Wednesday, June 30, 2010

History for Dummies

There was a moment in the 1967 film of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus when Richard Burton, as Faustus, looks at Elizabeth Taylor gadded up as Helen of Troy and asks, "Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?" Whereat Vernon Young shouted from the audience, "Not bloody likely!"

Cable TV's The History Channel has had its share of criticism since its creation in 1995. For awhile it became known as The Hitler Channel because of its seeming preoccupation with World War II. Whenever newsreel footage is available, Woodrow Wilson's famous remark at seeing the film The Birth of a Nation, "history written by lightning" remains applicable.

But when the period being treated predates the invention of the motion picture, the channel's producers resort to what is variously called "re-enactments" or "dramatic reconstructions" of whatever historical moment is being examined, usually by some credentialed historian. These visual aids consist of nothing more than a handful of actors outfitted in period costume performing silent vignettes for the camera. These re-enactments are considered necessary because such television programs, that are supposed to be informative or (Lord help us) educational, must now also strive to be entertaining. The old "talking heads" style of presenting information directly by a speaker who is always focused on someone or something just to one side of the camera, is no longer considered enough to hold a viewer's attention.

So we are confronted, while listening to a historian telling us about the life of Cleopatra, with a vaguely Hispanic-looking woman with a large nose and garish eye makeup, who is supposed to be the Queen of the Nile but who looks more like a cross-dresser at Mardi Gras. Worse, when a famous battle is depicted, the dozen or so "re-enactors" employed to represent the action give no sense whatever of the scale of the event.* CGI is sometimes used to make up for the lack of larger numbers of actors, But the trouble with these dramatic reconstructions is that they are mostly distractions from the factual historical and/or archaeological material being presented. If the producers of these re-enactments did not intend their work to be criticized the same way that films are judged, they certainly intended the short scenes that they shoot to be accepted on face value - as little more than illustrations.

Lately I notice they are resorting to colorizing original black-and-white newsreel footage, ostensibly to attract a younger audience that refuses to accept the reality of anything not in living color. But the vulgarity of adding realistic-looking colors, frame by frame, to perfectly acceptable (and authentic) black-and-white film is just one more insult to history. The only thing that these programs can count on is the legions of uninformed viewers too young to know any better.

I no longer remember the provenance of the anecdote, but some years ago a student approached a college professor after a screening of Carl Dreyer's silent classic, The Passion of Joan of Arc and exclaimed at how lucky we are that there were cameras around "in those days."

* When Busby Berkeley was coaxed out of retirement in the late 1960s to direct a Campbell's Soup commercial, he asked for a hundred dancers. When he was told that the 30-second commercial did not have the budget for that many dancers, he said he could make fifty look like a hundred.

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