Historians should be banned from watching movies or TV set in their area of expertise. We usually bore and irritate friends and family with pedantic interjections about minor factual errors and chronological mix-ups. With Hilary Mantel’s novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, and the sumptuous BBC series based on them, this pleasure is denied us. The series is as ferociously well researched as it is superbly acted and directed. Cranmer probably didn’t have a beard in 1533, but, honestly, that’s about the best I can do.
In any case, criticising historical fiction for being fiction is not particularly clever. The imaginative space through which novelists and screen-writers move is one historians can only look in on from outside with envy, and from which we should learn lessons about practicing our own craft. Yet writing historical fiction, as opposed to another kind, means operating within a set of constraints, as well as investing one’s work with a particular kind of moral authorization. It involves drawing on a well of audience knowledge and expectation, even as it sets out to challenge or
Here historians do have the right to comment. The question is not whether fiction gets the past exactly right (no two historians would agree upon this anyway), but how claims about the past are used to address questions about the human condition. All historical writing, fictional and ‘factual’, is a kind of conversation between past and present. And in any conversation, we need to listen as well as talk.
In making Thomas Cromwell the focus of attention, Mantel believes she is enabling a suppressed voice to be heard. As chief minister of Henry VIII, Cromwell is not an obscure figure, but he left few records of an intimate or revealing kind. Moreover, his popular reputation suffered in the later twentieth century due to the success of Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons (turned into a critically-acclaimed 1966 film), where he serves as foil to the hero, Thomas More, whose lonely refusal to recognise Henry VIII’s Supreme Headship of the Church marks him out as a
martyr for individual conscience.
“Although a major protagonist, More’s ‘big moments’ are routinely silenced or sidelined.”
Wolf Hall is a riposte to A Man for All Seasons as much as it is a fresh reimagining of the Tudor World. Bolt’s More, gentle family-man and courageous non-conformist, becomes in Mantel’s vision a cruel, conceited misogynist; Bolt’s Cromwell, a brutal pragmatist, unfolds before us as complex, passionate, and profoundly humanitarian.
This is not as iconoclastic as recent commentary suggests. Zinneman’s film of A Man for All Seasons was from the moment of its cinematic release a spur to revisionist historical scholarship on More, drawing attention to his hatred of heresy, and the implausibility of his holding or expressing the views on the inalienable rights of conscience that Bolt (in the aftermath of McCarthyism) attributed to him. As Wolf Hall replaces Man for All Seasons as the lens through which most people will view the 1530s, let’s hope it will similarly energise
After catching up on iPlayer, this historian’s reaction is of (almost) admiration for the thoroughness with which the ‘dismanteling’ of More has been carried through. A revealing line is given to Cromwell, as More maintains his frustrating ‘silence’ over the Oath: ‘he wrote this play years ago, and he sniggers every time I trip over my lines’.
Cromwell need not have worried: suspecting that the garrulous More wrote the historical script to his own advantage, Mantel and her adapters, assisted by Anton Lesser’s outstanding performance, have systematically – ruthlessly – rewritten it, down to costume and props. The historical More’s lack of care over personal appearance becomes here distasteful and unsettling. Cromwell – in common with the entire membership of Facebook – likes playful kittens; More appears cradling a showy, and eerily inert, long-eared white rabbit. And is it me, or does Mark
Rylance resemble the More of Holbein’s famous portrait much more than he does the corresponding painting of Cromwell? A particularly mischievous touch robs More of the one distinction guaranteed to score points with a modern secular audience: his unusual concern for the education of his daughters. Cromwell’s ill-fated little girls – implausibly – are being taught Latin and Greek too.
Although a major protagonist, More’s ‘big moments’ are routinely silenced or sidelined. We see, but do not hear, the conversation accompanying his surrender of the chancellorship to Henry (who promised ever to be his ‘gracious lord’); nor his words at the block, where he joked with the executioner and announced, with characteristic irony, that he died ‘the king’s good servant, but God’s first.’ More’s eloquent speech at the end of his trial is reduced to the shouting of hackneyed
slogans. And Mantel wants us to think (against the balance of probability) that his conviction was not caused by Richard Rich’s perjury; rather, More carelessly lets slip his real opinions because he thinks Rich is a person of no importance.
