Academic journal article Western Folklore

The 2004 Archer Taylor Memorial Lecture: Focusing In: Film and the Survival of Folklore Studies in the 21st Century

Academic journal article Western Folklore

The 2004 Archer Taylor Memorial Lecture: Focusing In: Film and the Survival of Folklore Studies in the 21st Century

Article excerpt

I am pleased and honored that the California Folklore Society has invited me to deliver this year's Archer Taylor Memorial Lecture. In addition, I am delighted to once again be here in Los Angeles where I received my Master's degree in Folklore and Mythology at UCLA and learned how to become a filmmaker before heading off to Indiana for my Ph.D.

Archer Taylor (1890-1973) was a co-founder of this Society and is well known as a scholar of proverbs who published such standard reference works as The Proverb (1931) and English Riddles from Oral Tradition (1951). In addition, he studied beliefs, folktales, and gestures, and added to theory in the discipline (Cattermole-Tally 1989). His article, "Precursors of the Finnish Method of Folk-lore Study" (1928), is a classic work on the establishment of the comparative method in folklore (see also Georges 1986). In 1978, Wayland D. Hand (1907-1986) established this lecture series to honor Archer Taylor who was his mentor.

The Archer Taylor Lecture gives me an opportunity to review some of the uses and roles of film and video in folklore studies and folklore fieldwork. After decades of making films and teaching film and folklore, and video fieldwork production, I remain convinced that film (used here to refer to both film and video) is the best way to document folkloric events and expressive behavior. An event might be as complex as what Robert Georges calls a narrating communicative event (Georges 1969), as intricate as what Michael Owen Jones refers to as material behavior in the creation of an object (1997), or as basic as one person singing a song for the camera). I strongly believe that using film to document is a way to get as close as possible to the reality of both the fieldworker and those being filmed and clearly falls within the interests of folklorists, anthropologists, and those in performance studies. In what follows, I wish to discuss some ideas about the reality of popular culture television, the reality of visual anthropology, the reality of folklore on film and the future of our discipline.


As J.R.R. Toelkien's Lord of the Rings Trilogy dominated the Oscars for its final film Part Three: The Return of the King (2004), I was reminded of all the reasons the books became so popular when first released and the ways in which those same ideas made the films into blockbusters today. Yes, they are fantasy stories, not folktales. They are the product of a medievalist's personal vision, a world Toelkien created using his scholarly background. Mordor is, after all, obviously derived from morthor, the Old English word for murder and represents a dreadful spot. What better place to set a story and give it epic proportions than Middle Earth, with its own languages, its own landscapes, and its own adventures? But are these not the same adventures as those of Odysseus, Theseus, Beowulf, and Gilgamesh, and characters in the folktale? The hobbit heroes go on a journey, battle monsters, overcome great odds, and return home victorious. Indeed, they save the world, and precisely because the tales are so closely based on myth, folktale, and epic, and populated with ogres, witches, and elves, they have struck a familiar chord with readers and viewers. The same might be said of the success of the Harry Potter books and films. We remember folkloric motifs and plotlines, much, as Jack Zipes has suggested in a recent lecture at the University of Oregon, like memes (cultural viruses) that spread out and create new variations (see Rothstein 2002). And so, folklore is created and "survives" in new ways alongside the old ones.


Visual anthropology and folkloric films both differ when compared to those of popular culture in content, form, and transmission. Yet survival is often the issue. "Let's get it before it's gone," the preservationists cry, and so many of our early films document performers and their songs, such as Three Songs of Leadbelly (1945). …

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