In Search of Pleasures Past
Author: Les Roberts and Ryan Shand
Format: Video-based oral history
Duration: 13′ 33
Published: July 2013
One of the aims of the research was to explore the ways in which film and video material can enhance understandings of local and amateur film cultures beyond those otherwise limited to print-based outputs, and provide qualitative insights into the multiple perspectives surrounding the production and interpretation of local films. Another, related (and longer-term) aim is to assess the value and scope of video methods in qualitative research into film, place and memory in terms of broadening the potential impact, reach and accessibility of scholarship in this area.
Scholarly literature on related fields of practice falls within at least three categories: oral history; amateur film and localism; and amateur film and oral history. Firstly, the use of video recording equipment in oral history interviews has been explored by Dan Sipe in ‘The Future of Oral History and Moving Images’ (1998: 379-388), in which he examines the new implications of this technology in comparison with standard audio recordings. Next, cultural historians have seen amateur film as a means of charting the ‘local’ in dynamic relation with more conventional frameworks of the regional or national cinematic space (see, for example, Neumann and Jones 2007: 231-248). Thirdly, these two approaches are in some ways combined in Stefan Szczelkun’s article, ‘The Value of Home Movies’ (2000: 94-98).
One of the main ways that we advanced on the above work was to conduct interviews with numerous amateur filmmakers within a particular geographical region in order to build a comparative analysis of creative attitudes and tendencies. During the two-year project entitled Mapping the City in Film: A Geo-historical Analysis at the University of Liverpool, seventeen amateur filmmakers were interviewed, mainly in the Merseyside region. This material supplements the archive films currently held in private and public collections and provides contextual information on production and exhibition histories. By adding what has been referred to as ‘layers of meaning’ (Norris-Nicholson 2007) to visual material that has an uncertain status, information that is not available from print sources can be passed onto future generations. In this way, In Search of Pleasure Past utilises this interview footage, allowing a comparative view of an issue of local significance to be seen and understood, rather than merely read as fragmented print transcriptions or used as extracts in scholarly articles or book chapters.
This documentary has provided us with an opportunity to move our personal research trajectory from one hitherto limited to publication and dissemination organised almost exclusively around the text-based outputs and methods towards one that encompasses the active gathering of audio-visual primary research data and the dissemination of ideas and outputs that utilise new media technologies and digital tools. The authors received training in the use of oral history and video interviewing methods during sessions organised by the Oral History Society in 2009. These courses introduced us to practical considerations and theoretical debates that subsequently informed our presentation of this material in conference presentations, journal articles and book chapters. While the unedited interviews we recorded are now part of the North West Film Archive collection in Manchester, the film In Search of Pleasures Past represents the only stand-alone creative interpretation of the material the project team gathered as part of their research.
The research methods were drawn from oral history and visual ethnography (see also previous section).
The interview process has been described as, ‘a conversational narrative: conversational because of the relationship of interviewer and interviewee, and narrative because of the form of exposition – the telling of a tale’ (Grele 1998: 44). This is a useful way of understanding the interviews featured in the documentary In Search of Pleasures Past. However these interview clips and the local ‘story’ they relate are all the more illuminating when they are traced across many interviews by using standardised questions and focusing specifically on common reference points such as particular films. This then allowed us to edit the interviews together in a dynamic fashion and therefore transform the material from raw footage and into a more substantial documentary. Out of these interviews emerges a sense of the inter-connected nature of the filmmaking community in the Merseyside region.
The added benefit of video footage is that the image records so much visual information that would be lost in an audio-only sound file. As the filmmaker and oral historian Dan Sipe has noted, ‘Many people learn to communicate not with the precision or brilliance of their words but with energy and effect – as interviewers often learn when they discover a vibrant interview reduced, in the transcript, to a series of leaden, banal sentences’ (1998: 382). In some cases, the best format to present the filmmaker’s point of view is in short video extracts, rather than in merely audio or written transcript form. Indeed, the historian Thomas L. Charlton summarised the benefits of videotaping oral history interviews when he wrote,
“No audio recording has ever preserved an interviewee’s wincing facial contortions; animated fingers punctuating statements by gesticulating and stabbing the air; folded arms, crossed legs, or clenched teeth, any of which may indicate negative or threatened feelings; or the smile and facial radiance of sheer joy as a narrator recalls his happiest life experiences.” (1984: 232)
In addition to giving the viewer an indication of the approximate age of the interviewees, various examples from In Search of Pleasures Past confirm the value of Charlton’s statement; from George Gregory and Les Holloway using their hands to demonstrate actions and movements, to more significantly during the sequence when Graham Kay remembers his annoyance with the judges and when Jim Wood subsequently apologises for his comments during this event. Here, eye movements, facial expressions and body language are indicative of deeper and perhaps conflicting emotions. Jim’s smile as he relates his side of the story turns the tone from guilty confession to light-hearted joke. The sometimes humorous nature of this process of remembering is emphasised when Jim pretends to slap his wrist in mock punishment for his past actions; a punch line that would have been lost in audio only form.
The work was completed as part the ARHC-funded project Mapping the City in Film research activities. From December 2008, we organised a monthly lunchtime film screening series titled Projecting Place: Liverpool on Film, which was held in the School of Architecture at the University of Liverpool. In Search of Pleasures Pastwas inspired by the last of these events in October 2009 (brief footage of which is shown at the end of the documentary). Focusing on three films made during quite different historical periods, New Brighton films brought together individuals who were knowledgeable about these productions: George Gregory, Graham Kay (from Swan Movie Makers) and John Carroll (Hoylake Movie Makers), who agreed to speak about their films and answer questions from the audience. While they knew each other in a personal capacity, it was the first time that Graham Kay had seen Fair Play and, as the clip from the documentary demonstrates, he thought screening both films together created some provocative resonances.
The audience for the event were particularly struck by this contrast between a busy resort town in the 1960s and the decline evident by the 1970s, as well as the changes to New Brighton as a result of more recent investments such as the Floral Pavilion theatre and conference venue. Following the event, all three filmmakers were interviewed individually, from which the story of the reception of Pleasures Past emerged. Ryan Shand then used clips from these interviews to discuss the reception of Pleasures Past during the Mapping, Memory and the City conference at the University of Liverpool in February 2010, to indicate the benefits of the oral history method of research. Les Roberts also utilised material from these interviews in a chapter published in the edited collection The City and the Moving Image: Urban Projections, and in his monograph Film, Mobility and Urban Space: a Cinematic Geography of Liverpool (Liverpool University Press). An early version of the documentary In Search of Pleasures Past was edited during March/April 2010 and shown to a selected audience at the scholarly workshop Landscapes, Memories and Cultural Practices: A GIS/GPS Mapping Network, held at the University of Liverpool in May 2010. In 2013, as part of a redesign of the Mapping the City in Film project website (www.liv.ac.uk/lsa/cityinfilm/) the Vimeo video will be embedded on the homepage, along with a link toScreenworks.
Charlton, Thomas L (1984) ‘Videotaped Oral Histories: Problems and Prospects’, American Archivist 47, 3.
Grele, Roland J (1998) ‘Movement without Aim: Methodological and Theoretical Problems in Oral History’, in R. Perks & A. Thomson (eds.) The Oral History Reader, London: Routledge.
Neumann, Mark and Janna Jones (2007) ‘Amateur Film and the Rural Imagination’, in Robert Fish (ed.) Cinematic Countrysides, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Norris-Nicholson, Heather (2007) ‘Virtuous or Virtual Histories?: Changing Ways of Working with Archival Film Footage’, unpublished conference paper, Future Histories of the Moving Image Conference, University of Sunderland, 16-18 November 2007.
Sipe, Dan (1998) ‘The Future of Oral History and Moving Images’, in R. Perks & A. Thomson (eds.) The Oral History Reader, London: Routledge.
Szczelkun, Stefan (2000) ‘The Value of Home Movies’, in Oral History 28, 2.
All reviews refer to the original film and research statement which have both been edited in response to what follows:
Review 1: Invite re-submission with re-edit of work and statement
I found the statement and film engaging and informed. It applied the question of what are the advantages of audio visual recording of oral history interviews in the context of amateur/local filmmaking in Liverpool with varying results. Overall, I strongly recommend acceptance, but with the following suggested revisions.
This explains the project clearly and uses appropriate references, if somewhat limited in scope. More on amateur/documentary filmmaking might have been helpful, especially in the area of interviewing on film.
The section on impact would be better written as a narrative rather than as a list of screenings, so that the impact of the screenings can be teased out more clearly. At the moment, I am not sure what the impact is, e.g. what was the feedback at the events and has there been any feedback from online exhibition.
The researchers could write a little more on what they unearthed in the Outcome section. While Snipe’s contrast between transcriptions and audio visual oral history can be useful, if a little snooty, the researchers point concerns the sound file versus the audio visual. In other words, what specifically in their process did they discover in the filming that would not have been available as an audio history?
