Friday 24 April 2020

Some further thoughts on taught film history

My previous piece Some basic problems in taught film history led to a lot of comments and responses, more than anything I have posted in a long time. Some had questions, or felt I had been unclear or too narrow about a couple of points, so I want to expand a little on that. But first two memories:

A film scholar once describing to me his research into authorship, and the course he was teaching on the subject. I got increasingly uncomfortable because judging by what he was saying he had little awareness about the history of thinking around auteurs and authorship, and he had almost no understanding at all about how the studio system in Hollywood worked and the complexities of filmmakers' positions in that system, which depended upon things like the contractual status of a given director, his position within the system, and for which studio and in which decade he was working. Finally I exclaimed "But that is not true!" to which he replied the immortal words "Maybe not, but that is what I am teaching."

Another scholar at another time was giving a conference talk about Yasujiro Ozu, focusing on how unique his style was. But he was only comparing Ozu to filmmakers in the West, primarily Hollywood. When I asked "How would you compare Ozu with a contemporary Japanese director like Mikio Naruse?" he replied that he was not familiar with Naruse's work. That to me is bad scholarship. You cannot discuss a filmmaker's alleged uniqueness without comparing her to her peers in her own context. I am not saying he was wrong in arguing Ozu is unique, I am saying that he would not know if he was. The only thing he was in a position to say was that Ozu was different from mainstream Western cinema, but that is not interesting. It is Ozu's relationship to his Japanese contemporaries that provide the answer to the question of whether he had a unique style. And this the scholar had not investigated. He is not alone in this. It is frequently the case, as I have argued before, that a scholar writing/teaching about a particular filmmaker from outside the United States, will only, or primarily, compare her to a generic Hollywood filmmaker, as if this would enhance our understanding of this particular filmmaker.

This is in a way an answer to one response I have got: that it seemed as if I was dismissing the importance of individual countries and national context. I did say that I think film history text books, and course layouts, often put too much emphasis on the national, especially in relation to European film history, and do not take enough consideration for how people, styles and movements cross borders. I also said that it should be possible to do a text book which was not organised by country. But that was just a suggestion, or an experiment. I did not say countries did not matter, only that the balance between the national and the regional or global is often skewed towards the national. But countries and national context do matter, like in my example about Ozu above. Unique national production traditions and censorship rules are things that influence films and filmmakers. In film history studies there is a lot of talk about the Production Code in Hollywood, and pre-code films, but what the situation was, and is, in other countries is not nearly as well discussed and understood as it should be. When I teach Swedish film history, I also talk about how Sweden was the first country to have a state censorship board, Statens biografbyrå, initiated in 1911 and the influence it had until at least 1995. As both Hasse Ekman and Ingmar Bergman can vouch for, among many others, these censorship regulations had an impact on the films that they made.

Me visiting a film archive in Tbilisi, Georgia, where they are working on keeping their national film heritage alive.

Another question I got was about film history as a concept. Who gets to decide was film history is, what is implied with the words, and who gets to teach what? What does it even mean to teach? But I was not addressing those issues in my article. I was talking about facts, accuracy and knowing enough to be able to make the arguments you are making, and being humble enough to accept how little you know. I make a distinction about the history of film, which is a large, expansive reality which nobody can know or fully comprehend, and taught film history, which is a narrow snapshot of the vast totality of the history of film, and a narrow snapshot that is chosen by scholars, teachers and faculty out of a number of considerations, such as necessity, personal interest or student requests. What we teach, and how, is personal, and there are many different ways of going about it, some better than others. A topic worth addressing further in another article.

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I have done a couple of posts before on these issues, and of our idea of film history. Here are three related links:

On using Max Weber and Gedankenbilder when considering film history.

On my philosophy of teaching.

On two different approaches to studying films, which I call abstract and tactile.


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About censorship in Sweden: Martin Scorsese's Casino (1995) was the last film for adults that was released after having had scenes cut, or to be more precise: "Sweden's last censored non-pornographic adult film". As he was Scorsese, he filmed an introduction to the film, addressing the Swedish viewers and letting them now that the version they were about to watch was not his original cut.

