In the medium of the movies (what used to be short for moving pictures) there is something called an establishing shot. This is a shot in which the location of a story, or its time and place, is first set into motion. The establishing shot tends to be accomplished in a single image (like the Eiffel Tower), a phrase, a bit of newspaper, or even a text at the bottom of the picture that reads like this:
New York City, 1959
Although it is impossible to measure or compare the sheer wealth of senses across historical ages, as I’ll try to make clear here, period or historical films have typical modes or techniques by which they try to establish what a time was like, and in so doing, form a specific picture of historical continuity, ontology, emotions, and agents in history. This is what I want to talk a little bit about now.
The films or TV shows that I have in mind here are almost entirely dramas, which may or may not be based on books, including Mad Men, Masters of Sex, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Pride & Prejudice, The Favorite, The Deuce, Downton Abbey, Days of Heaven, Shakespeare in Love, Deadwood, Taboo and so on, roughly contrasted with the films or other works from the period in question, though, as you can see already, having more to do with television than film.
The most immediate thing to notice about any contemporary approach to a historical period is that the work’s protagonist, and without a doubt the viewer, takes her contemporary values with her. And more often that not, the problem or story exactly revolves around the disjunction between the main character and the foisted-upon expectations of the period that she’s floated into.
In the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, there is a particular scene somewhere in the first season, when Midge stumbles into a 1950’s rally where Jane Jacobs (then largely unknown) is protesting the building of a highway through Washington Square Park. Midge stands up to speak for the voiceless of lower Manhattan, themselves standing up against Robert Moses, who would have their beloved park paved into asphalt. The crowd cheers her on.
There may be no better way to feel for a character than by having a complicit view only the viewer and the character share, and yet when the outlines of this technique are too obviously visible, the effect is cloying. So what would make this scene more successful? How to hide or make disappear the rift between our time and the past?
In the 19th century realist novel according to Lukács, a bourgeois type is engaged in a kind of struggle of self-expression against her social expectations. Now if I insisted on this definition of the novel today, or at least as it has continued to develop and emerge out of that cultural practice, then how a novel successfully evokes complicity from its reader is going to be in some way through an expression opposed to normative markers (e.g. through its own voice, struggling against ‘what one should say’, ‘should see’, ‘should be like…’) etc.
In a movie, that world-making voice may be part of what makes a typical or even a ‘good’ protagonist, but it is not really what composes the reality of the film world itself.
A mass-market period film can only be so contrarian with what happens with its protagonist – it cannot really do the same thing with a depiction of historical reality itself. For the way that a period is established (particularly in periods further removed from ours) on screen in the works mentioned is often by appeal to mass perceptions of a time. What lives on, in other words, as historical memory, is not a protagonist’s individuality, or the experiences she has or feels or voices in the total absence of foreknowledge as to what will actually ‘live on’, but rather, in a more combative kind of metaphor, but rather persistent historical ‘victors’ as markers of what it was like to live at that time.
I could take for example here the many brands and fashions of Mad Men, the estates of Pride & Prejudice, the sketches of the saloon and lawmen or sheriffs in Deadwood – or what one, on the broadest terms, has now come to understand as an ‘aesthetic’ of an era.
In the simplest possible terms, a film or screen work has already been attuned to a collective sense of history, attuned as if to an ‘average’ person and her ‘average’ dress. And historicism, done this way, reserves our empathy or identification only with that special individual whose experience is never free of that average, as broadly understood.
What this does for one’s sense of historical memory, if not for a persisting ontology of what other people’s realities are/were like, has been said much better before, particularly in reference to the ongoing spectacle of film and TV, and its relative lack of private moments.
But what period dramas do specifically for a picture of the human as a historical agent, with shifting wants and desires and stakes in her own individuality, is probably more unfamiliar – the case being that our picture of human rights, freedoms, and emotions are made out to be universal or even ahistorical, and that people in history are made out to have entirely fixed or rather fixated points of view on these same rights.
But I’d like to take the inverse of the establishing shot for a minute – something that’s variously called a closing shot or pull-back. This is usually the final motion of a film, where, for instance, the main character lies still in his own blood and the camera pulls away so that we can see the mountaintops and the woods behind him, or when, as we see her stride out of the apartment, suddenly reinvigorated by her aloneness, we see the whole city beyond, with its masses and swaying trees lining the boulevards, our characters becoming like dots in a much wider landscape.
