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The following guidelines were composed by Julia Erhart and Nick Prescott for inclusion in material prepared for first year students in the Screen Studies department. While the examples draw upon material specific to Screen Studies, the principles discussed may be extended to other disciplines.

What is an Argument?

An effective, well-supported, scholarly “argument” is the key organising component of any successful research paper. This reading will help us begin to identify what is (and what isnt) a suitable argument for a university research piece. In order to write in an elegant, convincing and scholarly way, we need to go further than just answering questions that have been set; we need to become critical thinkers who can identify and describe the most important elements of an object — be it a film, a set of films, a television show, a specific director or author, a specific audience, an historical media moment, etc. In order to logically guide our arguments, we need to understand what kinds of questions are sufficiently complex — without being too complex — to sustain a line of enquiry over the length of an essay or paper. Furthermore, we need to remember that there will be a context around even the most innocuous-looking film or text. Star Wars — the Phantom Menace, for example, can be read not only as an “intergalactic adventure-story”, but also as a simple religious allegory and as a highly sophisticated marketing enterprise. We can see that any film is an object that contains certain “unchangeable” elements, elements which can, however, be interpreted in sometimes very different ways. Some arguments attempting to describe a particular interpretation of a film will be convincing, others may not. Whether or not an argument is well-supported and logical will determine its success.

How though do we ensure that we are presenting an argument, and not a completely subjective (i.e. personalised, biased, factually unsupportable) opinion? In this exercise we will spend time identifying appropriate arguments and distinguishing them from the kinds of things that sometimes pass as arguments in the Screen Studies field. An argument is not the same as a fact or an opinion. This is the point behind the chart below.

FACTS OPINIONS ARGUMENTS

Gangs of New York was shot in a 2.35:1 cinemascope aspect ratio

Cinemascope movies are spectacular and fun to watch Cinemascope significantly departs from the stylistic system of classical Hollywood filmmaking
Cape Fear is about a vengeful criminal who terrorises the family of the man who sent him to jail Cape Fear is a really effective thriller Suspense in Cape Fear is generated through the insistent use of tracking shots and subjective camera techniques
Invasion of the Body Snatchers was made in 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a brilliant film/ is a bit dated/ sucks in a major way Invasion of the Body Snatchers can be read as a metaphorical depiction of the paranoia and suspicion that characterised the McCarthy era
The narrative of Psycho was inspired by a real murder case Psycho is a pretty damn scary movie Hitchcock's stylistic choices (shooting in black and white, Herrmann's strings-only score, use of off-screen space) enhance the film's calculated sense of claustrophobia and entrapment
Fearless is based on the real-life story of a number of people who survived a plane crash Fearless is a deeply moving film Weir's decision to depict the plane crash in piece-by-piece flashbacks throughout the film enhances its final emotional impact
Naked Lunch was based on the novel of the same name by William S. Burroughs Naked Lunch is thoroughly unfilmable novel Cronenberg gets around the non-linear nature of the Burroughs text by making a hybrid fantasy/bio-pic which employs a gallery of unusual narrative styles


The examples above illustrate the simple in-substance differences between facts, opinions and arguments. As we can see, the complexity of the arguments themselves, even in the limited space above, differs from case to case. What is unchanging though is the relationship between opinion and argument (or “thesis statement”). Arguments are ideas or theories which attempt to “explain what is happening” in a particular object (i.e. a film). Arguments are theories that are supported by citation of elements of the object in question; arguments attempt to persuade the reader that the object being discussed does in fact work in a particular way. To take the example of Star Wars — the Phantom Menace once more: if one was to argue for the idea that the film was “a brilliantly complex example of mainstream filmmaking at its best”, one might present an argument which cited the films substantial box-office success, its A-list stars, its position as an initial prequel to the most successful series of films ever made, and go on to highlight the importance and complexity of its referential and allegorical subtexts. If, on the other hand, one was to suggest that the film was “a hollow, insubstantial mish-mash of borrowed narrative threads and glossy, vacuous spectacle” one might argue for this position by citing the fact that the massive merchandising effort surrounding the film meant that entire sequences were designed as “selling points” for tie-ins like video games, the “Biblical” elements of the plot lacked narrative logic or resonance, and the large and essentially meaningless sequences based entirely on other works like Ben-Hur rendered the film unoriginal rather than clever.


 

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Professor Graham Tulloch of the English Department has written a booklet entitled English Grammar: A Short Guide. This text covers fundamental aspects of English grammar, such as parts of a word, parts of a sentence, and parts of speech


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