Why Taking a Film History Class Doesn’t Make Me a Dirty Liberal Who is Wasting Taxpayer Scholarship Money

Film is important as an art form not because it is a perfect historical representation of a time period (I would argue that there aren’t any films that completely represent a time period) but because it teaches us, as historians, to see in three dimensions. It’s easy to look at the Declaration of Independence as a one-dimensional historical document– the text itself tells us important things about American society in 1776 (like that we were really fed up with King George). But what if we looked at the Declaration of Independence from a different angle? What can the medium of writing or printing, the specific word structure, and the grievances aired tell us about society as a whole? If we saw the Declaration as both a document and an artifact, could we learn more about the way the early United States was structured?

 

One of the most important things I’ve learned this year is that every moment documented in any medium represents- either intentionally or not- a specific moment and emotion trapped in time. Film is particularly successful in this way; because so many mediums of expressing meaning (motion, sound, photography, dialogue) are layered upon each other in a film, an analysis of five minutes of film could tell us more about the past than a hundred pages of documented text. The first section of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington gives surprising insight into the world of 1939. From these few minutes of film, we know that someone, at some point in 1939, felt the need to express a feeling of deep patriotism and the fact that the film was successful probably represents an overarching trend. We also know that at this point in time, African-Americans were still used in primarily derogatory roles in Hollywood from the scene with the porter. Further analysis can tell us what exactly was going on in society that might have caused things like this; the tail end of the Great Depression and the sparks of World War II gave Hollywood incentive to produce films that instilled pride in the American people. Another layer of meaning is placed in the language of film itself. The focus on the American flag, the bright lighting in Washington, and the arriving montage showing generations of Americans admiring the nation’s capitol communicate ideas that don’t need dialogue. Because film contains so many dimensions and perspectives, it serves as an incredible medium for understanding things about a society from political and economic trends to the physical movements of people at the time of filming.

 

Some people might argue that the historical use of films is restrained to the historical film genre. I believe, instead, that historical films themselves tell a lot more about the time period they were produced in than the time period they aim to represent. From Birth of a Nation to The Patriot, films that set out to portray specific historical events do so in response to an attitude set forth by society at the time. While Birth of a Nation attempts to restore the Old South’s historical glory, The Patriot aims to give the viewer a sense of America as a global, dominating force. Similarly, The Passion of the Christ gives a lot more insight to the right-wing response to modern liberalism than it does to the actual life of Jesus Christ. If we can learn to understand the relationship between the art or entertainment produced by a society and the social environment of the society as a whole, we can more effectively use works of art to connect ideas in history. Fairy tales, cave art, ancient literature, and folk songs are so long lasting not only because they are entertaining, but because they reflect common ideas held by societies. In these things, we can identify the morals and values that not only hold up specific societies at different points in history, but that also bind us as human beings.

 

Names of kings, lists of dates, locations of battles– all of these things hold up a clinical idea of history that leads schoolchildren to find the past boring and adults to ignore it. Studying the history of film, art, literature, and music creates a rich, tangible past that allows us to empathize with other human’s suffering and joy. Perhaps if everyone, not just historians, learned to view the past in a way that contained more than one dry dimension, they would have more compassion for viewpoints different than their own. It’s easy to look at the past and claim that a society was unintelligent or cruel; in this same way, it’s easy to look across the world and say the same about another currently existing culture. By analyzing a society using more than cold hard facts, we are able to understand the economic, political, and societal pressures that cause people to act in certain ways. Studying film history doesn’t just make us better historians– it makes us better citizens in a connected world. 

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Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson

 I re-watched The Graduate after class today. I really wanted- no, needed– to hear ten different variations of “Sound of Silence” and to watch Dustin Hoffman attempt to impale the father of the bride with a giant cross. The first time I watched it, I was impressed with the modernity of it; it seemed to me that every other film from the sixties followed stale tropes and if you’d seen one, you’d seen them all. The camera work, symbolism, soundtrack, and frequency of Dustin Hoffman’s abs make it a movie I could watch over and over. I think that the most compelling part of the film, however, is the relationship (or lack thereof) between Elaine and Mrs. Robinson. Throughout the film, interaction between Elaine and Mrs. Robinson is practically nonexistent; they’re hardly ever shown in the same shot, much less conversing with each other. Mrs. Robinson is the exact opposite of a motherly figure, and it’s pretty clear she’d like it to stay that way. From using her daughter’s room place of seduction to clamming up at the thought of Elaine’s birth, Mrs. Robinson uses Elaine as a marker in her life where her youth was given up to someone else and a time where she sacrificed beauty and passion (or quite literally, art) for the care of another human being. She is jealous of Elaine’s beauty and freedom– for Mrs. Robinson, the confused Benjamin is the perfect tool to feel desirable and relevant again.

Benjamin, in a weird, pre-illicit sex attempt at conversation, asks Mrs. Robinson about her husband. She won’t respond; to her, marriage is a metaphorical cage that she’s trapped in because of Elaine, who she clearly resents. Mrs. Robinson, who is nameless except for her husband’s moniker, attempts to seduce Benjamin by luring him with Elaine’s portrait. Her black dress and desperate attempts are a clear contrast to the pink, innocent backdrop of Elaine’s bedroom. Once Benjamin takes Elaine out on a date, the strip club that he takes her to causes her to burst out in tears. Benjamin finally reacts to this; because she is upset by the lewdness (right after he’s called his affair with Mrs. Robinson “disgusting”), he takes pity on her. She’s as innocent as he is in actuality– Mrs. Robinson’s advances may have given him the illusion of being mature, but Benjamin is still a young person flicking ashes among his childhood toys. In a way, he feels trapped by Mrs. Robinson’s sexuality. In the scene where he is finally rejecting the affair, his head is framed by Mrs. Robinson’s bent leg as he ponders whether or not what he’s doing is right. Despite the sad backstory to Mrs. Robinson, film isn’t necessarily sympathetic toward her. She’s seen as broken, malicious, and desperate. Mrs. Robinson is the perfect foil to Elaine; as the film ends and Ben and Elaine sit on the bus sweating and confused, we are cheering for her escape from an unhappy institution of marriage that Mrs. Robinson was unable to elude.

