Mrs. Miniver and Film as Propaganda

26th February – 4th March 2018

Unfortunately, this week doesn’t feel like it was nearly as productive as last week. Though I’m probably about to show myself that it wasn’t as bad as I feel like it was.

This week really turned out to be all about wartime propaganda. I read the chapters of One World, Big Screen that I felt were most relevant. These were the intro of course, one on internationalism in American cinema between 1939 and 1941 and one that focused specifically on British-American relations through the war and how this was depicted and strengthened through movies. This was a really interesting read that raised some points I had not considered before and gave me a lot to think about. It also included some stuff on a film I watched this week, Mrs. Miniver (1942). This was a film that was part of the Anglo-America propaganda effort and was, in part, meant to sell the American people on the British. It was hugely successful, commercially and critically, winning four Academy Awards in 1943 including Best Picture.

There is a fascinating depiction of the events of 1940 in Britain in the film that will be the focus of what I discuss in the preliminary analysis I’ll be handing over to my supervisors in a fortnight. It’s very much focused on the home front that I think, in and of itself, is really interesting. Its the first film that I’ve watched so far that’s solely about the civilian experience. Dunkirk (1958) flits between the civilians that contribute their boats and a military point of view, Dunkirk (2017) goes for the everyman experience, primarily from a soldier’s perspective, and Darkest Hour (2017) is obviously the ruling class’s perspective. Perhaps most interestingly, it is the only film so far that is primarily a woman’s point of view. Both Dunkirks barely have female speaking roles at all and Darkest Hour, aside from some ladies in a scene in which Churchill, rather bizarrely, catches the Underground, involves only a secretary and Clementine, Churchill’s wife, neither or which have almost anything of value to contribute to the story except selling the fact that men died and it was sad. That aspect might be worth looking into. (I appear not to be able to escape my interest in depictions of women).

Otherwise, this week I ventured to Bowral to see Darkest Hour again and had a lovely relaxing day as I found a nice little cafe down there to do some reading as well. I also went to the PhD Orientation which was basically just a bunch of advice being thrown at us which was nothing I hadn’t heard yet but still nice to hear again. We did a little bit of a writing exercise and I ended up just freewriting about some ideas for the synthesis that I’ll be handing in so all in all a good day.

Next week I’ll be continue to work on this synthesis, going through Imagining Realities, returning to an article on Oliver Stone and Platoon and writing up my analyses ready to go.

Tangential Rants and the First Postgrad Day

19th-25th February 2018.

For the record, I wrote this last Saturday and then forgot to actually post it. Great job me! 

I feel like I’ve had a reasonably productive week and as I’m coming to the end of it, although for some reason I feel incredibly tired, I’m also feeling positive.

I have routine now that I’m feeling comfortable with, including scheduled time for new research, reading, and watching relevant films/series as well as things like cleaning the house and seeing a movie which I find help me keep my head on. I like having scheduled time for those sorts of non-research activities because I feel like if I didn’t I’d find excuses to do them when I should probably be doing something important for my research.

I met with my supervisors this week and, as usual, it was relaxing. To be honest I rather look forward to my meetings. I feel like I can get a little adrift by myself sometimes and to have time to talk things over and get direction and sometimes reassurance is really helpful. This meeting we decided on my first deadline, which is great for me because it gives me the feeling of working towards something. Of course I should be consistently working toward my CoC but I’ve never been excellent at thinking long term so seven or so months until the CoC perhaps doesn’t register as seriously in my head as it definitely should. Thus, short term deadlines are always good for me. Hopefully this time around I can get on top of my persistent problem with procrastination and treat deadlines as less of a challenge. We’ve decided that what I’ll hand in in three weeks time is a synthesis of the literature I’ve read thus far, including preliminary analysis of the films I’ve been watching.

