On Writing a Thesis

On Thursday, I defended my thesis. It was approved. While I’m not completely done with it—I still need to make some edits and submit it for final approval to the graduate school—the major work is over. Like most major milestones I’ve passed in life, I’m left feeling ambivalent. It’s nice to see it done, but it also leaves me with the lingering question of: Now what?

But instead of speculating on the future, I’m going to take this opportunity to look back at the process and hopefully offer some interesting observations and insights into the process and what it has taught me about film writing. For those who want to know the what of my thesis, it covered the films of Abbas Kiarostami. I go into more detail about the specifics over here.

The biggest takeaway from the thesis was that I need to write longer things. I still think the short-form analysis of films has its place and I can still get something out of it, but it just  doesn’t work for my mentality as much. I like honing in on the details and placing them in the context of a bigger picture. It speaks to that methodical part of my brain that likes dealing in the minutia. It’s hard to do that in a review, especially if you’ve only seen the film once.

This leads me to another takeaway: watching a film multiple times will lead you into a deeper understanding of the film. This seems obvious, but in a rampant film culture where every week people are scrambling about writing about the latest film, there’s more and more of a need for writing about a film a critic has seen multiple times because his or her deeper familiarity with the film will tease out more from the film. In the case of my thesis, I ended up getting a lot more out of Close-Up with multiple viewings. As you can tell from my first review, I found the film interesting, but it wasn’t until I watched it several times and read about the making of the film and other critic’s perspectives that I began to understand the brilliance of the film.

Also, reading the works of other critics, and interviews with the filmmakers, is essential. I’m bad about this one. I tend to put on blinders when going into a film, trying to dissuade myself from being shaped by the opinions of others. I still hold to that, but I think that there’s something to be said for doing some research after you’ve seen the film and have a decent grasp on your own opinion. A good critical analysis can clear up confusions or help you see merits or flaws that might have escaped your notice. After all, as a viewer, you only have your own perspective to go off of when you see a film fresh. If it wasn’t for Godfrey Cheshire, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Alberto Elena and many other film critics, I would have missed some of the rich details that became invaluable for making a coherent argument in my thesis.

When taking on something the scope of a thesis, you’re going to have to return to certain things. Sometimes, you’ll be coming back to a film, other times you’ll feel like you are staring to become redundant. I find that sometimes you might even return to the same scene but from a different perspective. I have this gut instinct that this is lazy writing, but I think that you need to embrace the overlap as in the end it leads to a more focused and tightly woven piece of writing.

The hardest, and most inevitable, part of writing a thesis (at least for me) is that you can’t cover everything. Along the way, I found new rabbit trails I could have spent time exploring, and it was tempting go off on tangents, but I’ll have to save those topics and ideas for another day. And there’s also a moment late in the process when you discover a source or think up something that you should work in, but would require reframing and rewriting far too much of the thesis. At some point, the process has to run its course and you’ve got to deliver something that’s focused and coherent.

The next step is to get this published. I’m sure that entire process will be rife with its own revelations and insights. I imagine in the next six months or so, you’ll be reading “On Trying to Get Published.”

© 2013 James Blake Ewing

  • I’m with you on the ambivalance. About six weeks ago, I received word that an article would be published in an academic journal in my field after workikng for 18 months on a 30,000-word piece (not film related). But to be honest, the most gratifying part was that moment when I knew I was finished (for better or for worse). (It seemed like the last 10% took 9 months to complete.) Everything that happens after that is kind of “meh,” and now that I am dealing with the editors about the wording of sentences and the particulars of citation formats, I already find myself distracted with my next extracurricular project.

    I agree that you should resolve to devote more time to the long form essay (rather than the review). The DVD, blog format, etc. really allows for a detailed analyses of visuals aspects – and yet, there is not enough depth out there in the internets. Personally, in tackling a longer article about film, because I am not in the field of film or film criticism, I often find myself obsessed with wanting to say something that is at least moderately original – if not in content, certainly in scope – and I have abandoned a few projects after reading other pieces and coming to the conclusion that I really do not have much to add.

    • James Blake Ewing

      I’m hoping to look at going deeper in the future with this blog. Still not sure what that looks like quite yet, but I certainly think I’d rather be doing that than turning out terse reviews most of the week.