Recent Books on History and Film: Some Reflections
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 25, Numbers 1-2, 1995
- pp. 68-69
- Additional Information
Mintz I Recent Books on History and Film: Some Reflections Steven Mintz University of Houston Recent Books on History and Film: Some Reflections ^Fistorians are not the only custodians of our collective past. While historians have long recognized that film is perhaps the chief carrier of historical messages in contemporary culture, there has been a tendency to equate screen histories with costume dramas or adventures or bio-pics-as superficial, highly dramatized fictions that use the past as "stage set" for romance and adventure. In recent years, anthropologists, literary critics, and sociologists have challenged the notion that historicans have an exclusive claim on the past, rejecting the equation of history with archival research. Such scholars have argued that there are other, equally valid ways of conceiving of history. These include "indigenous history," the ways that colonized people conceptualize their own historical experience; "popular memory," the repertoire of cultural scripts constructed by film, television, tourist sites, musuems, and public ceremonies; and "social science history," the use of history to explain emergent conditions. The basic premise behind each of these perspectives isingly quote the narrator in William Faulkner's Absalom, that history is not simply a collection of documented facts,Absalom!: "There is a might-have-been which is more true but an effort to organize and give meaning to the past, a than truth." James attributes the scorn that journalists difunction that can be served by non-academics as well as byrected against Oliver Stone's recent films to the fact that he professional historians. Thus, rather than dismissing film asuses cinema to challenge history's accepted views—and "low-power history," the phrase Claude Lévi-Strauss used totherefore reveals "much about the loss of faith in American describe biography), a diverse range of cultural analysts haveeducation, about the influence of the movies, and about the turned to film as works ofhistorical interpretation that de-link between storytelling and social power." serve to be treated seriously.Historical films can be understood in diverse ways. IniIn an essay that appeared in the May 21, 1995 New Yorktially, many historians introduced films into their courses as Times, entitled "They're Movies, Not Schoolbooks," filma way to counteract students' reluctance to read history critic Caryn James made a strong case that "dramatic licensebooks. In class, historians tended to treat motion pictures as may deliver historical truth when the facts alone can't.""sociological documents," reflecting the mood and preoccuJames 's basic argument is that film can sometimes provide "apations of a particular period, or as "ideological constructs," deeper knowledge—about character, philosophy or politics,"advancing particular political or moral values and myths, than some works which claim to be factual. James approv68 I Film & History Regular Feature | Book Reviews Since 1990, however, there has been a growing tendency to treat cinematic versions of history as serious works of interpretation , which engage fundamental issues ofmotivation , meaning, and explanation. Especially in post-colonial nations and in societies recovering from totalitarian regimes and war, cinema has played a particularly important role in the effort to understand the legacy ofthe past, helping viewers to make sense of traumatic, unassimilated experiences. The volumes listed below raise questions that historians need to serious ponder. One question is how best to evaluate a historical film: In terms ofaccuracy ofhistorical detail? Its success in conveying a particular interpretation of the past? Or its transcendence of geric formulas and caricatures? Here, the writers ask whether there is a "symbolic truth" that can be conveyed as effectively through film and television , despite their distortions and fabrications, as through analytical works ofhistorical scholarship? A second broad issue involves films' role in the construction ofthe public's historical memeory: How does the public relations apparatus of film studios tranform a film into a "cultural event"? Why do certain films succeed in transforming legnd and myth into a compelling compelling public myths? A third key issue is how to draw the line between dramatic license and historical misrepresentation. From Birth of a Nation onward, makers ofhistorical film have done many things to create the illusion ofhistoricity even as they have made fictional elements "invisible"—through the selective use of fact, mixtures of fact and fiction, and...