Speaking of literature, I’ve read some interesting stuff this week. I read an article about the two Churchill films from 2017, Churhill and Darkest Hour from the New York Review of Books. It was fascinating! It discussed not just those films but the history of Churchill on film and how that helped to establish a particular persistent idea of Churchill as a kind of mythological figure. It also discusses how a cult of Churchill formed in America and how American presidents from JFK onward have used Churchillian rhetoric to try to win favour and justify their policies.

The author of this article, Geoffrey Wheatcroft is not particularly fond of historical films it seems, feeling that they give audiences a false sense of history, which I think is a bit simplistic. However, he ends the article with a quote from Orwell’s 1984 which stuck with me a bit: “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” This is naturally ominous but it is applicable, and slightly concerning, when it comes to historical films. The people with the ability to fund and make these films control the depiction of the past so its important to be aware of the power structures at work. Think about Birth of a Nation (1915) which is considered by many to be the first historical feature film of note and is unbelievably racist. Or even just how many depictions of white men doing heroic things there are out there compared to the amount about people of colour or women. I guess this is a tangent but something I should keep in mind given that I’m looking at films that essentially are about white men doing heroic things. We must always try to be aware of who a narrative is benefiting and who it is explicitly or implicitly excluding and for me, its important to note that people of colour are largely missing from the films I’m discussing though their presence at the time is indisputable. I should endeavor to make a point of this.

Anyway, I went to the first postgraduate day yesterday (Friday 23rd) which was excellent! It was really a kind of introductory day to meet people starting or continuing their PhD and some of the staff. The first session of the day was a talk by Associate Professor Chris Fleming and was incredibly useful. He gave a lot of tips about writing that were so useful. He talked about not waiting to start writing which I always need to be reminded of because I can fall into the habit of feeling like I need to read absolutely everything before I can possibly be ready to write. He also did a really handy thing where he broke down all writing as doing two things: moving back and forth between the abstract and the concrete and between exposition and response. Essentially, he was saying that all good writing, in the humanities at least, should move between a general concept or theme and concrete, specific examples. So I might be talking about historical films but I am addressing certain films in particular. Or to tighten further, I might be talking about second world war films but specifically ones that are about Dunkirk. Also, all writing is explaining what someone else said or did and a response to that, whether that response be critique or classification or contextualisation or whatever. I found that it was really helpful to think about it that way. It sort of reminded me that while I have to talk about specific examples, I should also be relating them to wider ideas so that those examples have a clear relevance and that I should be making sure that I’m analysing everything that I’m using whether they be written texts or films. There’s no point including something if I can’t explain why its relevant.

The rest of the day involved talking about what postgrad activities were taking place during the year, such as the postgrad conference and various seminars as well as learning about the support services and resources available to us. We also spoke to some students who had just finished their first year and who gave some great advice about the CoC and surviving and balancing research and life. We also got a copy of the Early Candidature Plan Form so I have a better sense of what I’ve got to do for that.

Next week I’ll be sorting out resources that I gather in my undergrad and over the course of the MRes,  and I’m going to watch another film and return to one I’m not familiar enough with to write the analysis. I’ve also got a book on WWII, the allies and propaganda, and one on documentary theories to go through. Aiming to keep up my momentum from this week!

I’m Back!

Hello! Its been a while, I know. Things got a little crazy toward the end of my Masters. But, it was all worth it because I ended up handing in a Masters thesis that earned me a High Distinction and got me into my PhD program with a full scholarship! So basically I ended the most stressful year of my life to date and decided what to do next was to dive straight in to what will probably be three more incredibly stressful years.

I’m excited though, I have to say. I’ve just really gotten back into it, knuckling down on the early stages of the research, reading widely and as much as possible. I had my first proper meeting with my supervisory panel last week which went well and really hyped me up to get going again. My two supervisors from my Masters have come with me into my PhD which is brilliant and I couldn’t be more grateful to them. I’ve also got a new addition who is an expert in the area of history I think I’m going to look into and who is just a lovely, incredibly intelligent woman. I’m excited to work with her.

