Rule #2: Don’t mention animated history movies.
Bad enough dealing with an ordinary movie distorting history. I have gradually despaired over showing anything in class, save for the PBS or History Channel documentary. Because there is too much damage to repair.
Then Pocahantas (1995) appeared. Students must mention it when we study Jamestown.
“Mr. C., can we watch it? There’s a lot of history in it.”
“I don’t watch cartoons.”
“Why don’t you show us episodes of Wishbone?” Brittany interjects, referring to the PBS late afternoon show that features a dog in a variety of historical garb and dramas. Not the PBS fare I had in mind.
“It’s not animated.”
Other students rally to her argument. The collective student unconscious swells to the gravitational pull of entertainment history.
Thus, by rule number two, I am ready to quit teaching and perform some manual labor that will decimate my body five times faster than teaching will. At least, my mind will not so swiftly be reduced to mush.
Patty, though, still insists Pocahantas will help the class understand the Jamestown colony better.
The few movies left that I show – 1776, Glory, Quiz Show – are relics from my first five years of teaching. I know their strengths and mistakes too well. Transcending their educational value, those three are “can’t miss” favorites with the students. Fortunately, I have found enough articles about them to counter some of the weaknesses.
I used to show too many movies, especially to classes I least wanted to teach. What did it matter that the class got its information from me or Hollywood? They were neither interested in or capable of retaining much information. Yet, there was a better chance of them paying attention to something that entertained them. These same students, twenty years later, would be the most prone to accept the myths propagated by the Hollywood historical epic.
Students in all my classes ask to see movies every other day. As if it meant to them: great, three periods we don’t have to learn. I once believed that the assignments and worksheets attached to movie viewing would alter this attitude.
I was wrong.
I gave up.
Guilt over showing movies and wasting class time. I had created the class milieu that Neil Postman warned about and criticized in Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1986). Despite the worksheets, despite the assignments, I had given in to modern society’s entertainment mandate. Entertainment has become the American rite of passage. A culture made up, fortified, and dominated by entertainment values.
One day, I tell the class that the most important news information does not come from ABC, CBS, or NBC. Dwelling on Iraq, Supreme Court nominations, terrorism, and elections is a waste of time.
No, turn on Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood. There you will find the pulse of the American body, the psyche of American mind, and the spirituality of the American soul.
Da-da-da-da-da-da. . . .
The new national anthem of the United States.
Administrators have admonished the faculty. The students expect to be entertained. It is part of the culture.
I pledge allegiance to the image of the United States of Entertainment, and to the commercialism for which it stands, one movie rating, under the MPAA, in da visage-able, with television and DVDs for all.
Heaven help the droning History teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Oh, the guilt again – the movie references. When does a day go by when I have not quoted movie lines or summarized plots of films that they would never see? I might as well scrap the text book and assemble the course based on movies.
Students have to start somewhere.
Or I can just give up the struggle, like Johnny Clay at the end of Stanley Kubrick’s early caper film, The Killing. His girlfriend notices police detectives at the airport entrance.
“Johnny, you’ve got to run.”
He looks at here and says in a nearly inaudible voice: “Eh, what’s the difference?”
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I have had three books published: A Sardine on Vacation, fiction; The End of Travel, creative nonfiction; and Odd Pursuits, a collection of stories. I teach U.S. History and Film at a small academy outside Trenton, NJ.
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4.25.12 @ 10:21a
Maybe you just need to start writing historically accurate movie scripts.
4.25.12 @ 2:19p
Movies and history are incompatible when one speaks of "accuracy". Well-regarded moves like Glory and Lawrence of Arabia have severe problems with their historical content. There's an excellent book called Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies and is very handy when one needs to straighten some of the historical stuff presented. I write a fair amount of film criticism what deals with movies and history. I will have an article next month that looks at two views of the Incan conquest by the Spaniards. Aguirre: Wrath of God (1972) and Royal Hunt of the Sun (1969). I deal with their respective interpretations of what happened. You could say I'm more about movies and literature than about history.
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