We’ve seen it before. “Punch it Chewie,” “No! We’re not interested in the hyperdrive on the Millenium Falcon, it’s fixed!,” the need for a hyperspace generator from Watto. Hyperspace. Lightspeed. It’s essential in nature, a basic concept allowing (or failing to allow) our travelers in a galaxy far, far, away to reach, depart, and journey to new destinations and worlds of wonder.
It’s tough to keep a show going after ten years. Scripts start getting creative. Having a helicopter land on someone’s head becomes normal (Oh ER, when are you going to end up on Netflix?), and you lose sight of who the characters are amidst the drama.
I started watching Grey’s Anatomy in the middle of season 3 and vowed to stop watching last year when Sandra Oh’s Cristina Yang departed.
Best. Laid. Plans. When the show premiered again this fall I was back, ready to hear of the happenings at Grey-Sloane Memorial Hospital including, spoiler alert, the introduction of yet another sister for Mer.
But this is not a post about Grey’s Anatomy. This is a post about diversity and storytelling from Shonda Rhimes the creator/writer of Grey’s, Private Practice, Scandal, and the executive producer of the new How to Get Away with Murder. Two weeks ago she gave an interview for the Smithsonian Associates at the National Museum of Natural History, and I thought what she had to say about diversity and storytelling was worth repeating.
Continue reading “Nobody Knows Where They Might End Up”
A storytelling mechanism that I love is one that uses altered realities to push characters toward an unintended and unexpected destination.For some, these altered realities are remembered as if in a dream, while for others it is a rift in time that only comes once a year.
Two weeks ago, I attended a pair of theatrical productions that used this mechanism to tell the tale. The first was a preview of The Shakespeare Theatre Company‘s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The second was the National Theatre of Scotland’s (whose Black Watch I reviewed earlier this year) The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart.
This is perhaps a post more about narrative than anything else. As I work on another story for May I am ruminating on how to pull together disparate pieces into something coherent and meaningful. And so for this post I thought I would take a look at methods of storytelling in film and theatre. Specifically, the role of the fourth wall in narrative.
The first is a look at the recent book turned into film The Hunger Games, followed by a reflection of a recent adaptation of Eugene O’Niell’s Strange Interlude at the Shakespeare Theatre in DC. Finally, I wanted to look at the role of participant theatre through my experience at the creepy, yet satisfying production, Sleep No More, a version of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
The Hunger Games
A story about a world controlled by violence where children are held hostage to a Capitol determined to hold society under their thumbs through an annual gladiator style rite called the Hunger Games. By now, most of you know about this series, and there isn’t much I can say about this book that hasn’t already been addressed by others….
- Do I see Katniss as a strong female character? Check. (Fangirl | NYT)
- Do I recognize the stories precedents in classics such as the Lottery and to some extent Lord of the Flies (and, yes, Battle Royale) Check.
- Do I see in the narrative a reflection of our obsessions with 24 hour news, and reality television? Check.
From a storytelling angle, I have to approach the book and the movie separately. The book looks to tell the story from one point of view. We only see and learn what Katniss understands, we know what she knows. It’s like looking at the history of a town or a place and using one person’s diary to tell the tale, sans broader political or social context. We know she is only a piece in a larger machine, but we don’t know what role she plays until later.
In the movie, this tale is approached from two or three different perspectives. We still have Katniss’ point of view—primarily in the arena, but we are also given information as a part of the viewing audience along with glimpses of the undercurrent of malevolence by President Snow and company. And here is where the fourth wall comes in (props to my friend Rob for bringing this up). In the film adaptation we’re pulled into the film primarily through the use of the “hand held (shaky) camera.” The fight scenes feel un-choreographed – and we are amidst the chaos, grappling for some purchase and an upper hand.
The fourth wall is a theatrical term that refers to the barrier between the audience and the events on the screen or stage. “Breaking through the fourth wall,” is when that audience is acknowledged directly, no longer invisible. While the Hunger Games film never directly acknowledges our presence, I did feel at times that the camera work, and the “reality” based storyline made us more than just an unwitting audience member – and made you think of how complicit we are, in our world, of feeding the unreality of reality television.
