Textual Analysis

RTF 422, Spring 2006, 9-11 MW, AMS 100
Chuck Kleinhans
Office: 209 AMS, M 1-3 and by appointment, 1-2255

Graduate seminar in the textual analysis of film, television, and digital media.  Enrollment 12.  Open to students outside of RTF after pre-registration.  Email for permission.  A few undergraduate majors may be enrolled (email prof with relevant previous courses).

Close analysis of texts is a basic foundation of media studies, both as a starting point for a more general analysis and for case study explications.  This course will examine the theory and practice of textual analysis while concentrating on dramatic narrative modes.  The first part of the course will concentrate on Classic Hollywood Cinema, understanding it as a development from the 19th century theatre’s well-made play formula.  Starting with French dramatist Scribe, we will rapidly move through both the “serious” dramatic realism strain and the popular melodrama as background for the emergence of the Hollywood feature c. 1920.  Casablanca will be studied as a model of the Classic Hollywood form.  Underpinning this work will be David Bordwell’s work on narration in the fiction film and Raymond Bellour’s semiotic analysis of classic US film.

Next we will complicate the model and look at the tradition of domestic melodrama  from the 19th to the 21st century, consider melodramatic action (e.g., the chase) and consider Gunning's "montage of attractions" argument while looking at the contemporary blockbuster action film. We will also look at various alternatives, such as the European art film (Antonioni), deconstruct  the television serial, and consider new media forms such as interactive and hypertext narrative, narration in video gaming (Tomb Raider and the Lara Croft fan culture), etc.

The course will involve some lectures, but will largely proceed through class discussions based on assigned readings, outside screenings, discussion postings on Blackboard, student reports, and student selected readings.  A final paper summarizing and extending course work  (rather than a long original research project) will conclude the course.

Books (at Norris Center store):

Bellour, R. (2000). The Analysis of Film. Bloomington, Indiana University Press.
Bordwell, D. (1985). Narration in the Fiction Film. Madison, University of Wisconsin Press.
Deuber-Mankowsky, A. (2005). Lara Croft: Cyber Heroine. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.

Murray, Janet H. (1997) Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace.  MIT Press.

Students are required to obtain their own copy of:

Michael Curtiz (d.), Casablanca (1942); Warner 2 disc DVD “special edition”


March 27
Overview of course, introduction to Classic Hollywood Cinema
Handout on CHC

March 29
The Well-made play
Read: Eugene Scribe, The Glass of Water (play); Stephen S. Stanton, “Introduction” to Camille and Other Plays  (handout)
Benjamin, on Scribe (handout)

April 3
Dramatic structure
[Blackboard assignment: What do we learn about dramatic narration from the point of view of handbooks for those who do it, or who aspire to do it?]
Read: Archer, (selections--handout)
Bordwell preface-Principles of Narration ( ix-62)
Student reports: Archer, Baker, screenwriting manuals

April 5
Read: Bordwell, Sin, Murder, and Narration-Narration and Space  63-146
Start analysis of Casablanca

April 10
Classic Narration
Bordwell, 147-204
Continue Casablanca

April 12
Casablanca as Classic Hollywood Film
[Blackboard assignment: By noon Tuesday April 11. Close descriptive analysis of a scene in the film.]
Various handouts

April 17
Semiotic analysis
Bellour, “System of a Fragment (on The Birds)” 28-68
Bellour, “The Obvious and the Code” (on The Big Sleep)

April 19
Bellour, “Symbolic Blockage (on North By Northwest)”  77-172

April 24
Examining the parts
Kuntzel   The FIlm-Work, 2” on The Most Dangerous Game  (handout)
Buscombe, The Searchers, exerpts 
Gibson,” The Searchers--Dismantled”

April 26
Melodrama action, the chase sequence
Gunning, montage of attractions
Student report: Vardac, Fell, Brewster and Jacobs, Singer
Chase sequence: The French Connection

May 1
Chase 2:   To Live and Die in L.A.
Action and spectacle, the fight sequence
Read: Aaron Anderson
“Kinesthesia in martial arts films: action in motion”  (Out for Justice)

Anderson draws on theories of kinesthetics, fight choreography, and bodily memory to develop an aesthetic analysis of the role of movement per se in the martial arts film, with particular attention to films of Stephen Seagal. Reprinted here with color stills and shot analysis of sequences from Seagal's Out for Justice.