More’s most poignant utterance was made (during an interrogation) in Cromwell’s presence: ‘I do nobody harm, I say none harm, I think none harm, but wish everybody good. And if this be not enough to keep a man alive, in good faith I long not to live’. In Wolf Hall, More only has time to utter the first few words before an enraged Cromwell cuts him off: no harm! What about Bilney, what about Bainham? These Protestants were burned during More’s period as Lord Chancellor, and we have seen More personally supervising Bainham’s torture. His own fate
is more merciful than the treatment he dished out to others.
Mantel’s revisionism seems here to be on strong moral and historical turf. More did believe – an embarrassment to his modern admirers – that unrepentant heretics deserved to die. Yet this was an utterly conventional sixteenth-century opinion, and although More detested ‘heresy’, for both theological and social reasons, he hardly initiated a genocidal slaughter. Six Protestants were burned during his Chancellorship, and he was personally involved in only three of the cases. The accusation of overseeing torture – though made by his enemies at the time
– is almost certainly false. More, who had a marked aversion to perjury, denied it in detail in print.
As (Mantel’s) More’s refusal to take the Oath of Succession drags on, Anne Boleyn suggests the wrack. ‘No madam, we don’t do that’, Cromwell icily retorts. Cromwell’s occupancy of the higher moral ground defines his relationship with the supposedly urbane More, and is the marrow of our moral kinship with him.
But does he really deserve to stand there? The historical Cromwell was deeply involved in the fate of the Carthusian monks who, like More, could not bring themselves to recognise Henry’s new title: half a dozen were butchered after spending weeks chained to posts by their necks and legs, stewing in their own excrement. A further ten starved to death in prison. They were executed for ‘treason’, which to modern minds tends to seem less unwarranted than punishing heresy. But Cromwell was implicated in heresy cases too, arranging the burning in 1538 of a Franciscan for the
political heresy of saying Rome was the true Church. And in June 1535, it was under commission from Cromwell as the king’s vicegerent (or deputy) that at least ten Flemish immigrants were executed for denying infant baptism. They died so that Henry VIII could demonstrate that – despite rejecting the pope – he was still an orthodox Christian. Cromwell personally promised the emperor’s ambassador that the sentences would be carried out. Thomas Cromwell, in fact, was instrumental in more burnings for heresy than Thomas More was, though his reasons were different.
Whether the motivations behind coercive violence really make some instances of it more defensible than others is a question the past can fairly ask the present. And one which historical fiction might help us honestly explore.
January saw the critically acclaimed and award winning Broadchurch return to our TV screens for a second series. There was a publicity blackout in an attempt to prevent spoilers or leaks; TV critics were not sent the usual preview DVDs. The opening episode sees Joe Miller plead not guilty to the murder of Danny Latimer, a shock as the previous season’s finale ended with his admission of guilt. The change of plea means that the programme shifts from police procedural to courtroom drama — both staples of the TV schedules. Witnesses have to give evidence, new information
is revealed through cross-examination, and old scores settled by witnesses and barristers.
The Sandbrook case, which featured marginally in the first series chiefly as a device to explain DI Hardy’s (David Tennant) arrival at Broadchurch, now takes centre stage alongside the trial. This case revolves around the murder and disappearance of two cousins. Hardy found the body of the younger cousin, aged twelve, but the body of the second girl was never found. For some viewers, the Sandbrook case is less plausible than the murder of Danny Latimer but as a plot device it functions as a classic crime drama case that ‘got away’.
