I was stuck at home like this once before. In the late spring of 2006 I was unemployed and suffering from the double-whammy of having just left my first museum job after almost ten years and finishing grad school. Suddenly I had a lot of time at home. Which, I told myself, meant I now had time to read all of my books.
The flaw in that logic was I didn’t want to read. After grad school I felt like a marathon runner fifty feet after the finish line – proud, but not immediately interested in more of the same.
Instead of reading, I turned my attention to movies. A friend had gifted me a Netflix subscription for graduation and I began watching films like a young Roger Ebert. I would see the film and then read the IMDB or Wikipedia page (let’s be honest, it was both) about them. I told myself this was museum-related because I had always thought of exhibitions as movies. I was enthralled with the behind the scenes and making-of details as much as the films themselves. So began my self-directed summer course in filmmaking.
As the movies rolled by, I looked at all the books just sitting there patiently waiting for me to take an interest in them. Each day I picked up a book, started to read it, and put it down. As time went by, I started to worry this lack of interest in reading meant something more troubling for my career. I was worried had lost my mojo.
As the unread pile mounted, I came across a book I had purchased years before, Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies, by Mark C. Carnes. Because I have an interest in how history and Hollywood work (or don’t) together the title caught my attention, but not enough that I read it once I bought it. The problem was the book is a list of movies. I had no idea how I was going to see all of the films. It sat unread.
Looking at it that afternoon in 2006, I remembered my new Netflix subscription. Surely, they had most of these. Since I was already watching movies, why not a little directed watching?
So my summer filmmaking course took on a thesis project.
Past Imperfect consists of 59 essays covering 75 films, an opening conversation between John Sayles and Eric Foner, and a closing script by Simon Schama of two fictional reviewers, Fiscal and Goodpart, discussing period films.
The essays are arranged in chronological order of history. The first chapter is about Jurassic Park and then it moves forward in time up to All the President’s Men. Each essay is written by a scholar focused on that particular moment in time. The essays are 4 or 6 pages long, and include a cast list, biographies of the historical people the characters are featured or based on, a history v. Hollywood comparison, a wrap-up (called “Later…”), and suggested background reading, which was often the essay author’s premier work on the subject.
In many history circles, it’s easy to find those who will condemn all historical films. Sure, they get details wrong, mix up people and chronology, and generally muck around with reality in the name of “truth.” Yet, even the haters are drawn to historical films for at least one viewing. Past Imperfect strikes a useful balance between lifting up historical details and finding the heart of the dramatizations. None of the essays are solely critical of their target films. That might be a disappointment for some readers, but it is a useful reminder that all history-based works have their own utility or beauty.
Netflix had a surprising number of the films. Most of them, in fact. I began watching a film, reading the essay, and finding more online (including academic articles when possible). I looked at everything from how the film captured the historical moment, to their visual decisions. I was also interested in how much of the film’s story was a faithful retelling of events versus how much was filtered through the moviemaker’s time.
Many of these films I saw for the first time. For instance, I finally watched Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone With the Wind (1940). While both are seminal accomplishments of moviemaking, I came to see them as beautiful images of an ugly reality. Among other things, this ability to dress up cruelty has made me wary of historical films as useful avenues for sharing history.
On the other side, I saw how a film could be used to humanize historical figures, creating an empathy for them that might not otherwise exist. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) portrayed Joan’s trial and execution intimately. Because the actors wear no makeup, her suffering has an unexpected air of realism from such an early film. And, because it is one of the last silent films, it does all this with only the actors’ close-up, natural expressions.
I never finished my thesis project. I only saw 37 of the 75 films in the book. Happily, it’s because I got a new museum job. The book has stayed with me though. I often think about those hours dissecting films, comparing it to how I might tell the same story through an exhibition or, if I was really dreaming, my own big-budget film.
I also remember how much that project saved me from sinking further into the couch. As that summer wore on and the rejection letters kept coming, I was starting to think that perhaps I had chosen the wrong career. The prospect of finishing all of the movies and the book gave me something to continue to work toward and kept me focused on history and storytelling. In fact, I was so excited about it all that I told myself when I was done with Past Imperfect I would work my way through Carnes’s other book, Novel History: Historians and Novelists Confront America’s Past (and Each Other). Obviously I never got to it.
Since I’m home again with more time on my hands than usual, I picked up Novel History. Maybe now would be a good time for it? Then again, there are 20 novels and 20 chapters and 37 essays to work through. Maybe I’ll just finish the movies from Past Imperfect instead. Then again, there are all these books I still haven’t read.