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 It’s easy to look at the Declaration of Independence as a one-dimensional historical document– the text itself tells us important things about American society in 1776 (like that we were really fed up with King George).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.