Watching Films and Listening to Music; or, My Research: What I spend time doing every day

In 2011, the Guardian published an article heralding a “new wave” of women directors in France. “[T]here’s nothing unusual about French women film directors,” author Agnès Poirier writes, but right now, we are in the middle of a “a deluge, one that has been going on for more than 50 years.” The most interesting question that the article raises comes in the middle: “Have these films de femmes anything in common?” Poirier asks; “there must be something that draws them together.” Then, after brief summaries of a few recent films, the article concludes, somewhat blandly and predictably, that the link “might” be sex, but that regardless, the films are all “unexpected” and (shock horror) by women.

Why there must be something that links these films remains to be seen (I suspect that it wouldn’t be necessary to find links between specifically male filmmakers of the same time period, but that’s a topic for another blog post), but I would suggest that there is a glaringly obvious trend in all of the films mentioned in the article, that is somehow missed. First, let’s look at the summaries the article gives:

Love Like Poison (Quillévéré, 2010): “it focuses on a 14-year-old‘s battle with her Catholic faith […] her film deals with a teenager who actually believes”

Lily Sometimes (Berthaud, 2010): “[A] tale of two sisters […] The elder looks after her little sister after their mother dies”

All That Glitters (Nakache, 2010): “a clever take on two ambitious girls, one Jewish, the other Muslim, who dream of Paris”

and now the other films that the article mentions (summaries by me):

Belle Epine (Zlotowski, 2010): A 14-year-old girl befriends a motorcycle-racing gang as she struggles to deal with her mother’s death.

Water Lilies (Sciamma, 2007): Set in the suburbs of Paris, three girls from a synchronised swimming team face the challenges of puberty, sexuality, and attraction.

Tomboy (Sciamma, 2010): After moving house, a ten-year-old girl is mistaken for a boy by the local children.

Ten points to anyone who can spot the link.

Slightly facetious remarks aside, one of the things that links these films is their dealing with (usually adolescent) girls and their experiences. What we have is a wave of young, French women, making films about young, French girls. What I am interested in for my research, is how they represent these girls on screen.

Another link between these filmmakers and there work is, I believe, their use of music. Mia Hansen-Løve once said at interview that she “dislikes” the way that music is often used in films, claiming that she tries to use music in a more “justified” way, different from standard film scoring. Indeed, there may be something “different” about the way she uses her music. However, if you compare the music in Hansen-Løve’s work to that of the other filmmakers mentioned here, there are, I believe, strong similarities between them. It is this idea of difference, the idea that these films may be using their music in a particular way, that I explore in my PhD, more specifically focusing on how this music interacts with the films’ representation of girls. This really boils down to the following questions:

  • How do these films use music? What kinds of music are included and what artists are featured? What trends can be seen in the use of music across these films? How might this be different from other films?
  • How does this music then affect us, as spectators? How might the music help us understand the characters, or even help to express these characters’ personalities/voices? How might the music help evoke “girl” as a concept, as well as interact with the representation of the real “girls” on screen?

These questions lead, inevitably, to a whole host of other interesting questions, like “how does music mean, anyway?” and “is there a difference between ‘a girl’ and ‘girl’?” and “does the inclusion of on-screen/off-screen music matter?” and all sorts of other things, some of which I will hopefully be able to answer through the course of my PhD (and hopefully also post some answers here), and some of which will probably never get answered, at least not in the next three years. But that’s what makes it exciting.

So, that’s a brief introduction to what I do every day – no exploding test tubes or philosophical debating, here (although contemplating life’s meanings is easier when your office is underground, I find), but a lot of investigating, questioning, and theorising. And the odd session spent watching films and listening to music, obviously.


THE Review

I was fortunate enough over the summer to be invited to write a review for the THE Magazine. Although it was a fairly quick turnaround (just over three weeks from commission to deadline), it was a decent chance to a) write about something not directly related (but still relevant) to my thesis, b) experience the copy-editing process, and c) see my name in print! Plus, I got a free book out of it which is always nice.

