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We took the kids to see Selma, and I think you should see it too. (I mean, my God: it’s got both Stephen Root and Wendell Pierce.) Its historical liberties notwithstanding, it’s a great piece of historical fiction. As a sometime practitioner of both history and historical fiction, let me explain why.

First, here’s John Steinbeck on the scholar and the truth; the fisherman and the fish:

the Mexican sierra has “XVII-15-IX” spines in the dorsal fin. These can easily be counted. But if the sierra strikes hard on the line so that our hands are burned, if the fish sounds and nearly escapes and finally comes in over the rail, his colors pulsing and his tail beating the air, a whole new relational externality has come into being—an entity which is more than the sum of the fish plus the fisherman. The only way to count the spines of the sierra unaffected by this second relational reality is to sit in a laboratory, open an evil-smelling jar, remove a stiff colorless fish from a formalin solution, count the spines, and write the truth “D.XVII-15-IX.” There you have recorded a reality which cannot be assailed—probably the least important reality concerning either the fish or yourself.

It is good to know what you are doing. The man with his pickled fish has set down one truth and has recorded in his experience many lies. The fish is not that color, that texture, that dead, nor does he smell that way…. [W]e were determined not to let a passion for unassailable little truths draw in the horizon and crowd the sky down on us.

(Yes, it’s a favorite passage.)

So clearly, it’s the business of the historian to count those spines (and get the count right). Historians go further, too: we traffic in permissible artifice. Call it cautious narrative, which indicates more often than it depicts: maybe, to press the analogy, we’re allowed to stuff and mount that fish in a lifelike posture that nevertheless permits the observer to see those spines and plainly ascertain their number.

Beyond that we daren’t go.

But purveyors of historical fiction aren’t trying to do that, at all: instead, they want to give us that other, otherwise unreachable, truth: the fisherman and the fish, the leap, the flash, the struggle. That too is true.

Historians can tell us it happened: fictionalizers can make us see it happening and feel the fight between angler and prey.

So, Selma gives us that fight, and how. The night march and the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson are terrifying and heartbreaking. Bloody Sunday is grippingly staged and shot. David Oyelowo is a great King, Tom Wilkinson is a great Johnson, Oprah Winfrey can actually act, in case you didn’t remember. (Only why, in a movie that has Martin Luther King, Jr., Lyndon B. Johnson, and George Wallace, do they all have to be played by Brits?)

And I’m not greatly bothered by the depicted conflicts between King and the younger activists – Zeitz says the movie overplays them, but they were real.

I even think making Johnson a foot-dragger who has to have his mind changed is actually fine-ish, though. It didn’t happen this way, not in 1965. But it did pretty well happen. Johnson did help make the Civil Rights Act of 1957 weaker. And he did at last push the Voting Rights Act through. King’s activism helped propel him forward.

(And even in 1965, Johnson was still incredulous at the thought that he hadn’t done enough. “Could anybody do better? What do they want?” he asked.)

But. I do think it’s stepping over the line to make Johnson responsible for the infamous “suicide letter” to King. This is like telling us the fisherman leaped into the water and wrestled the fish into submission with his bare hands. I mean, someone did catch and kill that fish, but not like that.

The suicide letter (which appeared in Athan Theoharis’s From the Secret Files of J. Edgar Hoover and was recently analyzed in full by Beverly Gage) was a genuinely vicious thing. The FBI sent it to King, with tape-recordings of his sexual infidelities, saying “There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.”

As Zeitz points out, this letter had nothing to do either with Selma or with Johnson. But the movie has Johnson saying he needs to put King off, picking up the phone, and barking “Get me J. Edgar Hoover,” then cutting to Coretta Scott King listening to the tape with her husband. In the language of film, that’s as much as saying, Johnson ordered the sending of that letter and that tape.

Which is a shame, really; DuVernay doesn’t need Johnson to sink that low for the narrative to work. I suspect she did want to get in some evidence of King’s infidelities, and the complexity of his relationship with his wife, and this was the way to do it. To establish Hoover as acting independently from Johnson would have taken up too much screen time in a movie already packed with incident (Malcolm X is in it!); as it is, I’m not confident all viewers will remember Hoover from his single, brief, establishing scene.

But it is a shame.

Still, Lyndon Johnson was a big man with a secure place in history, and I bet wherever he is, he can take it. And you and yours should still see the movie. Which is fiction, if historical fiction.

(Also recommended: NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, with friend of this blog Gene Demby, discussing this question, too.)


Over the past month, I’ve been finishing — as in, putting the final, no really, the final! — touches on my book. It’s been a huge pain because of the narrative structure I’ve adopted this go round. Lots of flashbacks means lots of moving parts. Change one thing, you have to change many things. Very annoying.

