Tag Archives: film


Tortoise Tuesday: Orientation and Key Terms in Bombshell

I recently saw the movie Bombshell, a dramatization of the events surrounding the charges of sexual harassment raised by several woman against former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes. As I watched Bombshell, I was struck by how the filmmakers used techniques like orienting and key term definition to structure the film. 

The opening sequence of Bombshell, narrated by then-anchor Megyn Kelly (played by Charlize Theron), orients viewers to the world of Fox News as represented in the film. Kelly guides viewers around the building, pointing out the different studios and teams at work. Kelly uses a visual aid, a model of the skyscraper in which the studios are located; certain floors on the model light up as she explains what is located on each floor. This sequence orients the audience to the structure of Fox News, just as a good writer orients readers by forecasting the paper’s structure and laying the groundwork for the “world” (of arguments, scholars, texts, etc.) to be explored in the paper.

In addition to orienting us to Fox News through Kelly’s tour and commentary, this opening sequence defines several key terms that appear later in the movie. For example, Kelly tells viewers that “the second floor” means Ailes, as the CEO’s office is located there. This key term definition primes the audience for later scenes when employees are told “the second floor is calling” or “the second floor wants to see you.”

Importantly, orientation and key term definition in Bombshell are not limited to the first scene. Over the course of the movie, as new characters are introduced, their names and roles (such as “Fox news anchor” or “wife of Roger Ailes”) appear on the screen beneath them. This strategy of visibly identifying characters as they appear mirrors another strategy of good writing: knowing how to orient throughout a paper. Not every key term, source, or scholar needs to be defined and introduced during the first paragraph of an essay. Good writers are able to discern which concepts need to be introduced first, in the opening paragraph, and which can be introduced as the paper goes on, in the context of the larger argument.

Bombshell orients viewers and defines key terms strategically at the opening of the film and as the movie progresses. As you consider how best to orient readers to your writing, consider the following tactics:

  • Forecast the structure of the paper
  • Introduce the most important aspects of the “world” at the start of the paper
  • Use a visual aid if helpful
  • Define key terms clearly
  • Decide which orienting and defining must occur in the first paragraphs and which can occur later in the context of the paper

–Paige Allen ’21


“What’s a kick?”: Key Term Definition in Inception

Christopher Nolan’s 2010 masterpiece, Inception, is a (literally) multi-layered science-fiction film that explores the concept of extracting and planting information from the subconscious through shared dreaming. “Inception,” as defined in the film, is the planting of an idea in a subject’s mind, in a natural way such that the subject believes the idea was originated from their own mind.  Besides the concept of “Inception,” the film is filled with seemingly technical jargon, such as “kicks,” “limbo,” “fences,” and “dreamscapes.” And yet, as a viewer, being taken through this complex maze, you consistently feel as if you are able to follow the intricate story that’s being woven. So how is Christopher Nolan able to familiarize the viewer to all of the jargon necessary to understand his world of shared dreaming, in a way that seems organic and functional to the story?

Nolan uses one key character in order to help orient us as viewers to the story: Ariadne. After the team’s previous architect betrays the team, Ariadne is brought on board as the new architect. She is the outsider, like the viewer, who knows nothing about the world of shared dreaming, and needs to be quickly brought up to speed, enabling us to get oriented to the jargon of the shared dream world. A perfect example of Ariadne’s function as the proxy for the viewer can be seen in this brief 17-second clip. As the team is planning out how to exit the different layers of the shared dream world, the technical term “kick” arises in the conversation. Arthur asks Cobb how to wake people out of a shared dream, and Cobb responds by saying that the team needs a “kick.” However, this simple response assumes that we have knowledge of what a kick is, which as viewers, we don’t. Ariadne is the proxy for the viewer here, asking, “what’s a kick?” The team then explains to Ariadne that a “kick” is the feeling of falling that jolts the dreamer awake, enabling them to exit a dream. By having the team define the key term, “kick,” to Ariadne, Nolan is also able to define the key term to us as viewers.

By using Ariadne’s character as a narrative technique for orienting the viewer to key terms, Nolan is able to construct a highly complex world of shared dreaming that doesn’t feel utterly confusing. This impressive feat results from Nolan’s incorporation of key word definition into screenwriting, and allows us as viewers to also feel like we are being challenged to solve a puzzle, invited as intellectual equals and insiders on an exciting journey.

