look at characters? Do we see close-ups of faces, or full-body shots, or individual body parts? What does this say about the characters in question and about the film itself?
- Identification and distancing
- Who does the film ask us to empathize with? How does it do this? Through the plot? Through visual devices?
Some of these techniques will be more relevant to one film than another. For instance, music and sound would be largely irrelevant in a silent film (though you could talk about how silent films work around this limitation.) One film might use a lot of interesting lighting techniques, while another might not.
You can read more about film analysis here (this tutorial covers basic terminology, including many of the terms above, using screenshots and film clips), or watch the following videos on YouTube:
- How Film Scores Play with Our Brains
- Cuts & Transitions 101
- How to Read Cinematograph: Shot Analysis Explained
- The Art of Overanalyzing Movies
- Film Techniques for Students
- Opening Shots Tell Us Everything
- Dialogue in Film: How Should Characters Talk?
You may also want to look on YouTube to see whether anyone has uploaded an analysis of a film you’ve already seen. These kinds of walkthroughs are easier to follow if you’ve seen the film they’re talking about.
Hundreds of films have been made about psychology. Some of the films I considered screening for this class include:
- Home of the Brave (1949): Paralyzed African-American veteran Peter Moss is undergoing psychoanalysis after suffering a nervous breakdown. As Moss recounts his trauma to an army psychiatrist, he reveals countless examples of the everyday racism he experienced as a civilian. Moss also discusses an intense mission he went on during World War II. Although he is psychically damaged, his doctor believes Moss can walk again if he can figure out a way to let go of his emotional wounds.
- Psycho (1960): Phoenix secretary Marion Crane, on the lam after stealing $40,000 from her employer in order to run away with her boyfriend, is overcome by exhaustion during a heavy rainstorm. Traveling on the back roads to avoid the police, she stops for the night at the ramshackle Bates Motel and meets the polite but highly strung proprietor Norman Bates, a young man with an interest in taxidermy and a difficult relationship with his mother.
- One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975): When Randle Patrick McMurphy gets transferred for evaluation from a prison farm to a mental institution, he assumes it will be a less restrictive environment. But the martinet Nurse Ratched runs the psychiatric ward with an iron fist, keeping her patients cowed through abuse, medication and sessions of electroconvulsive therapy. The battle of wills between the rebellious McMurphy and the inflexible Ratched soon affects all the ward’s patients.
- The Fisher King (1991): After shock jock Jack Lucas inadvertently provokes a caller into murdering a group of innocent people in a Manhattan bar, he grows depressed and turns to booze. As he’s about to hit rock bottom, Lucas meets a homeless man named Parry, whose wife was killed by the caller Lucas pushed to the brink. Mentally scarred by his loss, Parry spends his days searching for the Holy Grail. Lucas, feeling culpable for the poor man’s plight, pledges to help him in his quest.
- Side Effects (2013): For four years, Emily Taylor has awaited the release of her husband, Martin, from being imprisoned for insider trading. Finally, Martin comes home, but Emily feels just as bad as she did when he was incarcerated, and she sinks into a deep depression. After her failed suicide attempt, psychiatrist Jonathan Banks prescribes a series of medications. When those don’t work, he gives Emily a new medication — but the drug leads to ruined lives and death.