From: IN%"SMintz@UH.EDU" "Steven Mintz, U. Houston" 22-MAY-1995 08:47:30.82
In light of our recent discussion of Griffith and Eisenstein, we might wish to examine an article that appeared in yesterday's New York Times. In an essay entitled "They're Movies, Not Schoolbooks," the film critic Caryn James examines the representation of history in recent cinema. The article makes a strong case that "dramatic license may deliver historical truth when the facts alone can't."
Like Robert A. Rosenstone's recent edited volume Revisioning History, James argues that film, like other forms of fiction, can provide "a deeper knowledge--about character, philosophy or politics," than some works which claim to be factual. Quoting the narrator in Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, James notes: "There is a mighthave -been which is more true than truth."
James argues that critics tend to evaluate such fact-based films on the wrong terms: "as educational tools instead of art and entertainment." She says that critics unfairly expect movies "to provide a phantom 'truth' that doesn't exist." She is convinced that the historical nit-picking that follows the release of such films reflects a deeper concern that these movies offer interpretations that challenge convention, and therefore indicate "much about the loss of faith in American education, about the influence of the movies, and about the link between storytelling and social power." What people ultimately object to, she argues, is not that such films use fiction to tell history, but use "fiction to challenge history's accepted views.
James argues that "there is a distinction between dramatic license and outright lying" or "sheer irresponsibility." But she contends that "most historical films are making defensible arguments."
So let me raise some questions implicit in her essay. From Birth of a Nation on, makers of historical film have done many things to create the illusion of historicity even as they have made fictional elements "invisible"--through the selective use of fact, mixture of fact and fiction, self-conscious efforts to inject historical "actualities." Is this effort to make the fiction invisible something fundamentally different than occurs in written works of historical fiction?
Would James, or other critics, be as willing to accept fictionalization if it didn't involve interpretations that they essentially accept? In short, is the line between dramatic license and outright lying ultimately arbitrary?
And finally, how effective do you consider film to be as a vehicle for exploring weighty historical issues? How should critics evaluate filmmakers' historical interpretations, which blend fact and imagination?
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