So yes, back at it. This time I’m going to continue my research into history and film in a similar way to what I did in my Masters. At this point my plan is to look into the recent spate of British films and television series that are returning to and reimagining the early Second World War, specifically Dunkirk and Churchill. I also plan to investigate the reception of these films and series which is an area of my Masters thesis that I basically ignored due to the time and space constraints on my paper.

Hopefully I’ll be more active on here, tracking my PhD journey, updating on the research process and sharing the lessons that I learn from the wonderful and learned people around me and from the mistakes I’m sure I will inevitably make.

Wish me luck!

 

 

Research Update 20/06/2017

So I spent the last 10 days at the Sydney Film Festival and I’m feeling both exhausted and inspired. I’m also, naturally, feeling a little guilty because I really haven’t done a lot thesis wise. I tried to squeeze in a bit of reading and writing here and there but there really isn’t a huge amount to report.

The film festival itself was wonderful. It was my first time but it will definitely not be my last. I saw loads of really interesting films and was lucky enough that out of the 20 I saw, there was only one that I didn’t really like. I saw a couple of films dealing with specific historical people or events (a sweet biopic of painter Maud Lewis and an unsettling documentary about Elián González) but almost all of the films were dealing with a particular historical and/or cultural moment or issue. A number of them were documentaries and it was interesting to be able to contrast and think about the ways issues were presented in a documentary form versus a fictional film. I Am Not Your Negro directed by Raoul Peck was an interesting example to me because it almost felt like it was blending fiction and documentary by examining issues of race in America entirely through the words and writings of James Baldwin. The film also explored how film is used to construct and reinforce cultural ideas and norms, particularly in this case, how Baldwin came to understand his place as an African American in the United States through the construction and depiction of African American characters in the films of the 1930s-1950s.

My experience viewing Last Men in Aleppo, a documentary about the White Helmets in Syria, was also particularly interesting. As I was entering the theatre, a group of protestors were gathered outside handing out pamphlets that denounced the film as propaganda, claiming that the White Helmets are sponsored by Al-Qaeda and that the film was one of many films attempting to arouse sympathies in the West with a pro-terrorist organisation. One of the ways this was done, they claimed, was by showing these men saving children and emphasising their relationships with kids. I don’t know nearly enough about this situation to know whether these protestors claims are true or false but it did lead me to think about how the documentary did attempt to create sympathy. I’m not in a position to say whether this is unfounded sympathy (though either way, it seems these men are clearly sacrificing a lot, even their own lives, to help people in their city), rather I just mean that it drew my attention to the ways in which the film was constructed in order to align the audience with the perspectives of these men.

Most of the feature films I saw were foreign films and it was fascinating to see how different filmmakers from all over the world approached their films and the eras and/or issues they were depicting. I felt like I learned something about cultural/historical issues from different places that I knew little or nothing about. A particularly powerful one for me was White Sun directed by Deepak Rauniyar which dealt with the fallout of the Nepalese Civil War by examining the clash between traditional customs and new ways of thought when a man who fought for the Maoists must return home to his traditionalist, loyalist village after his father dies. I thought it was interesting because whilst it is framed as an incredibly personal story it deals with very large issues, mainly that the peace that had been reached was not an end to their problems but the start of a whole range of new ones. The director also refrained from choosing sides, depicting the problems with both the monarchist system and their traditional values (including misogynistic and classist attitudes) and the Maoist approaches (the violence and death toll caused by them). The director was at the screening I attended and spoke about how this was important. He talked about how he wasn’t happy with the state of his country, that neither side had solutions, and that he wanted to depict the effects this had on everyday people. I didn’t know nearly anything about the Nepalese Civil War but this film prompted me to investigate it a bit, something we’ve been talking about a lot.

It was just useful to be engrossed in film for a while I think. I noticed that I saw more things in films, like how they are being constructed and why that might be so and what perspective is it coming from and such. Overall, whilst by the last day I was pretty exhausted, it was an incredibly enriching experience.