The story starts with a man talking about his daughter, Nina. Her fiancé has recently passed amidst the fighting of World War I, and her father worries that she will never rise up from her grief and sorrow.
Over the next 3 hours and 45 minutes (a shorter version of play that is normally almost over 4 hours, and often includes a dinner break) viewers are treated with a strange tale. One of grief, manipulation, love (can you call it love?) and expectation. This is Strange Interlude.
I’ll be honest, when we first heard how long it was my friends and I made an unofficial pact (one we probably would never have gone through with, because we aren’t really like that): if we hated the show we would bail during the first intermission.
Luckily that was never necessary. It’s hard to describe Nina Leeds. On one hand she is held up as someone who will not do what is expected, refusing to listen to her father or to an old family friend until pushed. On the other, she and most of the males in her life believe that happiness comes with marriage and children, a daunting task for someone who lives her life for her lost love. When she finally does wed, she discovers a hidden secret in her husband’s family that forces her to live her life dedicated to putting someone else’s happiness above her own.
I don’t want to give away the story (especially for those who may consider attending this show), but I wanted to look at two specific elements. In terms of set it’s a blank canvas. Three pale walls that take up only half of the stage at the Harmon Center for the Arts (the rest of the stage is dark). During scene breaks, scenes of the time/mood/tension are flashed on these walls through black and white silent films.
Much of what we learn about motivations and feeling come from regular asides from each of the main characters. An aside, for those who aren’t familiar with the term, is when a character steps out of the normal conversational dialogue to add….an aside, something only we can hear, but none of the other principal actors can. In Strange Interlude we glean sincerity and a version of reality (as each of them see it). Not quite the fourth wall, but certainly insight that we would not get if this was written as a straightforward play.
Sleep No More
She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word. —
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Picture this. You check in your bags, and receive your ticket – a playing card that leads you up some stairs and through a narrow dark passageway that transports you from there (Chelsea, New York City, New York) to here. You are told it is a hotel…the McKittrick Hotel, but it is also a speakeasy where suited up guides use breaks in the music to call out numbers for the much larger show. This is how we are herded, prepared for what is to come.
You get a mask, reminiscent of the masks from V for Vendetta but much more ghoulish, and are told to stop speaking. No cell phones. No outside communication at all. After all you are no longer there…you are here.
And up, up, we go and step beyond the realm of typical theatrics and into the show itself.
Have you ever watched a play and wondered what it would be like to walk on set, walk through doorways, and wander about fake libraries, dining rooms or battlefields? In the McKittrick that is what we get to do. On one floor we are wandering through a graveyard. Small crosses dotting a hallway that is nearly pitchblack. I can smell the dirt, and hear the sorrow. The graveyard turns into ruins, half built brick walls, with a statue of Jesus (or was it an angel?) raising their arms towards us. (Aside: This would have seemed less menacing had I not recently seen the “Don’t Blink” episodes of Dr. Who.) It’s a maze that ends in a wall of glass doorways, and peering through the frosted glass you are given a glimpse of a bedroom filled with other silent, masked attendees.
We walked through the glass and spotted the white, porcelain tub in the center of the room. Papers lay scattered about, and when you pick it up you see a familiar name. Macbeth, writing to his lady love.
And then, he walks in followed later by his wife – and though they never verbalize the conversation we figure out that this is the moment. When she convinces him that regicide is what he must do to achieve the throne.
Then we have a choice. To stay with the Lady, or to follow him as he runs to his fate. We stay, others go. We wait, knowing that when Macbeth returns he will have hands stained with blood. And so he does.
We are a part of the play. We are the silent observers to the madness. It is truly like stepping in, almost like a voyeur, into the play itself. The actors never really acknowledge our presence, but they react, dance and float. They fight and we are moved along with the motion, physically working to find out what comes next.
If anything comes close to truly breaking the fourth wall, this production by Punchdrunk (who champions this type of immersive theatre) does. In this play, Sleep No More, “Lines between space, performer and spectator are constantly shifting. Audiences are invited to rediscover the childlike excitement and anticipation of exploring the unknown and experience a real sense of adventure.” (www.sleepnomorenyc.com). The sets are meticulous, and successfully provide visitors with the opportunity to investigate, opening books, touching tables and wandering.
