Past Imperfect History According to the Movies was one my first film books that I read. I liked it well enough as someone who’s always been interested in history and has thought about being a history minor. HattM is a collection of reviews of about 75 movies on 61 topics, some things like World War 1 and 2 have multiple films discussed. I would recommend this book to any film fan, even some of the more seasoned vets. Not because it will be some revelation, but because people often don’t analyze movies from a historical perspective.
The only reason I can’t love this book whole-heartedly is the same reason I do enjoy it as much as I do, it was written by vast array of historians. This obviously hurts and helps the book, as it does almost every book that has multiple authors, because there isn’t a single writing or reviewing style that is consistent throughout and some can be nit picky in their analysis. But it is always nice to see people who may specialize in one area so they may enlighten in a way someone with a more general perspective may not. The book is largely based in United States history, though it does deviant in the beginning of the book with reviews of The Ten Commandments, Caesar, and Spartacus for example. I would have preferred it either decide to be broader throughout or just stay within the US history framework; I did enjoy many of the non-US reviews however.
The best reviews, as with the best films, in the book are those that focus not on a specific event or person, but rather an event or film from an era. The sections about Joan of Arc and Malcolm X being notable exceptions for myself. Two of the standout films that I didn’t know about prior to reading this book were Hester Street and Tea & Sympathy. Hester Street being a film about Jewish immigration and assimilation into American culture beginning in about 1900. A far too untold aspect of American history, for all Europeans and Jews specifically, this is a “gem of a film” to use a cliché. Simple and honest in execution that doesn’t try to go for melodrama or tug at the heart-strings. The most surprising aspect of the film to me was the fact that it was directed by a woman (Joan Micklin Silver) back in 1975. We’re still in a struggle to get women’s vision behind the camera. Tea & Sympathy (based on a play of the same name) is a film about a maybe homosexual or just effeminate heterosexual having trouble fitting it at a boy’s prep school. It’s interesting that in even now the things he enjoyed doing would still lead to confusion today about whether or not Tom (protagonist) is a homosexual. He’s a fan of classical music, can sew, reads books, goes to the theatre and can easily converse with those of the opposite sex. Even today one’s ease to have a legitimate conversation with a female is questioned. It’s a shame that masculinity, in America, is usually defined by boorish characteristics and anti-intellectualism if it isn’t incorporated into one’s “game”. Being that it was filmed during the 50s, there are no overt references to homosexuality and instead the word “sissy” is used to evoke the same thing.
The standout review in the book to me is Malcolm X. I wasn’t a fan of the movie having read the book (THE WHOLE BOOK) and being actually aware of Malcolm’s attempts post Nation of Islam to come to terms with working with whites towards a more successful union of racial harmony. The movie completely undermines this be conforming to Hollywood fascination about bad guys and the “ethnocentric” part of the black community’s fascination with his militancy. This undermines not only his evolution as a human being during the final years of his life, but who he was as human being as whole. Removes the many layers to who he ones to cater to the lowest common denominator. I believe the book puts it better than I could.
The film’s Malcolm becomes, like the filmmaker himself, a social critic rather than a political insurgent. Malcolm helped to create his own myth during a period when fundamental political change seemed feasible. Spike Lee has revised Malcolm’s myth for a time when political cynicism prevails. Malcolm X thus reflects the current tendency in African-American life to supplant politics with attitude–that is, to express diffuse racial resentment than to engage in collective action to achieve racial advancement.-Clayborne Carson
The book ends with an interview with Oliver Stone. I’m not a big fan of Oliver Stone and his political/historical driven movies. Not because I don’t believe in all the facts not being presented to readers in the vast majority of history that we’re fed via The History Channel, school, news, etc. it just that Oliver Stone is far too didactic with his movies. His heart may be in the right place when making a film, he recently filmed a documentary about Latin American governments and did all but perform fellatio on that insane ruler of Venezuela. Take his JFK movie for example which attempts to say that there was something fishy about the entire situation, and there was. Unfortunately, he changes all the actual situations about the shooting to fit his agenda. Or in Platoon where he basically makes everyone either a philosophical pot smoker anti-war soldier or an alcoholic gung-ho kill of the yellow people soldier. I understand and greatly appreciate the desire to put a different hue on history outside of the winner’s circle; however, if you truly care to attempt to make your audience if not at least more educated, but to at least question the event, than you owe to yourself to not go to the opposite extreme where you present yourself as crazed and undereducated. I would advise Oliver Stone to read A People’s History for a lesson in doing what he attempts to do in movies properly.