Friday 28 May 2021

Conventional wisdom part II

Writing about problems and errors concerning conventional wisdoms about film history, as I did last week, is difficult because people often misunderstand, or dismiss as irrelevant, what I say. Three common responses are: a) But you always need to simplify when talking about something as large as film history; b) It is understandable that people make factual errors and this is not a big deal; c) There are more than one way of interpreting film history and what is to say yours is the only correct one.

While I did not intend to write more about this, I have received some variations of all three responses since my previous post, and some clarifications were requested, so I am doing this brief postscript.

Let me make an analogy with the history of World War 2. If somebody wrote an article or book about the history and origins of that war, which argued that "World War 2 began in 1942 when Germany invaded Belgium with two cavalry divisions." people would not defend it by saying that it was a necessary simplification, or that it was a factual error that could happen to anyone, or that it is just another way of interpreting the war. They would say "This is wrong, and it must be withdrawn or corrected." If the writer proceeded to analyse the origins of the war based on that faulty premise, the analysis would not be taken seriously.

The things I complain about, when I write about conventional wisdoms, are of similar kind but within film history. It is not interpretations or factual mistakes but basic misunderstandings or unawareness of what was happening, and when, and how. You can write a book or article, or give a conference paper or a lecture, in which you say the equivalent things about film history as the war example above, and hardly anyone would notice (because they would think it was correct), and even fewer would care. This is peculiar in itself, but when the basic premises of your arguments are wrong it matters even more because if the premise is wrong, and not because you get a few dates mixed up, your argument or analysis will at best be questionable and at worst useless.

Here is an example, recently re-stated in the New York Times: "'Bonnie and Clyde' could be made in Hollywood in the '60s not only because of the influence of the French New Wave but because of the lapsing of a rule that had banned movies from showing a gun firing and the bullet hitting its target in the same shot."

If you think that Hollywood films never had scenes showing a gun firing and the bullet hitting its target in the same shot before Bonnie and Clyde you are wrong, and your discussion about why Bonnie and Clyde was made when it was made will not result in a good answer because of this faulty premise. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of films from the decades preceding the 1960s in which such scenes take place; in westerns, war films, thrillers, science fiction, melodramas, and such. Some of these scenes are even famous. I do not know where the mistaken belief about this ban comes from, but it was not invented by the Times, it has been brought up in many places. In one of my first blog posts, in September 2009, I complained about a documentary I had recently seen about Sergio Leone in which it was claimed that Leone was the first to break with this alleged rule. He was not, not even if there had been such a rule.

Wilson shoots Torrey in Shane (George Stevens 1953)

In the previous article I said I do not know why the conventional wisdom is often confused and/or wrong. But one reason is that the situation in academia and within publishing, as well as for newspapers and journals, is such that there is little time, few incentives, little editorial oversight or fact-checking, to make sure that what is published is accurate and relevant. Scholars are under immense pressure to publish all the time if they want to be able to advance in their careers, or even to keep their current positions, and do not have the luxury to spend enough time on it, or be picky about which publications they publish with. That the research should preferably be trendy, or "timely," is another factor. Meanwhile, many writers for newspapers and journals are poorly paid, and also under immense pressure to publish all the time, quality be damned. No single person is to be blamed for this; it is a structural problem.

However, as this is true for most, or all, disciplines, not just for films, it does not explain all of the problems. I have sat through enough lectures and conference presentations to know that it is not just in publishing that film scholars often seem to be unaware of the extent to which the conventional wisdoms they repeat or rely on are wrong, on the level of "World War 2 began in 1942 when Germany invaded Belgium with two cavalry divisions." This too is not necessarily the fault of any individual, but a systemic issue: the field of cinema studies can perhaps be described as historically underdeveloped. I struggled with this early on when doing research myself, constantly realising that things were different from what I had been told, and different from how almost any given textbook on film history tells it.


Conventional wisdoms that are incorrect are everywhere, so they are naturally widespread within film criticism and cinema studies as well. Conventional wisdom about airborne diseases led to a lot of mistakes and delays for many months (and still do today) concerning the best ways of dealing with, and protecting people from, Covid-19. That was a conventional wisdom that led to people dying. (Read more here and here.) That is not something we have to worry about within film history, and maybe that is why the conventional wisdoms in this field are frequently so wrong. It is not considered important enough, and maybe it is not.


A recent, expensive, series for Swedish public television (UR to be precise) about the history of film contained hardly a single correct depiction or description of its subject. It was almost surreal, but that is how things are. And as I wrote in my previous post, I will just have to accept that and move on. And focus on those critics and scholars who are aware of the flaws of the conventional wisdoms, the people who do not accept those stories but push against them.


Link to the previous article about conventional wisdom. 

Links to some earlier articles where I discuss aspects of film history and conventional wisdoms:

Using Max Weber to understand film history

About the French New Wave

About neorealism

About deep focus cinematography

About "New Hollywood"

About directors and auteurs

Friday 21 May 2021

Conventional wisdom

In the previous article (only last week) I said I was considering doing a series of articles about research, and best practices for it. Over the weekend that followed, three things happened:

- I got a comment from Corey Creekmur saying that my article was both interesting and important, but that I should keep in mind that it was not until fairly recently that it became easy to do deep research, as films were not available to watch to the extent that they are now.

