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.

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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 27/03/2017

I’ve had another slow week I feel. I’m trying to get back on track but I still feel a bit sluggish and slacking. I’ve been working through Image as Artifact by John O’Connor, trying to get back around the methodology. So far this has been helpful as I’ve picked up some really important threads of ideas and also been able to see some of the shortcomings of O’Connor’s theories. I think it’s important that I acknowledge and address these if I’m going to use his method.

O’Connor developed the two phase method of film analysis and historical inquiry for analysing historical films in order to help develop critical viewing skills in the classroom. While this isn’t my focus or my argument I think it’s still in the same vein in the sense that I want to further a meaningful way to assess these films. I like that O’Connor aims for this method to be used for both film and television and specifies that each media requires slightly different approaches, including the consideration of the flow of television programming and the different spaces and circumstances of television viewing in comparison to cinema. This will be important to keep in mind when I talk about film versus television. O’Connor also argues for a view of the audience as active and that context is paramount, both positions I would agree with. There is a lot on reception which for now is helpful just to keep in mind but would be good for further work.

O’Connor still appears to be coming from the position that written history is ultimately superior to film. He criticises scholars for holding historical films and television to unrealistic expectations but admonishes films that privilege “feeling history” over “thinking historically” (p. 33) and argues, in a similar position to Robert A. Rosenstone, that films that pander to audiences expectations and preferences are the worst kinds of historical films. He also seems to want historians to become more actively involved in filmmaking as he believes they would want to make the creative process more obvious to the audience – the ideal trait of a good historical film in his opinion.

I feel that these arguments miss the point. To me, if we want to seriously evaluate historical film and television on the basis of their particular media as well as their historical value, we must accept film as it is going to come and that not all films are going to be experimental and challenge dominant narratives and expose their processes of construction or reconstruction. I believe we should be questioning what we can learn both from films that do these and the mainstream films that don’t, instead of picking and choosing and creating hierarchies of kinds of films – end of rant-

O’Connor is also skeptical of the typical narrative structures in historical films and television claiming that “in the stories that make for successful movies on television programs, the motives of major characters must be understood in terms of present-day values and concerns immediately accessible to a general TV audience…” (p. 2). While I understand his position that this might misrepresent actual historical motives (or what historians believe to be the most accurate motives), I think this might be able to show us information about how the filmmaker and the wider society in question sees the relationship between the past and the present and how they relate to each other. I think that the question of how we use the present to relate to the past and vice versa is a really rich and interesting one and could certainly be explored in films about Elizabeth I. In particular, can later Elizabeth I films like Elizabeth (1998) and shows like The Virgin Queen (BBC, 2005) and Elizabeth I (HBO, 2005), be viewed as means to explore female political leadership in a post-Thatcher Britain?

Ultimately, I think that although I disagree with some of O’Connor’s underlying ideas, the methodology is still fine for me.

Aside from that, I just started a Pacemaker account/plan to help keep track of my writing (thanks to the wonderful Toshi and Alix for putting me onto it).  Also I had a really great and productive study day with Lucie and Alix which included Alix gifting us some really lovely pens which might seem insignificant but really makes me smile and makes actually writing more enjoyable.

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

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.