Unflattering light of history


Over the past weekend Darren Aronofsky’s biblical epic, “Noah”, sailed into first place at the box office. For something approaching a month, the film has been criticized for taking license with what many hold to be the facts of the great flood. While the departures du jour often spark heated controversy, we must remember that this is a glib entertainment, not a historical document. As many say of such transformations — the book was better.

Unless we’re watching documentaries, getting our historical facts from popular cinema is dicey at best — and even then it’s a dubious proposition. How many 1970s era movies focused on World War II featured male actors with hair much longer than would have been tolerated? For that matter how many archaeologists do we really think spend their days running from the Nazis with a bullwhip in hand? And just to put a point on it, the Three Stooges didn’t actually poke out each other’s eyes.

More often than not, these deviations from reality are what make the movie watching experience so pleasurable. Actors and plot lines are highly stylized versions of reality. Their clothes fit better. Their teeth are whiter. They always have the perfect snappy comeback. They also tend to survive gunshots and car wrecks that would kill most mortals.

Movies, if done well, have the power to convince us “that’s how it really happened.” The film industry’s glowing images come to take the place of what might have actually taken place.

A much-loved example of this historical malapropism has a notable anniversary today. On this day in 1974, “The Sting” won seven Academy Awards. Chief among these was the nod for best picture, but the more interesting prize went to Marvin Hamlisch for Best Music/Scoring Original Song Score and/or Adaptation.

It’s not that Hamlisch’s music wasn’t deserving. It most certainly was. It evidenced a genius combination of sight and sound. It sparked a revival of Ragtime music. So great was the trickle down influence of this film’s score that a whole generation of beginning piano students were made to learn Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer,” which featured prominently in the film.

Hamlisch’s use of Joplin’s now-classic music perfectly evoked the spirit of the age that the film’s stars, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, hoped to capture. There’s just one problem. The film is set in 1930s Chicago, nearly two decades past the zenith of Joplin’s influence.

In essence, they made a film about the 1960s set to Big Band music. Even so, the out-of-proper-context use of the music was so perfect, so well-placed that it came to supplant a more historically congruent soundtrack.

Here again though, we get right in the thick of the problem. If one takes popular television and movie images as their primary source of information, then a distorted view of reality is inevitable. While none of us can lay claim to any kind of ontologically pure knowledge of “true” history, just dipping from one well is a recipe for misinformation.

Of course this is hardly a new discussion. In ancient Greece, Socrates criticized various forms of “imitation.” He argued that the arts involve the creator as representing himself possessing knowledge the he or she does not in fact possess.

Socrates worried about these deceptions and their corrupting potential. Given the current debate about Russell Crowe’s new biblically-inspired epic, a little more time reading the “classics” might be well-spent.