Saturday, January 19, 2013

Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies (1996)

This is a book I wanted to enjoy a lot more than I did. There was a tremendous book by the same editor, Mark C. Carnes, that came out in 2001 and was much more satisfying called Novel History: Historians and Novelists Confront America’s Past. What made the later book better, I think, is that novelists have more of a desire to get the history right, whereas Hollywood in the golden era felt no such compunction. As a result, I think a lot of the contributors to Past Imperfect shied away from making their essays an assault on the films’ avalanche of inaccuracies and the whole exercise suffers slightly as a result. There’s also the issue of age and the need for a new edition in which more modern historical films could be included.

Another problem with the book, especially in comparison with Novel History, is the format. It’s a large format that includes stills from films and woodcuts and photos from history to help illustrate each essay. The problem is there are so many sidebars in each essay with information that I wanted to be integrated into the text. It gives the book a feel of a high school text book as a result and makes the reading of each essay rather more disjointed than it should be. The opening conversation between historian Eric Foner and director John Sayles is a nice way to begin, identifying the problems of making historically accurate films, and this is followed by arguably the best essay of the bunch, Stephen Jay Gould on Jurassic Park. From there, however, the quality slips.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the essays. They’re good, just not great. Probably my favorite is Richard Slotkin’s essay on Charge of the Light Brigade. He begins with a paragraph that deals with a great perspective on viewing historical films, namely how period films typically contain a subtext for the audience of the day that is an attempt to manipulate their views of a current social conflict, in this particular case German remilitarization prior to World War II. Another delight was Gore Vidal’s review of Sullivan's Travels, which he disliked and yet still had some enjoyable insights. In the end, there’s more to like than dislike despite the books own imperfections. Past Imperfect is a great starting point for understanding the way historians think about film and how we should think about viewing these films today.

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