“Violent dances in martial arts films” (Rumble in the Bronx, etc.)

Anderson began his analysis of movement in action films in issue no. 42. Here he takes a close look at fight choreography in the films of Jackie Chan.

May 3
Television serial narration
Reverse engineering exercise using tvtropes.com
(see below)

May 8
Hypertext and interactive narrative
Read Murray
[possibly something from Landow]

May 10
Gaming and narration l
Read Murray

May 15
Lara Croft
View in class, She-Puppet (Peggy Awesh, video)
Read, Deuber-Mankowsky
Singer, The Serial Queen

May 17
Return to narration:
Read, Bordwell, Art Cinema Narration 205-232
Antonioni, Eclipse

May 22
New Hollywood
Thompson, excerpts (intro and examples)
Bordwell, “Intensified Continuity”
Late addition (suggested)  Bordwell, The Way Hollywood Tells It
Groundhog Day, Memento, Time Code, Run Lola Run, etc.

May 24
Student papers, 1

May 29 Memorial Day
No class

May 31
Student papers, 2

Exam week
Possible: final presentation of papers
Monday June 6 9am.


Stage/Screen project
The purpose of this project is to have a useful pooled information discussion of dramatic narration which is based in action and spectacle (rather than dialogue). We’ll be looking at both stage and screen examples from the late 19C and early 20C.

Cary: Ch. 5 and 6 of John Fell. 89-163
Erik: Ch 7 and 8 of Fell, 164-226
Sam: ch 2 and 3 of Vardac 20-88
Alex: Vardac ch 6, 7,8, 9. 10 165-233
Evans: Singer, ch. 3 and 4, 59-130
Hollis: Singer ch 6 and 7 149-220
Phil: Brewster and Jacobs, part two 33-78
Rashida: Brewster and Jacobs, part 4: 139-212

For the discussion board: prepare a brief inventory of ideas (or an outline); and post it by 8 pm Tuesday April 25

Our discussion will consider:
What are the similarities and continuations of stage to film narrative?
What elements of spectacle contribute to narration, and how?
How would we define “realism” in relation to both stage and screen narrative?
What does this historical analysis contribute to building our toolbox for narrative analysis?


Reverse Engineering exercise:

[Reverse Engineering is the process used to construct (most often) computer software by defining the endpoint (e.g. a computer program that will do all the things that Photoshop can do) and then isolating the computer engineers from any opportunity to look at the relevant codes for Photoshop.  When the team emerges with the final result, they can be claimed under the law to have not copied or plagiarized from the preceding software because they were ignorant of it, and whatever code they wrote was the result of their own efforts.]

TV Tropes Reverse Engineering Project
The goal here is to deconstruct/reconstruct a TV narrative.  Here’s what you do:

Visit the home page: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/

If you’re not familiar with a “wiki”  read the explanation.  Then move to The Catalogue, or use the left hand navigation bar and explore the TV section a bit to become familiar with what’s there.

A suggested way to proceed: think of a TV show you know and then see what you can learn from the “tropes”. E.g., Alias uses the trope of “Bad Guy Bar,”  as well as disguise wigs. 24 uses “Time Bomb.”  Both 24  and The Office use the stupid boss figure--one for serious drama and the other for comic effect.  Or examine some tropes and see how they reflect on current TV practice.  For example, Private Eye Monologue today can only be used for comic effect, according to TV Tropes. Cat Scare is apparently still not worn out and can be used for horror and suspense [I’ve seen variations on CSI Miami and Law and Order SVU], but can also be used for parodistic comedy (as in the Scary Movie series). Dating Catwoman is linked to one particular show, but could plausibly apply to others (it is currently being used in the new show Heist).

Continue with a look at the other TV catalogue items: plots, devices, characters, genres (look at the subgenres too--e.g. Crime and Punishment lists a number of subgenres), etc.