Friday 17 April 2020

Some basic problems in taught film history

My main task right now while working from home is to add information to the Swedish Film Institute's database about every film that was released for commercial screenings in Sweden in the 1920s. The information is collected in small-print columns in books, with information about title, year, country, director, length, censorship decision, premiere date and at which Swedish cinema it was first shown, and I write all of that into the database. It is fascinating work because it is me moving through film history, one film at a time. There are three things that are striking to me. One is how many films there are each month; second is how many of the films are Westerns; and third how almost all of these films are completely forgotten and unknown. It is the third point which is worth expanding upon, because it is a reminder of something I frequently talk about here on the blog and in my lectures: while film history is relatively young and comprehensible, compared to other art forms, we still know so little about it and understand even less, although we think we do. The way it is taught and discussed is almost always simplified, at best, but often enough it is inaccurate or misleading, or even fundamentally wrong. I would like to use this piece to summarise my thoughts on this.

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One thing that became immediately obvious to me when I began as a first-year student in film studies was that the teachers were often not particularly knowledgeably about film history. Some were experts in a certain field, often theoretical, but it was almost always the case that I knew more about film history, at least film history from the 1930s and onwards, than any of the teachers, except one. I was new to the subject and my sources of information were the encyclopaedias and guide books that were available at home, or at the public library, and the films that were screened on television or was available at the local video stores. I was therefore excited to come to university and hang out with people who could teach me more and expand my horizons. Sadly, this did not happen. Instead I sat in my seat and marvelled about the lack of knowledge, interest and awareness that the teachers exuded. They were not bad teachers, they were almost all friendly, helpful, pedagogical and enthusiastic. But they had a limited understanding of film history (including that of Sweden and Hollywood), and they had no apparent awareness of how limited their view was.

It is not possible for teachers to be knowledgeable in depth about everything and there is a lack of time for preparations and such, in film studies as in other fields and disciplines within academia. But, as I said above, if a first-year student has more knowledge than an experienced teacher, it is not because of a lack of time but a lack of interest on the part of the teacher. There is sometimes a kind of arrogance to it. A distinguished film scholar asked me at a conference which area my PhD thesis was about and I said Swedish film history. "Swedish film history!?!? What could there possibly be to say that is new about that? I suppose you are writing about Bergman." I said "No, I am focused on Hasse Ekman. Are you familiar with his work?" The scholar had the decency to be embarrassed, as she did not know who Ekman was. There is no particular reason why she should be, but there is also no reason for her to assume that she and everyone else know all there is to know about Swedish film history.

The Girl from the Third Row (Hasse Ekman 1949)

Having been associated with several universities, as an ordinary student, a PhD candidate and teacher/lecturer, and having been to many conferences, and read an alarming number of scholarly books and articles, the experience of my first years as an undergraduate has been confirmed again and again. The general view of film history is narrow, limited, parochial and misleading. And there is very little self-awareness about this. If I was to say the one thing that weakens so much of critical and scholarly work on film it is that the writer/scholar do not know enough about film history to earn the right to make the general arguments they are making. For one simple example: most books about Bergman I have read have been good as long as they are focused only on Bergman, but as soon as more general arguments are made on film/film history outside Bergman's oeuvre, the lack of knowledge and awareness becomes obvious and the arguments often close to meaningless. Even if you are an expert on Bergman, you are not by default an expert of film history at large.

In short, it is not a problem that we do not know everything there is to know about film history, nobody could. The problem is the lack of awareness of how little we do know. That is what I meant by the arguments not being earned, as they are made on the assumption that the person making them have the necessary information in order to do so, even though they have not. I have made the same mistake myself.

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Film history is only about 130 years old, and there is a strong consensus about the general arc of that history, and it is the one perpetuated in most text books about film history, and all sorts of visual and/or online overviews of the same history. There are two basic flaws with it though; it is country-based and it is based on the outliers, the masterpieces and the Waves. This brings us back to my current work on the 1920s. Working my way through November of 1920, from one forgotten/unknown film to the next, I suddenly came to a page which had in a row True Heart Susie (D.W. Griffith 1919), Getting Mary Married (Allan Dwan 1919) and Brass Buttons (Henry King 1919). Three films made by three important directors who helped shape and create the art form. For a long time only one, Griffith, was given any attention, while Dwan and King were the unknowns. Now there is a rising appreciation for Dwan, at least his later films of the 1940s/1950s, while King, despite my best efforts, remain mostly out of focus. A comparative study of their films of that year would be interesting and enlightening to enhance our understanding of filmmaking in 1919, as well as for Hollywood cinema and for directorial control and the individual's relevance.

