Research Update 13/03/2017

Last week was a little slower but okay. I worked through History Goes to the Movies. Essentially, Hughes-Warrington’s argument boiled down to the idea that reception studies and research into how audiences interact and respond to films and TV is an essential but so far largely missing element of historical film studies. I agree with her but I think that ultimately my Presentation of Proposal (POP) panel was right in that investigating reception might be a bit too ambitious for this paper. I also think that the crux of my thesis isn’t necessarily about audience’s responses but more about the piece itself and its particular social and historical context and about the filmmaker and/or historian. I think Hughes-Warrington would probably scoff at my approach but I will keep her argument in mind as she is right, I think, in saying that there isn’t a homogenous social experience or feeling at any given point in time that would mean we can assume how all audiences would respond to a particular film or show.

What I also found compelling in this book was that Hughes-Warrington argued against the most common charges against historical films, such as that they dupe audiences into thinking history is a simple story with a happy ending or that the films use special effects to alter reality, by pointing out that these arguments imply a passive and naïve spectator. She argues instead that audiences are active and aware that what they are watching is a film and not history itself. She cites some studies, for example the US based ‘Presence of the Past Project’ that suggest that audiences watch more historical films than read historical books and emotionally identify stronger with films but also trust them far less than they would books. I would be really interested to follow these up as I too believe that the audience are not so naïve as historical film scholars often paint them to be.

I appreciated Hughes-Warrington’s discussion of film theory, including the writings of people such as André Bazin and Jean-Luc Godard (whose writing on mainstream cinema reinforcing a particular vision of masculinity might be worth looking up) as it showed how one can combine both historical film studies and film studies. However, she often seemed to invoke these theories to show the short comings of historians studying historical film with little understanding of film theory, but didn’t really apply a critical eye to these theories themselves. She did include criticism of the definitions of ‘historical film’, criticising the exclusion of period and costume dramas, and heritage films from analysis because they don’t challenge mainstream historical narratives according to the majority of historical film scholars, including Rosenstone and Toplin. This is in line with my own argument and although this is not a major part of my thesis, I can build on her argument to suggest that all films set in or about the past, regardless of whether they challenge or maintain dominant narratives, can still tell us something about how that past is understood.

Last week I did some research off the back of the journal information David Burchell gave me and some of the stuff Sarah and Alison gave me and found some promising looking resources on Elizabeth I and found some more journals that might be worth searching through. I just have to actually go through them now.

I also went to the Higher Degree Research Orientation, which, although aimed at PhD kids was really helpful and informative. There were lots of helpful tips on how to manage time, which I am awful at, and mental health, which is important for me as I am prone to a good breakdown. The main advice there was to manage expectations on myself; this is not the end of the world, it doesn’t need to be the most perfect piece of work in the history of academia, and it probably will not define my career or life. I’m trying to keep this in mind as my perfectionism is my own worst enemy. There was a lot of talk about needing to be writing all the time and although I had heard this 1000 times I still hadn’t really listened I guess as I don’t do it nearly as much as I should if ever. One of the suggestions was to set aside time in the week just to write for a while so I’m going to start that this week and see how we go. We did have to do an exercise and just write for 10 minutes and I wrote about the theme/chronology issue because I had just been talking to Toshi about it. This is what I wrote:

It’s interesting to note the way that depictions of Elizabeth I in film and television do not necessarily fit into the easy categories we might expect. Sure, Bette Davis’s Elizabeth I in 1955’s The Virgin Queen is bitter and villainous because she can’t love and is barren rather than chooses not to have children but she is also incredibly intelligent and cunning, fiercely independent and her political mind knows no equal in the film. Similarly, the Elizabeth of Fire Over England (1937), played by Flora Robson, is strong and fierce and while she is clearly jealous of the young lovers, her preoccupation is with matters of state and has no genuine romantic subplot. In contrast, over 70 years later in Anonymous (2011), Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave/Joely Richardson) is defined only by her relationships to men, as a lover and as a mother to a number of illegitimate sons. This is her sole purpose in the film. To assume a natural progression of depictions becoming more liberal and feminist perhaps, as was my first instinct as a liberal feminist myself, is to assume that filmmakers, historians, and gender movements alike have also made this progression. This is simply not the case. We must remember that history and its written and filmic interpretations, as well as movements and terms like feminism, rarely have an straightforward evolution from point A to point B. We must also remember that judging something as more or less feminist can be problematic as this is a term that does not have one definition but can be interpreted in a multitude of ways and therefore a single depiction of a woman such as Elizabeth I in a particular film may elicit various readings and judgments based on different understandings of what a feminist interpretation might look like.

It’s pretty messy and I don’t think it’s very clear but the point is that in 10 minutes I busted out a paragraph that has the bones of something important that I’ve discovered. Now I can pull that apart and further explore those ideas and/or tidy it up into something worth possibly including at some point.

At the orientation there was also a panel on managing relationships with supervisors so I will have just a few things to discuss with them when we meet this Thursday. Mostly it was just simple things that in hindsight I should’ve probably been doing the whole time like emailing summaries after meetings about what was discussed so we’re all on the same page.

So yes, it was a slow week reading wise but I got some inspiration elsewhere.

Sources:

Hughes-Warrington, Marnie. History Goes to the Movies: Studying History on Film. New York: Routledge, 2007.

 

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Research Update 03/03/2017

It’s been a relatively productive week and a bit. I’ve mostly just been reading. I read Experiments in Rethinking History, a collection of essays edited by Robert Rosenstone and Alun Munslow. Among other things, it explored the relationship between fiction and history and how fiction can be used to experiment with the past as a means of exploring what might have happened. This was focused more on written narratives but the principle could be applied to film and TV I think, with the added element of film being able to explore the past through mise-en-scéne.

