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