My wife and I went out on Thursday for just the third time since our son’s birth, this time to see Lincoln.

Several historians chimed in with their opinions and evaluations at film’s release. Kate Masur, a historian of slavery race and Washington, D.C., critiqued the film’s portrayal of African Americans as passive and bland characters waiting for emancipation to be handed to them — even when the actual figures portrayed worked to support escaped slaves and were leaders of the District’s black community. Notably, she emphasizes,

It is a well-known pastime of historians to quibble with Hollywood over details. Here, however, the issue is not factual accuracy but interpretive choice. A stronger African-American presence, even at the margins of Mr. Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” would have suggested that another dynamic of emancipation was occurring just outside the frame — a world of black political debate, of civic engagement and of monumental effort for the liberation of body and spirit.

This is true — “fact-checking” films is a cottage industry for historians great and small. But Masur makes another important point — that the way stories are told is important to how we respond to them. Whether White House servant Keckley had a poignant exchange with Lincoln (or whether her costume in the film was accurate) is really less important than her overall portrayal — whether the spirit of her character was right and represented her (and other African Americans’) own efforts to oppose slavery.

Historian Eric Foner basically validates DDL’s version of Lincoln but makes a similar point about interpretation — the audience is left with the impression that Lincoln was the sole force for passage of the 13th Amendment, rather than working within a broad set of movements and forces set against slavery (and, at times, stalling them). In essence, we see too much of the Washington inside game.

Timothy Burke responds to Foner’s critique and puts the issue as really a tension between accuracy and narrative. In service of narrative, screenwriter Tony Kushner made some interpretive choices that ring hollow for historians, but work to make a more watchable film.

If we’re going to have that argument through and around cinema, we would be wise to always avoid scolding a film for inaccuracy. Finger-wagging is a death trap for public intellectuals: it keeps us from appreciating the complexity of how a film or other cultural work can have meaning for its audiences, and it casts us outside and above the world of ordinary spectatorship. More importantly, most historians know better than to claim there’s a linear relationship between “accuracy” and “critical thought”, the latter being what most historians would like to see as the outcome of reading or learning about the past from a trustworthy source.

This is a useful point, but a bit irrelevant to Masur and Foner’s kinds of points, that the content of historical films is worth debating and evaluating. Burke’s point is really more about the meaning of films, regardless of the accuracy of its historical content — the cultural historian’s assertion of the film as a historical fact or object, or machine for creating historical memory in its own right. There is a similar kind of debate over perspectives in public history (or reception, in classics, for example).

But my critique of the film, and de facto response to Burke, is that even taking the film on its own terms, it exhibits key failings. [Let’s just stipulate that the anecdoting and speechifying was out of control and it seemed like Kushner was trying to outdo Aaron Sorkin’s Jed Bartlett for erudite but down home wit. I mean, Jesus, did his dictation of a telegram have to be a grand speech? And his joke of a one-paragraph speech at the flag-raising to seem totally clever?] Lincoln was criticized by Radical Republicans (and others) for moving too slowly on emancipation, but Kushner ultimately redeems Lincoln’s caution. The president was wrestling with the moral and legal issues and, even when he made up his own mind, he had a keen sense of the politics — he was not about to move before the issue was ready to pass. So he waited for the lame duck session, faced down criticism from left and right, cajoled and log rolled Congressmen, and ultimately won the day. This is the essence of Lincoln’s heroic actions — caution, prudence, and conviction, but agency bounded by the limits of the political system of his time.

Congressmen are given no such consideration or charitable interpretation, though Lincoln himself had served in the lower House. Nearly every Congressman is presented as a racial reactionary or supremely self-interested — each choice is made simply on personal grounds revealing either nobility or lack of character. The lens of political history, I think, helps us understand that each of those Congressmen were going through their own deliberations and were pulled by a multiplicity of changing forces, personally, and within their district, just as Lincoln was facing. Sure, the 20 Democrats may have been lame ducks not running for re-election, but were they really free of political concerns? What if they were to face off in an election rematch 2 years later? Or were hoping for a non-patronage position in their district from a business leader? Or what if they had a law firm or some other professional enterprise that required staying within the Democratic mainstream in their district? We know none of this, though it must be true for several of the men, and the point is belabored when the audience considers Lincoln’s process (to his ultimate benefit). Fernando Wood, one of the nastiest opponents of the amendment in the film, fit this very description. A New York City machine Democrat, he lost in 1864, but ran again in 1866 and won — we might just as well blame the machine Democrats of New York City for his opposition, but again, we would have no idea that they might be a consideration in this personal, moral question.

