A Productive Fortnight

To begin with, my apologies for the delay in updating. My plan was to write the blog on Fridays as a way to reflect on the week’s work. The last two Fridays have just gotten away from me apparently. I’m learning though, to forgive myself when I’m not quite as productive as I want to be because getting grumpy about it is simply counterproductive. So anyway, because I’ve now gone two weeks without a blog, doing it on a Monday and then hopefully getting back on track with my Friday updates seemed like a good idea.

It has actually been a pretty good two weeks, despite me throwing my organised schedule somewhat to the wayside. This fortnight, I completed my first Annual Progress Report for my Candidature. That was a far easier process than I originally expected it would be. It was also a good opportunity to stop and take stock of where I’m up to and what’s left to do. I’m grateful that I had no major issues to report and that I have been blessed with wonderful and helpful supervisors that I think I work well with and work well together. I know that myself and my thesis are in good hands with them! Examining where I’m at and where I have left to go was a bit more anxiety inducing. I know that I have been working fairly consistently but I did feel like I could have been a bit further ahead than where I am now. I also know that this chapter I am working on is going to form a guide for how to write my other analysis chapters and that I’m working out the bigger ideas through writing it but I think that I had thought I might have more content down by now. Nonetheless, having to do the research plan based on submitting on time (Jan 2021) was helpful. Next year will be busy but if I stick with my plan, for the most part at least, it’s doable!

Over the past fortnight I have also read a good amount of really interesting and useful things. Worth mentioning are Jerome Christensen’s article “Studio Identity and Studio Art: MGM, ‘Mrs. Miniver’, and Planning the Postwar Era” and Gabriel Miller’s book William Wyler: The Life and Films of Hollywood’s Most Celebrated Director. Both of these texts discuss some of the production context that I had been neglecting in my Miniver chapter. Christensen in particular, discusses the role of MGM during the war. He argues that MGM was a “synecdoche for the industry in the eyes of the public” during the 1930s and into the 40s and that because of its prominence, its activity during the war, including the involvement of major stars, was particularly notable (p. 261). He also delineates three types of home front films that MGM was making during the war. The first of these was promoting civilian participation in the war effort, the second was “domestic spectacle,” and the third, which concerns Mrs. Miniver, are those which extend the home front to include Great Britain, bridging the gap between the U.S. and the U.K. (p. 261–262). He argues why these films were important, most of these reasons being things I have already looked at with Miniver, such as encouraging Americans to sympathise with the British and to think about the war coming to them if they don’t help out. He adds though, the idea that by 1942 when Miniver was released, public opinion was centred on the war in the Pacific rather than in Europe, which Christensen suggests was “of greater strategic consequence” to the Roosevelt Administration (p. 264). This is helpful context for the production of the film. I did not realise until I read this that I had been forgetting about this in my actual chapter.

Christensen raises another point I’d like to note before moving on. He discusses the difference between persuasion and propaganda in a way that I think will prove really useful when I come to writing my section on the discourse around propaganda. To begin with he simplifies the difference by arguing that persuasion “influences choice” and propaganda “instills or confirms a faith impervious to evidence” (p. 271). I thought that this was an interesting idea that I can explore further in the propaganda research and writing. I was also impressed by a particular analogy that he uses. He states that the differences between persuasion and propaganda “are as clear as that between black and white, or rather the difference between choosing black or white and being compelled to see black as red” (p. 271). This struck me as I was reading it and I’ve noted it down to return to when I’m working on that section. I also watched the Netflix documentary The Great Hack (Karim Amer & Jehane Noujaim, 2019) which looked at the Cambridge Analytica scandal in which it was revealed that Facebook had turned over user data to company Cambridge Analytica in order to target and ‘persuade’ voters in favour of the Trump campaign in the U.S. and the Leave.EU campaign in the U.K. This raised points for me while watching it about the line that extends between propaganda films of the Second World War that were persuading general audiences towards particular ideas and the current notion of ‘fake news’ specifically targeted toward individuals through their social media accounts to encourage them toward particular political positions. This feels like it might be worth exploring to an extent, as this kind of campaigning was intrinsic to the Brexit referendum which is important context for Dunkirk (2017) in particular.

Moving on, Miller’s book provides some more detailed context for William Wyler himself, both personally and as a director. Importantly, Miller breaks down the idea that Wyler’s style as a director was largely realistic. Rather, he claims, “Wyler’s mise-en-scène is in no way neutral…. Wyler’s pictorial arrangements are often complex” (p. 3). He further argues that Wyler was masterful at subtly controlling and manipulating the gaze of the audience (p. 4). This struck me as important given the discussion of mise-en-scène and melodrama that I have in my analysis section of the chapter. This context gives more credence to Wyler’s use of melodrama in Miniver. Miller also points out that Wyler had a long history of making socially and politically conscious films, often critiquing American society (p. 13).

Notably for my research and analysis, Miller explores in depth the production of Miniver. He discusses the adaptation of the story from Struther’s novels, noting that most of the important plot points in the film were added by screenwriters, Arthur Wimperis, James Hilton, George Froeschel, and Claudine West (p. 209). However, Wyler himself had significant input into the script. In the original script, the German pilot that Kay confronts was originally cast more sympathetically, “suggesting that he reminds Mrs. Miniver of her son Vin” (p. 212). This is obviously not the version that made it into the actual film. According to Miller, Wyler refused to shoot the scene this way, believing that the sympathy for the Nazi pilot was going too far. Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM at the time, was wary of offending foreign audiences and wanted Wyler to keep it as it was in the script. Eventually Mayer relented but Miller notes that by the time America entered the war, the entire incident “was forgotten” (p. 212–213). I won’t carry on but the insights that Miller provides in this book will be really useful for filling out the creative context for the film. Miller also notes that Wyler himself published a number of essays on his work that may be worth looking up at some point, just to see if there is any insight to be gained there.

