A few weeks ago – November 19-21 to be exact – the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History hosted a weekend dedicated to exploring history through film. As I am a visual person and like history, you bet your bottom dollar I was there.
It began with a keynote address by Ric Burns, renowned and influential documentary filmmaker, although most people know him as the brother of Ken. (They both worked on the seminal Civil War behemoth that has become standard classroom fare since it first aired in 1990.) I am unable to locate any video evidence of this but I found the Twitter handle and you can have a picture of him. Here:
Mr. Burns, in addition to being a good public speaker, made a lot of interesting points that convinced me he is far smarter than I ever will be.
Brief note: The following is a mishmash of his direct quotes and my fleshing out as I thought necessary.
History films unfold in time. Film is rigidly linear, while history itself happens on many levels at once. This is evident by trends in academia. Now one of the debated things is whether educators should bypass the history we learned in school in favor of less popular topics, like women, LGBT, racial minorities etc. But that fact that there is the option of studying 18th Century social history in lieu of “white man” history like the Industrial Revolution just shows all the layers.
But because of the rigidity of film, filmmakers run the danger of reduction and simplification, and there is absolutely no way possible to get a full cross section of historical layers in one film.
Therefore history films can only present *A* truth, not *THE* truth.
All film narratives have a story, and the first challenge the director faces is telling the story of the film, which is not the same as the subject matter. The director is the first audience member to engage with the idea of the film because film happens in the audience.
Film takes place between the stomach and the heart; brains are only good for remembering. It also takes place in the present and creates emotion for the audience in realtime, regardless of the setting of the film. The film could be about the ancient battle of Thermopylae, but you, the viewer, are seeing and experiencing it now.
Film is a hybrid form that is impure. If it could, it would want to come back as music, which is the most obscure and abstract art form of all. I think this is because of the emotional basis of successful films and that music is also experienced on a deeper emotional level. Think about how important a score is to a film.
Any presentation of history needs to join epic and infinite scales, while synthesizing all the historical factors involved: mystery and power of individual people and the vast forces of the world, which is felt but not easily seen.
The only way to do this is by telling a story to knit everything together. But history films cannot be encyclopedic or discursive. They do not get at THE truth but at A truth. The only time the entire truth is presented is when the celluloid film gets melted onscreen because the catastrophic event is happening right then. They borrow the authority and majesty of the real while creating an unspoken contract with the audience.
History films run the risk of being banal to try to be wholly ecstatic.
What a great way to begin a weekend studying historical films.
There were discussions, screenings of The Pilgrims and In the Heart of the Sea, roundtables, and workshops. One film, Birth of a Nation, kept cropping up and the final event of the Film Forum was NPR’s The History Guys discussing that film as an example of narrative documentary shaping public history. It was one of the first full length films that romanticized the KKK and helped fuel the Lost Cause.
I made it to the keynote, the Pilgrims screening, and then watched the History Guys discussion (link above) on C-SPAN2. There is a forthcoming post raving about The Pilgrims. It is NOT your standard Pilgrim story, where they make friends with the natives and eat turkey and sing kumbayah. It DOES involve the super religious leader chopping off the head of a neighboring tribe and mounting it on a pike at the gates of Plymouth Colony. It also is a prime example of the historically relative truth for it paints just one story of the founding of the colony. Stay tuned.
On a vaguely related note, Robert Lee Hodge (hardcore reenactor infamous for gracing the cover of Confederates in the Attic) has taken up filmmaking and has even won an Emmy for his film on the Battle of Franklin. I would love to see a discussion between them on the merits and drawbacks of this medium.