I also read James Chapman’s Past and Present: National Identity and the British Historical Film which was really interesting. Chapman examines the way historical films have maintained and disrupted ideas about British national identity and national myths at the time of their production and reception. He uses films from each decade from the 1930s to the 1990s and puts each in the context of the British film industry at the time and the wider social, political, and economic contexts. This provided really useful information for me as, although I will be using different films, I can apply that contextual information to any films or television series that I might use that came out of Britain at these times, such as, for instance, Fire Over England (1937), Young Bess (1953), or Elizabeth R (1971). This would need to be added to by my own research of course. Chapman does include a chapter on Elizabeth (dir. Shekhar Kapur, 1998). His analysis is an interesting one, reading the film in the context of Princess Diana who died only days before principal photography began on the film. He argues that outrage from historians and critics alike that the film depicted Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, as not a virgin at all can be seen as a desire to protect the national myth about Elizabeth I but also as a kind of proxy to defend the reputation of the late Princess Diana, another national icon. It is an intriguing reading that I will take into consideration. It would be interesting to think about how 16th century ideas about protecting a woman’s virtue and reputation are being invoked again at the turn of the 21st century for another female royal.

I’m currently working through Marnie Hughes-Warrington’s History Goes to the Movies and I’m quite compelled by her argument that we should stop distinguishing film and television as separate and distinct forms of history/historiography and instead accept the notion of a multifaceted definition of history that includes everything from written history to film. I’m not sure if I’m in a position in my thesis to make that argument but I thought it might be worth keeping in mind, especially as I want to connect written and filmic history.

I got some great starting points for the historiography of Elizabeth I from both Alison Moore and Sarah Irving so I’ve had quick look through those but right now I’m still focused on trying to get all the theory stuff out of the way. I just have to keep reminding myself that I can’t possibly exhaust all literature on the subjects I’m looking at. I think that is a trap I fall into all too often.

I also had a few really productive meetings in the past few weeks. It was great to chat to Alison and have her on board. It was a nice, de-stress after I had been really anxious about my progress (or lack there-of) in January. After I expressed my concern about organising my thesis chronologically, given the complicated nature of approaches and attitudes toward gender politics and gender studies at any given time, Alison suggested organising it thematically instead. I went and had an equally helpful and calming chat with Judith (my lovely and life-saving supervisor) and she agreed that thematically makes the most sense. This will allow me to talk about the films that, although disparate in time, are similar in the way they choose to depict Elizabeth I and gives me room perhaps to examine why this might be the case.

Judith also suggested that I should take part in more workshops and present my work when the opportunity arises. The fact that that makes me nervous is probably all the reason I need to do my best to follow her advice. She wants to set up regular meetings, like a standing appointment and I could not agree more. Routine helps keep me focused and on track and it would make sure I had even more incentive to have something meaningful done between each meeting.

Sources:

Chapman, James. Past and Present: National Identity and the British Historical Film.           London: I.B Taurus, 2005.
Hughes-Warrington, Marnie. History Goes to the Movies: Studying History on Film. New     York: Routledge, 2007.
Rosenstone, Robert, and Alun Munslow, eds. Experiments in Rethinking History. New            York and London: Routledge, 2004.

Research Update: 2nd September 2016

I thought, for your benefit and mine, I’d run through a quick update of how my research is going and what the current plan is. At the moment, the pitch is relatively the same as it was at the end of last semester. I want to interrogate the relationship of the past and the present when history is represented on screen, using Tessa Morris-Suzuki’s notion of “historical truthfulness” as a guiding principle. I want to question what is happening when filmmakers attempt to make sense of both the past and their contemporary era when they interpret history for the screen and how this in turn influenced how audiences interpret and understand history and the present. I am interested in how film and television uniquely facilitate the interpretation and communication of history and situate it within the present context and intend to examine this by analysing the film using both the tools of film analysis as well as analysing how it engages with the scholarly history it is depicting and the its own context of production, as per John O’Connor’s suggested methodology. At this stage my plan to do this by looking at screen iterations of Elizabeth I with a particular focus on the influence of gender. I intend to take examples of films depicting Elizabeth I and compare them with the academic written history in general and in particular discussion of gender. I will also compare them with the context of production especially the contemporary gender politics and climate. I would also be interested to see whether later screen iterations are influenced by earlier ones, both in terms of emulating them and rejecting them.

So that’s the plan. I like to think its going relatively well. I feel that I’m chugging along okay. I’ve read a lot about historical films themselves. I have made a start on looking into histories of Elizabeth and have started collecting and giving at least a first watch to the films. Although I have background in the area, I need to start doing far more in depth research into film studies and analysis.

That’s where I’m at with the research and the thesis at the minute. Its stressful because I’m also trying to keep on track of my coursework and assignments for my classes but its okay. All we be okay, I am sure. Chatting with supervisors has kept me grounded. Having people there that are willing to listen to my nonsense and give me ideas and tell me that its going to be alright but that there’s work to be is incredibly helpful and comforting.

Till next time, wish me luck!

Sources:
Morris-Suzuki, Tessa. The Past within Us: Media, Memory, History. London, UK: Verso, 2005.

O’Connor, John E. “History in Images/Images in History: Reflections on the Importance of Film and Television Study for an Understanding of the Past.” The American Historical Review 93, no. 5 (1988): 1200-09.