Other than all of that, I have been working on my draft a bit, working out how I can restructure the analysis in particular so that it flows a bit better. I’m feeling happier about it at the moment and I think that by next week I should I have something worth looking at again.

Doing Alright

24th April – 6th May 2018

The past fortnight has been busy. I had my Masters graduation,  and some medical and family issues. It’s been kind of painful personally but productive in the way that it matters! I’ve been working on preparing for this presentation I have in mid-June as I really want it to be done by the end of May. I have such a busy time scheduled for the beginning of June.

So I’ve mainly been focusing in the last week or two on the historical research and reading what I can of what historians have written about themes present in the scene I’m working with. There’s lots to talk about and I might do a little more research but I think the historical part of the presentation just needs to be filled out and it’ll be pretty much ready to go.

This week I’m going to do some further research into the authors I’m talking about and focusing I think on doing some research into embodiment and really filling out and expanding my film analysis.

I’m also going to be really putting an effort into making sure I get on top of the admin stuff that I tend to push aside. I’m going to make sure to set aside time each day to work on those things, forms, emails, registering and applying for things etc, etc. I tend to go all in on a particular project or book or something and I’ve really got to balance all the aspects of the work including the bureaucracy, even though it might frustrate me.

So that’s the plan. I’m feeling a bit emotionally tired but I’m feeling good about the work so I’m hoping for a productive week.

 

Back on Track

2nd – 8th April 2018

This week felt productive! After carrying that yuck feeling about the synthesis into the beginning of the week, my meetings with my supervisors really helped sort me out. It was reassuring and constructive to get the feedback that the synthesis was actually alright for what it was. I think through talking about it I had to address how much my perfectionism when it comes to my writing can be a bit of a straitjacket. I have to relax and realise that not everything has to be a perfect mini version of my thesis, especially not at this point. I sometimes expect far too much of myself which is not so good for my productivity or for my mental health to be honest. Anyway, this is something I’m going to keep trying to work on.

Putting in the abstract to present at our history faculty’s In House felt really good! To be honest, I’m still quite intimidated by the prospect of doing it so I’m a bit proud of myself for just getting in there with it. I have a terrible tendency to simply avoid things that make me anxious but as that is going to get me approximately no where in the future, I’m feeling good about taking some steps to quit doing that. Big up my supervisors for their help and encouragement in this regard.

On this note, I now have to pick some scenes from my films to start working up shot lists for so I can present a proper in depth analysis. Its hard to limit myself to only certain scenes because ideally there’s so many I’d like to do. As it is I’ll have to just focus on a few for now.

I’m still reading Mr Smith Goes to Tokyo which is actually becoming a touch of a problem. I’m finding it so interesting that I’m reading it too slow. I like to think that I’ve gotten pretty decent at effectively skimming things so that I don’t sit and try to read every word of every book because I obviously don’t have the time for that. However, with this one I’ve found myself reading it almost word for word which isn’t I guess a bad thing because it’s relevant but it’s also taking more of my time that I would normally spend on one book. At least I’m gathering a lot of notes and interesting information I suppose.

So my plan for this week is to work on getting my shots lists together  so I can start really working on that analysis. I also want to get the Early Candidature Plan finished. I’m still working on putting that timetable together. I’ll finish Mr Smith this week and maybe have more of a look into the press for my films as well. Hopefully it will be another good week.

 

Crisis of Confidence

19th March – 1st April 2018

Last week I really didn’t think it was worth writing a blog because I got little to nothing done. I handed in the synthesis on the Monday I was feeling a bit yuck about it and then the next day I went to see Bruno Mars and then got a bit ill so I was pretty well wiped for most of the week. I did manage to get a bit of research done on some citations from stuff I’ve already read but otherwise I had a pretty dud week. The concert was great so there’s that at least.

This week has been a little better. I’m still feeling pretty crappy about the synthesis to be honest and it’s causing a bit of a spiral in my confidence. I’m looking forward to my supervisor meetings this week because I always find talking things through really helpful and often confidence building. I just didn’t really like how the synthesis came together and I’m not super proud of what I put forward which, because my brain is prone to overthinking, naturally led me to feeling sort of out of depth. I can rationalise that its early and I still have a lot of work to do and I’m obviously going to expand and perfect the analysis and the like so I’ve been trying to shake it off. This has also though, made it hard to approach the abstract for our uni’s History In House presentation, where the history faculty gets together once a semester to present and discuss their current projects. I’ve started working on it and I think I know probably how to go about it (though I’ve always been quite bad at abstracts which doesn’t help) but its just the confidence thing I guess getting a little too much in the way. I’m trying really hard to push through this though.

Otherwise I’ve been reading Mr Smith Goes to Hollywood which I’m finding really fascinating. Firstly just because I know next to nothing about the American occupation of Japan so its just interesting to learn a touch about that but also discovering how this intersected with film and censorship is really neat! I think its really interesting how the American occupation government had an eye on Japanese film as a means of trying to inform public opinion due in part to their experience with this with American films during the war. I’m enjoying this read a lot so far.

I’ve also been having a crack at filling it out my Early Candidature Plan as best I can at the moment. I’m still not quite sure when I should put that in but I don’t want to keep putting it off.

I think I’m going to be alright, I’ve just got to keep trucking along.

I hope everyone that celebrates has a good Easter!

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.

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 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.