Monday, October 26, 2009

A few thoughts on representing history in fiction, part 2

At the end of the first part of this post, I questioned the idea that authors have an ethical obligation to write to the naivest readers. Anent audience naivete, historian Natalize Zemon Davis, discussing historical films, declares,
The passive spectator, naively accepting what comes off the movie screen, has disappeared from film theory, and should also disappear from historical criticism of films. Spectators may delight in a historical film, be interested in it or repelled by it; they may replay parts of it in their minds and visualize Raymond Massey when they hear the name Abraham Lincoln, or Anthony Hopkins when they hear that of John Quicny Adams. But they do not believe automatically what they see in a historical film: rather, they ask about it, argue about, and write letters of protest about it.

It's rare that I don't have bones to pick with either prose fiction or films set in times and places I know something about. I've been hesitant, though, to make judgments about the quality of such works merely on that basis, out of concern that doing so is likely missing the point. And so I found Natalie Zemon Davis's discussion of the matter in her Slaves on Screen: Film and Historical Vision particularly welcome.

What is film's potential for telling about the past in a meaningful and accurate way? We can assess it under the same headings used for poetry and history: the subject matter or plot; the techniques for narration and representation; and the truth status of the finished product....Feature films are often described as creatures of invention, without significant connection to the experienced world or the historical past. The term "fiction films" is often applied to them in cinema studies, highlighting a contrast between unconstrained imaginaiton in feature films and "truth" in nonfictional documentary. It is precisely this dichotomy that I want to question, not merely because there is a play of invention-- of "fictive" crafting-- in documentary film, docudrama, and cinema verite (as there is also in prose historical texts), but also because feature films can make cogent observations on historical events, relations, and processes.(4-5)
Davis notes that unlike historical writing, film as a medium for presenting history is only a century old and is "only beginning to find its way as a medium for history." She talks about the various modes in which the past is recounted in film; she places great emphasis on the immense significance of the techniques used in making the film:

The thousands of choices made can all make a difference to the historical narrative: the actors and their interpretation, the locations and sound; the film (black and white, color) and lighting; the ordering of time (flashbacks, jumps, slow motion, cutting form one event to another or presenting them simultaneously) and the ordering of space (close-up, bird's-eye shot, wide-angle, movement around a room, view of the same scene from different angles); and the framing devices, objects, and props. These choices all have an impact on what is being stressed or questioned in the film, on the different reactions of participants to what is happening, on explanations for why events have taken place, and on claims for the certainty or ambiguity of the historical account.(7)
She also notes that films are collective productions that depend on a myriad small decisions from many sources, such that no one person can control every aspect of the production. After reviewing historians' criteria for the historical narratives they write (which she neatly sums up in five points), she wonders whether the rules she's offered are "relevant to the historical quality and truth status of feature films." She then suggests that "historical film and historians' prose venture into different turfs in regard to claims of truth," and takes Carl Theodor Dreyer's Passion of Jeanne d'Arc as an example. This difference does not necessarily negate the interest for historians in historical films, for she proposes that "historical films can be a thought experiment about the past, involving many participants." (A bold idea that would have startled me had I not already read remarks she's made on the subject elsewhere.) She even goes so far as to say
As long as we bear in mind the differences between film and professional prose, we can take film seriously as a source of valuable and even innovative historical vision. We can then ask questions of historical films that are parallel to those we ask of historical books. Rather than being poachers on the historian's preserve, filmmakers can be artists for whom history matters.

That just blows me away. But then the Old Guard among her colleagues have grumbled about Davis since the publication of The Return of Martin Guerre (which she interestingly wrote after the production of the film Le Retour de Martin Guerre, to which she herself had contributed).

In the chapters that follow the introductory chapter of Slaves on Screen, Davis puts five films under the historian's microscope: Kubrick's Spartacus, Pontecorvo's Burn!, Gutierrez Alea's The Last Supper, Spielberg's Amistad, and Demme's Beloved. Interestingly, in her examination of their representation of history, she not only assesses the accuracy of their representations, but also whether their deviations from the historical record serve to illuminate a larger historical truth or enhances the film aesthetically. She singles out particular accomplishments of each film. In the case of Spartacus, she applauds its "outstanding" depiction of important social proccesses and critical experiences of the past." In the case of Burn!, she praises it as a "successful experiment in telling specific and general stories at the same time. Burn! not only suggests how events of the past are experienced by village groups or lived out in the personal rivalry of two men (the microhistorical potential of film) but also tries to give a general account of shifts in power and class and the rhythm of historical change (the iconic potential of the film)." Of the four films she examines, The Last Supper hews most closely to history, even to the most minute details of different types of grinding mills, residence habits of plantation owners, and so on, and is based on a well-documented incident that occurred on Maundy Thursday, 1789. "This underpinning," Davis writes, "is not only gratifying to the historian's sense of veracity but also engenders a concrete richness in the film. It creates a more believable and distinctive world for spectators. Beyond believable concreteness, The Last Supper brings multiplicity to the past in its representation of social types." The "historical strength" of Amistad, writes Davis, "is in its portrayal of the Africans, and most strikingly in its representation of the seizure of Cinque, the Middle Passage, and the revolt." As for Beloved, it "is a cultural and psycho-social exploration par excellence of the traumas of slavery and the struggle to resist it."

What Davis criticizes, however, are departures from "historical truth" that chiefly serve to make a bid for appeal to late-twentieth century audiences. Here is how she sums up "fictionalizing" through the ends of the historian's rules about evidence. Of Spartacus, she says that "some exciting historical possibilities were lost through indifference to evidence." But, as she notes, "true events" were "not a major concern" in the film. It is Amistad in particular that she focuses on here, "because its quality as a historical film is in some ways so very good and in others disappointing." Here are the questions she asks about it (that could be asked about any historical film):
Are the fictional elements in Amistad used to fill in the inevitable gaps in the historical record? Are they historically plausible, so they can effectively serve as "approximate truths" and "thought experiments"? Or do they override perfectly good historical evidence in a way that risks misleading?