Anyway, because of my present circumstances (to recap: annoyed), I’ve been paying more attention even than usual to storytelling and editing. Which prompts two observations: first, J.K. Rowling should have edited her books. If another one of her characters “pants”, I’m going to assume Hermione or Gilderoy is trapped in a low-budget pr0n film (ick). And second, the opening twenty or so minutes of the Star Trek reboot is a model of narrative economy. Like the much-praised, and deservedly so, montage in Up (No, I’m not crying. But hang on a sec, okay? I have something caught in my eye.), the scenes, starting from when the lights go down until Kirk and crew begin their adventures on the Enterprise, are incredibly taut. The number of characters and story lines introduced (though they couldn’t wedge Scotty in until later) is admirable. I haven’t done that well with my book, I’m afraid. But then again, my budget was smaller than J.J. Abrams’s.

You can watch Orson Welles give an account of the War of the Worlds hoax on YouTube here.

Of course this is from F is for Fake, so treat it accordingly. FDR never met with the aliens. If he had, he would have driven them from New Jersey by the sheer force of his awesomeness.

UPDATED to add, hear the original here.

A filmic tour of the Grand Canyon from the 1920s (via).

Searching for the Grand Canyon Suite led me here. (Previously on this blog.)

It’s 1915, and Josephus Daniels wants you to want a bigger Navy, by exposing you to “the complex life that throbs through our dreadnoughts.”

Here’s a short clip including a submarine going down.

You can take in the whole thing, or at least 11′24″ of it, at the National Film Preservation Foundation.


When I teach my seminar on monuments, museums, and memorials, I typically cover the Enola Gay controversy. But one of the challenges I face is getting my students to look “beneath the mushroom cloud” (borrowing a phrase from John Dower). So, given that it’s the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima (see here for contemporary coverage), I thought I’d mention that I once juxtaposed Barefoot Gen with the bombing scene from Above and Beyond as a way of accomplishing this goal. This approach has its share of problems, unfortunately, and since I’ll be teaching the course again in the fall, I’d be eager to hear other ideas.

By the way, Barefoot Gen is fascinating for a variety of reasons, almost certainly worth the time for its treatment of class, the role of bureaucracy in Japanese culture, and popular misgivings about the war, not to mention its brutal depiction of Hiroshima’s destruction. It’s not just a one-trick pony, in other words. Above and Beyond, on the other hand, is probably best avoided. No doubt I’m wrong on both counts, though, and will soon hear about it. I eagerly await your replies.

Given that I haven’t had a chance to read the book in question, I don’t know what to make of the ongoing, and increasingly nasty, fight over John Stauffer’s and Sally Jenkins’s new history of the Free State of Jones. But it seems like the struggle over the book is pretty interesting, as it raises all kinds of questions about the intersection of historical narratives and big-time entertainment. I also think there’s probably something to be said here about the nature of scholarship. But again, without having read the book, I’m not the one to say it. At least not yet.

Anyway, the fight started here and here and here, I guess, when Victoria Bynum, who’s written her own history of Jones County during the Civil War, posted a scathing review of The State of Jones. Take a look. See what you think.

Update: Stepping back a bit, it seems to me that there are other interesting questions raised by this case. For instance, as Kevin points out in his post (linked above), how does the advent of blogging change the way that “scholarly”* books are reviewed? How do “historians”** change their writing, particularly what*** they choose to write, given the audience they want for their books? And is it okay to find motivation for scholarship in the pursuit of a big payday?

* Yep, those are scare quotes. Deal with it.

** And again. Feel free to fill out a comment card, if you’d like.

*** As opposed to how they write. Content rather than style, in other words.

On this day in 1968, 2001: A Space Odyssey premiered.

I’ve revisited it a few times over the years, and I always have different reactions, but they usually include

1. Where’s my goddamn moon shuttle?
2. “Bell.” Heh. “Pan-Am.” <snif>
3. We really are, as a culture, poorer for not having the Soviets as staple villains. (Not that you can’t muff that, too.)

My favorite recycling of 2001 is of course Wall-E. But I really wanted to point you to my favorite critical reading of 2001, by Michael Bérubé—part 1 and part 2. If you haven’t read it, please do.

And when you do, let me know: do you think the silence of the movie’s final chapter covers the “unmentionable” or “what goes without saying”?

Wednesday night at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, I’ll be introducing—probably with a very, very short introduction—a double bill of Our Daily Bread and The Plow that Broke the Plains. You can find details here.

They’re pretty remarkable films, released only two years apart, but what a two years. The wild, really kind of crazy and fantastic hope1 in Our Daily Bread yields to the brutal, dismal—I don’t know if I want to say realistic per se, but certainly more realistic and inconclusive picture of The Plow that Broke the Plains. Just as, broadly speaking, you could say the New Deal went from the idea of We Can (and Should) Do Anything to We Need to Work within Clear Limits over the same period.

Really, I guess you should watch Vidor’s fable first and then Lorentz’s documentary.

Anyway, I’ll have something to say in this line tomorrow night.

1Which is described as leftist. But do you notice in the scene where they talk about what form of government they want to have, they reject democracy and socialism, and conclude, it’s a big job and we need a big man to run it? Hmmm.

Litbrit, writing at cogitamus, celebrates the news that director Spike Jonze has adapted Where the Wild Things Are. While I echo her enthusiasm for the original source material, I’m not convinced by the above trailer that the film will satisfy my discerning tastes. For I share with the fans of Watchmen a sense that some printed texts are sacred and should not be rendered in moving pictures.

