A Historian at the Movies: Films and the Historical Imagination

Teofilo Ruiz, December 2008

Almost a trope, most of us who are older often say things such as: “When I was young, things were better,” or “When I was young they really knew how to make movies.” I do not really know if such assertions are always the truth, not even in this case. But, having made such statements myself many times, for what it is worth, in my youth movies were better.

More than two decades ago, I was invited to present a paper at the Denis Hays Seminar at the University of Edinburgh. Sponsored by a local whiskey company, at the reception held right after the conclusion of my paper, the waiters served exclusively generous samples of the donor’s product. Scotch did taste better then too! Dinner soon followed, and my already buoyant spirits soared even higher thanks to my hosts’ companionship and their warm hospitality. Sitting alongside Angus MacKay, a distinguished historian of medieval Castile and of my generation, we soon discovered that, although raised in very different countries—he in Scotland and I in Cuba—we had both come into adulthood under the spell of the same movies. And even though we grew worlds apart, we both shared a passionate attachment to the same kind of films that we saw and experienced at a particular moment in our respective lives.

That January evening in Edinburgh in 1984 has remained an enduring and comforting memory. It has reminded me, through the passing years, of those halcyon days long ago when some young people, moving uncertainly out of adolescence, experienced movies that showed the world in ways that were novel and daring. We discovered in films a kind of international brotherhood. People throughout the world who, while sitting in dark movie houses or art film clubs (as was my experience), had all shared and often reacted in similar fashion to the same kind of movies. For me it was mostly the films of the French New Wave, the Italian films of the fifties and sixties, Japanese films, some dark and disturbing English films, and, of course, Bergman. The greatest impact, however, came from François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups, 1959) and Federico Fellini’s La dolce vita (1960). I remember distinctly seeing The 400 Blows for the first time in Cuba, still a teenager, and although the film’s plot did not resonate at all with the experiences of my own life, I experienced a deep felt awareness of the end of my adolescence and the beginnings of adulthood. The 400 Blows’ touching ending, when the protagonist, having escaped from a youth reformatory, sees the ocean for the first time, opened new vistas on what, we at a certain age and at a certain time understood to be the unbearable “melancholy of the world,” a malady often connected with my steady and unhealthy diet of 19th-century romantic novels. Truffaut’s messages were powerfully reiterated in the films of Jean-Luc Godard, Alan Resnais, Louis Malle, and other French film directors, just as they had been restated a bit earlier in the Italian neorealist films of the period and, about the same time, in La dolce vita’s underlying sense of existential despair and ennui.

By now you would be ready to ask: but what does this have to do with history and with the historian’s craft? How have those films contributed, beyond deeply shaping my autobiography, to the way in which I and others in my generation wrote and still write history? I am not saying anything new when I argue that the French New Wave and the great Italian neorealist films of the period temporally paralleled important methodological breakthroughs in history and other social sciences and humanities. They also coincided with the heyday of the new social history and the Annales-propelled distancing from the histoire evenmenteille. I would argue, though in doing so I follow a well trodden path, that the new sensibilities revealed in those films and the expectation of debate and questioning implicit in the movies’ aesthetic and thematic choices ushered new ways of doing history.

I vividly remember while still in my teens that going to the movies, certainly in early revolutionary Cuba, most of Latin America, and Europe, demanded an intellectual engagement before, during, and after with the films’ ideas and, more importantly, with cinematic dialogue and speech. When The 400 Blows’ main protagonist, Antoine Doinel (played over again and again in many Truffaut’s movies by Jean Pierre Léaud) writes a plagiarized paper lifted from Balzac, this prompted long debates that lasted into the early hours of the morning and continued, in succeeding days when the movie became integrated into our daily lives, shaped our ideologies and our future scholarship.

