22 March 2008

Cinematic Script as History

"One contemporary artist estimates that 60 percent of his prints go to buyers in the South, a circumstance he attributes to 'the stronger interest among Southerners in the Civil War in general.' "

John Taylor wrote an interesting review of Professor Gary Gallagher's, Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know about the Civil War for the Washington Times. Taylor's review is aptly titled:
"Cinematic script as history."

Some of the observations reminded me of an experience I had several years ago when the U.S. Post Office was offering some type of commemorative stamp collection or something featuring both Confederate General Robert E. Lee and Union General Ulysses S. Grant.

There was a display rack on the counter and I noticed for several days in a row that the Grant side was always full of brochures while Lee's section was always empty. Suspecting something sinister was afoot, I inquired of the postmaster (who was also a friend), "Hey, what's going on here? Doesn't the United States post office allow you to display the Lee brochures?" He was quick to reply, "Of course, but the problem is the Lee brochures are snatched up as quickly as I can stock them. Very few people are interested in the Grant collection." Take note. The market speaks.

This phenomenon continues despite the energetic efforts to disparage Southerners and everything associated with their culture by many historians. It must be maddening to them. Of course, many would attribute this to "redneck yahoos who can't let go of some fantasy." No doubt that is part of the reason why works featuring Southern themes continue to be favored, but there is also the romanticism associated with underdogs as well as the respect garnered by those who can maintain their character, pride, and honor even in defeat.

Changing gears, Taylor further notes that, "Film is rarely the best medium through which to convey ideas and concepts." That depends. I believe film offers perhaps, the best medium to introduce ideas and concepts--especially historical ones, in the age in which we live. Let's face it, the current and upcoming generations have been raised in a video intensive environment and both scientists and sociologists have confirmed this has begotten persons who have a very short attention span when it comes to intellectual pursuits. Unlike previous generations, these folks are much more likely to watch a film than they are to read Freeman's masterpiece on Lee or Robertson's equally influential biography of Stonewall Jackson; or even a much shorter work of history. There are exceptions, of course, but in general this is true. VERY true. And it will become even more true in coming years. Ken Burns, The History Channel (despite recent criticisms), Wide Awake Films, Lion Heart Films, James Robertson's recent announcement, and other numerous examples could be cited as evidence that this fast growing means for communicating and teaching our Nation's history is quickly becoming the "medium of choice" for a growing number of Americans interested in history.

Case in point: the recent documentary of Jackson in which I was involved is on track to outsell the book upon which it was based in the first 12 months, though the book was out a whole year prior to the film's release. This despite the fact that the book received much wider exposure in the media than did the film. The film has also created synergy with the book, thus both are now benefiting from this synergy.

Historians, both amateur and professional, must come to terms with the fact that this generation's defining medium is film. Film is the primary communication influence on our culture and one in which ideas and concepts--both good and bad--are being communicated to the vast majority of Americans, especially the young.

As a Christian, I intend to use this medium--in addition to my writing efforts--to present a biblical view of history in as professional and truthful a way as possible. The recent revolution in film technology, and its subsequent reduction in equipment and production costs, has removed Hollywood as being the only outlet for quality films. (The film technology and quality in a professional video camera that, just 5 years ago would have cost you $60,000, is now available for $5,000.) More and more independent filmmakers with a Judeo-Christian philosophy are finding opportunities for their work. The news in this post confirms this. I also recently read that there are more Christian writers and filmmakers actually working in Hollywood since family oriented films make much more money than do the sleazy ones. The market speaks again. Astute communicators and historians will take note.

I will be posting more about this in the weeks and months to come. It is a quickly evolving phenomenon that will have widespread implications for our culture.

I've not read Gallagher's book, but it does look very interesting and I hope to add it to my ever-growing list of "must reads." Maybe I'll get lucky and he'll make his book into a film.

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