Sandbrook haunts DI Hardy for several reasons. He found the murdered girl who was the same age as his daughter — identification with a child victim is another typical plot device — and the man he thought was guilty walked free. He was professionally ridiculed for his failures in the national press. It is the case that broke him and almost literally it broke his heart — in this series we see him undergo a heart operation to have a pacemaker fitted. These murders are the case he can’t (and won’t) let go of, and one that he continues to illegally investigate. In
this respect he is the classic maverick cop, sidestepping lawful and organizational boundaries to get to the truth. It is presented as a noble quest to amend for his previous failures and redeem himself but his actions could potentially lead to his own downfall.
Hardy’s sidekick DS Miller (Olivie Coleman) is equally seeking redemption for very different reasons. Married to the killer, the new series finds her completely ostracized from her community. Like many women in this situation, she is guilty by association. Although the earlier unmasking of her guilty husband shocked everyone in Broadchurch, there is an assumption that she must have known or suspected something. She has left her old job and home, and her eldest son Tom is refusing to live with her. The implication here is that all women know or should know what the man they are
sleeping with, the father of their children, is capable of.
is in a ‘no win’ situation. At the end of the first series she physically attacks her husband after she learns of his guilt, leading to his guilty plea being declared inadmissible evidence because of injuries sustained during her attack. This provokes Beth Latimer (Danny’s mother) to accuse DS Miller of deliberately hurting her husband to get him off the murder charge. There is also the consideration of her job: if she was a good police officer how did she miss the clues that her husband was a killer? A thread running through this series is that on some level, acknowledged
or not, women always know.
Set in a fictional picturesque seaside town, Broadchurch has all the ingredients we love in a classic cop drama. Flawed, maverick, wounded in some way but essentially ‘good’ cops bringing killers to justice. Unlike some recent portrayals of cops on TV, Miller and Hardy do not seek solace in alcohol; giving too much to the job has not damaged their relationships. But essentially, the job remains the source of their damage and to some extent their downfall. Hardy’s professionalism has been questioned, his health damaged, and his marriage ended because of the
Sandbrook murders. Miller’s emotional fragility stems from her husband’s guilt and self-blame, leading to her multiple losses as a police officer, wife, and mother. Ultimately, like most good dramas, Broadchurch succeeds through a plot revolved around relationships, love, loss, redemption, and a good cliffhanger.
Millions of Americans are eagerly anticipating this year’s Academy Awards ceremony. For over a century, motion pictures have been a dominant cultural and leisure medium. There are, however, two aspects worth highlighting: the sheer novelty of motion pictures and the medium’s initial democratic nature.
Twenty-first century Americans have difficulty imagining the wonder and awe motion pictures inspired in the early 1900s. To simply see people running, jumping, and cavorting on a screen was mesmerizing. There is a wonderful scene in The Grey Fox, a movie about aging stagecoach robber Bill Miner. Upon release from the penitentiary, he wanders into a storefront theater. The theater is showing Edwin Stanton Porter’s The Great Train Robbery. At the end of the short film, a character points his revolver at the camera and fires. The audience screams; people duck. Bill
Miner, stunned at first, realizes what has happened and begins to clap enthusiastically. Today’s audience would find little drama in the scene and it’s unlikely that anyone would duck. Motion picture technology has advanced so rapidly and so amazingly that it is hard to imagine what would spur today’s audience to similar reactions.
Another easily neglected aspect of motion pictures is the surprisingly democratic nature of the American movie industry in its initial stages. Although Thomas Edison hoped motion pictures would promote high culture, he completely misread the public’s use of the technology. Crowds of Americans, including many immigrants, flocked to converted storefronts serving as theaters, where they sat in a motley of chairs watching images flicker on a makeshift screen. Upper-crust Americans shuddered with disapproval at the spectacle of men, women, and children huddling in darkened rooms watching
Staid Americans hoped motion pictures would be a passing fad, destined to fade away. When this hope proved stillborn, these Americans sought to repress motion pictures or at least cleanse the movies’ contents. In 1896, an obscure short film—all of forty-seven seconds long—descriptively titled The Kiss, showed May Irwin and John Rice, stage musical performers, recreating their stage kiss. Although audiences had seen performers kiss live on stage, the spectacle of seeing such activity on a large screen prompted one critic to complain,
“Neither participant is physically attractive, and the spectacle of the prolonged pasturing on each other’s lips was hard to bear. When only life size it was pronounced beastly. But that was nothing to the present sight. Magnified to gargantuan proportions and repeated three times over it is absolutely disgusting….The Irwin kiss is no more than a lyric of the Stockyards.”
