Research Papers

These papers should be roughly 4000-5000 words.  By October 27, you need to have a brief paragraph that sketches your research topic and indicates a provisional line of argument, as well as a list of at least ten sources that you think will be important to your discussion.   These sources should be listed in proper bibliographic format, with two or three sentences explaining why you expect them to contribute significantly to your essay.

Here are some tips to help you get started:

1.  Choose a topic – in most cases, it will initially be too broad for a 5000-word paper, and your task will be to narrow and refine it.  Your topic could be: a genre (British “unemployment films,” or “rockumentaries”) or a cross-section (Black British films of the 1980s; recent British films by women directors); a selection of work by one director; a single important film; an institution (BFI, Woodfall films, the ratings system, the BAFTA Awards);  a particular aspect of some films, e.g., “the soundtrack in social realist tradition” – or anything relevant to our class that you are interested in working on for the next ten weeks.

example: Mike Leigh, British film director.

2.  Do a quick look around to see how much material there is to work with.  If you run into a huge amount of material, you need to start narrowing your topic immediately.  If you find little or nothing in the way of material, you may need to try a different topic that is not as obscure.       

examples of primary material:  Leigh’s films, writings, interviews; Director commentaries on DVDs; published screenplays or transcriptions; publicity stills; etc.

examples of secondary material: reviews of Leigh’s films in newspapers, magazines and online; academic criticism; historical and biographical scholarship; mainstream profiles and feature pieces; fansites; BFI ScreenOnline; etc

3.  Begin acquainting yourself with the primary materials, reading some of the secondary materials, and refining your topic (narrowing it, focusing it on a particular aspect or historical moment or area of special interest within the general topic)

example: US distribution and reception of Mike Leigh’s films

4.  Focus your reading and viewing on this more refined version of your topic.  Begin reading more carefully, and in more depth.  Identify a problem – a crux or difficulty – that remains to be adequately addressed in the secondary literature.  Put this problem in the form of a research question: the question that your essay will attempt to answer.

example:  Have Mike Leigh’s films gotten more “American,” less “British,” as he has built a wider audience in the USA?  Are they less distinctive and interesting than they used to be?  Are they worse?  (Or better?)  

5.    Continue to refine this question as you begin to develop your answer to it.

example:  In what particular ways have Leigh’s films veered away from specifically British social realist traditions as they’ve reached wider audiences in the USA?

6.    Make sure this question is not trivial, i.e., that there is real disagreement.

example:  Many critics argue that Leigh’s best films are the ones that have succeeded best in the American market and received nominations or Academy Awards – Secrets and Lies, Topsy Turvy, Vera Drake.  But some prefer his earlier films, such as High Hopes and Naked, which had very little distribution in America.

7.    As you formulate your own answer to the question (this is your thesis), make sure it is argumentative (not just descriptive), and distinctive (not just rehashing other people’s arguments).  Write a brief paragraph that conveys your thesis and the argumentative trajectory that justifies it.  The example below is not necessarily a very good thesis paragraph; it remains too vague and sweeping.  But it does focus on a particular issue or controversy within the general topic, as well as indicating the specific works that will be most central to the essay.  And it does convey an approximate line of argument in response to the existing critical literature.

example: The general view is that Mike Leigh really came of age in the mid- to late- 1990s, when his films achieved “greater breadth of vision,” “a more expansive humanity,” and “truly universal appeal.”  Not coincidentally, this was the period when he finally broke through in the American market and found commercial and critical success in the US.  The trouble is that in order to achieve this success, Leigh had to become a more sentimental and a less aesthetically adventurous filmmaker.   If his vision became more “universal,” that is because it lost its particularities of style – even in some respects its distinct Britishness.  Focusing mainly on two films, High Hopes (1988) and Secrets and Lies (1996), but with reference to others, I will argue that Leigh’s success in winning over North American audiences has been purchased at a high artistic cost.