Sunday, November 8, 2009

Thru Fragments of Cinema: History

The achievement of HBO’s miniseries John Adams is a visual one.

History can be difficult to portray on film. Too often what you get on screen is a display of technical prowess with characters that feel like toy soldiers and overdressed dolls.

On the other end of the spectrum is a backlash to this style – a sort of post-modern historical drama – which thrives by accentuating those aspects that are more likely to click with the modern mind. Most notably these include Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, Romeo + Juliet, and 300, all of which received mediocre critical reviews despite strong box office performances.


Both styles – at their best – provide escapist entertainment, as powerful and fun as the made-up worlds of Lord of the Rings or Star Wars. But what makes this discussion about more than just aesthetics is the fact that these historical worlds actually existed. Their big-screen portrayals represent overlapping ways of looking back in time: That of immersing oneself in the past and understanding it from their perspective; and that of pulling distinctly modern lessons out of the past.


The more traditional approach – deemed period pieces, costume dramas – take a prim and proper Jane Austin-like approach, with the tension emerging out of a patient, slow, and literary restraint. But what often limits these films is the director's inability to use more modern elements of filmmaking.

Another part of the problem is that, not only were many past societies more formal than the present, but our hindsight of them is crystallized as well. Once again, this reflects our inherent view of history as setting the seeds for today. As Henry VIII narrates in the opening to Showtime's The Tudors, we know how the story ends; the interest is in how it got there.


The modern approach is often criticized for looking like a long music video. Critics, for instance, dismissed the use of songs by The Cure and Air in Marie Antoinette. But isn’t there something artificial about watching a period drama in a movie theater anyway? Mood music – be it pop, classical, or ambient – never existed in the real world to begin with, and neither did quick cuts or long takes.

Regardless of which style you prefer, the contrast betrays the value – and slight contradiction – of looking at history in the first place: That it is in the context of the past; that it is being scrutinized with a modern mind; and that it is informing a modern world.


I’ve recently been taking great joy in reading Paul Johnson’s History of the American People. Johnson capriciously flips between narrating the story of America and stepping out to discuss parallels to modern times. Afterall, it’s worthless – perhaps impossible – to analyze and not interpret. Interpretation without analysis, however, often comes off as empty opinion. The mix one employs is a choice of style, rhetoric, and taste, and it can make or break a non-fictional account.


I’ve come to enjoy learning about history. In one sense, historical accounts make me feel lucky to be alive today, that I’m able to look back on such a rich history of man to take it in, as if I were sitting on a tall royal throne with the entirety of history at my disposal to learn from and hone my decisions. On the other hand it imbues me with a strong sense of humility that so many chapters of mankind have yet to be written, and that future generations will look back on our time with the same sort of curiosity, attention to detail, and awkwardness as Sofia Coppola looked back at Marie Antoinette. It reminds me of Pascal’s sentiment of being stuck between two infinite abysses.

In this context, HBO’s John Adams takes an alternate approach in which it is true to the details of the time –costumes, architecture, dialect, mannerisms, and all – while subtly eschewing the neat toy doll-look of films that do the same. It largely accomplishes this through a cinematography style that favors slanted planes and off-angles. The Constitutional Convention is held in an orderly wooden house with period furniture and right angles, but it is shot from an angular perspective, with camera tilted on tripod, to the point where it almost makes you seasick while remaining tasteful nonetheless. The characters, speeches, and passions seem set in time – they are just as what one might expect – but the visual style goes to length to remind the viewer that from their perspective, the future, along with its stakes, was just as unpredictable – if not moreso – as it’s ever been.


Media (in order of appearance)

Photo: (1)Poster of John Adams, HBO Miniseries; (2)Shot from 1988 film, Dangerous Liaisons; (3)Poster from 2006 film, Marie Antoinette; (4)Seeeking Solace, 11/28/2009, anjan58.

Video: (1)MaKn channel, Opening to Showtime's The Tudors; (2)jaa2010 channel, Trailer for HBO's John Adams.
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