Artistic License

February 10, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: With us now is author and playwright Thulani Davis, who wrote the Libretto for an opera version of “Amistad.” Also joining us is Don Lynch, historian and author of Titanic: An Illustrated History, and one of two consultants on the film “Titanic;” Mark Carnes, history professor at Barnard College and editor of Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies; and Robert Pinsky, poet laureate of the United States and a regular contributor to the NewsHour.

Thulani Davis, you began researching “Amistad” many years ago. Why? Why do you turn to history for your themes?

THULANI DAVIS: Well, usually I guess it’s by accident. But I find that these amazing stories from real life have a lot of human drama that translate well to other forms, like opera or theater, where I get to build the internal life of these people who had amazing experiences.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Robert Pinsky, why do you that think writers and artists of all kinds are so drawn to history?

ROBERT PINSKY: There’s nothing but history. Every memory has a little dream in it, and it would be impossible to dream anything up that didn’t contain some memory, and probably every work and every conversation will show some elements of memory and some memory some elements of dreaming.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mark Carnes, do you think history is well used by filmmakers, for example?

MARK CARNES: Film encompasses such a broad totality of the human experience, from the visual elements, from a total evocation of lifestyle, from facial gestures to settings, to costumes, to dialogue, to characters; it’s impossible to put your–the sign up at some point and say this is no longer historically accurate because the totality of the historical immersion is so expansive in histories–in films–it’s impossible to sort out exactly what is historically accurate, so to speak, and what is not, and that’s one of the challenges.

Historians, everyone is fascinated by the past, and Hollywood was pretty quick to figure that out from D.W. Griffith onward. People are compelled to examine the past. That’s what Hollywood has discerned quite neatly. There’s money to be made by offering the past to people.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Lynch, tell us how they examine the past. What did you do as a consultant to the film “Titanic,” specifically?

DON LYNCH: Well, in the very beginning I met with Jim Cameron and we went over the preliminary script at that time, and he wanted to know if what he was having his characters do–

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: He’s the director we should say.

DON LYNCH: Director, yes. Excuse me. But he wanted to know what the characters are doing, if it could actually have been done, if it was possible, if it was believable, and also wanted to make sure that the surrounding area around the people–the central characters in the movie are fictional, but he wanted to make sure the story of the ship, itself, was done accurately, and so we went the script for that.

I also met with the casting director, and we went over all the real people who would be cast as characters and identified where they were from, what their accents would be like, what they looked like and just to help cast them better, more true to the real people who were involved, and visited the set numerous times during the filming, just was available for questions, if any came up, and just really helped out in any way that I could or was called upon to. But I have to admit that Jim Cameron really knows his stuff. When he reads something, it sticks in his head, and so he had a lot of it in there already.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: As an historian, what pleased you most about the final product?

DON LYNCH: Well, I think the way the ship was dealt with–the fact that this is the first movie that actually shows the ship breaking apart the way it really did–and up close and personal movies and other–well, other movies dealing with the “Titanic” have always just shown the ship going down from a distance, and this is the first movie where you were actually on board really from the viewpoint of the victims seeing the ship go down.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What in the film disturbed you the most as an historian?

DON LYNCH: Well, occasionally little things. You’d have to really, really reach for something that wasn’t accurate, for example, the dining saloon, they chose to but table lamps on the tables, which there weren’t any, and, of course, that’s how nitpicky you would have to be.

One area–one of the officers in the film, the ship’s officers, is shown committing suicide at some point during the sinking–and I cannot say that absolutely didn’t happen but in the course of my research I’ve come to the conclusion that it probably didn’t. Jim felt there was enough evidence that he could go ahead and put that in. He felt it was important to the story line at that point in the picture. But if there was anything that I would take exception to, I think it would probably be that.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thulani Davis, how nitpicky do you think you have to be? What is your obligation to the history?

THULANI DAVIS: Well, I think there’s an obligation not to make up too much, and what is too much is hard to say–but one of the things that I think gets an artist interested in a historical incident is that one is asking questions about the present, about contemporary life, and so you tend to pick and choose events from the real events that are evocative of things you’re thinking about in terms of life today. So there’s always a little of a skew to how it’s done.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I’ve heard that before, Ms. Davis, that actually when we look at these historical films, we learn more about our own era than we do about them because it shows what people today are concerned about. Do you think that’s true?

THULANI DAVIS: Yes. And I think we’re also trying to compensate for things that we think were told badly before, either because certain characters that were there were left out or because a point of view was left out. Usually I’m trying to add a point of view that I think has been missing even if the story has been told. So this is easy for me to do in opera or in a novel but in– any medium it can be done, and you don’t have to veer from the facts to do it. You just look at them in a certain kind of way and look for those elements.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Robert Pinsky, are the needs of–the narrative needs of opera or literature or film so great, the need to have a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end–that history is almost inevitably compromised?