The critic, by calling it the Irwin kiss, leaves no doubt as to whom he blamed for the scandal, although obviously it took two to kiss. A century later, Americans still debate the morality depicted in motion pictures. Movie kisses, however, remain crowd-pleasing.
The industry was also initially democratic on the production side. Because the industry was new and only required modest amounts of capital to set up primitive theaters or to produce simple films, even recent immigrants could enter the industry and eventually gain dominance; the Warner brothers and Louis B. Mayer exemplified this phenomenon. The
story of the five Warner brothers pooling their meager funds to purchase a projector and renting space to show films is an embodiment of the American Dream.
Unfortunately, there were dark sides to these rags-to-riches tales. Motion picture moguls, as people dubbed them, proved ruthless, tying actors to long-term, one-sided contracts similar to those imposed on baseball players. Although prominent actors made much greater incomes than the average American—and the motion picture executives made sure the public was well informed of such—actors were exploited economically because they were tied to a single studio and could not seek bids from other studios. What the motion picture moguls did to the most prominent of their employees, they
did to the unsung. Motion picture crews formed unions to gain bargaining leverage, but the industry was not known for good treatment of its workers.
The motion picture executives, appearing just after the apogee of the titans of industry—men such as Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan—emulated their formation of industry concentration. By the 1920s, the industry was in the hands of a few companies. Even the much bally-hooed morality codes played into the hands of the major studios. Smaller independent studios might have hoped to gain an entrance into the industry by showing daring topics or actions, but the morality codes squelched such efforts.
A century on, motion pictures remain popular with Americans. The glamorous aspects of the industry often camouflage the raucous history of the medium, but the history is, in many ways, more interesting than the legend.
Image Credit: “Film Reels” by Global Panorama. CC by SA 2.0 via Flickr.
Why do we flinch when Rocky takes a punch in Sylvester Stallone’s movies, duck when the jet careens towards the tower in Airplane, and tap our toes to the dance numbers in Chicago or Moulin Rouge? With this year’s Academy Awards upon us, we want to know what happens between your ears when you sit down in the theatre and the lights go out. Take a look at some of the ways our brains work when watching a movie—you may just find some of them to be all too familiar.
What was the last movie that made you jump, cry, or laugh out loud? Let us know in the comments below.
After what feels like a year’s worth of buzz, publicity, predictions, and celebrity gossip, the 87th Academy Award ceremony is upon us. I dug into the entries available in the alphabetized categories of The Dictionary of Film Studies — and added some of my own trivia — to highlight 26 key concepts in the elements of cinema and the history
surrounding the Oscars.
AMPAS (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) is an honorary professional organization set up in 1927 to provide a support network for industry professionals and as a way of promoting the US film industry.
Winners of Academy Awards receive a gold-plated, Art Deco-style, statuette of a male figure holding a sword and standing on a reel of film with five spokes said to represent actors, writers, directors, producers, and technicians, the predominant trades of AMPAS members in the 1920s.
The Academy Awards have also been the site of controversy: George C. Scott refused the Best Actor award in 1970 for Patton, stating, ‘The whole thing is a goddamn meat parade. I don’t want any part of it.’
A film that tells the story of the life of a real person, often a monarch, political leader, or artist. Popular candidates for Best Picture. Four of the 2015 Best Picture nominees (The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, Selma, and American Sniper) may be considered biopics.
An international film festival is held here each spring, during which time a number of films are screened on successive days. The Cannes Film Festival, founded in 1946, is the world’s best‐known festival, with a range of international films submitted for competition and screening.
Film festivals are a major marketplace for producers and distributors from around the world; many films are made with the explicit aim of being ‘discovered’ at a festival. Winners and nominees tend to be inspiration for Oscar nominations the following year.
