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Arts Vanity: The Steps to Writing Your Final Paper About a Movie

By Courtesy of Alisa Regassa and Joey Huang
By Avery Britt, Crimson Staff Writer

Final exam season. For a humanities concentrator, that generally means that you have entered the land of 15-20 page research papers. While all classes have a clear theme that drives the content of the course, the final paper is usually a time where there is more allowance for a free-for-all. You can pick almost any topic as long as it tangentially aligns with the course in some way.

And so, in the final weeks of school, you comb through all the potential options of what you could write about. You could pick one of the course’s books, but that might be too overdone; you can look at another work by one of the same authors; you can pick a historical phenomenon and focus your energy into that. The options are endless, but I find myself frequently going for the glimmering idea on the hill: Why not write about a movie?

The idea of analyzing a film for an exam piece is at first refreshing. The entire focus of many courses is literature from the 17th century or historical sources that date back further than Charlemagne, and so choosing a film feels like you have, in a way, re-entered the land of popular culture — and digestible pop culture at that. The primary source that you are focusing all your time on is most likely going to be from the 20th century, and it will not be dense, theoretical work. In fact, it could be a vapid rom-com. Even more enticing than that, it will probably be less than three hours (unless you are writing about an epic like “Lawrence of Arabia” or “Gone With the Wind”) — much less time than it would take you to read any novel for any class. If you are lucky, the movie that you have chosen will also be something that interests you. In the past, I have written papers about everything from 1961’s “West Side Story” to “Paris Is Burning,” movies that I find really interesting and compelling. And so, with a choice made, I begin my research. First, watching the movie. That’s easy enough. I watch it, make observations about it, and arrive at a feeling that I have already done most of the work required for the paper, but, unfortunately, I am so terribly mistaken.

One of the most important parts of Academic writing is, of course, extending beyond the primary into the dreaded secondary. For one movie, you could have anywhere from two to twenty five secondary sources that are required for your writing. For some movies, this is easy. There are copious amounts of sources written about “Casablanca” or “Citizen Kane.” However, the trick with oft-written-about movies is finding something original to say. On too many occasions, I have seen a film and had a clear vision of what my argument would be, only to be met with a secondary source that has found the exact, subtle idea that I wanted to latch onto. And so I must evolve my argument or go back to the drawing board.

Choosing a film, specifically a favorite film, as the topic of your final can also be a slippery slope because in the turmoil of trying to create an argument to write a cogent paper, you can lose some of the magic that you associate with this movie. It becomes literal work. To combat that trap, I suggest always watching the movie again after you have turned in your final. That way, once you have braved the hardships of paper-writing, you can return to the film from a different perspective — one of triumph over the beast of the paper. Somehow, this always sweetens the movie in the long run.

—Incoming Film Exec Avery can be reached at

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