A history of European civilization in cinema lobby cards
“What then is, generally speaking, the truth of history? A fable agreed upon.”
In the 115 years since its more or less official birth, the cinema has managed in to document almost every year of human history that preceded it. Almost, since there must be a few gaps but they are short and sparse. Professional historians have tried to uncover some poorly documented eras and given up. The cinema colours in the spaces they leave blank. The professionals can despair that cinema distorts the picture but they have lost that fight. Imagine an authentic film about our Neolithic ancestors, sitting under the shade of acacias for days on end, staring out across the plain, not doing a great deal then dying around the age of thirty. If we followed dictates that historical films had to accurately describe our knowledge of the times, Jesus would be short and swarthy, the crusades would involve years of peaceful interaction punctuated by outbreaks of violence, Columbus would most likely be a Spanish mercenary and quite a lot, really, quite a lot of our great heroes would share their beds with young boys.
Historians shouldn’t complain too much. The cinema has given them a lot of work. Every time Hollywood makes a historical epic with some lantern jawed American playing a 15th century explorer or a leader of a slave rebellion, the experts are called out to explain some facts. Actually, we like the discrepancies. They give us something to discover. Pushed to some basic research on a character from a film, we find out their motives are more complex and often less honourable than the film depicted. What’s more, our hero didn’t tower over his enemies. He was short, fat and bald, drank too much, was pushed around by his wife and probably had no foresight into the effect his actions would have.
One day someone will curate an exhibition showing the entire history of the world based upon stills from films. It will be massive, approximately 3 500 images in chronological order and it will be controversial. The Sioux will complain that Sitting Bull looks suspiciously white, the Turks will point out that their Ottoman ancestors did not wear Roman armour but these are details. We will not be looking at an actual history from which we can understand something about the past; quite the opposite. It will promote ludicrous fictions, suggesting the young women of ancient Babylon had enormous breasts, their fathers wore fake beards. Physically we will all look much the same, the Saracen guard as muscle-bound as the Comanche warrior, the New York bank clerk as thin and effete as the Chinese wise man. Women first appeared dark haired and cunning. Civilization not only softened their natures, it lightened their hair.
The real achievement of the exhibition is that as we progress through we will be struck by how bizarre our ignorance is and when we leave, slightly exhausted by the size of the show, it will be the sense that no matter what disasters we have inflicted on ourselves, we’ve always looked good doing it. The photographs here, all lobby cards from the forties through to the seventies, are just a small sample of what will be on show.
|THE HISTORY OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION|