When your scribe comes across an interesting ditty in the popular press, he's always keen for a peek. Such was the case with Christopher Hitchens' diatribe about the irrelevance of history to Americans that appears in this month's Harper's. The same month brought us the most hyped post-Cold War space launch and two powerful historical dramas, Beloved and Life is Beautiful.
Hitchens' premise is that history, being a complex and contentious construction of unsavory evidence, doesn't go down as smoothly as myth. When it comes to history, the books are cooked to offend no one, especially not Lady Liberty and her brood of jingoistic tots. This John Glenn PR stunt trades on the nostalgia we have for The Right Stuff (1983), when going into space meant sticking it to satanic Russia and thus winning a few points with God.
In short, we fall back on "official records" because it's so damn hard to agree upon who can say what about whose history. Watching Beloved, all three hours of it, one marvels at the audacity of the convoluted plot, rendered in a muted trippiness reminiscent of The Piano (1993). Normally when we think of magic realism, our minds are all aflutter with the exotic palms of South America. We accept the style up front as an allegory for the often wild confluence of individual experience and historical forces. Films like Erendira (1983) or Doña Flor and Her Two Husbands (1978) offer a pleasure of viewing that comes not just from the elliptic surface narratives, but the suspicion that something more meaningful, more exotic lurks below.
Beloved, then, is a film that makes the exotic familiar. The horrors of slavery, in traditional historic terms, have never been framed from the black female experience vis-à-vis the importance of magic, superstition and dreams in the African tribal culture from which the slaves were uprooted. Central to that experience is the bewitching power of memory to torment and then to heal. The fact that a white gent, Jonathan Demme, directed the film seems unimportant. He appears as a minor figure, merely the stylistic conduit for the spiritual content of Toni Morrison's story and Oprah's vision. Beloved is an intensely private story with huge historical resonance.
Far more problematic have been Steven Spielberg's fearless and somewhat foolhardy attempts to bring black historical narratives to the silver screen. Spielberg makes big pictures emboldened with his big imprimatur, and it's that iconography that has brought down some serious heat. Put simply, The Color Purple (1985) and Amistad (1997) lack the subtle allegorical distancing device contained in Beloved that might have gotten Spielberg a free pass from the PC police. In their eyes, only when he tackled material having to do with his "own people" was he on safe ground.
This ghettoization of historical discourse is symptomatic of a collective reluctance to face the unhappy music that other people's facts play for us. The difficult questions of history indict us when we choose to be willfully ignorant of them. Or worse, take what we want from evidence and disregard the rest.
Schindler's List (1993), to its credit, tries to preach beyond the converted of the Jewish community. It rode on the coattails of the NBC series "Holocaust," which in turn was a response to the monster effects of ABC's "Roots" among black Americans.
Holocaust deniers and KKK bigots get their jollies not because they believe they're right. Rather, they know they can maliciously tease the shit out of Jews and blacks by going after their awful histories and what those histories mean to their descendants.
That said, what are we to make of Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful? Once you've sat through Shoah (1985) or Hotel Terminus (1988) or Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), even a cynical goy reprobate such as myself would be disinclined to find much mirth in a Charlie Chaplinesque take on concentration camps. But if one thinks for longer than it takes to work up a pique, Benigni raises some interesting questions about the necessarily contentious and terminally unfinished business of history. The idea of protecting a young lad from the horrors of the camp by telling him it's all a game of mirrors, albeit in extreme, parallels the illusions we spin for ourselves every day to ward off despair or doubt. To endure, one requires hope, a faith in the power of illusions to give meaning to life. Winners of this game are not just survivors in body (i.e. those who lived) but in spirit (those who died still hoping).
If people no longer read books, where do they go for their history? Oliver Stone knows: the cinema. Say what you will about him, but Ollie has followed his convictions all the way from JFK's assassination to the legacy of Nixon. If only he was less sanctimonious, viewers might be more inclined to appreciate his healthy skepticism about the official record, written by people who know a country full of suckers when they see it.