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23 June 2007 @ 03:46 pm
History, the World, and Their Representation in Movies  

Currently reading History and the Media, a compilation of essays dealing with the rendering of historical subjects for both TV and silver screen. Editor David Cannadine picked some illustrious contributors I must say, as the table of contents looks quite a bit like the 'Who is Who' of BBC historians, telly-friendly academics and history-friendly producers.

Among the featured texts is one I'd very much like to quote from, partly for personal reference, partly in vague hope that it might perhaps capture somebody else's interest as much as it captured mine:

Some people try to persuade us that films and television are a business just like any other. They are not. Films and television (like newspapers) shape attitudes and behaviour, and in doing so, reinforce or undermine many of the wider values of society. We have come to accept that cinema's influence on people's behaviour, and their sense of history, is a global phenomenon. We should recognise, for instance, that thousands or even millions of young people are growing up in incredibly distressed circumstances. Wherever they are concentrated in the world -every one of these locations is a 'tinderbox' which could explode at any moment. It's important to reflect on the fact that simplistic and insensitive plots, images and stereotypes can only make those explosions that much more inevitable.


This is why cinema, and its relationship with history and the 'real world' matters. [...] But if film-makers simply make movies which rely on technology and special effects to portray their world, I fear that the difference between the demands of mainstream cinema and our everyday reality could well become just too great, with consequences that will ultimately effect all of us.


There is a quote from the great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky which I have been using for almost twenty years but which I still think captures all of this quite beautifully. Shortly before his death, Tarkovsky wrote this:

"The connection between man's behaviour and his destiny has been destroyed; and this tragic breach is the cause of his growing sense of uncertainty in the modern world...because he has been conditioned into the belief that nothing depends on him, and that his personal experience will not affect the future, he has arrived at the false and deadly belief that he has no part to play in the shaping of even his own fate...I am convinced that any attempt to restore harmony in the world can only rest on the renewal of personal responsibility."

He was, of course, talking about film-makers.

David Puttnam, "Has Hollywood Stolen our History?" in David Cannadine, ed., History and the Media (Houndmills, Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004).

100% Optional Feedback Poll. To be taken about as seriously as the depiction of British Colonialism throughout all three of Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean movies ;-)

Your thoughts regarding the excerpts above?

Hmh, interesting. Thank you for posting this!
Read the short intro but couldn't be bothered to click on the cut tag.
Bah, I already had enough of this responsibility crap over at metafandom!
Could you please set up a filter to spare me your non-fannish musings?
Other. (Will explain in a more elaborated comment.)

Current Mood: mischievousmischievous
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Molly Joyful: JackDav and the geeks shall rulejoyful_molly on June 23rd, 2007 02:10 pm (UTC)
I don't know if a statement can become "more true" over the course of time, but the more people "learn" their history from movies and TV rather than at school, from books or from home, the truer his statement becomes to me. I often read that "people can go and inform themselves, read up facts or research on the internet" - but let's be honest, how many people will actually do this? I may go out on thin ice here, but I think it won't be the ones who should do it. OK, one could argue that it's their loss, but still - doesn't bode well for the future.

My niece still went to school when the big "Titanic" bonanza happened, and her teacher - always glad to find something to keep the kids interested with - involved "Titanic" (and with it the different treatment of the classes - the ship really was a microcosmos - at that time) in her teaching.

After three weeks of Titanic, visiting the "Titanic" exhibition and watching two documentaries, out of a class of about 25 students, a third answered the question in the final test whose actions, in their opinion, saved most lives during the tragedy with "Jack".

I rest my case.

And I sit on my hands here so not to bitch about the Mutiny on the friggin' Bounty again...
Bimo: NorriBeth_painfulcasebimo on June 24th, 2007 08:34 am (UTC)
out of a class of about 25 students, a third answered the question in the final test whose actions, in their opinion, saved most lives during the tragedy with "Jack".

Well, one could always ascribe that sort of temporal confusion to the magical powers of a certain Mr. DiCaprio being right at the height of his popularity with teenage admirers ;-)

Not that I would want to say anything bad about DiCaprio, though. Having seen him in some of his earlier movies, in which he managed to hold up against folks like DeNiro or Depp, I think he's a fine actor. Just like I think that "Titanic", once stripped from all the hype and outcries that surrounded it when it came out, at its core is actually a rather enjoyable movie, because director James Cameron offers the viewer more than just special effects or a love story reduced to the simplest common denominator. Your niece's teacher, for example, had enough grounds on which to make her points about (extended) Edwardian class society, and especially the first part of the movie, with all its devotion to machinery, steel, speed, power and the hubristic optimism of the pre-WW1 Modernist age, feels like an serious attempt to actually portray the cultural essence of that particular era.

Btw, did I ever tell you that I managed to catch "Titanic: Birth of a Legend" (English with German subtitles) when it ran on Arte, but at that point in time was too stupid to tape it, despite noticing that Thomas Andrews was being played by Mr. "Fetch them irons" Gillette? Argh!

And I sit on my hands here so not to bitch about the Mutiny on the friggin' Bounty again...

Yup. Bligh, the sadist. Bligh, the embodiment of evil. Talk about misrepresentation, catastrophically bad PR and the special power that movies seem to hold over the larger cultural consciousness.

The great irony in this context is that I actually belong to the school of historians who believe the hunt for factual accuracy to be, at best, a noble but somewhat misguided ghost chase. Do I care that the Mozart and Salieri in Peter Shaffer's&Milos Forman's "Amadeus" are fictitious constructs and in no way an accurate representations of the actually existing composers? Hell no, of course not, because "Amadeus", among other things, does tell you a story about talent, and power, sublimity and music, disappointment and envy. Offering the viewer a "historically correct" representation is not for one second the movie's point, just like Susan Sontag's "Volcano Lover" is never about about the historical Hamilton/Nelson/Hamilton triangle, a fact which Sontag (bless her!) openly admits in the novel's afterword:

"Mein Cavaliere ist ein Double von Sir William Hamilton und ich habe mir die Freiheit genommen, ihn mit ihm gemaessen Eigenschaften auszustatten, was ich auch bei den anderen namentlich genannten Personen getan habe. Anregungen und Informationen verdanke ich vielen moderen historischen Informationen und Briefen."

(Sorry, as much as I'd like this quote to be in English, I'm only in possession of a German edition ;-)

So the real problem for me doesn't lie in the conscious departure from "fact" (how close can we, whose approach to the past will always have to rely on filtered reports, come to the facts anyway?) but in the conscious dumbing down of complexities, disrespect for the historical material you working with, or the conscious selling of fictional constructs as "Well is exactly like the events really happened". (I'm looking at you, Mr. Mel Gibson.)

Dauntless: Dark eyeshms_dauntless on June 23rd, 2007 05:22 pm (UTC)
Very spot-on. A special thank for the quote by Tarkovsky. I entirely agree about the need for personal responsibility.
Bimo: Terra_incognitabimo on June 24th, 2007 08:55 am (UTC)
I am extremely fond of the Tarkovsky quote myself. In fact, it had even captured my eye before before I had managed to read Puttnam's essay in its entirety :-)

Having been lucky enough to see both Tarkovsky's "The Mirror" and "Childhood of Ivan" on a big cinema screen, I turned into pretty much of a fan - and this even after an extremely unfortunate first encounter with "Solaris". (Small tv, about 30°C celsius room temperature, Russian language version with horrible West German subtitles. The properly dubbed GDR version, which I've seen by now, was a true revelation ;-))