Thus, the film uses two different lenses for different politicians, one sensitive for examining Lincoln, the other uncharitable and warped for examining the Congressmen. Though Kushner put words in their mouths and gave the politicians some agency, he did it so sloppily and lazily that I think he did violence to them. In that sense, I echo Kate Masur’s point rather than Eric Foner’s — it’s not that Kushner and Spielberg chose to foreground one perspective at the expense of another, it’s that they actually misrepresented a set of characters by violating their own logic of representation within the film. And this is the key issue historians should have with the film.

Historic Photography

A photo project I’ve recently seen passed around Facebook is the Detroit re-photography project by David Jordano. A Chicago-based photographer, in 1973 Jordano was a Detroiter and conducted a photo survey of his city. He recently revisited those sites and worked to reshoot the photos. Some instances seem like a twist on the standard “ruin porn” of decaying Motor City landmarks — this one of the interior of the Michigan Central station, for example.

However, Jordano’s efforts get somewhat more poignant when his 1973 images illustrate just what has been lost in the interim.

In Jordano’s depiction, the great hall really was a waiting room, with black and white Detroiters caught in moments of calm and repose between trains. His image is testament to the loss of an era of grand architecture, where private commerce could sustain a public good and enrich the lives of all the citizens residents and travelers.

But Jordano’s photos also illustrate the loss of modest structures, ones that made no list of architectural achievements or corporate headquarters. This photo from 1973 nearly makes me weep to think of the careful tending and modest but forceful design intended in the building. The top image could come straight out of an exhibit in Kelo v. New London or mid-century urban renewal pamphlets.

And now we’ve got a semi parking lot or distribution center. Woo chain link.

Also, I must note that, despite the talk of the affordability and quality of digital cameras, Jordano’s rig (likely an expensive large format view camera) from 1973 vastly outstrips his new camera. A better lens, better resolution, and more masterful lighting make the black and white images simply better on nearly every count. They seem like fine art pieces, far more so than the well composed but lifeless digital equivalents.

Together, this pairing of images from 1973 — nearly the apex of postwar prosperity — with contemporary versions tells a story, a narrative of loss and unfulfilling rebirth in a new neoliberal framework, where old-line retailers and their buildings are replaced by the hostile headquarters of computer software companies, and ramshackle but dignified homes are bulldozed for Pepsi bottling plants. Here we really see the cost of deindustrialization and the limited gains for places like Detroit, not simply imagining what must have been there before the parking lots. Being confronted with this reality is, in fact, much worse than our imaginations could conjure.

Getting Back

There’s just a few weeks left in our European trip. We have traveled to many great sites and stayed in some wonderful places. But since we’re heading back to the States, I’m thinking about what I have missed most and what I will most enjoy getting back to: (1) my cameras and film developing; and (2) GIS mapping. If there’s a third, it is the sit-and-work cafes Stateside.* I don’t prefer them outright to Italian caffe bars, but I do wish we could have a good mix of both in the U.S.

*It goes without saying that I miss my family and my cat.

Harvard Beats Yale 29-29

I had heard all the stories about Brian Dowling but until now had never seen film of the guy play. Kevin Rafferty’s new video film on the season-ending 1968 duel between the two Ivy League teams is chock full of Dowling scrambling, sidestepping, running for yards, and launching impossible passes for unbelievable completions. The guy was as good as the hype despite what seemed to be an average arm — amazingly accurate but surprisingly wobbly. Comprising talking head interviews and archival footage, this stripped-down production still manages to tell a compelling story. What’s even more fascinating is that Rafferty keeps the film on the topics of the game and the season without any of the sentimental “where are they now” efforts we’ve been trained to expect from such works. Worth a trip if it’s playing near you or a Netflix rental when it comes out.

Murder Mystery Flicks

Call Northside 777 and The Naked City. The former film is about a Chicago Times reporter’s investigation of a decade-old murder of a police officer in the Second City; it has a strong affinities with the latter, set as a New York City police investigation of the murder of a young woman. These two films came out within about 6 weeks of each other in the spring of 1948 and it shows. Each have great investigating scenes with the lead poking into seamier and derelict areas of the city. While Northside has a cornier, feel-good ending, it has some better cinematography and includes footage of the now-dated mid-1940s newspaper-making technology and process. Both are strongly recommended.