Arguably, one of the six top awards at the Academy Awards ceremony (the others being Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Picture). A director guides the creative and stylistic elements of the filmmaking process within an environment of skilled and talented collaborators. While direction plays a
decisive role in the filmmaking process, the authority of the role is often overstated in popular culture (because films are promoted through named directors)
An Academy Award for Editing honors the creative work beyond
assembling the separate pieces of film. Editing is complex process informing decisions about what setups, shots, and scenes to shoot, and which of these will be included in the final film and in what order.
The work of editing has often been the province of women: Elisaveta Svilova edited Dziga Vertov’s films, for example, and Esfir Shub is known for documentary films composed almost wholly of intricately edited archival material. American editor Thelma Schoonmaker has worked with Martin Scorsese for over thirty-five years, receiving three Academy Awards for best editing for Raging Bull (1980), The Aviator (2004), and The Departed (2006).
The nominees for the 2015 Academy Award for Best Film Editing include American Sniper (Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach), Boyhood (Sandra Adair), The Grand Budapest Hotel (Barney Pilling), The Imitation Game (William Goldenberg), and Whiplash (Tom Cross).
Non-Hollywood, or non-Western, or non-mainstream films. While some non-US films have been nominated for Best Picture in the past (e.g. 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire by Danny Boyle), most nominees fall into the Foreign Film category. A good deal of recent and current work in this area focuses on China, Taiwan, Hong Kong,
Japan, and South Korea, whose cinemas have become increasingly visible and popular in the West.
Aspects of the gangster film surface in Hollywood genres of the 1940s and 1950s and continued to be made into the 1960s. A few notable films that fell into this category, including Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967) and Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy (1972–90), received immense critical acclaim
leading to Academy Award nominations and wins.
A district of Los Angeles, California with historical and continued associations with the US film industry
A general term denoting the entire phenomenon of popular entertainment cinema, or a synonym for the film industry, in the US.
The Academy Awards ceremony has always been held in Los Angeles. Bollywood (Bombay + Hollywood) and Nollywood (Nigeria + Hollywood) describe the cinemas of India and Nigeria respectively and produce a tremendous number of films every year.
Initially, only a small number of “independent films” experienced the kind of Academy Award success of Hollywood’s big budget films. But a number of well-known, award-winning US directors have made the move from independent films to semi-independent: David Lynch, Spike Lee, and Richard Linklater, whose
Boyhood is nominated for several Academy Awards this year, for example. Indeed, Woody Allen, one of the US’s best-known directors, has made over 40 independent features since the late 1960s.
Pejoratively, a form of
entertainment that reports the sensational or lurid aspects of news and also gossip about celebrities (see also sensationalism). An unfortunate but prevalent part of the Academy Award hype, particularly in terms of coverage of Red Carpet Fashions.
The martial arts film has long attracted audiences worldwide and exerted influence on the cinemas of other countries. Most recently, the Matrix franchise (Larry and Andy Wachowski, 1999–2003) employed Hong Kong martial artist Yuen Wo Ping to choreograph its many action sequences. The Best Picture winner in 2000, Crouching
Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000) is a self-conscious return to the wu xia origins of the genre.
A pre-existing work, often literary or theatrical, that has been made into a film. More commercial properties such as musical theatre, best-selling fiction and non-fiction, comic books, and so on, are also regularly adapted for the cinema.
It is claimed that adaptations account for up to 50% of all Hollywood films and are consistently rated amongst the highest grossing at the box office, as aptly demonstrated by the commercial success of recent adaptations of the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien. The top screenplays based off of a previously published work are honored with a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination. 2015 nominees include American Sniper, The Imitation Game, Inherent Vice, The Theory of Everything, and Whiplash.
A central component of a film’s soundtrack, including the score and any other musical elements. While there is not explicitly an Academy Award for “soundtrack” the Best Song category has drawn attention in recent years.
