Academic journal article Teaching History: A Journal of Methods

Screening Early Modern in the Survey: Glimpses of Politics and Institutions through Film

Academic journal article Teaching History: A Journal of Methods

Screening Early Modern in the Survey: Glimpses of Politics and Institutions through Film

Article excerpt

Period films are as old as the industry itself and have been churned out in massive numbers, (1) Most are eminently forgettable. But there are exceptions. (2) This essay will argue, with reference to the early modern period, that some films do contain scenes with reasonably apt portrayals of politics and institutions. (3) These vignettes make for a useful teaching tool in surveys where, by definition, time is at a premium: Because they are short, they can be fitted easily to illustrate a point that has just been made (or is about to be made). They appeal particularly to students who identify themselves as "visual learners," and can leave on this constituency a more lasting imprint than assigned reading.

A prerequisite is that students must understand that most films are made with box office receipts in mind rather than the needs of the scholarly community, and that, consequently, the producers are likely to have taken liberties with the material. For their part, instructors must remember that filmmakers need to shoehorn their subject into a running time of somewhere between ninety minutes and two hours, and that accuracy and nuance may well be sacrificed to the time allotment. (4) These are, of course, not the constraints faced by academic authors, for whom accuracy must be both the first commandment and the minimum standard. Academic works are thus generally free of the canards, simplifications, and reductionism of so many films. But even purists concede that this does not guarantee accuracy in every respect: In monographs too, albeit for different reasons, the exact reconstruction of the past is only rarely possible, and the need to conjecture means that much history-writing in fact comes closer to the Italian adage "if it's not true, then it's well invented" than to Leopold von Ranke's admonition to reconstruct the past "as it actually happened."

In bygone days, when syllabi were scrutinized more for what they revealed about course content than for the breakdown of points assigned to quizzes and exams, reading assignments frequently were leavened with interpretative essays or an occasional novel. (5) It was not unusual to read a work by Stendhal or Fontane in an upper-division course on, respectively, nineteenth-century France or Germany, or to find All Quiet on the Western Front to be one of the assigned readings on the First World War in a survey. The exact reconstruction of detail mattered less to instructors than a novel's ability to stir the reader. For instance, Rubashov, the protagonist of Darkness at Noon, is a literary composite based on the lives of several first-generation Bolsheviks, but Darkness is valued by those instructors who assign it not because of biographical accuracy but because it captures so well a case of logic run amuck and pressed into the service of a totalitarian regime.

By analogy, moments from films can have similar merit. Just as novels can complement academic readings in the history classroom, movies can reinforce textbooks or monographs. By further analogy, the same method used by instructors to contextualize a literary work can be applied to evaluating a film and integrating it into the topic at hand.

Naturally, whatever meaning might be derived from a film scene--never mind the question what might or might not be screened--depends on the goals of the course. In the portion of my survey that deals with the early modern period, one objective is to establish these centuries as constituting a distinct era, demarcated at one end against medieval and, at the other, against modern. (The course, later on in the semester, goes on to characterize modern as rooted in a rebellion against the practices of early modern.) The course is heavily "political," and therefore the film segments discussed here are suited to draw attention to political structures and practices.

The politics of religion, constitutional politics, the Atlantic economy, and the warfare of the early modern era all stand out as distinctive. …

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