While I understand that it may be difficult to re-edit, I strongly suggest that minor re-editing is carried out in order to make best use of the medium as well as for public viewing purposes.
The interviews are empathetic and gently probing, producing insightful responses with poignancy and, occasionally, humour. The interviewing voice appears to be judiciously used, with only one exception, i.e. in reinforcing the notion of negativity between two interviewees. The interviewer’s voice not necessary here, because the scene is set and the second interviewee follows the previous one seamlessly.
The main problem, which cannot be addressed, but which I wish to point out to the researchers for future reference, is the limited nature of visual backdrop for the interviewees. While it is usual to conduct oral history in the home, the background to the interviewees is, to use Snipe’s term about the written text, ‘banal’. Given that the overall theme is filmmaking and all interviews are concerned with working out of the home, I would have hoped for a more imaginative back drop. In one case the researchers appear to use cinema seating. This creative use of the visual medium should have been extended, which leaves the impression that the researchers did not make best use of a medium that they were exploring.
One way of alleviating the above problem is to include more footage of the original films to cover more of the interviews. However, this is not just a case of covering up limited backdrops, but also works with the film’s theme of memory, nostalgia and the city, i.e. the films speak volumes and can work with the voice over. While it is important to have archive-only sequences, more archive can be edited in under the voices.
More use of the archive films would also allow the researchers to avoid the fades in the interview edits, which look messy and seem like a last resort, i.e. there was no other option.
When the film jumps to the Q&A, we have no visual guide, but have to read the text to be informed of where we are. Is it possible to film the outside of the venue to use as a bridging shot?
To summarise statement revisions:
Develop the Impact into a more narrative structure and tell us about the impact, as well as the venues and dates; Inform us of your specific findings in the Outcomes section, e.g. how do you think the visual interviews work and how do they relate to the archive; Include a reference to writing on film interviewing, which is necessarily different to audio interviewing
To summarise film revisions:
Re-edit to use more of the archive films. This works because the films are so engaging to watch, but also will lessen the amount of screen time for the interview-only visuals, which are very limited in their visual nature.
Review 2: Invite re-submission with re-edit of work and statement
In Search of Pleasures Past presents original research, shedding light into the existence of a particular film and its conditions of production. As such, it has a number of advantages over more traditional text-based approaches. For instance, it is able to communicate what one of the interviewees (Graham Kay, the director of the film) reckons as the most important dimension of certain cinematographic works: their mood. By showing well-chosen excerpts of the piece from the 1970s, In Search of Pleasures Past brings to the contemporary audience a feeling of its emotional qualities – a nostalgia that is echoed by the evidence of material decay in the film itself (which is foregrounded by its interweaving with the more recent DV footage used for interviews). While the on-screen presence of the filmmakers does not seem to add much in terms of information (in comparison to a possible transcription of the interviews), it is very interesting how it allows a glimpse of the research concerns and methods, as we can hear some of the interviewers’ questions and bear witness to its “laboratories” (such as the film screening and Q&A organized at the Liverpool University).
The statement is very clear and seems well substantiated. However, the work itself is hard to follow. As a documentary, its style is not as original as its subject, but rather formulaic. The researchers have not explored the context of the interviews in order to incite the interviewees or to acquire any further visual information. Moreover, the way the images and interviews are edited together does not help the viewer in getting into the movie’s subject matter. Montage could be better used as a resource for a particular academic rhetoric or at least for the organization of information in a more “storytellish” way. Some textwould come in handy. Maybe intertitles could be used to frame the material, directing the attention of the viewers to certain topics in the interviews, as if “signposting” the movie. Being a non-native English speaker, I also had a hard time to follow some of the interviewees due to their strong (regional) accent. While such accent is an interesting geographical mark in their voices, it hinders the “broad potential impact” the researchers intend In Search of Pleasures Pastto have. Considering the piece’s scientific character, why not add subtitles to it (which would also make it accessible for the public with impaired hearing)?
Overall, I believe more attention should have been paid to the intended audience and context of exhibition ofIn Search of Pleasures Past. Are other situations (besides “Vimeo format”) also suitable for viewing purposes? By whom is the work meant to be watched? Where is it meant to be shown? Is the work restricted to academic publications/platforms such as Screenworks? Must its screenings in theatrical situations always be introduced with an explanation of its research context? Could it circulate freely in festivals, for example? The answer to these questions would probably help directing the piece into a more approachable format for a wider audience.
A reminder that all reviews refer to the original film and research statement which have both been edited in response.