How to Analyze a Movie?

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Walking out of the movie theater was almost as interesting an experience as the movie itself.  The movie of choice that night was The Illusionist (Burger, 2006). Without a lot of fanfare and big Hollywood stars, it drew an interesting crowd. As opposed to a torrent of teenagers and the handful of movie going adults, the theater was an even mix of a diverse slice of the community.  And although I walked out of the dark theater blinking more at the effects of the movie still hanging about me than the brightness of the hallway lights, I heard a surprisingly various amount of remarks.

Others, like me, were moved and pleasantly awakened from the emotions and insights the movie had uncovered. Several others were complaining that they didn’t “get it” and were still waiting for the “punch line”, and still some few who were indifferent and looked as if the had maybe been napping.

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What is the cause of all these different emotional reactions from the inspired to the indifferent, after having the same experience?  Perhaps it was not the same experience at all. To look properly at a film, the viewer must as much as possible enter into its rhythms and empathize with the emotions it generates. At the end of a fine film. We may be exhilarated and emotionally charged, but we also may be as happily          exhausted as after, say, two hours spent in an art gallery or at a concert.  (DeNitto &  Herman, 1975, p. 5)

Maybe it is our familiarity with movie going as strictly entertaining that morphs us into passive viewers.  As a general whole we miss the messages hidden in the cinematography and composition, the sounds and music, and the context and purpose for which the film was produced.

Many of us, however, when watching a movie, come away with some sort of opinion or review of what we just witnessed. But it is important to note that a review is not an analysis.  As opposed to a review being an individual’s response to the film, an analysis is so much more complex.  For instance, after just watching, The Shining (Kubrick, 1993), the individual response might be of fear. But the questions remaining to be asked are, “Why were you afraid?” and one step further, “How is this fear fresh and convincing?”

The properties that make film most powerful and realistic of the arts also makes analysis challenging. We must somehow remain almost totally immersed in the experience of a film while we maintain a high degree of objectivity and critical detachment. (Boggs and Petrie, p 5)

Film is a powerful medium. Although some view films just for the sheer entertainment value, it is often difficult to leave a theater after watching a powerful movie without also taking with us the underlying message and meaning of the film. It seems that every film has a point, and the truly great one’s leave a lasting impact.  So the first step in analyzing seems to be the process of finding meaning, even if we are unaware that it is happening.  Often it is through movies that we try to find meaning in the world in which we live.

This is easy to see in historical-based movies such as Saving Private Ryan (Spielberg, 1998) or Schindler’s List (Spielberg, 1993). These powerful movies affect not only how people see the world but also how they recall and make sense of history. (Nolan, 2002)  In the movie, Schindler’s List (Spielberg, 1993) had the movie been more sympathetic to the Germans experience; would our subconscious view of the Nazi regime be less critical and more understanding? Another example of this can be found in The Truman Show (Weir, 1998).

  With the underlying message that Americans as a whole are controlled by the “give them what they want” media, we might then, eyes newly opened, be more likely to question mass media and more critically judge the advertised norm’s for how we should look and act. In sum, to describe a film as meaningful suggests that we perceive this film as offering a way of making sense of something that it represents. (Nowlan,   2002)

Finding the meaning of movies is just the cracking of the door to what make film studies so fascinating.  With the addition of a sharp eye and the appreciation of the tools of filmmaking, each movie becomes its own legacy of sorts. Who were the characters?  What do they represent?  How did the music and sound change the perspective, give added meaning to the majesty or solitude of the scene?   No other genre of movies has such a great focus on character as that of the adventure genre.  Finding meaning in how the characters function and contribute to the understanding of the story is the main focus. Pirates of the Caribbean (Verbinski, 2003),   is a popular modern example of adversity testing the strength of nobility, faraway places and colorful costumes of an epic adventure.

  A more thoughtful look at the characters provides us with some food for thought. Captain Jack Sparrow, a lowly, pirate with neither morals nor character finds he has a nobility of his own sort. Living strictly by the laws of the “Pirate Code” and being master of a notorious ship brought in themselves a flip side image of “nobility”.  At the same time the usual character development of the “true” nobility of Ms. Swan versus that of the poor blacksmith was also at play.

The questions of, “What is noble?”, “What makes a person worthwhile?” and “Is character automatically connected with social status?” are being asked of the characters. Commoner William Turner acts with courage and outclasses his station while the refined Ms. Swan turns pirate.   It is an exciting irony on our preconceived ideas of class and station and the characteristics that attend them.