It is, however, not for the faint of heart. While I explored as much as possible, the silence is unnerving, at times frightening (especially when you are on the upper floor filled with signs of growing insanity by the inhabitants), and I was grateful to have my sister standing next to me.
Like Strange Interlude and The Hunger Games the fourth wall still exists, but it is transparent. While we cannot affect the outcome of the show, we are a part of it, and though you do not need to know the story of Macbeth, it helps to make connections and to understand motivations.
At the end of the night as we stepped from here to there—back into Chelsea, New York City, New York, and reality once again.
Sleep No More is currently being shown through the end of June 2012. For more information visit www.sleepnomorenyc.org.
There is a moment when you settle into your seats at a movie theater where you leave your sense of realism behind. You know that what you are about to see is a construction. A piecing together of someone else’s vision based on a nugget of an idea. For movies based on history that suspension of belief depends on how much you trust the writers, directors and the story you are being presented.
It’s all about interpretation, right?
One of the blogs that I read on a regular basis is called Interpreting Slave Life, which talks about the craft of telling the story of slavery. It is a tough job, requiring nuanced approach and a lot of thought. How can an interpretative approach demonstrate the complexity, the relationships? If you only have ten minutes with a group, what do you want them to walk away learning? The author, Nicole Moore takes the challenge head on and presents a nuanced approach in the telling.
That nuanced approach is also imperative when interpreting any period of history, and recently I’ve found myself looking at the differences between three narratives of Jim Crow. The first is an entirely fictional account of African American maids in Jackson, Mississippi, the second a recent action movie depicting the lives of the Tuskegee Airman, and finally a history text that narrates the migration of African Americans north during the same period. Each of these uses different storytelling tools (some more problematic than others) to convey the story of Jim Crow.
When putting together my “best of” list of books, movies etc., from this past year I put The Help in both the book and movie category. In terms of storytelling I found the narrative to be engaging—while also providing a glimpse into the day-to-day indignities to African American’s by Jim Crow.
But it’s not a perfect story—one that has garnered a lot of discussion and anger on a variety of viewers. The Association for Black Women’s Historians released a statement about the movie stating that The Help “distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers,” specifically that it resurrects the “mammy” stereotype, misrepresents dialect of African American culture and speech, and “limits racial injustice to individual acts of meanness” by “group of attractive, well dressed, society women.”
In contrast, an article in the New Republic by John McWhorter makes the argument that the movie sought by The Help’s critics “might make a kind of sense if American society were actually as resistant to acknowledging racism as we are so often told. One might see the film as a precious opportunity to introduce a forgotten story, and understandably wince to see the focus on living rooms rather than streets, women in the afternoon rather than Klansmen at night, and sprinklings of harmony in a story that should be about gunshots and fire hoses.”
Like any good historian, I recognize that bringing these stories to life often brings with it controversy, which is an important part of ensuring a dialogue, and making sure that no one version dominates the telling of this history. Part of why I found the story so effective was that it parsed down, to a granular level just how specific “separate but equal” became. That the very real danger of Jim Crow was that any given moment, the offense taken by whites in the south could be used as a reason for penalty—even if it was as non-violent losing your job, a consequence of incredible impact when opportunities for African American women were so hard to come by.
I do agree that there is also the problem of agency—that the narrative is on one level about a white woman reaching out to African American women asking them to tell their story rather than a group of African American women acting on it themselves. However, it remains compelling because of the way the book and movie acknowledges how the ugliness, the brutality, and the violence of a time barely fifty years past could have manifested itself in a more insidious nature—where many southern Americans were complicit in perpetuating a system of culture and fear, of power right down to the simple act of going to the restroom.
I had held off on putting together this post because I wanted to wait to see the Anthony Hemingway film (The Wire, Ali) Red Tails. I had heard about this move a few years ago, not because I wanted to learn more about the Tuskegee Airman (I had other avenues for that) but because of my interest in science fiction. As a Star Wars fan, I had read about George Lucas’ interest in having this film made and I recognized how powerful a film this could be with his backing.
