Friday, August 23, 2013

Soapy Research Questions

The Ryan's Hope viewing experiment continues. I need to spend a bit of non-workout time with an episode or two to count the number of scenes per episode and their length, but there is no doubt that scenes go on for much longer in the RH of 1975 than they do on any soap today. A couple of other observations/questions (mostly so I can remember these thoughts when I eventually try to turn some of it into an argument):

1) the show seems to have multiplied its number of sets as of episode 17. From that point, we're seeing new sets each episode. None are fancy; all are very bare bones, but it's nice to get a wider view of the community this way. My guess is that they could only build so many before production began but, as of a few weeks in, more were up and running.

2) Men keep asking women out for meals and I'm having a difficult time reading the social mores of the time because I'm often not quite sure if this is an invitation to a date or just a friendly gesture. In the case of Bucky's offers to Faith, I know it is a date. His interest in her, and her oddball standoffishness, are at the center of the story. But I don't know how to read Ed Coleridge inviting Nell Beaulac, who is recently estranged from her husband, out to eat. Or how to read Roger Coleridge (Ed's son!) similar offer to Nell. [Update: Just saw ep. 21, when they do go out and Roger DEFINITELY sees it as a date.] Or Roger's offer to Mary, who seems more age-appropriate for him. And I think maybe Bob Reed also asked Mary out to eat. Are these the equivalent of the present-day soaps' "chemistry tests"? If so, they are so much more subtle that it is difficult to tell what they are suggesting. In fact, most things are much more subtle than in the present day soaps (or at least in that sinking ship, GH, which may very well be the worst I've seen it in my 25+ years of viewing). But RH keeps me guessing. Do Roger and Bob have things for Mary? Do Pat and Faith have a past? Does Delia really know that Frank and Jill are having an affair? I'm watching for clues to all of these questions as much as for the big plot points. Either it's really careful soap plotting or I just don't get 1975 social cues.

[Update: I think it's really careful plotting. In episode 20 we get the first real clue that something may be physically wrong with Nell--the dreaded soap headache!--while in the entire first month of the show she just seemed oddly determined to move on with her neurological research. But that determination is slowly, slowly going to be revealed as a cover for something else going on with her. Such careful long-range plotting! Love it!]

I've also been making plans to move forward with my soap research this summer and fall. One archive I plan to visit is UCLA's Film and Television Archive, as they have the most extensive collection of actual soap episodes anywhere I've seen, including episodes from the '50s, '60s, and '70s, the pre-home VCR era and thus the era before fans were archiving episodes themselves. The most amazing part of their collection is a nearly full run of General Hospital from its debut in 1963 well into 1970. Both the fan and the scholar in me are beyond excited at the possibility of watching GH from the beginning. But.

Researching soaps = not easy. First, of course, is the time factor. I can't watch 7 years of GH episodes in an archive in California unless I were to live there and to view regularly for months. Even if this were possible, there's another but.

Some of these episodes are what the archive considers "archival copies." This means that no one can see them. Ever. The copies are too poor or fragile or something to be available for viewing. This is not just the case with some of the GH episodes but with MANY of the other soap episodes they list in their catalog (such as early '70s All My Children--the Erica abortion story!--and many others). I'm not a trained archivist, of course, but I just don't understand why they would hold such materials in the collection with these constraints.

Another problem: many of the GH episodes, as well as many other of the older soap episodes in the collection, are classified as "research copies." This means that the archivists must transfer the copy to VHS for me to view. The catch is their policy on such copies, which is to copy no more than 10 hours of programming per researcher. Now, the archive has other copies readily available for viewing, episodes that, presumably, others have watched in the past and that have thereby been transferred to VHS already. But this is a scattered selection, and one that does not include some of the real gems in the collection. With much advance notice, the under-staffed and under-budgeted archivists seem willing to stretch those 10 hours a bit for me. But it is doubtful that they will be willing/able to transfer the 30 or so (if I'm being honest, it's more like 40) hours I would most like to be able to see during my trip.

So my next task is to try to prioritize the list of what I would like transferred. I've already decided to limit my viewing to material before the early 1980s as the home VCR era that ensues thereafter makes it more likely that I will be able to see some of that material via fans' collections (plus my own memories and tapes). But, beyond that, I have several possibilities. Possibility no. 1: do I see as much GH as I can and have an in-depth sense of one show's past? (Keep in mind that that depth is inherently limited, as I can't watch all the episodes they have.) Possibility no. 2: If I do focus on GH, do I scatter my viewing across the years they have, or focus it so as to watch a particular story unfold? If the latter, how to choose an entry point? Or (possibility no. 3) do I spread my viewing across shows and time periods, to be more representative? (But how can you really get a sense of how a soap storyline is told by watching an episode here and there?)

I get irritated by claims that researching soap history is "impossible" because of such constraints, so don't think I'm saying that (and don't tell me that in comments, either!). But such are the practical considerations any archival study entails, albeit with particularly constraining constraints for the study of soaps.

No comments:

Post a Comment