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 They would say "This is wrong, and it must be withdrawn or corrected."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: