The following messages originally appeared on the mailing list for the
American Society for Environmental History (ASEH).
From: "James G. Lewis"
To: Multiple recipients of list
Subject: Re: environmental films
X-Listprocessor-Version: 6.0c -- ListProcessor by Anastasios Kotsikonas
On Tue, 19 Dec 1995, HAL ROTHMAN wrote:
> I regularly use both *Wild by Law* and *The Wilderness Idea,* but have
> significant problems with the presentation of the history of conservation,
> preservation, and environmentalism in both. My objectives to *Wild by
> Law* can be found in the review I wrote of it in EHR in 1990 (I don't have
> the exact cite handy [*Environmental History Review* (Summer 1990): pp. 109-11 --ed.]); they stem from the patronizing treatment of Bob
> Marshall and the hagiographic view of Zahniser and Leopold presented by
> their children. Added to the linear view of history--the"inevitability" of
> the eventual passage of the act and the limited context provided makes
> for a film that reflects the biases of the filmmakers more than the
> historical context of the passage and meaning of the Wilderness Act.
> *The Wilderness Idea* has the same kinds of problems. Listen to the tone
> of voice used to describe Pinchot and the saint-like treatment of Muir.
> Listen to Rod Nash describe John Raker as presenting the National Park
> Service Act to Congress as his atonement for supporting the Hetch-Hetchy
> bill. Closer scrutiny reveals that Raker saw both these as "good"--at
> H-H he weighed the value of a public water supply--a prime Prog. Era
> goal--against a beautiful valley and the water supply won. With the NPS
> Act, he saw an opportunity to achieve another Prog. Era "good"
> stewardship and regulation of public resources. Instead Nash offers a
> view of good and evil and the filmmakers buy into it--despite far more
> cogent comments from Bill Cronon--who points out that Pinchot saved a lot more
> wilderness than Muir ever did--and Michael Cohen, who describes in detail
> Muir's family -induced fundamentalism and rigidity (for details, Michael's
> The Pathless Way is marvelous as is Dennis Williams' diss.--see his recent
> comments on religion to the list). Again we get a bias against
> Pinchot--like Marshall, born wealthy, in favor of Muir. Its as if the
> filmmakers hold the privileges of their birthagainst them and use this
> status to taint the portrait of both Marshall and Pinchot.
> At the WHA in 1992, I had an interesting discussion with Paul Steckler
> (*Last Stand at Little Bighorn*) and Larry Hott, who made both *The
> Wilderness Idea* and *Wild by Law.* They evinced in essence an auteur
> theory of documentary--that they would "research" material and present it
> in the way they saw fit. I said fine--as long as their primary
> commitment was to a a fair and balanced view of the past as the past. I
> came away persuaded that they had other intentions.
> This is not an argument against using these films; it is merely an
> argument against uncritically accepting them. I use them, but I
> interpret them too. Too much of the perspective they include does not bear
> scholarly scrutiny. Both are attractively done films, dotted with many of
> our colleagues--most of who say typically inteleligent things--, butthe
> authoring sensibility in my opinion is not true to the past; rather its frame
> of reference is the present and the iconography and culture of our time
> in the same manner that journalists use out-of-context history tosupport
> their arguments.
> I suppose I should now argue that historians make their own films and
> maybe we should; I think its more realistic for us to try to influence
> the filmmakers--having tried, I know that this is harder than it
> appears--leaving us with the dilemma of being included in films that
> don't accurately reflect our understanding of the past--and thereby
> legitimizing them by our presence--or staying out and sometimes cringing at
> the results. Its a postmodern no-break even!
> Hal Rothman
Rather belatedly, I thought I would share a little insight into the
Larry Hott approach to history on film. This summer, I took a course at Geo.
Washington U on history documentary filmmaking, in which you learn
everything there is to know about it in six weeks. Larry came down from
Boston to supposedly view our rough-cut. Due to technical
difficulties, we had no rough-cut to show, so instead we utilized the
time by discussing filmmaking with him and reviewing our script. What I
came away with from this experience is that history, ie, the facts, can
and often are glossed over or manipulated through word or image in order
to make a "better" film, or to make the film better, depending on your
point of view.
