I learned it at the movies

This is a post about history at the movies– how we learn stuff from them and what kinds of stuff we should be looking for. It’s not exactly news that that’s where a lot of history is learned these days, but what exactly happens when it is? What do we even want to happen? That’s mostly what I’ll talk about here. We’ll save the question of what actually happens for another time.

But before I get to that, I want to say a little about the example that got me thinking about these questions in the first place. Because one of my points is going to be, we don’t actually learn from “the movies”– we learn from specific movies, in very specific ways; some of them good, some of them terrible, none of them easily summed up.

My example is Federico Fellini’s 1960 La Dolce Vita, which my friend and I saw about ten days ago. (You can get her fantastic take on it here.) It’s one of those official Euro-culture icons, and even if you haven’t seen it, you’ve probably got souvenirs from it stuck in your head. For one thing, the word paperazzi got its start there (it’s used in the singular, Paperazzo, as the nickname for a photo-journalist character); and then there’s the scene where a blonde bombshell actress cavorts in a Roman fountain– if you’re over a certain age, you’ve probably at least seen photos of that.

The movie had a dynamite effect on me, which in itself is pretty amazing. I mean, I’d already seen it two or three times before, it’s fifty-five years old, and it deals with people who are really hard to like, or even care about. Plus there’s not much of a plot, it lasts three-plus hours, and the music track is primitive and irritating. Even so, it seemed to hit everyone else in the audience just as hard as it did me. The showing was in a big, crowded theater, but there was total silence start to finish.

Partly that’s just because Fellini was such a genius, the kind of guy who could turn out a string of Euro-culture icons. There’s also the impact of the movie’s main messages, which are some not-very-cheery reflections on the hopelessness of love, sex, culture, pleasure, money, and pretty much everything else. (We may or may not be meant to think things were better before the modern age.) As readers here may have picked up, I’m kind of a sucker for extremist, take-no-prisoners arguments; it’s why I go for writers like Arendt, de Beauvoir, and Marx, and La Dolce Vita is take-no-prisoners all the way. By comparison, Fellini’s later movies are utopian idyls.

But a lot of what wowed me in the movie was background stuff, none of it central to the story, a lot of it trivial and only on the screen for a few seconds. For instance, Americans keep popping up, for no obvious reasons, and American cars are everywhere. Both the people and the cars are big, beautiful, and glossy. They look completely different from the Italian characters, on whom they exert a magnetic appeal, but they also carry a real hint of menace. The Americans and their cars are dangerous and violent, and then they’re just so much bigger than everyone else.

There’s also a weird fixation on buildings and building projects. We see a certain number of beautiful old Roman palaces and nearby villas, but also a lot of the new urban developments that were going up everywhere in 1950s Europe. You start to wonder why so many scenes are set in half-built, ugly apartment complexes, with the bulldozing equipment still scattered around.

And then there’s the petty violence– a window smashed, a few gangsterish threats, a crowd of people pushing and shoving. Real violence comes up just a few times, but the possibility seems to be lurking everywhere, and not just from the gangsterish types. Everyone’s on edge and ready to do something crazy.

So what’s a historian supposed to do with all this?

I don’t think you learn much from the main plot. Ok, it’s probably true that around 1960, lots of rich jerks were having noisy parties and feeling the meaninglessness of life, but that doesn’t get you very far– haven’t rich jerks always been having noisy parties and feeling blue? What the movie shows about the 1950s media is more interesting– in the movie celebrity chasing is already going strong, and the tabloids are ready to make stories out of absolutely everyone’s suffering. That’s good to know, but the movie is so keen on its message, it’s not all that great as history.

So to me the really interesting stuff is around the edges, in the weirdness that pops up without explanation: cars, minor acts of trivial violence, buildings, beefy Americans, and so on. That’s the kind of thing I think you need to understand what the world was actually like in 1960, and I’m not sure where else you’d get it. I mean, sure, you can read some 1960s European intellectuals worrying about “the American challenge,” how American business technique was taking over the world, all that kind of thing.

But that’s not going to tell you the kind of things the movie tells you– namely, that at that moment America seemed sexy, frightening, abusive, stupid, omnipresent, and big all at once, in ways nobody could quite deal with. Ditto for things like the urban landscape as the movie shows it, or the sense of physical unease so many people seem to show, or the special quality of anxiety that seems to run through the movie’s version of 1960 life

So my line is, yes, we really do learn history from the movies, and there are some things we can’t learn any other way. But the other side of that is, we learn from the movies the same way we learn from anything else: that is, with close reading of the details, and a readiness not to just go with the surface messages. In a weird way, that’s good news. It means that the new world of video-based knowledge isn’t actually as remote from the old world of humanistic scholarship as we might have feared.