Davis points out and objects to "inventions in the film that do not fill in gaps in the evidence or bring undervalued people and processes to the fore, but supplant clear evidence with an erroneous picture of antebellum politics and sensibility." These fabrications
come from a wish to make patterns of alliance and friendship in New England in 1839-40 resemble egalitarian hopes in late twentieth-century America. Wish fulfillment is a fine goal for certain genres of films (as for certain genres of writing), but it should not steer the imagination in a historical film....
. . . .
....Why should a film with serious, even passionate, intention behind it...go off track in this way? It is due, I think, to two habits of thought that we simply must shake. The first is too cavalier and attitude toward the evidence about lives and attitudes in the past.... The second is a bad habit of underestimating film audiences. To be moved, entertained, instructed, and engaged by a historical film, spectators do not need to have the past remade to seem exactly like the present.

To that I want to cry Amen! This at least partly about being able to perceive difference and respect it, wherever it is found.

To return to the issues raised in the first part of this post: I think what I object to most in historical fiction and in the many pastiches of Austen et al as well as the film versions of Austen's novels is the insistence on homogenizing them and rendering invisible everything that doesn't appeal to or perplexes or turns off current-day audiences. Sure, it's all in fun. The past (as well as the fictions of the past) is just one big playground for us to romp in, without significant interest in its own right. Isn't it a hoot to see a whole slew of characters from different novelists' works all jumbled up together into one big spoof? I've done it myself. (In, for instance, A Case of Mistaken Identity, which was published by Pulphouse in 1991.) And yes, there are some pretty sophisticated metafictions that do that (Christine Brooke-Rose wrote one, set at the annual MLA conference, for instance) with arguably serious intent, and how can I not enjoy reading them. And, too, occasionally someone like John Kessel comes along and does something refreshing and absolutely delights me. But for the most part, the unceasing cranking out of them in murder mysteries and genre fantasies (the insertion of zombies and vampires is perhaps a sign that the subgenre has just about run its course) has had the effect of transforming characters into mere caricatures.

One could dismiss this appropriative trend as an aspect of our commodity culture and the extent to which writers dance to the music of the market place (whether they're conscious of doing so or not). But that's just a Marxist super-structure argument, which has never been one I've found satisfying for explaining most aspects of our culture. I suspect that part of the problem arises from the completely wrong-headed assumption that's fairly prevalent in the US that who someone is has nothing to do with the context in which they live and have been shaped. Just as some people believe their are only five or seven stories that can be told, there are people that believe that there are basically just a few types of personalities, and that in theory personalities transcend time and circumstances, and that of course it's possible to know who someone is apart from the context in which they exist. (People are just people, right?) Assimilating the past to the present is a basically conservative move. For the homogenization of the past erases it as the place we look to to understand how we've gotten to where we are, how we've become the people and culture we are. Or, as Davis puts it, "Wishing away the harsh and strange spots in the psat, softening or remodeling them like the familiar present, will only make it harder for us to conceive good wishes for the future."

Davis's notion of historical fictions as thought experiments is, I think, key. (That was certainly how I conceived of "The Heloise Archive" and even "De Secretis Mulierum.") I don't know if such an approach would satisfy Byatt's or Kay's concerns. But it would preserve respect for past lives while offering ample latitude to the writer to explore the past creatively.


Rebecca said...

I have a friend who wants me to write a historical novel. I see this as really problematic for much the same reasons that you're mentioning here. The writers of the past have written the historical novels, plus there are letters.

We can sometimes see things they couldn't see, but that seeing is always ours, not theirs, just as the future will see things about us that is theirs, not ours.

Found something today from Marcus Aurelius that I must have seen before and gotten stuck in my head -- however long a man lives, the life he's really living in is the present. And what we write about is always the present, which is why historical novels tend to be less readable after their real time changes.

Do we re-read much of the historical fiction of the 20s? What of historical fiction of the 19th Century. Who's read _Ben Hur_ recently?

Foxessa said...

But she doesn't discuss the foul lie-mongering propaganda film that started it all, Birth of a Nation"?

As we put it in The Year Before the Flood, "Movies told me lies. Music told me the truth."

We were speaking particularly of 'race' and the history thereof in the U.S.

Love, c.

Timmi Duchamp said...

Davis does mention Birth of a Nation-- on the first page of her book. But her focus is on the five later films,which are more relevant to her interest in historical films as thought experiments (respectful of historical truths).

Foxessa said...

O, good!

Though I am full agreement with most of what is written here, I still believe that historical fictions are wonderful -- when they are wonderful, of course.

But in the past we wrote them with far more respect for history, it seems. One way to see this is to contrast historical novels and biographies that were intended for the middle school / YA markets up through the 70's. They include far more history as far as we know it played out than most books now intended for the adult reader.

We've confined ourselves now to writing about only a very few figures -- endlessly about the first Elizabeth and Mary, and her father's court.

Until I read Mantell's prize winning Wolf Hall, I can't comment on the criticisms that have been weighed against it -- though I suspect I will like this novel, and not agree with the critics of it.

And it wouldn't be just because so much more time has passed since the days of Henry the VIII court and the English Reformation either. For instance that vile Braveheart is so mendacious in every way -- yes, you bet a Princess will be riding all over the country all by herself for days. Riiiiiiiiiiiiight .... It's because Mantell's previous works have convinced me that she writes of what she has a thorough knowledge of, and then transforms it into her books, fiction or non, as the case may be, in ways that are 'honest' for a writer -- if that makes any sense!

Love, C.