ROBERT PINSKY: I think it is inevitably compromised in any telling. “Gone With the Wind” as a memory of the Reconstruction and the Civil War–is a disgrace perhaps, certainly offensive to a lot of people–but as a dream about the Depression it’s a rather brilliant work.


ROBERT PINSKY: Well, a lot of people think that “Gone With the Wind” is about struggle for survival, about dreams of glorious luxury — “I will not be hungry again” –and that as an account of the Civil War and the Reconstruction it’s rather biased. But as an expression–as a dream-like expression of the needs and emotions of the time that it was made, it’s rather powerful.

I recently read Stanley Kaufman’s piece about the “Titanic,” and he says–he makes a lot of sense to me–he says that this story has been told so many times and perhaps will be told again because it is such a powerful story about the 20th century that it is–begins with a lot of optimism and confidence to do with technology and progress and that the sinking and breakup is a little bit like our experiences of world war and other catastrophes that have followed in a century that began as thinking it was going to be one of brilliant liberation and peace.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Carnes, do you think that there are real dangers inherent in the tremendous popularity of historical films and of history as a topic, especially for filmmakers, and, if so, what are those dangers?

MARK CARNES: The difficulty is this. The truths of the movie tend to be clean and pure and powerful and simple. And history never is; history is complex, muddy, difficult. Movies make good guys too good, bad guys too bad.

They adopt narrative lines that are too simple, all in an effort to reach a broad audience. The more expensive the movie, the greater the need to reach a huge audience, an audience that can quickly apprehend its themes.

You know, this emphasis on simplicity and power and immediately hitting your audience means that the movies are much too simple compared to the past. I don’t think there’s any harm in that. In one sense, when you’re grappling with difficult, complex problems, movies say there are solutions.

I think of Lyndon Johnson during the Tet Offensive when the Vietnam War seemed to be going badly–he gives a speech to the American people and he says, “Remember the Alamo,” perhaps forgetting that it was a military debacle in which all the defenders were killed.

But he wasn’t thinking of the real Alamo experience. He was thinking of the recent movie, which comes out quite heroically. So too in a different sense people who are trying to grapple with the complex world have a sense that really there is a coherent narrative behind it. We have seen that in the movies so that there are good guys and bad guys who can ultimately sort things out. Well, this is a historicism which is subtly–subversive to an understanding of how things really work.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Lynch, do you share that worry as an historian?

DON LYNCH: Well, I hope that the public realizes that you can’t have blockbuster documentaries; that you’re never going to find a film that is absolutely true, and that if you’re going to make it appealing to the general audience, you’ve got to do some compromising, and I think that people just have to accept that, and I hope that they use movies as a vehicle to then go and learn more–if they see a movie, they’re fascinated by the subject, they’ll use that as an opportunity to maybe, you know, read a book or maybe look at an actual documentary, rather than just trust what they see on the big screen.

THULANI DAVIS: And I think one of the things that’s an issue also is that there is a great emphasis in moviemaking to make the illusion incredibly persuasive and that literal quality that movies have are just incredibly persuasive. It seems real. And so at the same time I think audiences have become very discerning about that.

I think people do really examine the structure of a movie, or the characters, and you’ll find people complaining about a movie like “Mississippi Burning” because the information that the FBI didn’t act so heroically is available in the society and people can see that at least parts were fashioned, so I think actually the discourse itself is good.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Pinsky, is there something peculiarly American about this debate over history and how true to it art or films should be? You’ve actually written in one of your poems that–you refer to Americans’ “scant historic sense” in one of your poems.

ROBERT PINSKY: It’s part of the nature of the American film industry that the spectacle of a film like–to take a new example– “Schindler’s List”–is very powerful a spectacle–the scene of rousting out that ghetto in Krakow that’s unforgettable–but in compensation for that, the–what you might call the ideas or the language part of the film–partly in the nature of the medium and partly in the nature of the industry–as has been said–has to be minimal–very simple, very broad, and inoffensive.

These films are made to be marketed all over the world, and Americans perhaps too much preen ourselves that we’re free of history, and I think there’s all kinds of hidden history of the kind Ms. Davis has said, where the president is writing an autobiography. A film I love is John Wayne’s “The Searchers.”

I always think it’s about America losing its old conceptions of ethnic purity and social purity and the role of Natalie Wood having an Indian husband–a Native American husband in that film has to do with all the social changes that are perceived in 1956–so maybe American works are sneaky historical or subconsciously historical.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, thank you all very much for being with us.