Thursday, July 07, 2011

Movie Musings: My Approach to Film Surveys

Now that I've completed two film surveys and am working on a third, I thought it was time to write about how I go about doing them.

First, I'm not doing this for school. When I mention to people that I do film surveys and explain what I'm doing, they always ask if it's for a class. I do this because I get so much out of it and it's really fun. I think it's interesting that many people assume someone engaged in this kind of activity would do so only for school.

Second, I've never taken a film course so I have no idea how an instructor would approach a similar survey. The process I use grew out of my own efforts and I'm assuming an instructor's course would have much more depth, and certainly more information.

All that being said, here's how I go about it.


Sometimes the subject matter is easy. You decide you want to explore a particular director's body of work so that's where you start. Or you decide you want to concentrate on a particular time and place, or even a particular actor.

My first film survey was on Weimar Cinema, films made in Germany from 1920 (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) to 1933 (The Testament of Dr. Mabuse). I also watched The Triumph of Will (1935), the notorious Nazi propaganda film as a coda. Choosing my next subject was easy because I really wanted to learn more about Akira Kurosawa and his films. The subject matter for current survey was more difficult. I had the thought that I wanted to concentrate on a European director, perhaps someone who'd made films in the 1940s and 50s, possibly into the 60s, but I was also taken with the idea of focusing on an event or subject matter.

One of my friends did an impressive overview of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He read a bunch of books, watched films and documentaries, and even read a manga or two about it. I seriously thought of going this route and either following in his footsteps or picking another event. I also thought about other directors and even actors (one of the actors at the top of my list was Vincent Price). In the end, I settled on Spanish director Luis Buñuel. I was fascinated that he'd made so many films in different countries and languages and for his reputation as a surrealist.

I should note that I don't consider my continuing review of South Korean films to be a "survey." For me, film surveys are all about looking back at a particular time and place or a particular person, such as a director. South Korean films are still evolving and maturing. For now, I'm merely a collector.

Once the subject matter has been chosen, it's time to make a list.


A film survey must have a beginning and an end so it's important to make a list of films. I always start on Amazon, believe it or not. I run searches for Listmania! articles ("So you wanna..."). This is how I created my Kurosawa list of films. After reviewing Amazon, I'll run a general Google search and do some reading for recommendations. Yahoo! Answers is another good place to find film recommendations. After I have some idea of what films could be on the list, I'll start reading Wikipedia, Rotten Tomatoes, and IMDB articles about the films. Some films are are a no brainer such as Kurosawa's Seven Samurai or Buñuel's Belle du Jour. Others are less obvious and require some reading to ferret out.

My survey of Weimar Cinema topped out at 14 films. My Kurosawa survey encompassed 16 of his films. When I'm done with Buñuel, I'll have watched 23 of his films. None of these numbers include any "offshoot" or remake films (more on this later).

The next most important thing is to find a book of the films. I found my book on Weimar Cinema at the library. The Films of Akira Kurosawa by Donald Richie was a wonderful book to have on hand. Oddly enough, there isn't such a book for Buñuel's films so I had to do some poking around. I found a book called A Companion to Luis Buñuel which discusses his films and also his life but not film by film. In the end, the best resource I found was Luis' autobiography My Last Sigh. UPDATE: I found a splendid book titled Luis Buñuel: A Critical Biography by Francisco Aranda at a used bookstore in the Mission and paid $8 for it. It has a detailed bio, especially of his childhood, a film by film review, and many of his critical writings about art and films, and some of his surrealist writings. This book, along with My Last Sigh, are my best book companions.


If you're lucky, as with all of the Kurosawa films I watched, the film will have been released by the Criterion Collection. Criterion is a company that releases films that have been restored and include excellent extras. I suppose you could consider their approach to be more scholarly. Some of their releases are brilliant, such as my three-disc set of Seven Samurai. It has the best audio commentary I've heard so far along with documentaries, essays, and the like. On the other hand, I was somewhat disappointed to find out that the only Buñuel films released by Criterion were from his Second French period.

I watch the film, all commentaries, and all documentaries. After that, I'll look the film up on Wikipedia, Rotten Tomatoes, and IMDB and read more about it. If I have a book of the films I'll read the relevant section but only after I see the film first.

In the past, I've stopped there but now I log the films in my Master Notebook. Logging is tremendously satisfying. I'll take at least one screenshot, maybe more, give the film my own rating, add factual details, and write a review. In addition to logging, I'll make a note in the survey's diary section in my Master Notebook entitled The State Of My Obsession.

My current survey for Buñuel includes the film log, The State of My Obsession diary section, and a Reading Page. I've been doing a lot of reading related to Buñuel himself, his films, and his friends so I keep track of those activities there. As noted before, I also write articles relating with the survey but I've noticed the articles are slower in coming. I'll definitely do an article about Buñuel and his friends, and will likely do an article about recurring themes in his films: surrealism, his attitudes towards the Bourgeoisie, and religion at some point.


Many directors, Kurosawa is definitely one of them, inspire others and remakes of their films are made. Depending on the film, I'll sometimes watch a remake for comparison purposes. For the Kurosawa survey, I watched Magnificent Seven, a 1960 western remake of Seven Samurai, and A Fistful of Dollars, an iconic 1964 Spaghetti western remake of Yojimbo. An "offshoot" film is always one by a different director but might explore a similar genre, might even include actors my director likes to use. Or the "offshoot" film is about the director, usually fictionalized in some way. For my Kurosawa film survey, I watched The Sword of Doom, a 1966 Samurai film directed by Kihachi Okamoto and starred Kurosawa regulars Tatsuya Nakadai and Toshiro Mifune. For my Buñuel film survey, I've watched Little Ashes, a fictionalized account of Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dalí, and Federico García Lorca during their university days.


My Buñuel survey has taken me to new places I never anticipated. I've become interested in Paris in the 1920s and have been doing a little exploring in that area. I already have a bit of background from reading Buñuel's autobiography and learning about the Surrealists. It also helps that we have a number of wonderful art exhibits going on here in San Francisco that encourage this kind of exploration: a Picasso exhibit at the DeYoung Musuem, a Steins exhibit at SFMOMA, and an exhibit on Gertrude Stein at the Jewish Contemporary Museum. I might take a bit of time and read one of Hemingway's books (either A Movable Feast or The Sun Also Rises).


As you can see, my biggest problem is keeping the survey contained and focused. The other problem is completing the survey in a reasonable time. Both my Kurosawa and Weimar Cinema surveys took years to complete because I wasn't very focused on them. I've already seen 16 of Buñuel's films and am now focusing my efforts on his Second French Period. It's a bit overwhelming to go from doing a survey in a couple of years to doing one in a couple of months. I need to find the right balance for myself.

I'll definitely write a blog post here and there about the survey (here's one I did about Buñuel's First French Period), but these posts tend to be watered down, shortened versions of my Master Notebook log. I have toyed with the thought of starting a separate blog for writing about films and film surveys but I've got too much on my plate to focus on that right now. I may try it later.

This is really fun for me. It never feels like work. The added element of logging the survey and writing essays just makes it that much more wonderful. Plus, I get to flip through my Master Notebook to see the results. So satisfying.

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