- I read two new articles about film, in Swedish newspapers, whose ideas of the history of the areas the articles' focused on were both expected and completely wrong.

- I got an email from a friend wondering why I was continually writing about, and complaining about, these things. "Just do the work the way it should be done and let conventional wisdom take care of itself. It always has and it always will."

To the first point; Corey is right but, as I said in my article, the researcher needs to adjust their arguments so they do not go further than what the research tells them. When you have less access to the necessary films this should be reflected in the scope and reach of the arguments you try to make. If you do not have access to the necessary films, you should not argue as if you had. Another problem is that contemporary research, and books/articles, often rely on older articles and books, despite them not being fit for purpose. Corey also said that it is worse when researchers and writers today do not do the required research, even though they can. I agree with this too.

But one reason why proper research is often (I am tempted to say usually) not being done is that most people, whether scholars or critics or journalists, seem to be knowledgeable enough of the conventional wisdom, and do not see any need to do the required research, because they believe they know what is needed (as in the two articles I referred to above). But that conventional wisdom about film history, whichever aspect of it that it concerns, is almost always wrong. I do not know why that is, but it is a fact. Whether we are talking about technical developments, studio systems, genre developments, audience reactions, box office numbers, New Waves, golden ages, censorship rules, neorealism, directors' reputations, or any other thing you could think of, it seems as if at some point it was collectively decided that "Now we know enough." and what was considered the conventional wisdom at that point remains uncontested, regardless of how ahistorical and misleading it might be. Whatever you think you know about a period, genre, movement, convention, or country, assume that it is wrong unless you have watched a lot of relevant films and done proper research yourself. There are those who are doing, or have done, the kind of research that is needed to break with the conventional wisdom, and published on it, but that has not helped much in terms of general awareness.

In film studies, and film criticism, there has over time been an increased emphasis on women and on ethnic and sexual minorities, but while this is right and important, it is not the same as questioning that conventional wisdom. It is more frequently a case of taking the conventional wisdom for granted and adding to it, or criticising the conventional wisdom as if it was the truth of how things were.

Which leads us to my friend's comment. He too is right. Since this is the situation, I will have to accept this and move on. Not least because my writing might become intolerable if I turn into a writer's version of another Fredrik (or Frederick), Max von Sydow's character in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), railing against the world. (“If Jesus came back and saw what was being done in his name, he'd never stop throwing up.”)

I might still do book criticism on the blog as this remains relevant, as long as the book in question is something widely known and used. That is another difficulty, to know to what extent something that bugs you is even known to other people. It can sometimes feel like "everybody" is talking about something, but that is hardly ever true. More often than not it is probably just a handful of people online, and it will all be forgotten the next day, even if it was a four-page spread in a leading newspaper. It is best to let such things slide. But a new book by, say, David Bordwell is a different matter. If I am going to engage in discussions and criticism of someone else's work, it should be with somebody like that (not that I often have reason to complain about Bordwell) and not some hack. To criticise some unknown person's recently published PhD thesis, regardless of how bad it is, is not worth the effort, and might even be cruel.

[A postscript is now available here:]


I use "conventional wisdom" in the way J.K. Galbraith defined it: "Because familiarity is such an important test of acceptability, the acceptable ideas have great stability. They are highly predictable. It will be convenient to have a name for the ideas which are esteemed at any time for their acceptability, and it should be a term that emphasizes this predictability. I shall refer to these ideas henceforth as the conventional wisdom." (From The Affluent Society (1958).)

If you wish I had provided specific examples of common mistakes/misunderstandings, I choose not to because there are too many. But I have written repeatedly about it on the blog before, and examples are easy to find here. Such as my recent posts about "New Hollywood".

Friday 14 May 2021

On research - some common flaws

Something that was on my mind when writing my first article about "New Hollywood" was how curious it is that so much of the conventional wisdom about Hollywood of the 1960s is wrong, and the article at first took off on a different path in order to address that. But as I moved away from "New Hollywood" and turned to a more general, methodological, maybe even philosophical, discussion about the art and craft of doing film history, it occurred to me that it would be more curious if that conventional wisdom was correct, since so few things are when it comes to the history of film. I have written about this before, a couple of times, as I have been aware of it since I began studying film in the 1990s.

In this article I want to address four common problems concerning research, which are connected and that partly explains why so much research come up short. I would like to write a series of articles on best practices for research. This piece provides some initial thoughts.

1) Too few films are used.