How is this done? First, the word: certain facts can be left
out or exaggerated in order to put the incident into better filmic
language, thus making the film "better." I fear this happens more
often than historians know, and only someone well versed in the subject
will pick up on the discrepancies. As a historian, I was appalled by
this blatant disregard of one of the professions' commandments. But I
have found that it happens in the printed word often enough that it's
hard to single out filmmakers as the only ones guilty of it.
Another way they manipulate history is the use of interviews.
Hal Rothman discussed Nash and Cronon in "The Wilderness Idea," but you
should note that Char Miller, the Pinchot "source" in the film, is
filmed outside in the cold, whereas the others are inside. Maybe I'm reading
too much into that, but it may influence thinking on a subconscious level.
But it leads me to this: interview subjects are chosen by how good an
interview they are, not necessarily by who they are or what they know.
[Think about Shelby Foote!] After extensive pre-interviews, in which
they gather the sound bites they would want on film, they return to film the
interview. During the interview, often times the questions are
structured to bait the subject into saying what would work best in the
film by asking the same question a number of different ways in order to
get the "best" answer. With the technology now, they can splice together
the audio in such a way to make it seamless and have them say whatever
they want, if so desired. This can be covered over by simply showing another
image while running the interview sound clip. This is fraught with danger,
but it is only a matter of time before some filmmaker does it.
Image: let me give an example that may better explain things. In
the film about Hetch Hetchy, when they are giving the background on
Pinchot, they show footage of him later in life when he is governor
while talking about him as Forester, thus giving the impression that he was
old during the HH battle, when in fact the footage is from nearly 30 years
later. The rule of thumb in filmmaking is use moving footage first,
still photos second, and sketches or paintings last as a visual. Hence
the use of later footage.
Another problem I discovered in this particular film included talking
about a river in California but showing one in the Adirondacks under the
narration. Visual substitution like this is done all the time, mostly
for budgetary reasons, but it raises another question of accuracy
nonetheless. Which leads me to funding difficulties. In order to fund
films that appear on PBS, often times the filmmaker submits proposals as
much as a half-dozen times to get money. If the potential backer [often the
Nat'l Endowment for the Arts] is not pleased with the proposal, no money
is forthcoming. This can lead to altering the film's message in order to
meet the expectations of funders, which in turn may mean
making a more "political" or agenda-fulfilling film than originally
Hal touched on the problems of demonizing Pinchot to make Muir look
better, an approach taken often in film in order to make the protagonist
come across as even more superior [and possibly to further justify the reason
for making the film and please the backers]. One way to do that is through
voice casting and voice direction. Another way is through the selection of
primary source material to include in the script. Again, the goal is not
unbiased history, but making a watchable film.
Lastly, the use of music plays on the emotions of the viewer as
well. Just look at "The Civil War" and the use of music under the
reading of the love letter from the soldier who died shortly after
writing it. Granted, the letter alone is very powerful, but the music
adds even more power, and more emotional manipulation.
A film cannot show everything nor reach the depths of
understanding found in a book or even an article, and filmmakers fall
prey to the need to make it captivating for the viewer. A historically accurate
film that bores and goes unwatched is worthless in this sense. The same
criticisms lobbed at Oliver Stone and Spike Lee for their manipulation
of history to get across their point is only what the public hears about,
but similar scrutiny should be cast on film documentaries as well.
Ken Burns' "Baseball" came under criticism mostly for its length in the
general press. But Ken Oberman of ESPN, a knowledgable baseball person
but not a historian in the conventional sense, kept a running tally of
factual and visual errors, and found well in excess of over 100 at the half-way
mark of the film. Similar criticisms have only recently emerged in regards to
his "Civil War" series. So even the most respected of documentarians is
subject to this flaw,and his work should be studied closely for flaws
just like anyone else's.
I can no longer watch a documentary without questioning it, which is
the way it should be anyhow. When using them in the classroom, the
points I've raised here should be kept in mind. They may also serve as the basis
or starting point for a historigraphic debate about the issue, as well as a
way to teach critical thinking. Too often, students accept what's on
television as the absolute truth, much as they often do with any other
A film is, after all, just another secondary source and should be
treated as such.