Moreover, just as an adventure movie proves more than just an excuse for great visual imagery and exciting entertainment  with its glimpses into character development, so can the horror genre be full of unexpected insights. The horror genre is surprising  full of social commentaries also.  While our modern psychology tries to make the world orderly and rational, the horror genre tries to deal with the underlying troubles that are hidden away from view. (Woods, 1988)

While they looked backward in their desire to reattach man with the ancient world of community myth and depth of feeling, they also anticipated the preoccupation with repression–sexual and political—(Gehring, 1988, p128)

Many horror movies allow filmmakers to comment on social issues without being too overt.  For instance, in the movie Night of the Living Dead (Romero, 1968) the reaction of the community to the zombies could parallel questions about racism or conformity of a group on the community.

Also, the exploration of repressed sexuality is a theme often found in horror movies. Vampire movies are easy generic examples, where mysterious, dark men fall in love with beautiful women and yet express this love through the horrific means of draining and drinking their blood.

Another interesting phenomenon in horror films over the years is not just the increased violence and sexuality, but its increased focus on teens. What commentaries does this phenomenon make on our society? Is the goal of filmmakers to fight increased brutality through shock factor or to encourage copycat behavior?

Part of the reason for this escalation in the amount of violence has been the need for the adolescent audience to test themselves, to ride the rollercoaster of fear and survive. But it is just as true that the horror films reflect a preoccupation with the brutality of the times as advertised by the media. Although there is no definitive conclusion about the effect of all this violence, it is probably true that there is a pattern of (1) initial revulsion, (2) desensitization that helps the viewer cope with violence in the real world, and (3) saturation, which leads to apathy toward violent acts in both film and life outside the theater. 19 (Wood, 1988, p. 218)

Furthermore, another interesting development in the horror genre is its use of cinematography.  An interesting example of this is Alfred Hitchcock’s, Psycho (Hitchcock).  In the filming of this horror classic Hitchcock uses unusual, voyeuristic camera angles to give the audience the uncomfortable feeling of peeping into the lives of the characters. He maximizes this uncomfortable guilt by adding the disorienting camera angles. Although most of his work was not horror; his unusual filming methods set the stage for horror films that would follow.

“I aim to provide the public with beneficial shocks. Civilization has become so protective that we’re no longer able to get our goose bumps instinctively.  The only way to remove the numbness and revive our moral equilibrium is to use artificial means to bring about the shock. The best way to achieve that,  it seems to me, is through a movie.” — Alfred Hitchcock 2 (Wood, 1988, p. 211)

Hitchcock made great strides in the ability to take an audience to new emotional experiences with his use of cinematography, but, as in the case of Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960) a relatively weak and unbelievable story line.  However, narrative can be a very powerful tool in itself when combined with visual techniques, as is often found in the fantasy genre because of its strong use of narrative. The typical fantasy genre narrative, or story line stays true to it’s genre by sticking to common theme of freedom.

Although the characters are not always well defined, the strong story that enfolds as the characters find this sought after freedom bringing the ability to choose for oneself instead of the bondage of duty or commitment. Thus, freedom equals happiness.  The issues that can be dealt with in the world of fantasy are innumerable, as fantasy is inherently free, and not bound by natural laws of any kind.  The Wizard of Oz (Fleming, 1939), Cocoon (Howard, 1985), Pan’s Labyrinth (De Toro) all illustrate this search for freedom, overcoming and finding fulfillment.

In summary, the broad scope that encompasses film studies is at once familiar and mysterious. The power of film to ignite, transform, and change the way we think is truly awesome. Interestingly, and contrastingly, the power of movies can also be completely overlooked and the masses left unaware of the transformation that could be possible if more attention was paid to the messages that are being planted.  Obviously, analysis of film is an artistic approach to understanding a powerful medium that has the ability to change the way we think and see ourselves and our world.

I can’t help thinking that I am working with an instrument so refined that with it, it would be possible to illuminate the human soul with an infinitely more vivid light, to unmask it even more brutally and to annex to our field of knowledge new domains of reality. Ingmar Bergman, “What Is ‘Film Making’?” Film Makers on Film Making, ed. by Harry M. Geduld, Bloomington, Ind., 1967.  (DeNitto & Herman, 1975, p. 290)


  1. DeNitto, D., & Herman, W. (1975). Film and the Critical Eye. New York: Macmillan. Retrieved February 24, 2009, from Questia database:
  2. Gehring, W. D. (Ed.). (1988). Handbook of American Film Genres. New York: Greenwood Press. Retrieved February 24, 2009, from Questia database:
  3. Seldes, G. (1950). The Great Audience. New York: Viking Press. Retrieved February 24, 2009, from Questia database:
  4. Wood, G. C. (1988). 12 Horror Film. In Handbook of American Film Genres, Gehring, W. D. (Ed.) (pp. 211-221). New York: Greenwood Press. Retrieved February 24, 2009, from Questia database:
  5. Boggs, Joseph M., & Petrie, Dennis W. The Art of Watching Films.

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