Monday, January 28, 2019

It's just a movie: history at the cineplex

Terrific movie, but...
Journalists have some odd ideas. Simon Jenkins in The Guardian online is furious that they make movies about history that are not... exactly historical.

He fulminates against Vice, Brexit: The Uncivil War, The Favourite, and Mary Queen of Scots. Of the latest Churchill movie, he says,  "The embellishments in Darkest Hour would have done credit to Russia’s Mosfilm or Mao’s China." Of The Favourite's assault on "poor, dignified Queen Anne," he laments:
"The director of The Favourite, Yorgos Lanthimos, remarked casually that “some of the things in the film are accurate and a lot aren’t”. What is a history student to make of that?"
Well, that it is a movie! It's a drama. You know, like a story. It's not even a documentary.  If you want to know history, read some history.  Frankly, a history student who hasn't grasped that isn't a history student. Or even literate.

Fiction works by its own rules; it has to work as fiction. It doesn't document reality. It creates a imagined reality. Readers "suspends disbelief" -- which means they know what they read or watch is not true but join the pretence, in search of empathy, of entertainment, of imaginative constructions of human behaviour, whatever.

History and nonfiction and journalism are different:  you get the writer's judgments and arguments about events, and you get the evidence on which they make those judgments. Histories are not the raw truth, either, but they do seek it. You can debate with a history, you can struggle with it, you can at least seek to form a credible account of actual past events.

A novel or drama may be well made or badly made, but arguing about its truthfulness is just missing the point. It's just a movie, Simon.

Jenkins needs to reread Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons along with Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. One is a great play in which Thomas More is a hero and Thomas Cromwell is the darkest of villains, and the other is a great novel in which Thomas Cromwell is a hero and Thomas More the darkest of villains. They cannot both be true, and we should not expect either of them to be. But they can both be literature.

Update, January 30:  At History News Network, Bruce Chatwick admires this revival of A Man for All Seasons. Dairmaid McCullough's recent biography Thomas Cromwell: A Life is reviewed here.

More update, same day:  Chris Raible links us to History Today, where 16th centuryist Suzanne Lipscomb argues that the film Mary Queen of Scots, is "no bad" (as my old Scots great-uncle would say, mostly about Scotch whisky):
In fact, when it comes to historical detail – bar a little massaging of the timeline and putting into vision what only happened by letter – it is pretty good. Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie are well cast as Mary and Elizabeth, respectively. The broad brushstrokes of the story are correct and most of the details that people will suspect to be historically inaccurate are, in fact, not: the strange attempt by Elizabeth to marry Mary to Robert Dudley; the marriage between Mary and Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, who really was a drunken bisexual, found in bed with musician David Rizzio; the spectacular assassinations – they’re all true.
Lipscomb goes on to suggest sympathy for what infuriates Jenkins: that dramas and novels do tend to flatter contemporary sensibilities: they favour spunky young women confronting patriarchy, heightened gender and racial tolerance, and so on. Where drama builds on empathy, history can explore the profound differences that may alienate us from the past.

And one more update, January 31:  Turns out there is a website, History vs Hollywood, devoted to exploring the differences between Hollywood movies and the historical situations they dramatize.  I'm not endorsing its reliability, but it's a bit of a giggle.

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