In a comedy, the closing shot can sometimes be pitched as a new joke, as something contradictory or witty, sometimes with a voice-over that renders the story absurd. The comedic pull-back might reveal, for example, that the entire story, with all its human stakes, was carried out by ants on a small planet off the cuticle of a galaxy itself run by ants. (I’m thinking specifically of the end of Men in Black here).
Meanwhile, a pullback in a period drama, for the most part, broadens the perspective of our character not so that it dwarfs her, comically or otherwise, to the time and place that she lived (though this is of course true for all of us, were we to view ourselves from the third person), but rather to draw us out of the particular narrative world of that character and into the broader shared experience of the world (wherever that may be).
(Does this world perhaps exist to the agreement of extras lining the city , who did not speak once in the movie? Or do some of these people, voiceless but visible, feel differently from our protagonist? Does even our audience feel the same way our character does? Do we live here, too?)
Where opening shots may therefore establish a familiarity with symbolic icons, the closing shot asks something like the opposite – to go out and to see a measure of one’s reality as portrayed within the film.
And yet, when actually viewing films shot in the past, which is to say, films with their own situated stories, histories, and cultural expectations, there is a near complete absence of this connection and instead there is in its place a kind of silence.
If one takes, for instance, specific moments which are not dictated in any script: How, for instance, Cary Grant calls a taxi cab or answers a phone in 1950’s Chicago in North By Northwest or how, without seemingly any great attention from the camera, he opens the car door for Grace Kelly, starlet for To Catch a Thief and how she then moves towards it, the probable silence of the script on these matters as movements are forms of expectation, which is to say cultural values – behaviors that have engrained those persons as agents that cannot be perceived, perhaps, except from a moment outside of our historical period. In fact, what is the way these very things are done emerges as a disjunction precisely because the ‘weight’ or thoughtlessness of those movements are so strange. These moments make it clear that there is a radical difference of attention to certain rights and values across time.
In these cases it may especially strike us that what people in the past wanted is not at all what I’m interested in – in which case the expressions on their faces can be entirely alien or mysterious to us. They are laden with feeling, and yet I cannot understand the entire context of that feeling because my attentions are so different, have such different weight.
Recently, I’ve begun to watch videos of previous eras on Youtube. Videos without sound, without narration either. 1910’s. 1920’s. Usually in America, usually New York.
In one of these videos, a man walks across a sidewalk. He’s youngish, maybe mid-20’s, wearing a newsboy cap, has on a dark suit and carries a suitcase at his side. He strides across the boulevard towards the camera and suddenly the car which had been backing up down that street runs its back straight into him.
The man is jolted, struck by the butt-end of the car, but he doesn’t fall over. He quickly gathers himself, and you realize how light the car must be, and then he walks over to the front seat and begins to talk to the driver. Both his arms are still at his side. The driver has a calm expression on his face as if to say, alright, he is coming to talk to me. This sort of thing happens all the time.
To recover (or “resurrect” in the words of Benjamin) a period of time, one would have to recover not just the feeling of the agents but the expectations that produce and gate those same feelings, a process which necessarily feeds back from them as a result. What is wonderful about watching period dramas, by contrast, has nothing to do with this resurrection. Instead, they necessarily open gates in time in order to let flood contemporary feeling, that is, emotions at the time of production. Only from a new distance (in the future) can they perhaps speak to the way we are presently gated through a relationship with ongoing attentions/expectations:
“An inner phenomenon stands in need of outward criteria”Ludwig Wittgenstein
The relationship that many period dramas set up between the individual and her circumstances is actually like an alien dropped down from space.
Sure, I’d watch an alien coming down at nearly any time in human history on TV, and be pretty entertained by that, I think. But then, slowly, as the alien starts to learn how to fit in, maybe how to get what she wants, or to actually want what she has gotten used to on Earth, I might doze off, until in one episode, she wakes up and realizes that there is something she desperately misses about home, something that we simply don’t have for her down here.
But how can she express this to us? There are no words for it, besides. So she is silent for a good while, and I have my ears perked just to hear what she might say.