Posts Tagged ‘Hollywood’

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

The other evening, I drove past our local movie theater and noticed an intriguing movie poster under the ‘coming soon’ sign.  With just a glance as I passed by, I saw “Monument’s Men”, and the names George Clooney, Matt Damon and Bill Murray.  I did a quick double take, and made a mental note to look up the movie when I got home, hoping to find a preview.

I was afraid ‘Monument’s Men” might be a second-rate superhero flick, instead of a reference to a little known story of WWII.  In 1944-46, a small group of American soldiers traveled the liberated areas of Hitler’s Europe looking for the great works of art that Hitler, Goering, and their underlings had looted from both the museums of Europe, and the personal holdings of ‘racial and political undesirables.’  These soldiers nee art historians, archeologists, historians, and artists were known as the Monument’s Men. Their stories have been told in several books, including Lynn Nicholas’ The Rape of Europa, and more recently, Robert Edsal’s Monument’s Men.   I was relieved that the preview of the upcoming movie dealt not with space aliens wearing capes, but with real heroes, in real life situations.  Have a look:

I must say, I am bit conflicted by this preview.   This movie has some promise, with good actors in Clooney, Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett and John Goodman.  Also, Clooney is a highly praised director.  But, I am always a bit concerned when a serious subject gets the silly humor treatment from Hollywood.  This preview makes it seem that this movie may be littered with such moments.  Also, when Clooney and Damon are sitting in the bar, having their o so charming conversation, it seems like a scene from Ocean’s Eleven.  Regardless, I am sure I will see the film both for entertainment, and possible educational purposes.

The story this film will tell is incredibly important, and yet, largely forgotten.  Most educated Americans realize Hitler had dreams of being an artist, but few appreciate the centrality art always had for Hitler’s worldview, and how he and his Nazi pals both wanted to ‘cleanse’ the ‘degenerate modernist art’ of the day, and loot all great works of Western Civilization for the people of Germany.  Hopefully this film deals with that aspect of the story in a serious, entertaining fashion. What surprised me most as I watched the preview is how long Hollywood ignored this story.  It is really a romantic adventure tale that is made for celluloid.  The Monuments Men were solving mysteries that would make Indiana Jones jealous.

This makes me frustrated.  I want to call the movie studios and yell, ‘darn it Hollywood, stop neglecting history! You are ignoring obviously incredible tales in order to produce Star Trek 50, Iron Man 24 and the Hangover 4.”

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How Hollywood has depicted Napoleon

To help alleviate this issue, I shall present for the imaginary film producers reading this post a short list of ideas for future projects:

  • Napoleon – There has been a strange paucity of films dealing with the life, accomplishments and crimes of General/Emperor Bonaparte. Now, I do realize there was an influential 1927 silent film done by Abel Gance dealing the life of Napoleon, but not much has come afterwards.  For a guy who so central to the shape of our modern history, Napoleon has been a neglected figure in Hollywood….Bill and Ted not withstanding.
  • The Assassination of Franz Ferdinand – Some historians have argued that the killing of Franz Ferdinand by Serbian terrorists in July of 1914 is the most important event of the 20th century.  The murder of Franz was the spark that ignited the First World War. The First World War was central to the rise of Fascism, Nazism and Bolshevism. And, WWII.  Then the Atomic bomb. Cold War. And on and on. Make a movie about this day.  The story of how it happened could make for an incredible thriller.

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    Artist’s rendition of the assassination

  • Female soldiers in the Civil War – Many women slipped into the ranks, and fought side by side with men during the American Civil War.  Many lived to tell the tale, and others died on the battlefield, giving their comrades an shock.  Such stories would be made for our age, as women become more common on American battlefields.

Just a couple of ideas. If any big time movers and shakers read this, then let’s do lunch.

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By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

Judge me if you wish, but I love using Hollywood films to teach history courses.  You want to know why I love it? Two reasons.  First,  movies provide students with an opportunity to empathize with figures of the past.  Lecture and textbooks rarely are able to bring raw human emotion into the classroom.  Films can do that. Second, movies often get history completely wrong….Wait, what?  How is this good, you might ask?  I find that analyzing the inaccuracies of historical films clarify historical reality since this reality is often more shocking and memorable once we compare it with Hollywood falsehoods.

“This IS SPARTA” from movie and graphic novel

Films dealing with the Ancient Greeks are particularly good for this, since the filmmakers often misrepresent Hellenic culture so blatantly. Two such films  are the 2007 flick ‘300’, based on the Frank Miller’s graphic novel of the same name, recreating with much artistic liberty the Spartans’ sacrifice at the Battle of Thermopylae, and 2004’s “Troy”, which is loosely based upon the seminal work of Western literature, Homer’s “The Iliad”.   Neither of these movies would be considered ‘great’ films.  They are not award winning; critics generally panned them; and, quite honestly, they are a bit tedious.  But, I love to use clips from these movies because of how they represent, and misrepresent, a central tenet of Ancient Greek civilization:  Masculinity and sexuality. 

When it comes to masculinity, “300” has the most disturbing inaccuracy.  One of the most memorable scenes of the 2007 film comes when a Persian messenger arrives at Sparta to threaten the Spartan king Leonidas (actually, there were two kings in Sparta), requesting submission to the invading Persian king, Xerxes.  Leonidas turns the messenger down, explaining why he can’t submit.  Leonidas needs to worry about the Spartan reputation.  He is especially concerned about this reputation since the Athenians have already rejected the Persian offer, and Sparta can’t be shown up by Athens.  Leonidas makes this clear to the Persian messenger by deriding the Athenians as ‘philosophers and boy-lovers’.   After poking fun at the weakness and perversity of Athens, Leonidas then provided a lesson for the Persian in noble Spartan toughness by yelling “THIS IS SPARTA” while kicking the man  down a bottomless pit. 