THEN come up with a dramatic narrative TV show and find the Wiki tropes that would support it.  IF stumped, you can try under “toys” (left side) pitch generator or story generator.  Or something under your investigation of Tropes may have provoked you.  E.g., “No Bisexuals” points out that while we now have gay characters on TV, there are no continuing bisexuals [is this true of Queer as Folk and The L Word?].  On TV, if someone changes gender object choice, they completely convert. But what if we tried for a sitcom with mostly bi characters--“By and Bi”--sort of “Friends” with everyone changing object choice and partners every episode?

Or consider the curve ball of the new HBO series Big Love: a polygamist family in Utah.  What changes with the new configuration of “family” when you have three wives/moms?

ANOTHER way to work out this assignment would be to choose a new TV show and see how TV Tropes lets us reasonably predict the future of the show’s formula, even with just the pilot to go on.  Thief appearing now with Heist allows for an interesting comparison and contrast.  The latest Law and Order franchise, Conviction, combines the legal procedural subgenre (Crime and Punishment) with basic prime time soap relations among the ensemble--similar to Hill Street Blues.

OR you could come up with another show in a franchise:  We have CSI Las Vegas, and CSI Miami, and CSI NYC--what could you do with CSI Chicago? [And would CSI Evanston have to be a comedy?]  Or how about Las Vegas as a behind the scenes ensemble?  A New Orleans variant would have been easily conceived until Katrina...and now?  OR could you imagine Branson Missouri...maybe for a more family pitched demographic?  Less cleavage?  OR a new police procedural relying on science in the CSI vein.  We already have Criminal Minds (FBI psychologists) and Numbers (police detective plus mathematician brother).  What next?  And what about these psychic detectives? [Sorry, I can’t bring myself to watch them.]

Another way to think of this would be to see what happens when you change another dimension of the formula by casting against type or dominant convention for race, ethnicity, religion, age, physical ability, etc.

OK, you choose and come up with an outline for a show and post it on the discussion board.  In class we’ll use the things learned to think some more about (1) dramatic narration, and how (2) TV’s serial form changes how we need to think about textual analysis as compared to stand-alone films.


The following books have been put on reserve for the course:

Baker, G. P. (1976 [1919]). Dramatic Technique. New York, Da CAPO PRESS.
Bellour, R. (2000). The Analysis of Film. Bloomington, Indiana University Press.
Bordwell, D. (1985). Narration in the Fiction Film. Madison, University of Wisconsin Press.
Bordwell, D. (2006). The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies. Berekely, University of California Press.
Bordwell, D., J. Staiger, et al. (1985). The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960. New York, Columbia University Press.
Brewster, B. and L. Jacobs (1997). Theatre to Cinema: Stagae Pictorialism and the Early Feature Film. New York, Oxford Univesity Press.
Brook, P. (1984). Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative. Cambridge, Harvard University Press.
Buscombe, E. (2000). The Searchers. London, British Film Institute.
Corliss, R. (1974). Talking Pictures: Screenwriters in the American Cinema. New York, Penguin.
Deuber-Mankowsky, A. (2005). Lara Croft: Cyber Heroine. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.
Egri, L. (2004). The Art of Dramatic Writing: Its Basis in the Crative Interpretation of Human Motives
[alt. title: How to Write a Play]. New York, Touchstone/Simon and Schuster.
Fell, J. L. (1986 [1974]). Film and the Narrative Tradition. Berkeley, University of California Press.
Murray, J. H. (1997). Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. Cambridge, MIT Press.
Ray, R. B. (1985). A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1980. Princeton, Princeton University Press.
Singer, B. (2001). Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and Its Contexts. New York, Columbia University Press.
Stanton, S. S., Ed. (1957). Camille and Other Plays. New York, Hill and Wang.
Taylor, J. R. (1967). The Rise and Fall of the Well-Made Play. New York, Hill and Wang.
Thompson, K. (1999). Storytelling in the New Hollywood. Cambridge, Harvard University Press.
Vardac, A. N. (1968). Stage to Screen: Theatrical Method from Garrrick to Griffith. New York, Benjamin Blom.

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