I’ve been trying to pin down recently what I’m actually going to talk about in my thesis or what the focus is going to be because just talking about whether history can be represented in film is kind of old hat by now. Scholars have been talking about that for a while and the consensus that it can has virtually been reached. I always wanted to talk about gender in some way, like depictions of women in history or something like that but recently I started thinking about the kind of reciprocal relationship that the past and the present have when they meet on screen (in my opinion at least). On the one hand the present context affects how we represent the present. In other words, these representations end up reflecting present attitudes. For example, films made now about World War II may be reflecting concerns about the War on Terror. On the other hand, the way the past has been presented may influence how we have come to view it, for instance, one might immediately think of images from Platoon, or Apocalypse Now and the like when thinking of the Vietnam War. In essence, these contextualised representations of a particular point in history can eventually come to typify that history in the public/cultural consciousness. I was thinking about teasing these ideas out by looking at gender politics in historical films and television series and how they reflect both how we understand that period of time (and whether this understanding comes from prior representations/ideas of that period) as well as what they reflect and therefore can tell us about gender politics in the present. I hope that makes some kind of sense. I messed about with these ideas a bit in my Public Audience Essay for Research Literacies so when I get that back, I’m sure someone will tell me if its not working at all. Hopefully.
I’ve steadily been working through Tessa Morris-Suzuki’s wonderful book The Past Within Us: Media, Memory, History. This book examines the many different forms history can take outside of the traditional academic written form. She examines the ways that these forms of history, from novels and comic books to museums and films, engage with history and how contemporary audiences or readers engage with them and with the history being presented. The chapter specifically on film and television particularly of note to me so and I thought I might share some thoughts on it.
Morris-Suzuki talks a lot in this chapter about the unique power of film as a means of identification with the past, whether this be through the emotive power of its combined techniques (imagery and sound in particular) or through its individual driven narratives with characters portrayed by famous contemporary actors. What I particularly found interesting was her discussion of film and mythology. She points to the intrinsic power of film to provide and perpetuate cultural and societal myths about the past. For instance, she uses the example of Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997) and how it generates a narrative about US history that seems to suggest that “freedom, justice and racial equality have always been the central themes and support for slavery appears as a kind of temporary aberration” (Morris-Suzuki 2005, 152) whilst ignoring the founding fathers own connections to the slave trade. Following on from this, she points out how the myths that films generate are so important because they are global myths that also reflect inequality in ideas about history. Historical feature films often depict important moments in Western history. This is probably because they dominantly emerge out of the oligarchical Hollywood system (one of the most recognizable forms of American imperialism) which also means that these reach the widest audience and have far more cultural impact than films emerging out of Eastern or African countries dealing with their own histories. This in a wider sense consistently reinforces myths about Western dominance and superiority.
In the closing paragraph of this chapter, Morris-Suzuki made what to me was a really important observation. She argues that is crucial that we, as viewers, reflect thoughtfully on what we see on screen in historical films or televisions shows. How is this engaging us in a historical understanding? What are the techniques it is using? What is the context? The aims of the filmmaker? How does this depiction sit with other depiction? This point is crucial. If we are going to take historical films seriously and we are going to encourage education systems in particular to take them seriously then we need to foster critical thinking about them.
Morris-Suzuki, Tessa. The Past within Us: Media, Memory, History. London, UK: Verso, 2005.