Thursday, August 09, 2007

It's Just a Movie

History is our lost referential, that is to say our myth. It is by virtue of this fact that it takes the place of myths on the screen."

Jean Baudrillard


in conditions under which the false becomes the mode of exploration of the true, the very space of its essential disguises or its fundamental displacement: the pseudos here becomes the pathos of the True."

Giles Deleuze



I enjoy reading people's responses to books and movies. The amazon readers review provide me endless delight as do the viewers reviews on yahoo movies and IMBD. It's interesting to see how people respond to various media. So when I first saw the trailers for 300 I went to check out what people were saying. The initial buzz was one of excitement. People raved about the special effects, etc. Once the movie was releases the reviewers fell into two camps. One group decried the lack of historical accuracy well the other camp said "Hey chill, it's just a movie." I find, after watching this movie, and being a fan of historical movies, that I fall somewhere between the two camps.

For the most part, I agree with Baudrillard that history is a myth. I don't mean myth as in lie nor do I think does he. Rather history has become the story that we tell ourselves about our origin. It is interesting to me that the arguments which arise over "historical accuracy" are quite similar to the arguments that arise between fundamental Christians and their liberal counterparts over the accuracy of the Bible. We seem to have a lot in stake over "fact." What really happened, and what stories are permissible about what really happened. Yet can we ever really know these answers? Are these answers even achievable? What is a date but a date?


Thus when movie goer begins a critique with "Well it was a good movie but they got this detail all wrong..." I smile a little. How can we possibly KNOW what happened when Leonidas faced the Persian army with 300 men at his back? This story comes to us from a history written thousands of years ago. It has been translated, re-translated, etc, etc. What I want to ask these reviewers is this: Whose detail? Frank Miller's? Herodotus'? This demand for historical accuracy in a movie like 300 strikes me as quite beside the point. There is no historical accuracy to be found in such a tale. Only a myth. And myths are meant to be retold.


On the other hand, I do not agree with the idea that: Hey, it's just a movie." Movies as myths are more than lies. They are the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves. What a good historical movie does is not give us accurate facts but rather takes lies, falseness, and gives us truth. The truth does not lie in any kind of notion of what really happened. Rather it lies in the virtual as pure past. It retells history in a way that tells us something about modernity, about our world. In 300, we see reflected back at us our attitudes about war and about freedom. The words from the Spartans' mouths have nothing to do with the myth of the Spartans (how can we ever know that) but rather these words reflect our own myths, and our own views on freedom. And I say "our" as in American. A good historical movie gives us what we need from the past. It takes historical myths and reworks them into the myths of the present. The false becomes the true. The reworking in movies like 300 and Elizabeth means that they are not just movies. They are our stories. They use history to create the aura of modernity.

11 comments:

John B-R said...

From the OED:

History: Etymology: from 'istoria, the Greek word meaning a learning or knowing by inquiry, an account of one's inquiries ...

Same etymology for the word "story".

In NO definition does the OED equate history and "truth". In NO definition does it even mention truth.

So I guess you don't need to be Baudrillard or Deleuze to notice that history is indeed what we tell ourselves, or what we're told.

Which is not to say that when there is evidence, historians don't have to take that evidence into account. But what historians DO with that evidence, ah ...

I think the real problem with "historically inaccurate" movies is when the new story is competing with an older one that's BETTER.

Personally I'd HATE to compete with Herodotus, who was a GREAT storyteller.

Which doesn't mean that the 300 wasn't a fine movie. I mean, my biggest problem with Troy wasn't how it deviated from Homer, it was ... Brad Pitt as Achilles??? Give me a break ...

Horacio said...

John,
the OED doesn't mention the word truth in the definition of history but that doesn't mean that a lot of societes don't take their history as truth as the only true account of their pasts.

as for Baudrillard and Deleuze: I always find helpful to use someone else's articulation of a problem, it often sheds light on corners that I might have otherwise overlooked.

I'd love to compete with Herodotus, that'd make me a hell of a storyteller.

