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.


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My first article about "New Hollywood":

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