Monday, 17 December 2012

Film as a window to the past

One of the many reasons why I like the films of Raoul Walsh so much is his journalistic style. It is not that he makes documentaries but that he is so conscious of space. The images are composed to emphasise the milieus in which his characters find themselves, and to make sure that all parts of the image is in equally sharp focus, or at least as sharp as technology permits. Even if he films a dialogue sequence set inside a wagon the audience can still see what is going on outside, glinted through openings in the canvas. This has two effects. First it makes the outside world matter and underlines the fact that the story we are told is just one of many possible stories and that there is an indifferent (because unaware) population going about their own business. The second effect is what is the concern of this article, namely that it gives the audience an idea of what things looked like, what life could have been like, either when the film was made (if it is set in the present), or further back (if it is set in the past). The combination of Walsh's preference for real locations and the open-ended and clear images in his films often make for mesmerising experiences, such as the hauling of wagons down a cliff in The Big Trail (1930) or the exquisitely detailed and vivid exteriors and interiors of Silver River (1948). In Objective, Burma! (1945) the jungle is so palpable you can almost smell it.

Films that are shot on location (or even in a studio if they have replicated a real place in detail) can serve as a visual memory of something long gone, such as the vegetable market on Covent Garden where most of Hitchcock's Frenzy (1972) is set. An aspect of cinema that gives films a new meaning after they have been made, unintentionally so. It is also, incidentally, where film has an advantage over novels. Reading about a vegetable market is not the same as actually seeing it, and listen to it. This way films can be said to be an essential part of our collective memory. Not only for the stories they tell but for the places they bring back, fully visualised.

Filmmakers are not only storytellers and image makers, they can also be witnesses, witnesses of the past. Some filmmakers have dedicated their careers to dealing with history, such as Andrzej Wajda and to some extent Roberto Rossellini. Theo Angelopoulos was mainly concern with the history of Greece. Others can, due to their style and subject matter, be said to be witnesses to the present (at least their own present), such as Yasujiro Ozu in his way or Sidney Lumet in another way. In the 1930s Warner Bros. studio made a number of films that were "ripped from the headlines", a few of which were directed by Walsh. (There are actually many similarities between these WB films and Italian neorealism.) Claire Denis is a filmmaker concerned with witnessing both the past (particularly the colonial past) and the present.

Wajda has said that he wanted to capture the truth about his native Poland, and from his very first film (A Generation, 1955) he has followed Poland, from Second World War, through the Communist dictatorship and until the present day (with a few excursion, such as to France after the French Revolution in Danton (1983)). Over time there has been a slight shift in emphasis, from a specific anti-Nazism to a more general anti-totalitarian stance and besides being a historian he is also a moral filmmaker. The one might very easily become the other, especially if the motivation for looking at history is to try to prevent the mistakes and horrors of the past from being repeated.

To use films when teaching history is for some an abomination, since the films are not real ("That isn't how it really happened!"). But there are numerous ways in which using fiction films for teaching and explaining history is not only valid but important, as long as one is aware of what one is doing. It will not do to just put on a film and then leave it at that, the film obviously needs to be discussed, contextualised and analysed. But it can give a completely new understanding of a subject. Showing The Battle of Algiers (1966) in a class on French 20th century history or on Algerian independence would only be natural, and perhaps together with The Day of the Jackal (1973). London during the Blitz? Use Hope and Glory (1987). The war in the Pacific? Try They Were Expendable (1945). The Allies push back of the Germans in World War II? The Big Red One (1980). Italian unification? The Leopard (1963). The American "war on drugs"? Traffic (2000). These were examples of war (and a "war") but there is no end to the historic events or periods that have appear in films, of varying quality. They can either show what something was like, or as an example of how a particular representation of something in the past is more or less a lie, a distortion. Even a complete fabrication can have a value, as long as it is properly discussed. And of course any film becomes a historic film as soon as it is finished. A film made last year set in its present is today showing us the past, so any film can be used for teaching history, in does not have to be a "historic" film.

But regardless of historic accuracy or lack thereof, when I watch films the images of the past matters almost as much to me as story, style and acting.

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