The movie is alright. Not great, but good. As a film about fighter pilots it succeeds in drawing you in to the bravery and the difficulties of fighting against German jet planes. It succeeds in showing how the Tuskegee Airman proved themselves, breaking stereotype after stereotype, in a simplistic way. In interviews prior to its release Lucas stated that he wanted to make a movie that showed 14 year old boys want courage was.
But what about how it tells the story of Jim Crow? Like The Help it lacks grit (and as a friend said, if you go in expecting Saving Private Ryan, you’ll be disappointed). It is filmed in a style that feels almost nostalgic and romantic, trying to present the narrative of fighting for your country while being treated as second class citizens.
I think this is part of its difficulty. Where The Help looks at Jim Crow and successfully illustrates its dehumanizing nature, Red Tails (though taking place roughly twenty years earlier) takes it and reduces it to single lines, and single acts that are almost apart from the heroes that it affects.
Yes, the movie tries to show that these men are being underutilized; their skills are marginalized, placing them at an Italian air base where all they do is sit around waiting for the opportunity to do what they were trained for. Yes, it underscores, without any hint of subtly the poor equipment, the crappy supplies and ridiculous missions they were given.
But the moments of overt racism—a single line in a board room in the Pentagon, a use of the n-word in the “whites only” officers club, feel like an obvious attempt to point out racism rather than allowing it to flow seamlessly in the narrative. What the movie lacks, unfortunately is the context—the larger story of the Tuskegee Airman and how they were formed, which would have added further weight (in the movie) to the accomplishments of the 332nd Fighter Group.
One last thought, I recognize that the issues I had with the portrayal in Red Tails can be construed as an argument for the movie to stray away from the singular story that Lucas wanted to tell–the snapshot of the moment where the 332nd was able to prove themselves as more than what was expected of them (and in a modern sense, prove that a big budget action movie can be made with an all African American cast and still be successful). However, I think that as far as telling the (hi)story of Jim Crow it just misses the bull’s-eye.
The Warmth of Other Suns
A few months ago I had the opportunity to listen to Isabel Wilkerson give a speech at the National Preservation Conference in Buffalo, NY. A Pulitzer Prize winning author, Wilkerson wrote an incredible book about the great migration of African Americans from Jim Crow called The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.
Two weeks ago, on Martin Luther King Day (which I found apt) I finished the book, and thought that it offered a great counter point to the other two narratives discussed in this blog. Unlike the two movies (and book), this is a non-fiction, history book. However, simply calling it non-fiction belittles its impact, in that while being a history book, it is very much falls within the realm of popular history—one that tells the story of an important piece of American history in a real and engaging way.
In short, the great migration was a period of American history that started in roughly 1915 and lasted through to the conclusion of Jim Crow in the 1960s. By the 1970s over six million African American’s had left their homes for new cities in the North and the West, and for ten years Isabel Wilkerson sought out their stories becoming, as historian Jill Lepore states in her review “a one-woman W.P.A. project. Her research took more than ten years, and is not unlike another chunk of work done by the Federal Writers’ Project: documenting the history of slavery, before its memory faded altogether.”
What I want to focus on is how Wilkerson tells the hi(story) of Jim Crow. Over the scope of seventy plus years she takes us through the lives of three individuals: Robert Pershing Foster, George Swanson Starling , and Ida Mae Brandon Gladney. In a narrative format (as opposed to using the voice of historical authority) Wilkerson allows us into individual lives, while using other sections to pull us out to see the broader context. It is an effective method, making us feel how individual decisions led to different paths out of the South, while telling us about the migration on a grander scale at the same time.
She does not hesitate to show the differences. That for some the decision to leave was a culmination of years of indignity, while for others it was due to a specific threat and fear. In using the individual stories she is able to show the vileness of Jim Crow and how no one was immune to the terror it brought to the African-American community. In the same vein she uses the mechanism to show what happened after—from the struggle to make ends meet in the north (including that all was not rosy and perfect after migration), and that each person chose to fight racism in different ways.
