A level Media Studies support site

A level Media Studies support site
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Sunday, 24 October 2010

Textual analysis ; elusive A grades

David Allison wrote: "The exam question is always phrased something like: "Discuss the ways in which the extract constructs the representation of (say) gender using camera, editing, sound and mise en scene." It does NOT ask how CESM contribute to genre or narrative.

For me, sound is typically about narrative, genre and the audience's emotional response to a scene. It's pretty rare, in TV drama, for sound design to get a great deal of attention. Then there's editing, which for me is primarily about narrative. I've studied many textbooks, but never read an example of how ellipsis makes a character appear more masculine, or how an eyeline match speaks volumes about class differences. I think professional editors would find the idea amusing. Sure it comes into play occasionally, but 90% of the time, TV editing is hasty and perfunctory, as it was in the early days of cinema - the punctuation of moving image. (I was a TV producer for four years, so I'm not coming to this clueless.) In all but the most artfully constructed of novels, would we really ask the role that commas and colons play in character construction?

Certain that I'm missing something, I turned to Julian McDougall's textbook - but I remain none the wiser. Reading OCR exemplar scripts offers few insights either: the 'High' answer A on Monarch of the Glen refers only to 'smooth' editing, whatever that means. Even if it does 'imply continuous editing' as the examiner writes, what does that have to do with answering the question? Answer B comments nicely on s/rs representing two characters' opposition, but that's it - the reference to eyeline match is a technical device to explore camera and mise en scene: the use of close up, facial expression and props to explore the teenager's childlikeness.

Back to sound and in response to candidate A, the examiner notes: "Further, the candidate attempts to draw out the issue of the use of sound in the representation of age, considering the multifaceted use of sound in the extract: "Jovial folk music is played when there is an up-tempo scene where everybody is at work, but this quickly changes to a sombre low key piece when Amy is running away. The change of pitch and tempo sets the mood and our stance on the scene." I'm sorry - but how is this drawing out the issue of the use of sound in the representation of age? And how is it so much better than Candidate C's point, which the examiner says show 'minimal engagement': "Non-diegetic music in the extract gives a feel of vintage Scottish music, which is played whilst the older males are shown working in the extract. It is also very lively and active. So the music is relating to the older working males in the clip." Now, badly worded it may be, but the candidate is clearly attemp!
ting to relate the tempo of the music to the vitality of the older working men, which is more than candidate A tried to do.

The Doctor Who examples shared by the board at Get Ahead don't help me much either. Only one of the three points about both sound and editing in the June 09 exam overview pertains to gender representation. In the 'sound and editing' exemplars, Candidate A's points actually refer mainly to camera and mise en scene - references to to editing seem incidental to gender, and the term 'jump cut' is repeatedly mis-used. Candidate B talks about the ticking of the clock, but while that's great for narrative and mood, what does that have to do with gender?

From hours of reading exam board exemplars, I've so far got the following codes:
a.. Shot/reverse shot can be used to reinforce relationships - sometimes by exaggerating opposition
b.. Jump cuts can connote disorder
c.. Eyeline match can provide insight to a character's private thoughts, though mainly through camera and mise en scene, actually.
d.. Pace of editing can imply character qualities - fast pace suggests energy, for example.
e.. Choice of music can do the same
f.. Crescendo implies a build-up of power or emotion, be it in dialogue or non-diegetic music.
g.. err.. that's it so far. Anyone got any more?
Sorry if this seems like a bit of a rant, but as you might be able to tell, I'm beginning to despair - I really want to help my students improve their scores, but I'm not sure I understand how. Or is it not just me - are we ALL bluffing about this, in the hope that no one notices...?"

