HISTORY ACCORDING TO MOVIES
DECEMBER 26, 1995
Are film makers responsible for portraying historic events accurately? Maybe not, according to Mark Carnes, professor of history at Barnard College, and editor of Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies . He speaks with David Gergen, editor-at-large of "U.S. News & World Report".
DAVID GERGEN: Let me start by asking you about one of the movies that you review in your book. It's "All the President's Men." The historian, Bill Luchtenberg, reports that the actors in that movie, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, spent a lot of time observing the two reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, as preparation for the movie. Warner Brothers that made the movie spent a lot of money trying to recreate the "Washington Post" newsroom, even to the point of importing trash--
MARK CARNES: That's right.
DAVID GERGEN: --from the East Coast to the West Coast to put it on the set from the "Washington Post" newsroom. So Luchtenberg says, they got all the details right in the movie, they got the big picture wrong on how Watergate unraveled. So my question to you is: In a movie about history, is there a responsibility to be faithful to history?
MARK CARNES: Well, I suppose it depends on what you mean by history. Responsibility and artists are concepts that don't go very well together. An artist does their art for the purposes of art. A director makes a movie for--because they feel summoned to do so by some internal demon, and moviemakers are a very special sort of artist in the sense that they need the complicity of a huge audience to, to sustain it. So it's an interesting mediation between the moviemaker and the audience. And the notion that there's a responsibility to the past doesn't figure into the calculation.
DAVID GERGEN: Well, let me put it another way. First, with an acknowledgement I worked for Richard Nixon, and I just saw the movie by Oliver Stone, "Nixon," and it was painful to watch for me, because I thought it exaggerated all of his weaknesses almost to the point of non- recognition, and it ignored his strengths, what emerged was a caricature, his family has called it character assassination. He's obviously and clearly denied that. But rather than dwell on Nixon because that is personal, let me go back to the other--another movie by Mr. Stone--"JFK," this past year the American Society of Newspaper Editors, a former aide to Robert Kennedy and later editor and publisher John Zegentholer, questioned Mr. Stone about his movie. He--Zegentholer had appeared before a high school class and found that many of them had seen the movie and were convinced that Lyndon Johnson was guilty of a conspiracy to murder John F. Kennedy, and he said this, "Is there any regret on your part, Mr. Stone, for what I consider to be a blood libel on Lyndon Johnson for that accusation of murder?" Is it only an entertainment then?
MARK CARNES: The difficulty with Oliver Stone's movies are--one is that he deals with contemporary subjects so that the person is alive. Also, there is a didactism in his movies that, that tends to maybe we'll find irritating, but what he does is qualitatively no different from what moviemakers have always done, let's think of all of the queens who have been depicted in the great genre films. They've often--important intellects, resolute individuals, how does Hollywood portray famous queens in history? They're portrayed as sex kittens who have achieved through their sexual allure. That's a tremendous libel to these, to these important, powerful women, yet, that's what Hollywood does. What Oliver Stone does is similar. He deals with the--he points his camera, what looks like a past, and that's one of the strengths of movies is they're visually so, so--give the sense of accuracy--points his camera at the past, it looks really, but really sticking a mirror in there, we end up seeing ourselves. And that's what Stone does, and I don't think that's qualitatively all that different from what moviemakers have always done. He gives us innocent subjects.
DAVID GERGEN: It may be different, but is it right?
MARK CARNES: Well, it's--quite frankly, I don't see much point in worrying about the morality issue. They're going to continue to do it whether or not we want them to. And the reason they'll do it is because there is a tremendous craving for the past. People have always desired to get history. And it's not evident to history professors or history teachers, but cavemen when they road on the caves did pictures, they're telling stories about the past, explaining how we went from there to where we are now with the hope that somehow we can figure out where we're going. Moviemakers give a plausible representation of the past. But they do something else, which is, is neat. They make the past speak to us with a--with complete crystal clarity, so that it speaks to our time. Of course, historians, when they go to the past, don't find that clarity. They find a muted voice in a different language echoing through vast expanse of time. It's hard to understand. It's complex. Movies make it simple, clear, and that's why we'll always have historical movies, and there will always be distortions to the present.
DAVID GERGEN: One of the other essays in your book points out that if you name a movie after someone, such as you make a movie and call it "Malcolm X," that that has much greater appeal commercially than if you made a movie about a black leader and called it "Joe Something Else."
MARK CARNES: Yes.
DAVID GERGEN: So, in fact, the moviemakers are drawing people in through the door by calling it "Malcolm X," and they recreate a lot of the details of Malcolm X's life, but they may not tell you what--the true picture about that.
MARK CARNES: When you go to the video store and take the cassette, almost always they'll say, based on a true story or an accurate story. That's not true. It is inevitable that filmmakers will tell fictions about the past. It is equally inevitable that the studios and sometimes the filmmakers, themselves, will claim that they're true, because people want to believe that this, this glorious, vivid past is true. They want a sense that they are connecting with this past. It isn't true. And we should never believe that it is, which is really the purpose of this book as a way of trying to create a dialogue with, with our fantasy images of the past.
DAVID GERGEN: I wonder if you think there is something that is new, and that is one of your essayists argues that films in the past in the 1940's and 1950's were often celebratory of America's past, for example, or figures in the past, but with the arrival of the counterculture, that movies like the "Sound of Music" were replaced with "Easy Rider," so that they're much more critical of our past. I wonder if that's new.
MARK CARNES: My earlier point, I think, is fair, which is that movies reflect the present even when they're aiming at the past; that certainly the "Birth of a Nation," the first famous film, tremendously critical of reconstruction, that certainly wasn't celebratory. I think it's generally true that during World War II and afterwards, there is a sense that--of support for the values in the nation, of what it accomplished during--to overcome the problems of Depression and the Nazis and the Japanese militarism, certainly, and the movies show that. The movies too show the change in moods afterwards, a perfectly neat reflection of what we are, not what we were.
DAVID GERGEN: Where would you think we ought to go from here then in terms of given the fact that you think this--that we're not going to be able to change the industry very much, and as one your essayists said, to put the word "responsibility" in the movie industry into the same sentence, it just isn't a good fit. What should we do?
MARK CARNES: What we should do is, I used to think that the literate, the clever, the good movies were the ones that were probably true, and, and my favorite movie of the 100 in this book was "A Man for all Seasons." Then we got the essay by Richard Narius, this was about Thomas Moore, and I don't know if you recall the movie, Paul Scofield plays Moore as a radiant wit, exquisite conscience, and defense of principle. The essay by Richard Narius, who's Moore's biographer, comes in, and it turns out that Thomas Moore didn't believe in freedom of conscience, that he was lethal when heretics were burned. A wonderful movie--Moore is not Paul Scofield. Would I give up that movie? Not at all. What I should do whenever I go to a movie, or whenever anyone goes to a movie, is enjoy it, become attracted to the characters, and not believe a word.
DAVID GERGEN: And then read about it.
MARK CARNES: Precisely.
DAVID GERGEN: If I might, perhaps Winston Churchill should have the last word on that. On advice to politicians in this kind of age, he said, "History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it." Thank you.
MARK CARNES: Thank you for having me on.