In many countries, in a given year, hundreds or maybe thousands of films are made, and by bringing up only five or ten of them you will not be saying much of relevance of anything beyond those particular films. You can of course not discuss all films that were made during the time you are concerned with, and it may not be necessary either, but if you want to make some more general comments or arguments about an era, movement, genre or whatever it might be, you need a sample pack large enough for the argument/comment to be valid, while also acknowledging that you have only got a potentially skewed selection, chosen out of a certain bias. That might mean you need to watch and analyse hundreds of films. If you are not able to do that, then you need to adjust the scope of your generalisations and interpretations. This might seem obvious, but it is not. One of the most common reasons for why an article or book on film fails is because the writer(s) use too few films as the source for their research yet they proceed in arguing as if their little selection was representative for all films, or at least for all films of the era, or genre, or country, that they are talking about. There are many classic books and articles about various aspects of film history that are damaged because of this.

For a concrete example: one often cited article about deep focus, one that is partially responsible for the repeated confusions and falsehoods about its usage in the 1930s (when it was a lot more common than most people believe), is Patrick Ogle's 1972 piece for Screen called "Technological and Aesthetic Influences Upon the Development of Deep Focus Cinematography in the United States." This sentence is relevant for my argument: "James Wong Howe, ASC, seems to have produced a proto-deep focus film in his photography of Transatlantic ten years earlier." (Ogle means ten years before Citizen Kane.) I suppose Ogle was not able, or willing, to watch Transatlantic but had heard that it might be in deep focus, but if you are writing an article about the development of deep focus prior to Citizen Kane you must actually watch the films that were made prior to Citizen Kane. Saying "it seems" something had happened is poor scholarship. And if you are not able to do the necessary research, do not write the article. If Ogle had done his research he would know that "proto-deep focus" is not a thing. Either something is deep focus or it is not, and all the way from the start of cinema, in the 1890s, deep focus had been in common usage. Even in the 1930s.

A related issue is the need to explain why these films and not those films have been chosen. Often it can feel somewhat arbitrary why the films under consideration are the ones under consideration. If you want to write about a country and a genre, or even a prolific filmmaker, you might have hundreds (or thousands) of relevant films to engage with, and if you have chosen five of them it needs to be clear why those five. A lot of theoretical work suffers from this, when what feels like a randomly selected group of films are analysed from a specific angle and nowhere is it made clear why, of all the tens of thousands of films that have been made, are these the ones that have been chosen. (That they have been chosen only because they are the ones that make it easy for the theoretician to prove a point can often be taken for granted.)

2) Too much emphasis is put on the exceptions.

As I mentioned in the second of my "New Hollywood" articles, Easy Rider (1969) might be seen as a non-representative, one-off, success and it is therefore not obvious that it says much about Hollywood, audiences, and the United States in general. This is true for a lot of film history. "How representative are these few films that I am discussing of the country, or era, or genre to which they belong?" is a question that always needs to be addressed, preferably in the introduction to your book/article. When it comes to Hollywood in the 1960s, Sound of Music (1965) was more representative of audience tastes, and probably more influential, than Easy Rider (1969), regardless of whether you like it or not.

3) Too much emphasis is put on individual films while larger forces are ignored.

4) Too much emphasis is put on individuals such as writers, directors, and cinematographers.

These two points might seem like an odd thing for me to bring up since I often write about directors, both on the blog and in other articles and books. But while filmmakers’ matter, not least when it comes to discussing, and understanding, individual films, it is also the case that when it comes to larger historical shifts, individuals matter less than external factors such as economics, politics, censorship and other things over which a single person has little, if any, influence. This too may seem obvious, but the number of people, including scholars, who for example blame Steven Spielberg personally for ruining Hollywood, or credit this or that filmmaker for changing the course of filmmaking, is remarkably high. It is, at another end, countered by the many scholars and critics who completely disregard the creative individuals, and look only at economics or ideology, which is equally wrong. If you want to get as close as possible to what happened, and why, you need to accept that individuals, industry practices, changing individual tastes, chance, luck, and all kinds of extraneous events, even climate change, all combine to shape the forces of history, including film history.

When writing about individual filmmakers, issue #1 returns. If you are writing about a particular filmmaker and want to emphasise what it is that separates them from other filmmakers, you need to do as much research into all those other filmmakers as you have about the filmmaker you are primarily focused on. As that is usually not possible, you will have to accept this fact and not make sweeping generalisations about those other filmmakers. Or, in order to highlight the filmmaker you are researching, you might compare them to another one with which there are similarities. Comparing Fritz Lang with Robert Siodmak is fine, comparing Lang to a hypothetical "more conventional" filmmaker is not. Comparing Antonioni to Rosi is meaningful. Comparing Antonioni to hypothetical "American filmmakers" is not. Then you can do the needed research on the other filmmaker, and hopefully say something meaningful about the differences and similarities between the two.

The problem(s) discussed here are not necessarily problems with the research itself, but with the inability to understand/accept the limitations of that research and instead act as if the material can answer questions that it cannot. I understand the temptation, I have sometimes caught myself on the blog trying to spin the result of my research into more than the research can deliver. But I try to keep myself in check.

The first question one should always ask before evaluating the conclusions that the critic/historian/theoreticians are making is whether they have earned the right to draw those conclusions. More often than not, they have not.


My first article about "New Hollywood":

and the second: