Understanding Cinema: Analyzing Film Language and Style

Open to students entering grades 9 through 12 or freshman year of college in the fall
I - June 29–July 17, 2020
Days & Time:
Monday–Friday, 9:10 –11:00 a.m. and 1:10–3:00 p.m.
Peter Conolly-Smith

A willingness to engage thoughtfully with challenging films.

Course Description

This course introduces students to the art and analysis of cinema through examination of works by filmmakers ranging from Orson Welles to Martin Scorsese. Readings, screenings, the analysis of clips and full-length movies, as well as hands-on exercises such as storyboarding, blocking, shooting, and editing a scene all combine to convey the excitement and artistry of film.

Week One:

Students learn how motion pictures developed their own language—their own, universally understood visual system of representation—by studying the masters of early and contemporary cinema: the edge-of-your-seat last minute rescue scenes of D.W. Griffith; the bravura long takes of Jean Renoir; the nail-biting tension created by Quentin Tarantino; and the nerve-tingling suspense that is the hallmark of Alfred Hitchcock. Using their smartphones, students try their own hand at conceptualizing, blocking, and editing scenes in the continuity style of classic Hollywood cinema.

Week Two:

Having learned Hollywood’s tricks of the trade, we branch out into international cinema, where other nations developed different systems of representation—their own languages—that challenged but also inspired the American film industry. Meet the Soviet style of filmmaking that revolutionized cinema in every sense of the word; the Gothic excess of German Expressionism, whose use of lighting, setting, and costume echoes in all contemporary horror flicks; and the samurai swordplay of Akira Kurosawa and its reincarnation in gun-slinging Hollywood Westerns. Each student writes a review of one contemporary American film that owes a debt to foreign cinema—or vice versa.

Week Three:

Putting it all together, Week Three culminates in group analyses of some of the masterworks of classical and contemporary cinema such as Citizen Kane, La La Land, and Run, Lola, Run. We examine and discuss the ways in which sound and image, editing, and the elements of mise-en-scène combine to create transporting cinematic experiences that have the ability to make audiences cry, experience fear, feel empathy and joy and, above all, marvel at the magic of movies.

Assigned readings include film reviews and essays on film analysis, technique, and history. Students are also responsible for an oral presentation on a specific scene, film, or director of their choice.

Please be aware that some of the films viewed contain violence and mature subject matter.


Peter Conolly-Smith

Peter Conolly-Smith received his Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale University. A producer and screenwriter, Peter has worked extensively in fiction and documentary film. He received the 2009 President's Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching at CUNY-Queens College, where he teaches history, culture, and cinema studies. He also teaches regularly for the Yale Alumni College in New York. Peter is the author of Translating America (Smithsonian Press, 2004), as well as numerous academic articles and book chapters on film, ethnicity, culture and history.

Back to the Course Guide

Specific course detail such as hours and instructors are subject to change at the discretion of the University. Not all instructors listed for a course teach all sections of that course.