* See here.

(This beast began as the post I promised last week.  Now that I’ve played hooky all my points about the uniqueness of Watchmen‘s narrative mode seem more salient in light of their absence from the film.  So I decided to fold my review into the half-composed post.  But for the record I still never get around to discussing my larger theory of Manhattan as readerly proxy.)

Some books teach you how to read them: Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow, JR, and Infinite Jest spring first to mind.  From a purely formal perspective Watchmen belongs in their company.  It does to the conventions of comic narrative what Joyce did to realism, Pynchon did to pulp, Gaddis did to dialogue and Foster Wallace did to sentiment.  All the techniques discussed in the following had been used in comics before—there is nothing new under the oxen of the sun—but never in the service of creating a new breed of reader.  Consider the following sequence of panels from the funeral of the Comedian:


The first three panels transition moment-to-moment.  Such transitions slow down the action by forcing the reader to observe actions divided into their constiuent parts.  They typically depict a realization on the part of the character which the author wants the reader to linger over (for example) or a demonstration of how fast or powerful someone is.  But the “action” that Moore slices into its constiuent parts consists of “listening while standing still.”

For a hack like Mark Millar the amount of dialogue squeezed into the slow zoom of those panels would stretch credulity.  But Moore is no Millar.  (How better to compel readers to pay attention to a face than four consecutive panels that zoom in on it?)  Moore wants the reader to focus his attention on the expression Ozymandias wears and the pat content of the eulogy.  The payoff of the latter is dialogue-driven and immediate; the former, however, pays off in a way only comics can.  When the moment-to-moment transitions give way to the scene-to-scene transitions in the third and fourth panels the change in Ozymandias’s expression is as subtle as it is important:

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Everyone knows that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (a) isn’t very good and (b) is largely borrowed from/an homage to Gunga Din.

Now, it is almost as widely assented that Gunga Din is good, or at least not very bad. Why is this so?

Partly, I think, this is because it was made in the 1930s, instead of set in the 1930s; set in the c19, a story about British imperial rule over India and crackdown on Thuggee makes some sense. Whereas the same story set in the 1930s (hi, Gandhi) and made in the 1980s, doesn’t.

Partly I think this is because, well, even if you don’t think Cary Grant is obviously cooler than Harrison Ford, you must concede that Victor McLaglen and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. are cooler than Willie and Short Round.

But here is my question: Gunga Din is actually not much based on “Gunga Din”. What is it based on/ripped off from? Partly Soldiers Three, I gather, but is that all of it?

And how is it that the Wikipedia page on Gunga Din omits to mention the Beatles’ Help (which is also very good, or at least not very bad) among its descendants?

Finally, we should note that “Gunga Din” gives this post its title, in a phrase that George MacDonald Fraser used for his memoirs of World War II—in case you thought he was funning you with Flashman’s value system, he wasn’t.

[Editor’s Note: Ben Alpers has returned for another foray into film history. Ben’s excellent book can be found here. Ben himself, looking very serious, can be found here. Unless he’s still abroad. Regardless, we are, as ever, grateful for his efforts.]

Sixty-nine years ago today, MGM’s The Wizard of Oz premiered at the Capitol Theater in New York. Like many major movie premieres of the day, this was a gala event. Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney provided live entertainment. Crowds had begun forming outside the theater at 5:30 in the morning. By the time the box office had opened at 8:00, police estimated that ten-thousand people were waiting to get into the 5,486-seat theater. “Two-hours later,” the New York Times reported, “the street queues, five and six abreast, extended from the box-office at Broadway and Fifty-first Street, west on Fifty-first Street, down Eighth Avenue to Fiftieth Street and east on Fiftieth Street back to Broadway.” About an hour later, the theater sent ticket sellers out into the crowd to help speed sales. Due to the enormous crowds, the Capitol presented five shows each weekday and six on Saturday and Sunday. Garland and Rooney continued to perform for over a week.

Today The Wizard of Oz is one of the most beloved films from one of Hollywood’s greatest years.(1) Gone with the Wind (which would win the Best Picture Oscar), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Stagecoach, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Dark Victory, and Young Mr. Lincoln were among the many other significant movies that appeared in 1939. Those of us who grew up in the late 1960s and early 1970s remember The Wizard of Oz as an annual television staple. Watching on my family’s small, black-and-white TV, I was totally unaware of the film’s central visual conceit: Kansas appears in sepia-tones, Oz in glorious (and innovative) Technicolor. Nevertheless, the movie captivated me….though as a young child I was scared to death of the flying monkeys!

But how was The Wizard of Oz received at the time of its initial release? Readers of this blog are doubtless aware of Henry Littlefield’s famous 1964 reading of the film’s source material, L. Frank Baum’s classic children’s tale The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), as a “parable of Populism,” an idea that was later elaborated by a variety of other scholars….until Michael Patrick Hearn pointed out that Baum had actually been a staunch McKinley supporter in 1896.(2) Did critics and audiences in 1939 see any hidden meanings in MGM’s film?

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