–Catherine Wang ’19


“Shallow” as an Analysis of Shared Experience in A Star is Born

After that late-February Oscar performance, pretty much everyone on the planet has heard “Shallow,” a song performed by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper in the film, A Star is Born. The song has been a pop-culture phenomenon, becoming a Billboard-topping platinum hit and winning an Oscar, a Grammy, and a Golden Globe. The song, beyond being an obvious earworm (devised by Mark Ronson, the man behind hits such as Uptown Funk), has also generated a strong emotional response from audiences. So what has made the song resonate so powerfully with audiences? In a November 2018 interview with Billboard, Gaga noted that “it’s the connection and the dialogue established between Jackson and Ally, which made “Shallow” impactful.” In other words, Gaga believes that the conversation through which the main characters, Jackson and Ally, get to know one another, is also a form of introducing their characters to the audience. This moment of shared intimacy is what has made the song so precious to audiences. From Gaga’s claim, we can see “Shallow” as a form of very effective character analysis.

To show how “Shallow” effectively analyzes Jackson and Ally’s characters for the audience, let’s put “Shallow” in the context of the movie (some small spoilers to come). Jackson has just met Ally after her performance at the bar, and now they’re sitting in the parking lot chatting. Ally realizes that Jackson is often objectified as a celebrity, with his privacy violated consistently by fans and non-fans alike. Meanwhile, Jackson recognizes that Ally, in spite of her powerful voice, lacks the confidence and opportunities to express herself as a songwriter. In this key moment of realization and recognition of key aspects of one another’s personalities, Ally breaks up the dialogue by immediately interpreting it into another form: a song. This analysis opens the audience up to an implicit realization of the commonalities between Jackson and Ally’s experiences, and how they are obviously yearning for something beyond what they currently are experiencing. Ally uses her song as a form of analysis to point out that neither of them are truly happy with who they presently are. This analysis is so powerful that, it resonates with both of them, as well as audiences (in the movie and in real life), making the song the foundation of not only Jackson and Ally’s relationship, but also the start of Ally’s career and the source of another trophy in Lady Gaga’s Givenchy bag.

“Shallow” by Lady Gaga, Andrew Wyatt, Anthony Rossomando, & Mark Ronson

Tell me somethin’, girl
Are you happy in this modern world?
Or do you need more?
Is there somethin’ else you’re searchin’ for?

I’m falling
In all the good times I find myself
Longin’ for change
And in the bad times I fear myself

Tell me something, boy
Aren’t you tired tryin’ to fill that void?
Or do you need more?
Ain’t it hard keeping it so hardcore?

I’m falling
In all the good times I find myself
Longing for change
And in the bad times I fear myself

I’m off the deep end, watch as I dive in
I’ll never meet the ground
Crash through the surface, where they can’t hurt us
We’re far from the shallow now

–Catherine Wang ’19


Function and Flair: Key Words in David MacDougall’s Transcultural Cinema

Defining key words in academic writing might sometimes seem like a chore in comparison to the more exciting work of analysis. But key words are the building blocks of any good argument: only by attention to the micro-language of words and meanings can a writer construct a complex macro-language of analysis. Key words are like touchstones, places of necessary return for writer and reader alike, to continually revisit and refine concepts. The key words the writer selects and defines serve an important function in the argumentation of the paper. Perhaps less obviously, the key words present an opportunity for artistic flair as well. In the presentation key terms, the writer can build an idiosyncratic lexicon and style that lays the groundwork and enhances the larger goals of the work as a whole.

The key word is not just an excellent opportunity for orienting; it can also be an excellent opportunity for argumentation. In this passage from the opening chapter of Transcultural Cinema, filmmaker-anthropologist David MacDougall shows how the writer can put key terms to work at both function and flair. Here, he describes a key phrase, “to the quick,” in its colloquial sense, then appropriates the term to his own purposes. His definition, given in a series of progressive, dictionary-like entries, might seem excessive at first reading. But he reins himself in, and in the second paragraph quoted here, converts the intensity of this expository capital into argumentative currency: going to the quick is not only a way of understanding the experience of films for viewers, but also a way of understanding the creation of films by filmmakers themselves.

— Myrial Holbrook ’19

Our bodies provide certain metaphors for what films do. People frequently speak of going to the heart of the matter, which in documentaries usually means arriving at some useful social observation or description. In considering the “filmic,” however, it is perhaps more appropriate to speak of going to the quick. In English “the quick” has in fact a constellation of meanings. It is that which is tender, alive, or sensitive beneath an outer protective covering; that which is most vulnerable; the exposed nerve of our emotions; that which moves or touches us; which is transient, appearing only in a flash; which renews, fertilizes or “quickens” with life; which is liquescent like quicksilver: molten, bright, avoiding the touch, spilling away, changing form; that which, like quicklime or quicksand, devours, dissolves and liquefies; that which has a quality of alertness or intelligence, as of a child to learn. Out immediate impression of the quick is of an uncovering, or revelation. We experience it as a sudden exposure, a contrast between dull and sensitive surfaces.