I do agree with you about Brad Pitt in Troy, I'm sure Achilles looked way sexier in a miniskirt jumping around in the middle of the battlefield.

And yes, I definetely agree that myths need to be retold. Myths (history) carry this retelling aspect in their genes: the result, from an aesthetic point of view, can be better or worse.

I love the fact that the reworking/retelling of a myth will tell us more about the reteller than about the "original" (if there is such) or any of the previous myths.

Ginger said...

I don't think I was using Deleuze or Baudrillard to think about history per se. I was using them instead to talk about how people think about history in our society. As I pointed out in the beginnings, the arugments over accuracy end up sounding like a bunch of fundamentals aruging with more liberal Christians. This comes not just from reading the reviews but from studying religious history. The majority of historians hold onto history as something "true."

As for the problem...well I never see retellings as a problem. We retell all the time. Some are good some are bad. Rather then seeing this as a competition, I think it's more valuable to see these retellings as interpretations. And it's not just wrtiers who interpret these stories. Every reader who approaches the text interprets the text. The same readers who critize Miller or Synder of deviating from Herodotus do the exact same thing when they read. We CAN NOT read as an anicent Greek. We just can't. But we can read as modern something or others which means that we automatically shape that text to make sense in our world.

Lolabola said...

I like this idea that we shape the past to make sense in our present.
It is obvious to me that I do that with my own history on a moment by moment basis. The idea of historical accuracy strikes me as totally absurd. Kind of like Brad Pitt as Achilles.

It could be worse, it could be Tom Hanks. Or maybe that's just equally bad.

John B-R said...

Herodotus has been known as the father of lies for almost as long as he's been known as the father or history. I don't think historians are so naive as to believe that they are doing anything other than interpreting, story telling etc. It's only when politics (used in the broadest sense) is posing as history that anyone takes it seriously. (Of course, academia is "politics by another name" so historians do defend their interpretations with passion and invective, but when spoken to over lunch or drinks, they almost all admit they're just telling stories).

When I wrote "So I guess you don't need to be Baudrillard or Deleuze to notice that history is indeed what we tell ourselves, or what we're told" I didn't mean any sort of critique of them, or your use of them (Proofs: I'm a collage/appropriation artist myself, and over the past week I've come into possession of 2 Baudrillards and 1 Deleuze). It was just to say that what they are saying has been recognized for a very long time. To corroborate them, as it were, not to critique them.

I too think all readings are interpretations and all tellings and retellings reveal more about the "author" and the zeitgeist than about whatever may have "actually happened".

But I do think interpretations are also in competition with one another. That's what's meant by "the winner gets to write the history".

Think for example of the competing myths of American history. Just a few at random:

-the founding fathers (that phrase itself puts us in the realm of myth as much as Homer does when he puts us up on Mt Olympus ...) separated church and state to protect the state from religion. No they didn't, they protected religion from state interference. Depending on which myth is believed, we end up with a secular state or a theocracy.

-the free market is what makes America great. No, workers and the environment need protection from the so-called free market.

-the US was founded in opportunity. No, the US was founded on slavery and genocide.

Whether you agree or not, that's why I think myths compete. Believing in one or another has consequences.

As for Brad Pitt, my problems was that he wasn't in any way believable as the greatest warrior/killer of all time. He was just a wussy pretty boy. (Which, by the way, isn't my type)

Ginger said...

LOL about Brad Pitt. I have to say that I'll take the guy in 300:)

I think historians can be very navie to be honest. At least American Religion Historians. And I think they are very invested in their ideas, and like many (most?) academics invested in an idea of truth. An origin kind of truth not a mulitiple kind of truth.

As for competition...of course many see it this way. I just prefer not to. It makes things more interesting and ulitmately more complicated. And to say interpretations as opposed to competiton does not, I think, take away the serious consequences of those interpretations. But I choose to use another approach...

Tom Hanks as Achilles...hmm..

Lolabola, I never thought about this on a personal level but you're right. We do shape our histories in ways that make sense of our presence. I see this a great deal in the memoir of I'm working with. Butler argues that we do this in order to create an illusion of continuity.