You can read the review here

You’re on Your Own Now; or, Starting a PhD in the Arts and Humanities

Starting a PhD is a daunting and confusing experience for anyone, but when you don’t have a project team all researching different elements of a particular area, or those ever-mysterious “lab sessions” that my science friends all talk about, it can be hard to know where to begin. You may have a great induction period, getting to know the department, other PhD students, the facilities on offer at the University, and being told how great the research community is, and then suddenly, you’re on your own.

Research is an isolating experience; anyone will tell you that. But it may not sink in until after you start. And by that time, you’ve already forgotten the names of those people you met, got lost around campus, been mistaken for an undergraduate and a member of staff (both equally insulting), and discovered that, in fact, you don’t understand your own research proposal.


However, as usual, all hope is not lost. There are a myriad of “how to survive your first weeks as a PhD student” guides available on the internet, which may or may not give you some encouragement during this period of realisation. In my experience, all of the results my Google searches came up with were a) unrealistic, b) idealistic, and c) either too discipline-specific or not specific enough. Everyone’s experiences are different: your PhD journey will depend entirely on your location, university, department, and personal circumstances. However, I have come up with some general things to consider when starting out, which, in true millennial fashion, I will present in a list:

  1. Find (or create) some desk space

First things first, you are going to need somewhere to do your work. All universities have different systems, and most of them are not perfect. Some departments have hot-desking stations, others have postgrad-only study areas, and a few have office space that they reserve for PhD students. Regardless of your institution’s policy, though, there will almost definitely be a) not enough to accommodate everyone, and b) a very stressed administrator whose job it is to make sure everyone is treated fairly.

GIF1Find out what the policy is for postgrad researchers in your department, and if you aren’t able to have your own allocated space, look around and find something to suit your working needs. I spent the majority of my first term at a desk in the library’s silent study area. It was hot, stuffy, anything but silent, but I stayed there because the desks were bookable by PhD students and so I felt I should take advantage of that privilege. In hindsight, I should just have found somewhere else. I’m sure I would have been much more productive.

2. Attend everything

In your first few weeks, go to as many department events as possible, even if they have nothing to do with your research. Any event where you might run in to other academics or PhD students is worth your time. In the future, you won’t remember the strange visiting researcher who talked about sock patterns in Norwegian folklore, but you will remember the people you went to the pub with afterwards.


3. See your supervisor…

Supervisors can be great, and they can also be not-so-great. Regardless, they are the people who are going to be with you for the next three years. Talk to them about your ideas, how to get started, what their own research is, even what they did over the summer. If you can get a good relationship going, then fantastic. If not, then at least you found out at the beginning rather than six months in. And if nothing else, your supervisor will have done a PhD before, and therefore have some kind of ideas about how to get you started.

4. … and then see other academics

There is nothing wrong with discussing your work with other people, especially if that newly-hired academic happens to have just published a book on an aspect of your research. Having more people read your work or talk about ideas will give you a broader idea of where you are at and how to move forward. And it will seem like less of a problem when your supervisor announces their six-month sabbatical to Iceland at the end of your first year.


and finally:

5. Don’t worry if you don’t know what you’re doing

…because no one does. You will dread the question “how’s the PhD going?” and dread the question “when do you finish?” even more, but you’ll soon find ways to answer, and after a while you might even start believing those answers. If you follow steps 1-4, you will have a pretty good idea of your starting point, and even if you don’t, you have got time to work it out. A PhD isn’t an instant thing, and progress is notoriously hard to assess, especially when you don’t have experiments to do and results to analyse, but you will make progress. Even if you don’t believe it yourself.



Welcome to Basement Contemplations!

This is blog attempt #2 since beginning my PhD – hopefully this one will continue for slightly longer than the last! I will be posting (hopefully) interesting things about my research, and the nature of the PhD in general, to give an insight not only into what I do, but also into the life and times of being a humanities researcher in the South West.

Why “Basement Contemplations?” Not an ironic statement about the ivory tower of academia. Rather, a literal description of my current researching/blogging location, in the basement offices reserved for PhD students in Exeter’s College of Humanities. But more on that later.

Thanks for stopping by – do feel free to stick around for a while 🙂