In the United States the links between aesthetic sensibilities and scholarly interests may not be as deeply embedded in individual lives as they may have been elsewhere; but when I was growing up, the idea of being a scholar, a doctor, or a lawyer who did not know poetry, read novels extensively, and embraced “serious” films was inconceivable. While maintaining a taste for “action” films—usually the Western—the possibilities of sustaining deep discussions about Sunday matinee movies were soon exhausted. The flip side of the little-lasting impact of most Hollywood “action” movies is Eric Rohmer’s luminous Ma nuit chez Maud (1969). Though made a decade later than Truffaut’s signature film, it remains the classic example of the movies in which “nothing happens,” but in which the ideas generated by the dialogue’s tensions served as a wonderful model on how to do a different kind of history, and in which the cultural (and religious) contexts, as well as the protagonists’ social filiation was central to the understanding of the film. I also think that the commitment of New Wave, Italian, and some Japanese and English directors from the period to reflect slices of daily life and to focus on the quotidian details and/or on marginal types—think of Godard’s amazing Breathless (also 1960) and his, I think, far more impressive My Life to Live (1962)—shaped the new social history. Even if Godard himself was deeply influenced by Orson Welles’s 1958 film Touch of Evil, Welles remained a maverick in terms of U.S. filmmaking and ended his brilliant life on the margins of the American movie industry. Godard, Truffaut, Malle, and others, on the other hand, influenced the interest of an entire cohort of young people entering academic life at that time into aspects of history ignored altogether by political, institutional, and diplomatic historians. This interest in common people and their experiences—think of Carlo Ginzburg’s extraordinary I benandanti (1966) and his Formaggio e I vermi (1976)—owes something, in the case of Ginzburg, to Italian neorealist films and, perhaps, also to Fellini’s succession of impressive early films, La strada (1954) and his Le Notti di Cabiria (1957).1 And the leap from individuals to structures followed logically.

In this regard, Michelangelo Antonioni’s great film, Blow Up (1966), based on a story by Julio Cortázar, raises insightful questions as to the nature of evidence, research, and the very nature of reality. This connection between films and research strategies, an idea which I owe to Lucette Valensi’s remarks on the subject, is clearly obvious in the manner in which in the film the progressive blowing up of a photographic image — a kind of close reading or “thick description” of a piece of evidence — yields unexpected results. I may be of course completely wrong about this, and my statements above may be very well a reaction to those formative experiences of my youth and coming to age in the blessed sixties, but I do not think historical breakthroughs or methodological leaps forward ever occur in a cultural and/or ideological vacuum. They are the results of particular cultural shifts and constructed through a continuous borrowing of themes and sensitivities prevalent in society. The scholars who gave us the new social history and the anthropologically inclined later contributions to the Annales school—an earlier cohort, Marc Bloch, Lucien Febvre, Fernand Braudel among them, had been shaped by different cultural experiences and by war—grew up watching Truffaut, Resnais (think of how we could no longer think of Hiroshima without thinking of his 1961, Hiroshima mon amour), Godard, Fellini, Vittorio de Sica, Antonioni, Lucino Visconti, and others. We, at the end, were imprinted with new awareness of the world around us and, far more significantly, with how to describe it with new words and new ways of seeing the past.

—Teofilo F. Ruiz is professor of history at UCLA and is the vice president of the Research Division of the AHA.

Note

1. In a recent interview in India, Carlo Ginzburg answered one of Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s questions as follows: “I grew up surrounded by books; my mother was a novelist; my childhood and youth coincided with the golden age of Italian cinema. Predictably, as a teenager I toyed with the idea of writing fiction. I had come across a remark by Cesare Zavattini, the script-writer of many of Vittorio De Sica’s movies (including Bicycle Thieves, Umberto D., and so forth). Zavattini described his own approach as based on a kind of “roommate poetics”: that is participant-observation of a kind. This programme impressed me. But my silly project failed nearly immediately. The British historian John Brewer once suggested that Italian microhistory might have been related to Italian neorealist movies. As far as I am concerned, I think he was not far from truth.” From “A Conversation with Carlo Ginzburg” in The Hindu November 21, 2007 (online Edition).