History surely goes back as far back as talking. Having the ability to talk about the past, and adapt, is something some scientists have conjectured separated Homo Sapiens from Neanderthals. Although there are some famous names from way back that we would consider early historians: Thucydides and Herodotus among them, historians as a professional class didn’t actually emerge until the late 18th century in Germany. Over the next hundred years, history as a professional discipline was codified and incorporated into university systems throughout Europe and North America. If historians as professionals are new on the scene, (relative to the scope of history), is it important to consult them, or worry about them, when we make films? I think it is.
Why? Well, the professionalization of anything is accompanied by standards of practice. Since history sprang up as a profession, many of those historians have spent a great deal of time philosophizing about the context and meaning of such an endeavor. So why would filmmakers making works about the past not consult the very people whose job it is to think about it?
It follows that if filmmakers should consider the perspective of historians that historians should consider the possibilities and pitfalls of history on film.
In 1988, the American Historical Association published a “forum issue” on history in film in the(ir) American Historical Review. To date, it is still one of the most enlightening and thorough explorations of history and cinema from the perspective of historians. The most notable contributions were by Robert Rosenstone, (callback to the blog last week), an established historian who had extensive experience in adapting his work for the screen, and Hayden White the post-modern historiography heavyweight who shook up the world of history in the 1970s by calling out historians for writing and conceiving of history in a manner that, as he saw it, was based on 19th century narrative tropes, and therefore was more storytelling than science. Other authors in the journal are less interested in history on film, viewing it as a novelty or something that can only be carefully unpacked in the history classroom. Rosenstone, however, provides constructive ideas and cautions, while White considers all history so tentatively related to past events that he has no problem in accepting filmic depictions as part of the stew of narrative frameworks that dance with the past.
Hegel, writing at the time of the emergence of academic history in Germany, points to poetry and prose as the two ways history is communicated, and he also considers the poetic genre as one that invites a level of abstraction that is more transparent about the historian’s relationship to the past. Following Hegel, both scholars cited experimental, or poetic, depictions of the past that foreground the present and the artist’s hand in the work, as a useful way to approach the past on film. One such example, that is oft-mentioned in the journal’s articles, and is referenced on the cover, (see above) is Jill Godmilow’s “Far From Poland” (1984). Godmilow set out to make a film about the Solidarity movement in Poland but she was denied a Visa to enter the country and decided to forge ahead, making the film at home in New York City, using a pastiche of reenactment, fictional scenes and archival footage. This was all structured around a very heady, intensely meta and subjective point of view, as Jill Godmilow, filmmaker and character, struggled to make her film. “Far From Poland” was loved by many theorists of history and documentary. But 1984 was a while ago now, and as a professor I have shown the film to undergrads, and I have registered the mix of piercing boredom and bewilderment on their faces. What seems to make the biggest impression on them about the film is how everyone chain-smoked in the 1980s.
So my question is: these days, how do we address historiographical concerns, locate the subjectivity of the maker, and also make something that the average 21 year old can sit through?