Theory Teacher's Blog

Research Questions for Film Studies

It’s almost the end of the semester for my film class — the first time I have ever taught such a class — and I have to say that it’s been a lot of fun. The question our textbook, Engaging Cinema (2010) by Bill Nichols, presents to the students in the final chapter is how to write a research paper about film. And of course, part of this question is finding a good topic. As all my friends and colleagues well know, one of the research questions I’ve been working on for a long time is how films figuratively represent (or aestheticize) the complex issue of globalization, as I’ve blogged about before [here], [here], and [here]. I even taught a whole class on the subject of globalization and literature last year. A newer question for me has been how to develop a transnational Oromo cinema, as I’ve blogged about [here], [here], and [here]. Both of these questions continue to intrigue me. And as I’ve thought about them over the years, I find I am often changing my research question. The fact of the matter is, without a good question, it’s hard to come up with a good thesis.

So, for this blog post, I’d like to imagine a few research questions — things that I could imagine my students writing a research paper about someday, maybe for another class, or maybe just on their own.

(1) Do documentary films and dramatic films about war influence each other? I’m thinking not just about the content and social context of the films but also the formal, stylistic elements. I can imagine an interesting senior thesis that compares and contrasts one of the most famous war-propaganda documentaries Why We Fight, made by Frank Capra between 1942 and 1945, and one of the most famous Hollywood movies of all time, Casablanca, made in 1942. Not only the moral message of both films, but also the way they are shot, seem somewaht similar to me. I would think that someone might enjoy researching documentary films and dramatic films made during the war about the war. I’m not exactly sure what the exact research question would be. Maybe the question of influence is not the right question. Curiously, it seems like another World War II-era classic, Citizen Kane (1941), edits together documentary and innovative camera shots in a way that seems to sarcastically comment on the relationship between documentary and drama.

(2) How do national or local histories get told in film? I have blogged about this with regards to Chinese cinema and history before [here]. In my opinion, Chinese cinema is the best in the world, and a lot of it very consciously engages with controversial and complicated feelings about its long history. I think it would be a fun project for a student to pick a country he or she is interested in and try to learn about its real history and the way film aestheticizes that history. I’ve heard fascinating things about Iranian cinema, for instance, and I myself have raised a few questions about the cinema history of Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Senegal before in this blog [here]. Such a project might relate to the issues discussed in a post-colonial literature class.

(3) Are remakes and sequels always more ideologically conservative and thematically simplistic than the originals? In my class, we have noticed this trend in the re-makes of Shaft and Hairspray, but perhaps not in the new James Bond films. So, the commercial conditions and contexts of such remakes and sequels may be more complicated than one might assume.

 (4) There is a new genre out there now that critics are calling the “bromance” which is getting a lot of critical attention for what it suggests about gender relations and gender norms today. Has anyone done a thorough study of the new “bromance” genre in film?

(5) There are of course lots of contemporary issues that have been the subjects of dozens upon dozens of films just in the past few years — topics as different from each other as post-traumatic stress disorder among soldiers returning home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, immigration policy and the U.S.-Mexico border, and sexual relations between friends. What do these movies say about the anxieties Americans have and/or the confused and conflicted feelings that exist out there.

(6) Last year, I imagined teaching an entire class entitled “Literature, Philosophy, and Film after 9/11”. I was hoping to do it this coming fall, on the tenth anniversary of the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York, but unfortunately I won’t have the chance to. There are so many “post-9/11” movies that reflect upon the past ten years that it would take up an entire blog post to list them here, and likewise there have been so many poems and short stories that the editors of the Norton Anthology of American Literature created a new section at the end of its anthology on this very topic. Many of the world’s most influential philosophers have also weighed in, including Slavoj Zizek’s Welcome to the Desert of the Real (2002), Judith Butler’s Precarious Life (2004), and Giorgio Agamben’s State of Exception (2005),  just to name three books that I’ve read and considered teaching. But what would be the research question guiding this inquiry? I’m not sure yet.

(7) Finally, how do contemporary films re-write old literary classics? For instance, recent film versions of Gulliver’s Travels (starring Jack Black) and Robinson Crusoe (starring Pierce Brosnan) completely change the story. I am not so interested in the commercial motivations that the studio might have for making these movies. Rather, what are the political and ideological implications behind such changes?

(8) On a different note, other films borrow from an old story in order to tell an entirely new story. It might be interesting to investigate how different cultures have borrowed from Shakespeare, for instance. In my view, the best film version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet is neither an American nor a British film but a recent Chinese film — The Banquet (2006). I loved this movie so much that I requested it for my school’s library. And likewise it is Japan’s most famous director, Akira Kurosawa, who adapted Shakespeare’s plays King Lear and Macbeth to Japanese culture in his movies Ran and Throne of Blood. What happens to a story when it crosses cultures? How might we theorize such instances of cultural translation (or what theorist Fernando Ortiz called “transculturation“)?

So, those are just some random thoughts on possible research papers I could imagine someone doing. I wish I had the time to do them myself. Possibly they’ve been done already. I don’t know, since I haven’t had time to check the library’s databases JSTOR, Project Muse, Academic Search Premier and MLA Bibliography. If I wanted to seriously take up one of these questions, I would have to spend a few days in the library searching through these databases.  The rather obvious point I’m trying to make here is that coming up with a good research question is not so easy, but without a good question, it’s hard to have a good thesis.


April 23, 2011 - Posted by | movies

1 Comment »

  1. i’m a research scholar in punjab university, india. prepared a dossier on italian neorealism. wants to work on it for my ph.d dissertation. kindly suggest research topics on italian neorealism.

    thanks and regards
    manmeet sodhi
    research scholar
    panjab university

    Comment by manmeet | June 7, 2011 | Reply

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