Reading 26

The following passage is excerpted from an article about historical filmmaking (1997 by David S. Grubin).


  1. The phone call finally came from
  2. the distinguished scholar in
  3. American history. I had sent him
  4. the video cassette and transcript
  5. of the first part of a film biography
  6. I was completing, and I was
  7. anxiously waiting his verdict.
  8. Now, he prepared to give it to me.
  9. He was a man for whom I had
  10. enormous respect, a writer
  11. renowned for his wit and clarity,
  12. grown expert in his field over a
  13. long lifetime of study. We had
  14. enjoyed a sympathetic
  15. collaboration all through the
  16. preparation of the film treatments,
  17. and I knew him to be forthright
  18. and candid. He would tell me
  19. exactly what he thought.
  20. “I’ve read the transcript, and I’ll be
  21. sending along a marked-up copy,”
  22. he said. “I’ll look at the film
  23. tomorrow.” I was stunned. He had
  24. turned first to the page, rather
  25. than the screen. His critique would
  26. be based on the transcript. The film
  27. could wait. After a long pause, I
  28. told him how surprised I was that
  29. he hadn’t watched the video, that
  30. the words were important—yes,
  31. extremely important—but they had
  32. to be understood in relation to the
  33. film of which they were a part. He
  34. was as surprised as I had been.
  35. “I guess I’m a bit old-fashioned,”
  36. he said.
  37. Long force of habit had turned my
  38. colleague toward the transcript of
  39. the film rather than the film itself,
  40. but he is, as he himself recognized,
  41. increasingly out of step. Most
  42. Americans seem to prefer the
  43. image to the word. Even a best-
  44. selling volume of history is lucky
  45. to find more than a million readers.
  46. More and more of us are learning
  47. our history from television.
  48. As a filmmaker, I’ve heard some
  49. scholars suggest that this may not
  50. be a very good thing. Of course,
  51. it’s easy to criticize the historical
  52. programs that appear almost
  53. nightly, knocked out by producers
  54. with neither the time nor the
  55. resources to do their job well. This
  56. is history distinguished more for
  57. the vigor with which it is marketed
  58. than by the care with which the
  59. programs themselves are made.
  60. But even the best historical
  61. television, it has been argued,
  62. can’t do much more than suggest
  63. the riches that are waiting to be
  64. found in books: Television is not
  65. suited for the discussion of ideas;
  66. it doesn’t allow for the logical
  67. development of an argument; it
  68. can’t handle too much information.
  69. Television histories are truncated
  70. histories, oversimplified and
  71. underdeveloped. The medium
  72. itself is fatally flawed.
  73. As someone who works with this
  74. medium every day, I am sensitive
  75. to these criticisms because I agree
  76. with the assumption on which they
  77. are based. Television is a different
  78. medium from prose. The medium
  79. isn’t fatally flawed, history on
  80. television doesn’t have to be
  81. reductive, but television is limited,
  82. just as prose is limited, and in its
  83. limitations lies its strength as well
  84. as its weakness. What needs to be
  85. understood is how the medium of
  86. television is different from the
  87. medium of the traditional historian
  88. and where its particular power lies.
  89. But rather than begin with
  90. differences, I first would like to
  91. affirm what the traditional
  92. historian and the historical
  93. filmmaker have in common.
  94. Certainly we both have a
  95. commitment to present as
  96. complete and accurate a picture
  97. of the past as possible, and we
  98. share a scrupulous regard for the
  99. facts and the rules of evidence that
  100. guide their acceptability. The
  101. filmmaker might spend more time
  102. with the visual record and oral
  103. testimony, the traditional historian
  104. more with documents, but the goal
  105. is the same—to excavate and
  106. interpret the past. The differences
  107. arise not so much in the excavation
  108. of the facts. Our paths diverge
  109. when it comes to giving them
  110. definition, shape, and meaning.
  111. Because the medium I work in
  112. lends itself so readily to narrative,
  113. I find myself inevitably telling
  114. stories. Although historians
  115. working in prose may also choose
  116. to write in the narrative tradition,
  117. many prefer to analyze rather than
  118. chronicle, placing their subject
  119. under a microscope and thoroughly
  120. dissecting it, emulating a scientific
  121. model. It is a rare history film that
  122. has a cold, impersonal scientific
  123. look. The medium is pulling in
  124. another direction. Filmmakers
  125. are synthesizers, using analysis as
  126. just another element in the
  127. storytelling, bringing it on stage to
  128. help explain an event as it unfolds,
  129. but not a moment sooner. The
  130. best films have the emotional force
  131. and integrity of a novel. Despite
  132. the fact that the idea of the
  133. narrative has been challenged for
  134. imposing the illusion of order on
  135. random events, I find myself
  136. continuing to tell stories, somehow
  137. persuaded by the medium I work
  138. in that there is real purpose in
  139. doing so.