But these are still known filmmakers. What about all the other films that make up the majority of the films of that month, year and decade? All those films that are not made by known directors or can be included in waves or movements or groups. These are the films for which there is no place in the film history books and lectures, yet they are what people watched and they might have been as important and influential at the time as many of the famous ones. Let me give three other examples:

In the rich and varied output of German cinema during the Weimar years, primarily the 1920s and early 1930s, hardly any film can reasonably be referred to as Expressionism in a way that is meaningful or accurate. Yet 1920s German cinema is often by default summed up as German Expressionism, and few other aspects of it is discussed or analysed. There is no point to this lopsidedness. By teaching something called German Expressionism we do a disservice to Germany cinema.

British cinema in the 1950s and 1960s are usually discussed with an exclusive focus on "kitchen sink realism" and the handful of films made by Tony Richardson, Lindsay Anderson, John Schlesinger, Jack Clayton and Karel Reisz, thereby inflating their alleged importance and belittling the richness and creativity that existed during the 1950s and 1960s away from those films. The films of, for example, Ealing Studios, David Lean and Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger cannot plausibly be said to be of less importance or value. But the most important and influential British films of the early 1960s are Dr. No (Terence Young 1962), From Russia With Love (Terence Young 1963), Goldfinger (Guy Hamilton 1964) and Thunderball (Terence Young 1965). It terms of box office success, stylistic influences, the explosion of tie-ins and merchandise culture (long before Star Wars), and as flash-points of the cultural conversation, they were of tremendous importance around the world, regardless of what you might think of their artistic quality or whether they had politics with which you disagreed.

From Russia With Love

Italian cinema of the 1960s and 1970s is portrayed as the epicentre of the intellectualism and high art of Michelangelo Antonioni and the dreams and demons of Federico Fellini. But Italian cinema was primarily a genre cinema. with hundreds of Westerns produced each year (Sergio Leone is a small tip of a large iceberg) and large numbers of horror films, thrillers, war films and vulgar comedies were made. In a given book on film history, there might be, say, five to ten pages of Antonioni, Fellini, Pasolini and Francesco Rosi and half a page of the remaining 95% of Italian cinema.

There are many other examples of these flawed perspectives (whether Indian cinema, poetic realism, neorealism, deep focus, development of colour, Hollywood Westerns, and so on) but I have written about several of them at length before and will not repeat it here.

The usual response to this kind of criticism is that "you must simplify and cannot tell everything". But that is an unsatisfying answer. Focusing on kitchen sink realism instead of James Bond is not simplifying but a choice made out of, I assume, artistic considerations. Talking about German Expressionism at length and almost making it sound like this was German cinema is not simplifying, it is mystifying. Talking about Ingmar Bergman as a lone genius working in a vacuum is not simplifying but myth-making.

I am not saying that everybody, or every book, are equally guilty of this. But I think it is a strong, general tendency.

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But what do I want? In short, two things: a different approach to text book-versions of film history and a greater self-awareness of our lack of knowledge and understanding.

I mentioned above the two main problems with text book history, that it is country-based and that is focused on the masterpieces. While there are national distinctions to be made about European cinema, there is much cross-pollination, transfers, influences, and migration that it often becomes misleading to focus to much on a specific country. Actors, directors, writers and cinematographers moved around and made films in various countries, and there were movements and trends that quickly crossed borders and were regional rather than national. Therefore, a larger emphasis of European cinema and less insistence on national cinemas would be a good starting point. But not just within Europe but globally too. South American cinema before the 1960s is almost none-existent in the text books, but it was vivid and creative (such as Argentinian noirs) and also part of global trends and movements, as was Mexican cinema. Hollywood cinema was influenced by European cinema and vice-versa, and both Europe and Hollywood influenced China, Japan and South America. It is not just a question of influence either, but that technical solutions and discoveries emerged simultaneous across the world and impacted how films were made and stories told, and this is not country-based either. These global currents and trends deserve a larger emphasis. It should be possible to do a text book or course on film history that is not country-based at all but organised, for example, around decades. What happened in cinema on a global scale in the 1910s, 1920s, 1930s and so on. But there are other ways of organising the book as well.

