Date: Tue, 13 Jun 1995 14:16:08 -0500 (CDT)
Subject: Re: PC, History, and Film
From:"RICHARD@ics-server.novell.leeds.ac.uk" "Richard P. Howells"
Steve Mintz's question about Pocahontas raises some interesting questions about history and film. We should not, I think be side-tracked into a debate about whether a Disney movie is qualitatively worthy of scholarly analysis. Rather, it seems to me, such popular films, because of the prominent position they hold in popular culture, are more than worthy of investigation as cultural artefacts, whether or not we happen to approve of them. As Andrew Bergman has pointed out: "Every movie is a cultural artefact." In this way, just like "pottery shards" and "stone utensils," a movie reflects the "values, fears, myths, and assumptions of the culture that produces it."
The past is a canvas upon which we paint the concerns of the present. Therefore, whenever a film may nominally be set (in both time and space), it is in fact always really about the time and culture in which it was actually made. In this way, it cannot help but reflect (unwittingly, perhaps) the concerns and pressing issues of the society that made it. Westerns provide a good example of this: they are all set in much the same time and much the same place, but in fact act as revealing historical documents which eloquently articulate the zeitgeist of the cultural climate in which they were produced. Note the differences, for example, between "Stagecoach" (1939) and "Dances With Wolves" (1990); between "High Noon" (1952) and "High Plains Drifter" (1973). Subscribers can provide their own examples.
When we examine how filmmakers have depicted the past, then, we should beware of concrete, convenient notions of "the historical truth," because the more we think about it, the more we discover that we re-create the historical past in our own image. Truth, therefore, is a very slippery concept: it is at best provisional and always open to re-negotiation.
This is a concept which should apply equally to the criteria we use to judge the social, political or cultural content of a film. Cultural assumptions (what Roland Barthes described as the "what-goes -without-saying") are equally inherent to our current critical stances. Our criteria for approval (and disapproval) of cultural texts are subject to rapid change. In this way, not only will the films we make today come to bee seen as cultural and historical documents in the future (no matter when or where they were nominally set), but so will the criticism, the debates and the analysis which we bring to bear upon them.
Dr. Richard Howells
Insititute of Communications Studies
University of Leeds
Leeds LS2 9JT
Phone: 0113 2335800
Direct Line: 0113 2335816
Fax: 0113 2335808
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