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 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 May 11 2016

I’ve been trying to pin down recently what I’m actually going to talk about in my thesis or what the focus is going to be because just talking about whether history can be represented in film is kind of old hat by now. Scholars have been talking about that for a while and the consensus that it can has virtually been reached. I always wanted to talk about gender in some way, like depictions of women in history or something like that but recently I started thinking about the kind of reciprocal relationship that the past and the present have when they meet on screen (in my opinion at least). On the one hand the present context affects how we represent the present. In other words, these representations end up reflecting present attitudes. For example, films made now about World War II  may be reflecting concerns about the War on Terror. On the other hand, the way the past has been presented may influence how we have come to view it, for instance, one might immediately think of images from Platoon, or Apocalypse Now  and the like when thinking of the Vietnam War. In essence, these contextualised representations of a particular point in history can eventually come to typify that history in the public/cultural consciousness. I was thinking about teasing these ideas out by looking at gender politics in historical films and television series and how they reflect both how we understand that period of time (and whether this understanding comes from prior representations/ideas of that period)  as well as what they reflect and therefore can tell us about gender politics in the present. I hope that makes some kind of sense. I messed about with these ideas a bit in my Public Audience Essay for Research Literacies so when I get that back, I’m sure someone will tell me if its not working at all. Hopefully.