From the late 1970s it became common to appoint a music supervisor to handle the placement and copyright clearance of licensed music, as, for example, with music producer Phil Ramone’s work on Flashdance (Adrian Lyne, 1983).
Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967) and Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969) are important films in marking Hollywood’s new direction. Both achieved box-office success (and Oscar nods) by disregarding stylistic convention, showing characters rebelling against the mainstream, refusing happy endings, and
harnessing the sensationalism of the exploitation film.
During this period, a new generation of creative talent entered the industry, including such directors as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, William Friedkin, Paul Schrader, and Terrence Malick. These directors, along with rising actors such as Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Warren Beatty, and Jane Fonda, appealed to the youth audience. All have been recognized by the Academy over the course of their careers.
The Oscars are an informal name for Academy Award statuettes, prizes awarded annually for services to the cinema by the US Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The award ceremony is held in the spring following the relevant year. The gold-plated bronze statuettes stand 25cm (13.5in) high.
A term commonly used to describe the work of acting, with the actor or the film star said to have given a remarkable performance, for example. A Best Actor and Actress announcement is described as “the best performance by an actress in a leading role.” Among 2015’s nominees, Eddie Redmayne and Julianne Moore are tipped
to win on Sunday.
The term, conceived initially in film studies scholarship, has extended to more mainstream films, such as The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert (Stephan Elliot, Australia/UK, 1994), Boys Don’t Cry (Kimberley Peirce, US, 1999), Far from Heaven (Todd Haynes, US, 2002), and Ang Lee’s highly
successful queer western, Brokeback Mountain (US, 2005). All of these films have received recognition from the Academy.
The way in which a distributor chooses to ‘open’ a film, i.e. make it available to the audience. Based on the Summer Blockbuster successes, and the December 31 deadline for Feature film Academy Award nominations, the Fall and Winter tend to be seasons when “Oscar hopefuls” are released.
A broad category of films defined by their short running time in comparison with that of the feature film. For the purposes of the ‘Animated Short Film’ and ‘Live Action Short Film’ categories in the Academy Awards, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences defines a short film as 40 minutes or less.
Filmmakers working in the short film format generally rely on competitions and film festivals to get their work seen.
Nominated for 14 and winning 11, Titanic made Oscar History at the 1997 ceremony. Everything in director James Cameron’s previous career has now been surpassed by the extraordinary tour-de-force of Titanic (1997), which set a new budget record, proved cinema’s biggest ever success at the box office, and won eleven Oscars, thereby
equalling the record of Ben Hur in 1960.
In the 2010s Hollywood continues to dominate cinema screens worldwide and remains an avowedly commercial cinema now geared to the production of high conceptblockbuster films designed to exploit multimedia platforms and sell through to global markets.
Many of the major studios have also set up semi-independent production companies that provide a space for directors such as Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, and the Coen Brothers to make challenging films with mid-range budgets. These films are popular contenders for Oscar nominations which drives publicity and ticket sales.
The creation of VHS lead to increased awareness on a global scale of the films nominated for awards. In the
1980s, the adoption and use of this home video technology became widespread. VCRs had a significant impact on the ways films were viewed: films broadcast on television could be recorded and viewed at a later date, for example, and films could be rented or purchased for home viewing.
In 1990, the MPAA introduced NC-17 in an attempt to reduce the stigma attached to the X rating, which had been in use since 1968 and which for many had become synonymous with pornography. Distributors of X-rated titles, including non-pornographic films such as Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969), could not secure
advertising on television or in the popular press. Midnight Cowboy remains the only X-rated film to ever win Best Picture.
Y — Yes, But Also…
In all this talk about Hollywood commercialism, it would be an oversight not to mention another mainstream cinema giant whose films have steadily trickled into the Academy Award nominee pool: Bollywood. Its influence is apparent in such recent western-made films as Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge (2001) and Danny
Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008).
A zoom in can be effective in rapidly and dramatically drawing the viewer into a scene or bringing the viewer’s attention to a detail; and a zoom out in revealing the background and the surroundings of a character or activity. Keep an eye out for these when the Oscar clips at the ceremony start rolling…