Looking forward, while I had been writing here and there during the festival when I had a minute, I’m planning to get stuck back in, finishing off the work on Elizabeth in the next few days hopefully and then getting stuck in on The Virgin Queen. The awareness that time is running out is starting to hit me a bit. I’m not freaking out too badly just yet but it’s there in the back of my mind. Just got to get back to work I suppose.

Research Update 16/05/2017

I realise it’s been a month since I last did an update and while I’ve been really busy and have accomplished things in the meantime, I think I’ve been missing this time to reflect on what I’m doing. I do feel like I’m making progress which is great of course but every now and then I hit a problem that sends me back a step.

Finishing a first draft of the first chapter feels really great and like I have some tangible evidence that I’m getting somewhere. The feedback on it from my supervisors was so helpful and insightful and it’s incredibly comforting to know that my work will only get better and tighter with that guidance. Now though, it’s past time to get stuck into the meaty parts of the thesis.

I’ve been working on Elizabeth (1998) and I’m not entirely sure why I started with this film. I honestly think I just had it on the brain and I guess it’s the most visible depiction of Elizabeth I in recent decades. I’ve been going over those key scenes in it that I think are pivotal to understanding her representation, particularly in regard to gender. The more I go over them the more things I notice which is great. I’ve tried to go over them, first just in general a bunch of times and them with specific things in mind, like space, lighting, camera angles, performance etc. I’m particularly interested in the way Kapur uses light and colour to differentiate Elizabeth from the other characters, particular as this is also a moral differentiation. He creates a real visual dichotomy between good (Elizabeth for the most part) and evil (those that would bring her harm, namely any and all Catholic characters). So I’ve been exploring that and writing up my thoughts as well as looking into what others have written about the film.

I have hit a bit of a roadblock with the film aspect as I’m having some second thoughts about the themes. The more I think about it, the more problematic the woman/queen idea becomes to me. I’m wondering if it might be best to attack the films/series first. Perhaps if I picked the ones I find most interesting and analyse them properly and then re-evaluate the themes from there. It would be looser and I would have to go back and look over them again in particular reference to whatever theme I ended up going with and it scares me a little as it feels like a move backward but I wonder if it might be the better course in the long run.

Other than that I did read an interesting article recently. It was the article Judith sent me, “Films as Historical Sources or Alternative History” by Anirudh Deshpande. What I thought was interesting was that he is arguing that film is a form of history in the same way that oral history is and that this means that, as has been argued with oral history, to privilege written history is to also privilege the kinds of histories and the people who record their history this way and leave others out. He says,

If historians choose to stick to documentary sources they do end up limiting the scope of their enterprise. They will then consciously turn their back on those people who may not figure in documentary sources but might appear as crucial traces in visual sources of both past and present. (4456)

He argues essentially, in a kind of flipping of the argument we find in Image as Artifact, that written/archival sources should be supplemented with visual sources. It’s interesting to me that both arguments want to use both written and visual sources but come at it from different perspectives. Deshpande also argues that the emotional and personal elements of a historical film are its strongest. I think there’s some interesting perspectives in there I could perhaps incorporate.

I have to report the awful as well as the good I suppose so I should mention that I had a rather colossal stuff up. I entirely misread a source and then when writing about it, consequently misrepresented it. Obviously this is a HUGE no-no and I take such pride in my work usually that this mistake really threw me. It makes me both incredibly angry and frankly, embarrassed because it was such a lazy mistake and should never have happened. On the bright side, if there is one, it is not a mistake I will allow myself to make again.

Source:
Deshpande, Anirudh. “Films as Historical Sources or Alternative History.” Economic and Political Weekly 39, no. 40 (2004): 4455-59.

Research Update 17/04/2017

This fortnight has largely been focused on thinking through and writing on methodology. It’s been a good process. The more I write the clearer things become.

First of all, it’s become clear to me in writing about methodology that my grasp of film theory is a little lacking. I found that when it came to describing how exactly I’ll approach the films and things like what exactly I mean by terms like mise-en-scéne, I couldn’t pull up the theory and the literature that I need. This sent me into a bit of a spin at first but at the end of the day, the only thing that will fix that is doubling down on the film research for a hot second.

