From the Affiliated Societies column of the March 2008 issue of Perspectives on History
The Historians Film Committee
Cynthia Miller, March 2008
The Historians Film Committee presented—with the Center for the Study of Film and History—a panel entitled "Wars of the Worlds: Fictions, Documentaries, and Beyond: Science in Film, Television, and History," at the 122nd annual meeting of the AHA in Washington, D.C. The session was chaired by Film & History founder John E. O'Connor (New Jersey Inst. of Technology and Rutgers Univ. at Newark), and featured remarks by three scholars in various fields of the study of film and history: Gary Edgerton (Old Dominion Univ.), Thomas Prasch (Washburn Univ.), and Cynthia Miller (Emerson College). Commentary for the session was given by John C. Tibbetts (Univ. of Kansas).
John O'Connor set the stage for the session by introducing the audience to the background of scholarship in film and history. He went on to provide a context through which the audience, as historians, might consider the ways in which film and television images, from documentary to fiction, can be used to gain cultural, social, and historical perspective on the evolving relationship between science and society. Films and televised programs rely on narrative strategies and elements that differ from those utilized by written historical texts, but may be fruitfully explored for their social and cultural emphases, the technical strategies used to construct authority, and audiences' uses or "readings" of cinematic images in their own constructions of the historical timeline and key events.
Gary Edgerton's presentation was entitled "The Cold War, Vietnam, and Apollo 11: The 1969 Moon Landing as Made-for-TV History." Within the context of the fragmentation, unrest, and global political rivalry of the 1960s, Edgerton explored the televised moon landing's role as the first global television event as "instant history." The 1969 moon landing served as a ceremonial TV event—presented live, interrupting the ordinary, and drawing audiences together as witnesses to history. With over 500 million viewers, the televised moon landing not only created the largest common viewing event of the time, but created a series of endlessly reproducible iconic images that would form the seminal texts for the vast majority of subsequent electronic and print histories of the moon landing.
Thomas Prasch moved the session from documentary to drama with his paper "Black Death, Yellow Fever, and Blue Water: Cinematic Narratives of Progress and Resistance in Early Modern Europe." Prasch's talk drew together three mid-1990s films: Michael Hoffman's Restoration (1995), Patrice Leconte's Ridicule (1996), and Nicholas Hyntner's Madness of King George (1994), exploring their portrayals of the development of science in the early modern era. While the films weave the tales of three different monarchs—Charles II, Louis XIV, and George III—they are aligned in their narration of the struggles between monarchies and scientific advancement. Prasch highlighted the ways in which each cinematic narrative pits medical (and scientific) progress—thus modernity itself—against absolutism and superstition. In each film, the advancement of science is intricately linked to the unfolding of democracy, with the court system and patronage a major stumbling block to both.
The final paper of the session, "Defending the Heartland: Technology and the Future in The Phantom Empire (1935)," was given by Cynthia Miller. Miller's work explored the ways in which the cinematic serial confronted and assuaged heartland America's fears of technological advancement and rapid social change in the Machine Age. Miller illustrated how the quintessential icon of American values, Gene Autry, became the champion of a way of life that emphasized face-to-face relationships, compassion, and down-home common sense, juxtaposed against the dispassionate logic, sterility, and absolute order found in the scientific city of Murania, 20,000 leagues beneath the earth's surface. The city's ultimate destruction as a result of its own scientific advancements reaffirmed the values and lifeways of rural America, while the introduction of minor scientific "inventions" by the serial's child stars allowed technology a safer entry into society and focused on possibilities, rather than consequences.
John Tibbetts' commentary examined the ways in which the work of all three scholars had contributed to the cinematic conversations about science and exploration through various eras. Tibbetts asked the audience to consider other cinematic treatments of exploration in space (In the Shadow of the Moon, Capricorn One, Countdown), medicine (The Citadel, The Great Moment, and various Dr. Kildare films), and within subterranean earth (Journey to the Center of the Earth, Beast from Hollow Mountain, and the Dr. Satan serials). Tibbetts then explored the ways in which all of these films indulged in degrees of historical recreation or futuristic speculation, in order to creatively construct the outcomes of scientific advancement, exploration, or experimentation—thus opening up an important discussion about the ways in which fact and fiction collide in films of science and science fiction, and to what social, economic, or philosophical end.
Prior to this session, Miller and Tibbetts also promoted Film & History at the affiliated societies tables, an annual event at the AHA meetings. During this three-hour time slot, the Film & History table was a hot spot. The number of inquiries about membership, the biennial conference, and submission of articles continues to rise from previous years. Notably, individuals teaching at secondary schools, as well as colleges and universities were eager for resources and referrals to better integrate films in their teaching of history and related topics, reinforcing the need for a strong and active program of pedagogical outreach. Many of the individuals who stopped by the Film & History table have already followed up on these initial conversations, with invitations to network at several universities, requests for suggestions of films and film-related texts for classroom use, offers to review books and films for the journal, and inquiries about how to begin participating in Film & History's many activities and initiatives.
Details about the Historians Film Committee and the Center for the Study of Film and History are available online at www.uwosh.edu/filmandhistory.