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From the Letters to the Editor column in the September 1999 Perspectives

Reel History Revisited

Peter C. Rollins, Alun Munslow, Maureen Ogle, and Christopher Moon, September 1999

To the Editor:

Marshall Poe's letter in the May 1999 issue of Perspectives is a veritable flashback to almost-forgotten objections to film studies within history. Back in 1970, when John E. O'Connor and Martin Jackson formed the Historians Film Committee, there were complaints about the drift of our culture toward motion pictures and stern warnings that the "culture of the word" was eroding. The old guard (incorrectly) asserted that interest in motion pictures was synonymous with lack of respect for historical methodology and good teaching. Marshall Poe's letter rings of that (chimerical) fear.

Then (and now), there is a misunderstanding about why we study films. We have been living in a visual age for a long time and the dependence of people on news, documentary, and other forms of visual messages is constantly increasing. For this reason, O'Connor, Jackson, and others associated with the Historians Film Committee—and its journal, Film & History—pressed for what is called "visual literacy." Students who are so immersed in our visual culture need to know how to read and decode visual texts. By studying the symbiotic relationship between visual culture and history, students can identify the evolution of our media environment and understand both the historical and visual connections. The result sought by our scholars and teachers is a better understanding of history and a more sophisticated reading (and writing) ability for our students—not the reverse.

Marshall Poe is a scholar of Russian history. I would ask him, rhetorically, if it were possible to study the Soviet effort to spread the Communist message to masses of people without studying the Soviet Union's motion picture history from Sergei Eisenstein (1920s–40s) through Roman Karmen (1940s–60s) through Kalatozov and Chukhrai (1950s–60s). For each decade, motion pictures reflected the priorities of the elite and demonstrated the kinds of social, political, and personal values allowed by the government or asserted by individual artists—who were often in tension with official dogma at the same time they were commissioned to communicate it. The revolutionary heritage of the Soviet experience is certainly vivid in the paper records, but the wonderful, classic Soviet films arouse students, force them to ask questions about mass movements, and sharpen viewing skills in relation to propaganda. No teacher in our time would want to miss these opportunities.

Thus, while Dr. Poe makes some valid points about the dangers of studying only our own films, his general point about the uselessness of studying film for research and teaching purposes deserves to be reconsidered—even for his own field. If he would subscribe to Film & History, he would learn a lot about the relevance of these studies and he could have teaching strategies which would be of use in the classroom; on the other hand it is possible that the classroom is not of concern to those at Princeton's Institute of Advanced Study.

—Peter C. Rollins, Editor in Chief
Film & History

To the Editor:

What struck me most forcibly in the "Reel History" special issue was the substantial lack of rethinking about the nature of history.

Apart from Richard White's attempt at one point to describe the distinctiveness of film as a form of historical narrative and Kathryn Fuller's argument that historians choose and arrange facts to create a compelling argument, there was little understanding that "doing history" under our present conditions of postmodernity might raise the radical idea of doing away with the established notion of modernist history altogether (see Keith Jenkins's Why History, Routledge, 1999) and replacing it with something entirely different (or not replacing it with anything historical) or that, perhaps, we may care to explore the notion that form may precede content in the epistemological process.

As has been suggested by Robert Rosenstone in his Visions of the Past (Harvard Univ. Press, 1995) "postmodern history" is alive and well and is being made by filmmakers. Film is a means—perhaps today the only means—by which the empiricist reconstructionist version of history can escape the bondage not only of the past, but of (history) itself. Richard White was correct in stating that filmmakers do not usually think like modernist historians. It is precisely for this reason that historians should come to grips with the distinctions and conflations of subject (historian/filmmaker), object (event or action in the past), and process (creating historical knowledge). In other words, why can't historians learn about understanding the past from the experimental ways in which filmmakers play with form and content? Or, if you prefer, why not collapse subject and object and refuse the modernist demand (assumption?) that history must reduce being to the verification of evidence, and equate truth with rational coherence?

Perhaps it is not a matter, as Richard White says, of films sometimes being bad history or that they can occasionally produce corrupted forms of history. Rather, might it be that history is already itself a modernist corruption, and film may be a useful way of exploring an alternative approach?

—Alun Munslow, U.K. editor
Rethinking History

To the Editor:

Let me get this straight: According to Robert Brent Toplin, historians have taken it upon themselves to function as monitors and watchdogs of the film industry. Toplin reports that recent campaigns criticizing certain films set in the past have achieved "some small successes," and even managed to prevent some of those films from being nominated for best picture. I didn't know that having a PhD gave historians the credentials to function as art critics. What's next? How about fiction? After all, many novelists set their stories in the past, too. Should we start monitoring their work as well? Did anyone check Jane Smiley's most recent novel to make sure she met our very high standards?

Here's another question to ponder: are there any limits to historians' professional arrogance?

—Maureen Ogle
Ames, Iowa

To the Editor:

In his review of the Thin Red Line, Kenneth Jackson finds that the film lacks the context to make it a useful means of understanding the Pacific theater or even the battle for Guadalcanal itself. I agree with this point. What Jackson should be ashamed of himself for writing is that Malick has some kind of public duty to do just that. In observing that the public thirst for history is largely being slaked by television and cinema, Jackson tacitly admits that the historical profession has somehow lost the ability to present its own view of history to the public. It is odd that he expects filmmakers to do what the historical profession—apparently in his view—is failing to do. Film is not necessarily history, even when it treats historical subjects, and Malick can sacrifice John Wayne, Private Ryan, Audie Murphy, or anybody else he likes, and show alligators and birds any time he wants to, no matter what history professionals like Jackson think. Perhaps we ought to let the filmmakers be filmmakers and allow them to tell their stories, and we will tell ours.

—Christopher Moon
DeLand, Florida