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.
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.
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.