This can be seen through the life of Robert Pershing Foster, a surgeon who was married the daughter of the President of Atlanta University who believed “to his way of thinking, the way to change things was to be better than anybody at whatever you did, wear them down with your brilliance, and enjoy the heck out of doing it. So he had no patience for these sit-in displays, at least for his daughters anyway, much less actual violence.” (Wilkerson, 410)
What is great about this book, that movies like The Help and Red Tails cannot do with their limited scope, is that it shows the effect of Jim Crow on American history. That “many black parents who left the South got the one thing they wanted just by leaving. Their children would have a chance to grow up free of Jim Crow and to be their fuller selves. It cannot be known what course the lives of people like Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, Michelle Obama, Jesse Owens, Joe Louis…and countless others might have taken had their parents or grandparents not participated in the great migration and raised in the North or West.” (Wilkerson, 535)
The other piece that I appreciated about the book was how she used quotations from African-American writers like Langston Hughes to frame each chapter’s discussion, to show how these people expressed themselves in song, in poetry, and through literature about the life they had left behind, and the new one they had come to embrace.
A lot of history books take the chronological approach, looking at a particular period of history through the eyes of many individual stories that are illustrations of a broader historical narrative. In choosing to use three specific stories, ones that she chose for the three “paths” taken by African-Americans to escape the south, you feel more connected, and are able to understand more about why Pershing, Starling, and Gladney chose the road they took.
Near the end of her book Isabelle Wilkerson states that the Great Migration was “if nothing else, an affirmation of the power of an individual decision, however powerless the individual might appear on the surface. “In the simple process of walking away one by one,” wrote the scholar Lawrence R. Rodgers, “millions of African-American southerners have altered the course of their own, and of all America’s, history.” (Wilkerson, 538)
I also believe strongly that even though some of these narratives miss the mark more than others, that these stories need to continue to be told in a popular mediums, to urge public dialogue and conversations about race in America in a very real way.
Articles of Interest
Also see: The Tuskegee Airman (HBO/PBS)
The Warmth of Other Suns
Suspended from the ceiling
A map filled with arts
Dancing over a wheel, a chakra
Calling for virtue from the people.
And at the crowded, energetic stage
Sounds of Rajasthan flow into the melody of the violin
Embrace the dance styling of Punjabi rhythm
Din. Dinaka. Din Din. Dinaka. Din Din.
The art, the dance, the music, the film
All merge together amidst the written word
Imagining the city, embracing the politics
Tagore debates Gandhi
Margins and Majority on the silver screen
India is more than just the sum of its arts
More than a saffron-colored sari, or an exotic smell
But for a short while there is a glimpse,
An attempt to encompass, to gather, to embrace
India at the Max.
I recently spent the first part of March attending a bunch of events for Maximum India. Today I published a review at the Smithsonian Homespun blog. Unlike the literature panel I wrote about last week, this time I tried to take a broader view of the entire festival as a whole–looking at the music, art, dance and what it told us about India and identity. So stop by the Homespun blog–if you saw part of the festival, let us know what you thought.
I am maxed out.
For the last twenty days the Kennedy Center in Washington DC has put on a vision of India. A vision filled with art, music, politics, literature–a vision filled with noise and texture and soul. Maximum India looked to grasp an idea of Indian culture and bring it to the United States. On Friday I attended my last event (though the last of the festival will be a free performance by Panjabi MC) a literature panel with Salman Rushdie and Nayantara Sahgal. The first is the author of Midnight’s Children (an RPSNE book club book) and is known for his incredible use of the English language, while Sahgal, an author in her own right, is known for setting her books against the backdrop of change in the South Asian subcontinent–in addition to being the niece of India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Ahdaf Soueif, a political and cultural commentator, moderated the panel.
So the discussion kicked off with a question to each of the panelists about why their work in literature is suffused with discussions of politics. The short answer? Writing is a form of resistance. That the written word proves that identity is not a collection of stereotypes, but rather what you want it to be. Each looked to their generation, Saghal of the revolutionary, and Rushdie from a transitional India, and found separating what happened around them from what happened at home was unfathomable. For both writing involved an element of the public and the private –and that the only way to make sense of change, to reconcile that change with the vision of India the republic, one had to integrate narratives from the personal and political.
