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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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Orienting

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

Orienting: Works in Progress

Excerpt

…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.

Commentary

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.

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