The Chicago 10

I saw this film last night, which was just released nationwide. Though unorthodox in its presentation, it was quite forceful and effective in its message. Chicago 10 was not strictly a documentary, though it involved a good deal of archival footage. Using the animated style of Waking Life, and Through a Scanner Darkly, Chicago 10 featured lifelike reconstructions of the Chicago 8/Chicago 7 trial based on trial transcripts, mixed with heavy doses of footage of Chicago in August of 1968 when the Democratic National Convention came to town.

I saw this film with a few international friends who couldn’t believe this had happened in the United States — tear gas, anti-riot vehicles, the police state before the convention. It’s worse, I told them — the scorn and shame is more often than not put on the protestors rather than the Daley administration and the law-and-order forces more generally. What happened to this leftist political wave? asked the Greek, whose country has a national holiday devoted to the student uprising of 1973.

The soundtrack is interesting. Instead of the classic protest and rock songs that have lost their meaning and seem almost celebratory in documentaries, the filmmaker chose sympathetic contemporary music, from Rage Against the Machine to the Beastie Boys to Eminem. The director Morgen notes that it was an intentional choice to appeal to youth sensibilities today (or at least of the last decade). In a few places it doesn’t work (like the opening courtroom scene), but for the most part it is successful.

You should go see this movie. You have probably heard about the Chicago demonstrations and MOBE and the Yippies, but you probably can’t appreciate how insane and violent and frightening the scene was without seeing some of the footage.

Chicagoist has a crappy review here. Here’s a Wired interview with Brett Morgen. A 1994 Charlie Rose interview with William Kunstler, Dave Dellinger, Bobby Seale, and Tom Hayden (from the halfway point).

Flickr and the Library of Congress

More than a year ago my friend Rob suggested that the National Archives could dramatically speed digitization of their digital collections if they enlisted the help of researchers as part of their regular research visits. Seemed like a damn good idea.

I get word that the Library of Congress has joined with flickr to make some of their prints and photos collection available online (the LOC has had a lot of their stuff online for a while). Now they’re enlisting people’s help in tagging their photos. Frigging awesome. I’ve long been a fan of the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information collection, as well as the HABS/HAER/HALS collections. It’s just a bunch of amazing stuff, so why not check it out?

Harlan County, USA

At some point, this movie ended up in my Netflix queue. Directed by Barbara Kopple and documenting a 1973 coal miner’s strike in Kentucky, it won the 1976 Oscar for Best Documentary. I wept twice during this movie, neither time for the death of the picketing miner that was intended to serve as more or less the dramatic climax of the movie. For me the emotional aspect was the faith the strikers and their families placed in the potential of collective activity against the mining company. I don’t think anything is as powerful as the solidarity of the poor in working together to improve their lives, particularly against such a formidable foe as the energy industry. In this film, Kopple featured the miners’ songs of resistance (as well as the speeches of a few charismatic individuals) to illustrate the resources they use to hold the strike together and encourage more robust participation.

In this case, unlike when watching documentaries by Michael Moore, for example, I wonder if I’m the director’s dupe or a sympathetic near-participant when I feel these emotional pangs. I consider Moore a master of provoking visceral reactions from the audience, and it’s always clear this is what he’s attempting. In Steve James’ Hoop Dreams, though (another documentary I love not in the typical PBS-ish style), the action and narrative seems to be played much more straight forwardly and doesn’t prompt such pressing emotional responses from the audience — it’s more of a gradual, enduring set of emotional responses than swift highs and lows.

Again with the Photography?

Dinner Party
Originally uploaded by urbanoasis

Best conference Web site ever — Photographic Proofs, an event a colleague of mine at Yale is putting on in April.

In local news the Art Institute of Chicago is currently exhibiting photos from its pretty good photography collection in the show The Other Side of Light. My favorite was Kertesz’ “Cafe,” , while my wife liked Bravo’s “Los Agachados.” A problem I always have with photography exhibits is that they treat the photographic print like a painting, barely acknowledging the instruments that go into the creation of the image including camera, lens, film, and paper. In that there are three significant, discrete processes that are part of creating a photographic print under dramatically different circumstances (exposure, film development, printing [and you might be able to argue for a fourth in paper development]), it has always seemed to me that there should be some effort made to address this rich process.

The accompanying photo was from an hour-long exposure I made with the Matt Callow brand paint can pinhole. We’re party people.