John B-R said...

Ginger, can you explain how leaving out competition between the stories we tell/are told makes things more interesting? What's your approach? (Please don't read this as combative; I'm truly curious)

As for historians and their naivete, well, I can only speak of the ones I know. Publicly and professionally they're naive, it's an important career move to be naive, but privately I've been told by a number of historians that they know that their work is just an interpretation that's bound to be contested, that HAS to be contested.

And re your comment, Lolabola, and your agreement w/it, Ginger, I've always been glad I've never been called to be a witness in court. I don't trust my memory at all, or I should say that I KNOW I've, uh, adjusted it. I think Butler is right, but continuity is only half the story. I think self-justification is the other half. (Maybe there are more than two halves ...). I don't think I could live with myself without constant revisionist manipulation of my story (it's hard enough even with the revisions). How else could I believe that I'm a even semi-decent human? To quote a very very early Fleetwood Mac song:

I talked to God
I knew he'd understand
He said sit by me
I'll be your guiding hand
But don't ask me
What I think of you
I might not give the answer
That you want me to

Oh well.

Ginger said...

I think competition is simplistic to be blunt. I think it ends up constructing insurmontable walls. It ends dicussion. It chooses winners and losers, and then we're supposed to think that's the end of it. Hell this ends up creating much more dangerous problems. Like "Oh racism is over." And yes I hear white people say this all the time. "why are black people still whining?" I mean shit, by accepting the myth that racism by seeing that myth as the winner...it ends up shutting doors.

What would happen if we recognizes the various myths/stories out there? Wonder if we problemtize them instead of choosing winners and losers? And ulitmately I am not sure how competive these myths are. I don't think that I buy this competition. It brings to my mind this image of these myths/stories floating around and we choose some and not others. It's not that simple.

And as for historians...I guess we've meet different kinds of historians. I rarely meet any academic who is willing to admit that they're just dealing with stories. And really the post isn't about historians. It's about people who view movies. Some of those people may be historians...but for the most part, it's the average movie goer...ultimately a more dangerous entity than a historian.

John B-R said...

Ginger, I think we're talking at cross-purposes. I couldn't agree more with your "I think competition is simplistic to be blunt. I think it ends up constructing insurmountable walls. It ends discussion. It chooses winners and losers, and then we're supposed to think that's the end of it." But.

In the simulacrum in which we "live" - the "marketplace of ideas" - "product placement" is everything. There isn't room on the shelves - or, better, room isn't made - for every possible interpretation. Only the big sellers.

And you're right, we don't get to choose among all possible products. Only among the big sellers. And even then we don't really get to choose.

Would I rather live in the world you posit? Absolutely. Do I think that's the world we live in? Unfortunately not.

You write "I rarely meet any academic who is willing to admit that they're just dealing with stories." I can think of two reasons for that. One, religious studies is a discipline that is still in the process of deciding whether unbelievers have a right to have opinions on religious matters. Therefore more is at stake (e.g. the eternal soul) than in other disciplines. Second, when I was a student I never got faculty to admit to me they were just story-tellers. That only happened once I got out from under, so to speak, and was able to meet them as peers. I think the historians with whom I've spoken about this realize they have no power over me - so they may as well come clean.

As for the average movie goer being more dangerous than any historian, we agree absolutely. The average movie goer is so vulnerable, so manipulable ...

Ginger said...

I think the battle over believers vs. nonbelivers is greatly over stated in the terms of Religious Studies. Now it's pretty clear that if you do believe you have to bracett that belief unless you do theology. And most historians, at least those taken seriously in religious studies, are the ones who do not bring theology into their histories. That line is pretty set and believing or not believing doesn't effect what others will say of your work.

But I would argue that any academic field is composed of the same set up. There are people in all fields who believe not only in religion but in their own field religiously.

As for what you hear in the bar vs. what you hear in the classroom...well that's when you have to make a call about what's true and what's not. I suspect that some of what one hears in a bar (and yes I've heard it from professors) is an affectation...the post-modern irony that one hears so much about.

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