Sometimes dealing with current events, sometimes a lively exercise in humor this lecture touched upon some serious ideas. I was drawn to, as I usually am, to the conversation about language. Rushdie, after being complimented on his lack of “respect” for the English language and his ability to embrace its malleability, spoke of how this malleability makes writing about India in English possible. That he had to find a way to break down the “cool, quiet, formal” English of the British Raj to be compatible with the “hot, noisy cacophony” of languages from India. He said that he wanted to “take English away from the English.”
He wants to push language towards the joyful. Hear. Hear.
This thought, amidst the many other topics from this lecture, inspires me. The way we speak to one another, the way we articulate reactions and actions on the familial, local, regional, national and global stage says much about who you are, who we are, who I am. That politics and literature define these identities and often are linked together to tell the stories that official history neglects to tell.
Naturally, this part of the conversation led to the question re: who owns the narrative? Who owns the past? What perspective is the most valid? A subject near and dear to every historians heart–and it is acknowledged that the closer you are to the event/situation the harder it is to see beyond your blinders. Writing in the moment has some value, but taking a step back (that is an act of time mores so than a physical taking a step back) can bring details into focus that you wouldn’t see otherwise.
An obvious assertion, one that I’ve heard a few times in a few different places. Distance and time bring truths closer to the one reality. For literature that is deeply rooted in the larger public narrative of the place in which it is set, that distance and time makes a story stronger, more reliable, more resonant….
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints in the sands of time
Last September during my trip to India I found myself in conversation with my aunt, a former principal and history teacher. We talked about our favorite periods in history (mine: colonial America and the Napoleonic era), and those moments of inspiration when everything clicked. There was also the discussion about current events, and how we can see glimpses of past actions in our current situations (with the nod to complexity).
We also discovered our mutual love for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow–more specifically the Pslam of Life.
TELL me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream ! —
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.
The poem talks about living life to the fullest, that even though each life ended in death, our goal should not include blindly walking towards the end, without fully making our mark, without placing our footprints in the sand…
Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again
She gave me a list of her other favorite poems (If, by Kipling; The Mountain and the Squirrel, Emerson; Wander-Thirst by Gould; Cargoes by Masefield; and a childhood love-the Charge of the Light Brigade by Lord Tennyson), and with each one I was struck by the incredible imagery that invoked times past.
Like the poem Cargoes by John Masefield which talks of Stately Spanish galleon’s that drip through the tropics by the palm-green shores, and how it is juxtaposed with a Quinquirme of Nineveh from distant Ophir or the Dirty British coaster with a slat-caked smoke stack.
When we write about the past nothing expresses the feeling of the moment than a quotation from someone who was, well, in the moment–but poetry can capture another perspective. Often invoking high emotion it reveals how bystanders react to events around them–as in The Charge of the Light Brigade. Written in honor of a cavalry of British Forces during the Crimean War (1854-1856) that charged opposition forces had casualties of 247 out of 637. “The Noble Six Hundred” they were called–and to this day–their acts are memorialized in a poem read by students all across the world.
When can their glory fade?
O the wilde charge they made!
All the world wonder’d
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade
Noble six hundred
…and just because I love it so. Here is Wander-Thirst by Gerald Gould
Beyond the east the sunrise; Beyond the west the sea
And East and West the Wander-Thirst that will not let me be;
It works in me like madness to bid me say goodbye,
For the seas call, and the stars call, and oh! The call of the sky!
I know not where the white road runs, nor what the blue hills are,
But a man can have the sun for friend, and for his guide, a star;
And there’s no end to voyaging when once the voice is heard,
For the rivers call, and the road calls, and oh! The call of a bird!
Yonder the long horizon lies, and there by night and day
The old ships draw to home again, the young ships sail away
And come I may, but go I must, and if men ask you why,
You may put the blame on the stars and the sun,
And the white road and the sky.