Vicky Allen responded: "Don't know if this helps but I think the whole point is teaching how the micro contribute to macro (the three macro being narrative, genre and representation). The task set by the exam board states that they are looking at how MCES create macro representations of XYZ. In the case of the MOTG clip, the use of sound (jovial music played when the middle aged workers were on scene v. threatening sound motif to introduce Amy) clearly represented the difference and contributed to a stereotypical representation of age (adults - good, youth - bad), so I agree that Candidate C response was more in line with what I think the exam board want (candidate A may have been a better response overall though so perhaps this was just a weak aspect of their answer).
I always try and get my students to write a sentence about the narrative at the start so they a) understand the clip and b) link it to the other macro of representation and how the difference in representation helps us understand the narrative. The shot reverse shots, action matches, eyeline matches, montage etc as part of editing in that clip all contributed to stereotypical representations of age and there were loads of examples in the clip."

James Baker added: "I'm not sure that building up a list of codes and their fixed 'meanings' is going to be particularly helpful for students. At best it tends to lead to the kind of deterministic analysis which often characterises weaker responses, as the context of the codes is lost in the belief that Code A always equals Meaning B (see the constant plea in the PE reports for G322 to avoid discussing colour palette in this superficial way - a white shirt does not always mean that characters are 'pure' and red trousers do not necessarily signify their 'passion/anger'!)

One approach to both sound and editing is to look at the way in which technical elements are used to create perspective or viewpoint within a sequence - a key element of the process of representation that goes beyond the identification of 'character traits'. By understanding, for example, how screen time, p.o.v. or reaction shots are distributed, even weaker students can see how hierarchies are established, leading to certain representations being privileged where others are marginalised. Stronger students are able to develop this further by discussing how the audience is positioned in relation to the representations on offer - the best answers in the June session of G322 offered some great discussion of the way in which editing frequently shifted the viewer's relationship to dominant views of gender in different scenes, for example. Another important factor is the way that the editing of the sequence grants or witholds narrative information from the audience in order to encourage identification or rejection of particular characters/representations. Fans of 1970s screen theory will recognise the essence of Colin McCabe's work on hierarchy of discourses in classic realist texts in this approach - obviously massively watered down! There are good chapters on this in John Fiske's Television Culture and Bernadette Casey's Television Studies if you want to mug up."

and "As far as the Primeval sequence was concerned, I was thinking along the lines of those students who were able to build a discussion of the way in which the content/mise en scene suggest that Cutter's masculinity is undermined by being the victim of the sabre tooth attack in which he requires rescuing by Abby, while the editing of the sequence positions him squarely as the protagonist through the frequent reaction shots, the way in which he motivates the editing through his actions and the final slow-mo shot of his relieved expression, rather than cutting back to Abby who's just saved him! Not many male stars would be happy if they missed out on a triumphant close up at the end of an action sequence.

There are some obvious contrasts to be made to the final sequence of the extract, where Jenny is ostensibly the protagonist but the cutting makes it obvious that she controls situations through dialogue rather than action (arguably feminine vs masculine skills) - she motivates the shot/reverse shots, emphasising her manipulation of West. In addition, her lower status in relation to Cutter is emphasised by the fact that her last minute rescue is not signalled by a cutaway to the team arriving with guns and the fact the sequence cuts to their determined expressions rather than to her."

and finally from James Shea: "David, in reply to your question about attaining the A grade might I offer a left field answer? I used to be Head of English and Media before moving on to my university role and the concept of A grades in any paper was a key central issue. What we actually found was that some students could have the knowledge but not get an A grade. Some students had 50% of the knowledge, but still got an A grade. Comparing papers, the difference between the two was remarkably clear: the latter group could write really well. I mean by that their composition was strong, their arguments and use of evidence effective, their ability to draw together thematic ideas and present high level arguments was smooth and in general they wrote with confidence even though they didn't actually have a great deal of knowledge.
By refocusing some of your efforts into the demands of effective prose writing rather than knowledge you might actually break down some of the issues you are meeting. We found that those that did English Literature and Media got better marks sometimes in the Media exams - simply because they were better at writing sharp focused scripts at speed.
It is something to think about, but I wish you luck in hunting down those elusive A grades - it plagues us all."

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