            The quick not only provides an analogy for film experience but has a physical basis in the filmmaker’s vision. Just as the quick implies the touching of surfaces, so the filmmaker’s gaze touches—and is touched by—what it sees. A film can thus be said to look and to touch.

 (David MacDougall, Transcultural Cinema, [Princeton UP], 49-50)

Framing, Spring 2017

Media Meditation in 1990s Slacker Comedies

In a Tortoiseshell: This excerpt from Sam’s English JP explores the phenomenon of the slacker comedy and investigates its origin in the cultural materialism, economic stagnation and generational apathy of the 1990s. This introduction establishes Sam’s definition of the “slacker” by grounding it in both scholarly literature and the cultural context, and uses this key term as a springboard for the rest of his argument.

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Tracy From Thirteen: A Case Study As A Reality Check On The Role Of Contextual Variables In The Development Of Psychopathology In Children And Adolescents

In a Tortoiseshell: In this essay, Benjamin tracks the psychological development of the protagonist Tracy from the movie Thirteen, focusing in particular on how her family and school environments influence her later problematic behavior. This excerpt demonstrates Benjamin’s skilled use of orienting to situate the reader in both the storyline of the film and the psychological theories behind Tracy’s actions, allowing the reader to understand both elements simultaneously.

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Orienting: Works in Progress


…There is a key difference in the circumstances of Roxie’s status when she is a free woman and when she is a prisoner. While free, Roxie is a definite member of larger society and, consequently, she lives with the perpetual accompaniment of a surrounding community. While she is in prison, Roxie has removed herself from civilized society, creating a formidable void within her person that craves acceptance by the masses. As a result, Roxie’s wish for fame transforms from a want for recognition into a want of the recognition she’s lost by becoming a nameless prisoner.

        The transition from insider to outsider is crucial in regards to Roxie’s desire for renown. Friedrich Nietzsche argues that humans possess a “mysterious drive for truth” out of a necessity “to live in societies and herds” (143). While she’s a free woman, Roxie does not entangle herself in a different identity or proclaim any lies. On the contrary, she’s quite gullible, believing the words of Fred Casely, who promises to help her become a performer through a connection at a local nightclub. After murdering Fred, however, Roxie breaks free of the societal chains imposed on the truth. She asks Amos to lie on her behalf and take responsibility for the murder, even lying to him about the nature of the lie she’s asking him to tell.


This paper analyzes the character of Roxie Hart in the 2002 musical film Chicago.  I claim that it is easy to dismiss Roxie as a simpleminded woman in search of celebrity status; instead, by understanding how her circumstances change when she’s incarcerated, viewers of the film recognize that Roxie is not motivated by a desire for fame but by a desire to avert loneliness.

Unfortunately, despite the centrality of loneliness in the body and title of my essay, the word “loneliness” itself makes no appearance in the introduction excerpted here, not even in the thesis sentence at the end of the first paragraph, which vaguely and confusedly contrasts the notion of a want of something with a want for something. A better-oriented paper would underscore loneliness as a key concept by strategically inserting it somewhere in the introduction in order to alert readers to its importance. In a revision, I could also further elucidate my meaning about “want for” and “want of,” either by rewriting the sentence outright, rephrasing it in simpler terms, or by providing an example that clarifies the contrast. Additionally, the current draft of this paper does not make adequate use of set-up phrases that properly introduce key figures. I don’t explain who Fred Casely or Amos are when I first introduce them, even though the inclusion of phrases like “her lover, Fred Casely,” or “her husband, Amos” would be simple and effective. Likewise, I could better introduce Nietzsche by listing the name of the essay from which the quote is derived or by hinting at his relevance to the argument. In its current form, this draft inserts Nietzsche without properly explaining why he’s here, producing a rather jarring effect for unprepared readers.

Well-oriented papers employ brief but graceful set-up phrases that properly introduce characters and scholars. Such papers also clarify confusing concepts, often with edifying examples or informatively rephrased sentences. Making use of these strategies would allow me to strengthen my argument and clear up ambiguity in meaning.