And there should be a better balance between the high art/masterpieces and the popular mainstream cinema. Whenever someone exclaims "Oh, I love French cinema. It is so different from the usual mainstream crap." I think about the hundreds of crappy mainstream films made in France each year which these people are oblivious to. They do not necessarily love French cinema, they love a couple of really good French films, and most countries are able to produce a handful of really good films. But I cannot blame these people since the teaching and the writing and the general discussion around film history, and films in general, is to a large extent based on the idea that American cinema consists of mainstream films, with a masterpiece here and there, and all other countries are making unique masterpieces and there is no mainstream cinema.

***

There are many film scholars whose overall knowledge of film history is deep and wide, and who know their limitations. There are many good books about films and film history, written from the same position of deep knowledge and self-awareness. But after some 25 years of experience, I feel confident enough to say that they are not the majority. And the reason for this is not a mystery. It is, first and foremost, because too many have no real interest in watching films. Reading about it is considered enough, and the sample packs of films that are used to make the arguments are too small to make the arguments valid. When I wrote my candidate dissertation on film noir, I was asked how many films I would be talking about. "Around ten?" I was naive enough to be surprised by that question. If you write about ten films you will only be able to say something about those ten films, you will not be able to say much about film noir in general. In the finished dissertation I mentioned around 130 films, and at least a third on them were titles that are frequently discussed as noir. This is still a small sample, but it is large enough to show that whatever traits we claim are defining film noir will be traits that are missing from many of those films we claim as film noir. What we think we know is not how things really are.

***

During my years as a student or researcher of film history, the 1940s and the 1950s have always been my main interest, particularly European and American films of that decade, and Japan as well. I also feel well-versed in Swedish film history from the early days until now. For these parts of film history I think I have seen enough films to be able to make out what it was about. But for other parts of the world, and for the silent period of American, Japanese and southern European cinema, I have seen too few films to be able to talk about it at large. I would be dependent on what others have written about it, and that is, as I have said, not necessarily dependable. My recent research into Hollywood of the 1930s, by way of watching a lot of films, quickly confirmed how little I knew about the decade, despite having been a film historian for so long.

That teachers have to teach subjects about which they have insufficient knowledge is not necessarily the fault of the teacher; it is a problem with the system. And it is not unique to film studies, it is a frequent problem across academia. I too have taught subjects of which I did not know much (radio history for example) because it was dumped in my lap due to office politics or somebody suddenly got sick or got a research grant, and was unavailable. But it should be done with the awareness of one's ignorance, and kept within the limits of one's capability.

There are however no excuses for writing books and scholarly papers about things of which you have insufficient knowledge. It might be good for your CV, but it is bad for the students, the readers and the discipline.

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If you want to read something good, try this long essay by George Toles about Lubitsch's sublime The Shop Around the Corner (1940): https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/film/movie/contents/the_shop_around_the_corner.pdf

2020-04-24. I have now written a follow-up piece: https://fredrikonfilm.blogspot.com/2020/04/some-further-thoughts-on-taught-film.html

Friday 10 April 2020

Easter Break

 I hope you are doing fine during these extreme circumstances we find ourselves in. I decided to take the week off blogging under the pretence that it is Easter, something Swedes take seriously. New post next Friday.

Happy Together (Wong Kar-wai 1997)

Friday 3 April 2020

The Back of Beyond (1954)

When I was a kid and played with Lego, I once built a truck that I intended to be for off-track driving in jungles or deserts and such. I was so proud of it that I put it on display and rarely played with it. It was black, with some spots of red and yellow. I do not know what the colour was of the truck (a Leyland Badger) that features in The Back of Beyond (John Heyer 1954), but it looked similar to my truck. I watched the film this week and it reminded me yet again of my very early fascination with Australia.