Some off-site blog posts
I am a sucker for a good book, especially stories that are steeped in their own…history. There is one part of me that lives firmly ensconced in reality where I constantly think about our own past and its public component, but then there’s this other half that becomes engrossed at made-up worlds and marvels at how writers are able to create complete visions filled with music, art, and culture all through the written word. And when that vision integrates a mythology with heroes and morals like our Greek/Roman/Etruscan/Hindu myths it is all the more fantastic.
When those books end up on the big screen, I find myself thinking about how the director’s imagination measures up (of course, no movie is ever quite as satisfying as a book for me). That being said when the first part of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out I was floored.
I’m not the most critical movie watcher. Generally, I’ll always try to find a reason to justify sitting in the theater for 2.5 hours (Though Avatar, the 3D is the only thing that saved you.) Anyway…when I saw Harry Potter 7 (Part 1) a few weeks ago I realized that the strength in the narrative came from J.K. Rowling’s ability to create a wholly believable world. When reading the books the reader is bombarded with the tools of the historical trade to tell the story–and each step hearkens back to something that had been prophesied not only when Harry Potter was a young boy, but even further back through the veil of mythology.
What are some of the key primary sources we use in writing about the past? Objects, written sources, art, music. Material culture includes things like jewelery, funerary objects, items from everyday life that ultimately create meaning for an individual, a community and a nation. In terms of the written word we look to the text in the form of diaries, newspapers, and books for contextual clues.
So in order to understand the wizarding world of Harry Potter we are pulling from the stories told in the last six books, but Rowling also pulled together tools of historiography to tell her story.
In terms of material culture we have the standard trappings of the witch or wizard, but more specifically there are the Horcruxes–magical objects that hold individual pieces of Voldemort’s soul, objects that hold an overarching meaning for him due to their connection with his own mangled past with Hogwarts. Then we have pieces from Harry’s own past–a golden snitch which holds his key to survival, the diary of Tom Riddle, and the three Deathly Hallows.
Of course this final chapter of the Harry Potter saga is not bereft of textual sources. Dumbledore’s last will and testament plays a role in setting the three on their journey, not to mention the actual gift to Hermione–The Tales of the Beedle the Bard which adds yet another rich layer to the world. Then we have the book written by Rita Skeeter, which uses (albeit doctored) oral history from Bathilda Bagshot to put together Dumbledore’s past connections to Grindlewald a history that is also told by Elphias Doge. Competing sources of the past, both with kernels of information that are hidden by the other individuals bias. To some extent the last Harry Potter book finds Harry, Ron and Hermione playing the historian and try to suss out the means to destroy Voldemort in the end.
I think one of the additional strengths of the story, and why it resonates with some many, is how it emphasizes the importance of place and that subsequent connection to a community, family, and a people. I know that the sadness I felt (both in the book and the film version) of going back to Godric’s Hollow is directly related to knowing the ‘historical’ moment that happened there. I loved how in the book at the home of Harry’s birth there is a monument to the sacrifice–and how those pilgrims have written of their connection to the events that occurred there. This isn’t all that different to the writings at Abby Road near the Beatles studio, or the guest books at any major historical site around the world. Good fiction, often makes connections to reality. (As an aside, I also love how cemetery markers provided Hermione with a clue re: the Hallows. As a primary source, gravestones can tell you a lot about the people who lived there).
As I mentioned, part of the reason my blogging has been slow the last few months is because of my participation in National Novel Writing Month. I tried to integrate some of my favorite things about history (material culture, landscape analysis, and mythology) with a kernel of a story. While I’m not sure about how successful I ended up being (while I hit 50k words, the book isn’t done) I did gain a new appreciation for J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, Orson Scott Card, and of course J.K. Rowling. I definitely recognized that history isn’t just about revealing fragments of the past, but about trying to engage with and embrace the whole story–in the fictional and non-fictional realm.
On a side note, here is my work blog post from PreservationNation.org. If you didn’t know already the Historic American Landscape Survey turned ten this year. I also took a trip to Baltimore to learn more about preservation efforts by Baltimore Heritage, Inc.
I thought I needed a post that sort of cleaned out the attic. Something that talked about all the little random things that I’ve been thinking about in the last two weeks, but don’t really fit into a larger post.
