History on Film and Film as History

Coming off our discussion of Alan Trachtenberg’s Reading American Photographs, I have to say that I did expect more theory and a wider span of photographic history, though I realize how unfair it is to fault Trachtenberg for not fulfilling my own selfish whims. I am pleased to announce, however, that Marcia Landy and her associated flock of contributors to The Historical Film have written a book that precisely addresses what I hoped to learn about film and history, namely that it is still a source of contention with no real consensus. High fives all around.

OK. Praise and congratulations finished. Being a work composed seventeen varied essays covering everything from theory of film history to examples of it in practice, a detailed summary of the book’s contents would likely defy the limits of this medium and try your patience. Landy’s introduction gives a well-considered introduction to each contribution in this volume, so I will concentrate my remarks on the four textual divisions into which the book is organized.

The first section “Regarding History” establishes the field’s theoretical framework in essays by Pierre Sorlin and Robert A. Rosenstone, alongside George Custen’s article deconstructing the “biopic” and Sue Harper’s discussion of costume melodramas in unlocking historical codes of female behavior. Sorlin’s article gives a useful overview of the process and history of film production and raises questions of whether it is possible to “read” these sources as a text. In discussing film and historical accuracy, Sorlin makes a strong claim that “when professional historians wonder about the mistakes made in an historical film, they are worrying about a meaningless question” (38).

What place does this kind of antiquarian historical accuracy have in the production of film? Is it really meaningless?

Robert Rosenstone takes on the problematic relationship between professional historians and historical films, describing an academic uneasiness over the power of film, so easily distorted and fictionalized, in a “postliterate” age (when people can read, but won’t). The point that films are essentially subjective constructions is well-taken, but, as Rosenstone notes, aren’t books as well? Why is it that historians self-consciously acknowledge the impossibility of objectivity in their own writing, yet castigate it on the screen?

The second section of essays (“History as Trauma”) includes treatments of the past in film history ranging from ancient Rome to the era of the American civil rights struggle. Maria Wyke describes American and Italian cinematic portrayals of ancient Rome as a means of creating “invented traditions” that link societies to this epic past. Marcia Landy explored the contours of femininity and transgression through an interpretation of actress Diana Dors as the “blonde sinner” in Yield to the Night. Additional articles by Anton Kaes and Sumiko Higashi interpret postwar Germany through The Marriage of Maria Braun and compare historical dimensionality in Walker and Mississippi Burning.

Miriam Bratu Hansen’s article about the critical uproar comparing Spielberg’s Schindler’s List to Lanzmann’s Shoah raises interesting questions about film attempting to express the inexpressible. Lanzmann’s criticism of Spielberg’s film takes objection to its attempts to access “a certain ultimate degree of horror that cannot be transmitted” (207). Is there a discrete limit to the possibility of film representation? Are there certain ineffable truths that even this medium is powerless to convey?

The (very short) third section of the book deals with interpreting films that confronted the issue of empire in a postcolonial world, from historical memory of Algerian decolonization to Ousmane Sembene’s cinematic confrontation with Islamic imperialism in Senegal.

The final section of the book was almost my favorite of the whole volume. The book considers television as a thing separate from film – appropriately, as despite the fact that both involve moving pictures, they really are very different media. Mary Ann Doane’s article problematizes televisual history by noting that, while photography is principally concerned with what has already been, television’s subject is a constant barrage of present information. “Television does not so much represent as it informs” (272). Is there no space for representation in television? Even though Doane’s article deals primarily with televised news, I still think that there is room for some constructedness in the constant barrage of information.

Ken Burns gets a bit smacked around in this volume. Taylor Downing’s article celebrates his miniseries The Civil War as part of a growing tradition of documentary history, arguing that television history is within the future of the profession. Gary Edgerton further analyzes the miniseries, countering criticism of The Civil War as a nineteenth-century relic by noting the varied strands of interpretation woven into Burns’ documentary epic. Shawn Rosenheim’s article, however, gives the miniseries a salutary kick in the gut, decrying it as sentimental myth. With all these assessments of a single documentary, I have to wonder: is sentimentalism really such a terrible crime in telling history? One can’t escape the fact that certain events, the Civil War included, are imbued with a certain amount of pathos without the aid of a melancholy soundtrack.

A few final questions I thought of just now:

Several contributors commented on the existence of fictionalized narratives that can operate as “authentic” history. It seems to be one of the essential assumptions of the field that there can be truth discovered within untrue narratives. Is this possible?

At the very beginning of this volume, Pierre Sorlin raises the question of how to transfer a discussion of film into a written format. Having read this book, does it work? I feel like there is still a better way out there to convey much of this information… Text is incredibly powerful, but it is difficult to understand the film under discussion without access to it.

Access itself is a major problem in doing film studies. Many films are inaccessible and scholars sometimes have to rely on transcripts for research. Is this even an acceptable alternative?

Let the commenting begin!

By mkhohe