It seems film in general isn’t very sympathetic to the trapped housewife. The Graduate reminds me of the side story in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. A sad housewife finds a young grocery boy to seduce, and several awkward encounters with her husband occur. Unlike Mrs. Robinson, however, the seductress in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape seems to care for her children. Perhaps what makes Mrs. Robinson so hard to like her obvious distaste for her own child. When she forbids Benjamin to take Elaine out, Mrs. Robinson refers to her at “that girl.” Elaine is as nameless as Mrs. Robinson; instead of being a daughter or an autonomous person, she is simply the girl who ruined Mrs. Robinson’s life. The saddest thing, to me, is Mrs. Robinson’s lack of a sexual relationship in a loving, comfortable place. When asked where Elaine was conceived, she replies “his car.” Her entire affair with Benjamin takes place in a hotel, hidden in the dark and away from polite society. Mrs. Robinson doesn’t even sleep in the same room as her husband; her house, rather than being a place of refuge, is a symbol of the institution that traps her in her own sexual frustration and stifles what she could have been– an artist, a free spirit, or a Berkeley attending academic like Elaine. 

 

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THERE’S A GIANT RADIOACTIVE BUG RIGHT BEHIND YOU!!!

Imagine this: You’re a happy post-war suburbanite, taking a leisurely afternoon stroll in the neighborhood. Your children, who you’ve named Jim and Bob so that they’re clearly not mistaken for anything other than American, are walking the dog, Skippy, right behind you. Lucy, your beautiful, attentive wife, locks her arm in yours and you bask in the glory that is your accomplished American dream. You could drive around the block in your brand-new Chrysler, but you’re walking simply because you don’t have to. All the sudden, you hear a noise. It’s not really a crash, but more of a “ccccrrruuuunnrcchhh” as glass, vinyl siding, and asbestos cave in. You turn around. What is that? It’s not a bird, probably not a plane… it’s… it’s… a hundred foot tall radioactive tarantula! Oh, God! What monstrosity of science is this? I bet this is the result of a mistreated lab technician with a clear Russian accent, or nuclear testing in the New Mexico desert! You don’t have long to ponder the horrible repercussions of unbridled science; before you can scream “God bless America!” the probably equally terrified tarantula has eliminated the existence of you and your happy little family. Sounds silly, right?

Now imagine this: Another happy suburban family, another walk down Persimmon Street with Sparky the sheepdog. Light hits the trees in a way that makes them a radiant gold as kids play hop scotch. Life in America is perfect. Suddenly, you hear a sound that is familiar to you from your time in the war– the sound of a low-flying military plane. What is going on? Before you have time to question whether or not there is a military base around, everything you know is decimated in a fiery windstorm. You no longer exist, and neither does the home you worked so hard for. The ideology of your community disappears with the fire. You are nothing but ash, and all it took was a couple of seconds of science and politics gone wrong to eliminate you.

This is the true terror of the cold war; through monster and military movies, that terror was expressed in a way that allowed Americans to project their fear onto the screen for a few minutes. The idea that total destruction due to bad science was inevitable gave way to a lot of the great monster movies in the 1950’s. If it wasn’t total destruction, it was creeping conformity or death through a slow but terrifying menace. In the 1958 film “The Blob,” the monster doesn’t even have a definite form but still somehow manages to plant a sort of dread into the mind of the audience. This gelatinous invader from outer space is so foreign to us because of it’s complete lack of humanity; it’s a mindless, creeping abstraction of form that consumes everything in its path and grows larger as it does so. Monsters like the Blob represent the fear that every American knew as an abstraction of an ideology and not an actual, human force: communism. The threats of both communism and nuclear war terrified the American public; to them, nothing seemed more apocalyptic or anti-American than these two things. The 1954 thriller “Them!” combined the two ideas in a way that made for the perfect monster flick. By taking an ant-like, worker bee mentality (communism) that is usually harmless on a small scale and combining it with the horrors of science (the bomb), a force that is both unstoppable and inhuman emerges. Giant killer ants hellbent on destroying human civilization and rising to the top of the food chain both make the viewer massively squeamish (giant furry pincers, anyone?) and give the viewer an idea of what society could look like if the Soviets won the cold war. “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” creates a similar atmosphere; the loss of individuality, unstoppable force, and inhuman, foreign invasion point toward a caricature of Soviet society. The abstraction of a political ideology to the point where it can only be represented by a bastardization of “science” is central to many horror films of the 50’s.

The 1940’s didn’t need the monster movie– war was scary enough, and the government felt the need to use the film industry as a mode of encouragement rather than a way to terrify the public. By the 50’s, however, the pressing fear of imminent nuclear war with the Soviet Union and a complete destruction of American ideology turned society into a sort of pressure cooker of terror. When the nuclear bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, warfare as the world knew it changed forever. Along with it went the comfort of the American public; while World War II was so far away from the home front for Americans, nuclear bombs could be dropped without warning. There are no winners in a nuclear war, or so believed the public, and the monster will always come back to terrorize its victims for another day. With the cold war, the enemy was secretive and difficult to conceptualize. As the horror genre grew, Americans found a new way to put their fear of the unknown into concrete ideas.

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