All’s Well That Ends…..
Meh. Well, that’s not being entirely fair. As usual the Shakespeare Theatre Company did not disappoint. Beautiful set, great acting, however I do think I may have found a Shakespeare play I didn’t love. At first glance the show seems to turn the usual Shakespeare woman on her head–Helena is forward, a little bit manipulative-while Bertram is weak and less…realistic (as loosely as the term may be applied). An argument can be made that my dislike is grounded in the fact that this is one tale of the Bard’s that I have never read, but there was something about the way Bertram had to be tricked into loving Helena that just seemed wrong.
But I guess I’m looking at it from a “today” perspective–but apparently in Shakespeare’s own lifetime it was not well received due to the break from the expected “role” of a woman of Helena’s class–and maybe that is what makes this typical Shakespeare. Changing role’s, identity switches, all a commentary on established norms of the time. Maybe, but I don’t buy Bertram’s one line switch from hate to adoration for his wife–just because she managed to fulfill the two impossible conditions he had put before her (get his family ring, and have his child).
On a random note I was listening to this episode of Radio Lab and was surprised to find out how many words and phrases that are now part of day-to-day speech that are all a part of Shakespearean Lexicon. Cool.
So my dad taped two segments of the CBS show 60 Minutes for me from this past week. The first was on the archaeological dig at what is believed to be the City of David in Jerusalem. In short, the story was about the meaning of the City of David to the Jews in the city, and how the current political situation and peace talks will effect the dig. The story also emphasized the difficulty and the role of the past in the identities of the Jewish and Arab people in that region–along with the volatility of the conflict between settlers and the Palestinians. As I’ve said over, and over, that the connection of people to history is alive and well–and you could see the passion for that history in the eyes of both sides in the dispute.
The second story was a detective story surrounding an 11 minute reel of film that depicts the trolly ride down Market Street in San Francisco. What’s remarkable about the story, aside from seeing all the pieces come together, was just how a film historian pinpointed the date of the film by looking at the water on the ground, the construction levels of the building–the license plates on the cars in each frame to narrow the time frame of the film down to early April 1906. Having just been to San Francisco I knew the meaning of this date before the story actually told us–that just days after this film was shot the city, this street, was destroyed by the earthquake and subsequent fire. What this segment really illustrated for me was just how a piece of the past, an object or a filmstrip can evoke wonder and awe–especially when that last connection is made, that glimpse pack to a past on the brink of catastrophe, a world that would no longer exist in the same way again.
Then there was this week’s episode of How I Met Your Mother entitled “Architect of Destruction.” The episode as a whole was hilarious, as usual, but the storyline that dealt with the destruction of a New York City landmark hotel (that had fallen to hard times) with a new construction (though well designed) bank building. I hated how the one who wanted to protect the building was depicted as a crazy activist loon, and that the idea of incorporating the existing structure into the design was merely a ploy for Ted to get the girl…and when he couldn’t he didn’t consider it worth his time. I know, I know its a sitcom and shouldn’t be taken seriously, but really?
Not to mention that during the whole episode no one used the words historic preservation even once. Food for thought.
NaNoWriMo: The Future of History
So this year I am participating in National Novel Writing Month for the second time. Unlike last year where I jumped into the process on November 1 with no planning, I’ve been thinking about what I want this year’s project to be about. It’s a bit complex (translation–not completely formed) so I won’t bore you with details, but I am aiming to mix my two loves science-fiction/fantasy and history and am looking for ideas for what futuristic historical tools might look like. One of my characters is a sort of an archaeological detective, and is trying to suss out the past using updated digital versions of what we use in the historical trade. For example–archaeologists look at stratigraphy as one way of dating the objects they find in the ground–would a future version of dating a midden, or a series of objects be as simple as a fast, instant scan? Is it going to be about getting information faster, or would it be a flashier version of ground penetrating radar–just dressed up differently? Anyway–just looking for some ideas from fellow historians to kick off the brainstorming.
Note: In the next week I’ll be at the National Preservation Conference in Austin, Texas. Check out the virtual attendee page to keep track of what’s going on, and check back on the blog to see what I’m up to!