Secondly, I worked out what I don’t really like about O’Connor. Although his method allows the space for serious film analysis, he and the scholars contributing to Image as Artifact are still coming from the perspective that traditional history is still the most important and the best means of assessing any historical piece. This is understandable given the time it was written, O’Connor’s position as a historian, and his intention that this method be applied in a history classroom. What it means though it that the areas of the methodology that fit more easily with standard historical methods, namely tracking down production histories through archival research, are the most thought out and considered aspects of the method presented in Image as Artifact and the film studies aspects are far less developed (though there are still some really interesting ideas in there). Also, it feels as if O’Connor and co. are still trying to fit film studies into historical studies.

Thirdly, despite this I found that I still feel the method can work. It is unsurprising that O’Connor’s attitude in the early 1990s would be the way it is. As such, I think for its time the method was still a great move forward in the field of film and history. I feel that if I bring it even further and dispense with the idea that historical methods are paramount (they are still absolutely crucial of course, I’m definitely not arguing to get rid of them) and taking the film analysis sections more seriously, the method can still be incredibly useful. I feel as if the method needs to be taken to a conclusion that O’Connor himself seemed still a little hesitant to reach. Film studies perhaps doesn’t need to fit into historical studies but rather they could meet somewhere more in the middle.

I’ve also had a few issues this fortnight trying to get that thesis/life balance right. Easter time is always a little busy for me, my family celebrates it and it’s birthdays all around (including my own) and finding the ability to say ‘I can’t do this thing because of my thesis’ has been really hard. I’ve never been very good at saying no to my family and close friends and I feel that now it’s expected of me to do everything, both by me and by them and it becomes this big loop of guilt for me about either/or not doing enough work and not doing enough with or for my family (though I know that they would of course understand). Not to mention, with my head, sometimes stupid things knock me out. I had a panic attack last week about almost losing a ring and it took me out all day which again, makes me feel really guilty. I’m just trying to work out how to balance these things at the moment and some days it’s harder than others. I think I have to learn how to live with being a bit selfish from time to time for my own greater good.

Research Update 02/04/2017

I’m continuing to work through Image as Artifact to unpack my thoughts on the methodology. A lot of it is contributions from other scholars but, as I’ve been discussing with my supervisors, everything is of its particular context and this becoming increasingly obvious to me all the time. There is a lot of talk in this about how film can be useful so long as we are aware of its pitfalls in comparison to written history.

There is some interesting discussion however, particularly in Daniel Leab’s essay, about how the medium contributes to the past being rewritten for the present and how films respond to changing beliefs about the past. This is useful for me thinking about how film/TV might demonstrate changing ideas of Elizabeth I as a result of second-wave or post feminism for example. There is discussion of the inadequacy of the content analysis supported by Rosenstone and the need to think about style and composition. This is a big part of what I like about O’Connor’s methodology.

I also came across a nice quote from Patricia-Ann Lee which I will need to remember to keep in mind. “Creating or even defining methodologies,” she says, “is a chancy and dangerous business since it suggests that there are absolutes in a process which must always retain the greatest possible flexibility” (p. 97). O’Connor’s method is probably not THE answer to analysing historical films but perhaps is just the most applicable for me given my opinion on how these films should be approached and will probably need to be changed and adapted to the new ways in which film and TV are being consumed today.

I’ve finally finished writing about defining historical films (even though I’m fairly sure I will cut most of it) and by the end I think I really fleshed out my own thoughts on the topic though it will definitely need to be cleaned up. I’ll be moving right along to writing about methodology.

Side note: Pacemaker is THE BEST. I sit down to write what I need to that day and end up just flowing. Today, I needed to write 163 words to hit my target but ending up writing close to 600 once I got on a roll. It’s such a good way to prompt myself to get writing. This is not a sponsored post.

Sources:

O’Connor, John, ed. The Image as Artifact: The Historical Analysis of Film and Television. USA: R. E. Krieger Publishing Co. , 1990.