The Back of Beyond was conceived, co-written and directed by John Heyer, one of the foremost documentary filmmakers in Australia and an active film enthusiast. He was working for Ealing Studios in Australia, and participated on the making of The Overlanders (Harry Watt 1946), Ealing's most famous Australian film. (It is quite good.) In 1945 he become a producer at the Australian National Film Board, for which he produced a number of documentaries. But when he made The Back of Beyond he was working for Shell Film Unit, Australia. The Shell Film Unit had been established by Shell Oil in England in the early 1930s in order to make documentaries, not commercials, and among their consultants was John Grierson. Their first film, Airport, was made in England in 1934 and they soon became a prestigious production company, comparable to the GPO Film Unit. Now they wanted to make a film that captured the essence of Australia, and as John Heyer had the same ambition, it was a natural fit. He wrote it with his wife, Janet Heyer, Roland Robinson, and the esteemed poet Douglas Stewart. The result is spectacular.


The Back of Beyond is about the Birdsville track, which runs between Birdsville, Queensland and Marree, South Australia and is about 520 kilometres (or 320 miles) long, and the film follows a man named Tom Kruse (pronounced like Tom Cruise) who drives a truck back and forth between the two towns to deliver the mail and supplies from one place to the other, and the places in between. Calling them towns is an overstatement perhaps, rural communities might be more accurate, although Birdsville has a police station (“Where the policeman can close the door of his station at sunset and write in his diary: January 22, Thomas Crow appears out of his mind. Sub-inspector King shot himself on the police station verandah. Another hot day.”) and a hotel, to which Tom Kruse is seen walking in the last shot. He has well-earned a good rest, and maybe even a hot bath.

The film begins on Marree, and the dry, barren landscape upon which it is located. An older man, originally from Afghanistan, goes out in the desert to pray and the whole prayer is translated by the narrator, Kevin Brennan, into English. The prayer sets the tone of the film; this is a tale of hardship and suffering, but also of resilience and triumph. The idea of using a Muslim man and his prayer as the lead into the film is powerful, not least for how unusual it is, now and then. The man is treated as a genuine part of Australia, and as a worthy teller of Australian tales. This is not White Australia, but Australia as a mixture of all parts of the world.

Then Tom Kruse gathers the mail and packages and drives off. During the days and nights on the road he will encounter dead cows hanging from trees to dry; an old missionary station long abandoned and in ruins; a distress call from a lone woman who has suddenly become very ill and needs a flying doctor; an old white man who lives by himself in the desert and kills dingoes for a living. He sells their dead bodies and is looking forward to his own death.

The missionary station was founded by a man from Germany, a Lutheran priest, and he lived on his mission until he died, with a large group of Aboriginals. This tale is told but an Aboriginal, who walks among the ruins and up to the priest's grave.

There are several such interludes which deviate from the tale of Tom Kruse and his truck. Another tale is about two little girls who wandered off into the desert. They lived on a farm with their parents but one day, when the dad was away, the mother suddenly died. The two little girls did not know what to do so they walked out in the desert, presumably to look for help. They disappeared and were never found again.


All of these stories, and the landscape, are filmed in powerful, sometimes breathtaking, images. Striking compositions of cars, trees, houses, bones of dead animals, and a persistent emphasis on the cruel indifference of the land itself. The cinematographer was Ross Wood.

The Back of Beyond was a major undertaking. It took several years to do, and it combines scripted re-enactments and more documentary-like observations. It is perhaps an essay film, and it is definitely a work of art; 65 minutes of unforgettable moments and images. "Corrugated iron towns, shimmering in the corrugated air." is the film's narrator puts it.


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I have mentioned Shell Film Unit before on the blog because in 1991 they made Climate of Concern, about global warming and climate change. It is a film that they now pride themselves for having made but back in 1991 the mother company shelved it because the message of the film was both bleak and clear-headed: our persistent use of oil will be our doom. Not what an oil company wants to tell the world, even if it was their own film unit who was the messenger.

The Australian National Film Board has changed names repeatedly. In 1956 it was named Australian Commonwealth Film Unit. In 1973 it became Film Australia. I think it is now taken over by Screen Australia.

Link to a lengthy discussion about The Back of Beyond from 1986 with Tom O'Regan, Brian Shoesmith, Albert Moran, and Ross Gibson. Among the references they make are Patrick White and Luis Buñuel: http://wwwmcc.murdoch.edu.au/ReadingRoom/1.1/Gibson.html