You can hear the disdain in Leonidas’ voice when he talks about those Athenians; those boy-lovers.  For a modern audience though, there is never any further dialogue to provide an explanation as to what the Spartan king means by this insult. Do the movie-makers believe their audience understands this reference? Or, were they simply using the words of Frank Miller’s graphic novel, since that line originates with it?  Perhaps the movie-makers and Miller think it is obvious; loving boys, and the evident Athenian propensity for it, clearly separates Athenians from the uber-masculine, uber-militant Spartans.  It is implied for the movie-goer that ‘boy loving’ is something strong, laconic, Spartan warriors just don’t do.  Leonidas loves his wife; end of story. WRONG!  As Professor Paul Cartledge has written, the Spartans were a bit notorious among fellow Greeks for loving boys. Reality is that ‘boy love’ was common within all the Greek world, and Sparta was no different.

Achilles mourns for Patroclus

Achilles mourns for Patroclus

Let’s break away for just a minute  for some clarification.  The love of ‘boys’ sounds extremely disturbing to our 21st century ears. ‘Boys’ usually mean children to modern English speakers. But, we need to understand that ‘boys’ in the Ancient Greek context would be understood as young men.  Were they all consensual adults?  No, they were not, though no concept of ‘legal age’ existed for either men or women during this time period.  Furthermore, ‘love’ in the Greek context does not necessarily mean physical acts of love (though that was a possibility).  Loving a young man could mean wanting to be near him; teach him; protect him.  For the Greeks, love of young men was natural, and noble since the highest level of beauty was found in the physical body of a young, athletic male.   This was the Greek world; the Spartans were as much a part of it as the Athenians.

Perhaps not surprisingly, “300” is not the only film to misrepresent Greek culture when it comes to “Greek Love.” In the 2004 film “Troy”, the relationship between Achilles BradTroya_N(Brad Pitt), and his young ‘nephew’ Patroclus is central to the story.  As Achilles refuses to fight the Trojans because of his petulant anger at King Agamemnon, impatient Patroclus rushes into the battle wearing Achilles’ armor.  Patroclus dies at the hands of the Trojan hero Hector, and the killing of his ‘relative’ finally gets Achilles’ blood boiling.  Achilles desire for revenge, and his inevitable defeat of Hector is one of the central moments in Western literature.  Yet, the filmmakers of “Troy” completely misrepresent Homer’s vision. In the original epic, Patroclus and Achilles were not nephew and uncle. They were men who loved each other.   Perhaps not physically (or perhaps so), but they are as close as two men can be. The loss of his male love is what drives Achilles’ blood-lust. Family relations has nothing to do with it.

Our modern interpretations and misrepresentations of the past tell us a great deal about our own culture, but an analysis of why these films differ from Ancient Greek reality would be a whole other post.  However, when discussing this glossing over of ‘Greek Love’ in class the other week, one of my students made an astute comment.  She pointed out that the audience lining up to see ‘300’ and ‘Troy’ are usually composed of young men, and they may not feel comfortable with heroes being in love with other heroes.  I think she is dead-on, and her statement proves that young male masculinity in our society is similar, and at the same time, dissimilar to masculinity in Ancient Greece.  Much like the Ancients, youthful masculinity today is based upon aggression, and these films speak to that.  No need to change Sparta’s love of violence; Leonida’s love of victory; Achilles’ love of glory. But, unlike Ancient Greece, modern masculinity is based upon stoicism towards other males. Dudes don’t embrace each other, much less express the love they feel for each other in words.  It is no wonder movie-makers would be concerned that Achilles’ real relationship with Patraclus would be discomfiting for many  21st century young movie-going males. Heck, many of these ‘brahs’  won’t even sit next to each other in a crowded theater, leaving one seat in-between each wannabe Leonidas.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Over the last couple weeks, I got sucked into watching the six hour saga known as The Godfather I and II.  It had been awhile, so I thought I should brush up on my knowledge of the dysfunctional Corleone family.  One thing that struck me was that the films are more enjoyable to me now, as I realize that they are largely the tale of a father’s relationship with his children. I am continually amazed at how having children completely changes your worldview.   But, that is for another blog post.

What I have been thinking about since watching the Godfather films is their depiction of violence.  Of course, the violent scenes in these films are infamous. “Leave the gun, take the cannoli”, Vito’s murder of Don Fanucchi, “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes”, the decapitated horse head in the bed.  These films are part of Hollywood legend, and have made a mark as cultural references instantly recognized by the majority of Americans.  As I sat down to watch the movies for the first time in a decade or so, I remembered that violence was the norm in the world of the Corleones.  What I did not remember is how ‘unrealistic’ the physical depiction of the violence is. The gun shots sound fake in the film.  The bullet wounds look absurd.  The death of gun-shot victims is glamorized in an old Hollywood style (slowly staggering on their feet, only to dramatically fall to the ground.)  Most notably, the bloody wounds are almost laughable (the blood is a bright orange-ish red.) As I watched this, I thought to myself, “Hollywood special effects sure have gotten more advanced”.   ‘Realistic’ physical reactions to violence are an absolute must at this time.  (See: The first twenty five minutes of Saving Private Ryan.)

But then, I had two important realizations.  The first was, how in the world do I know what is realistic, and what is fake?  I have never been a part of a gangland hit.  I have never stormed a beach facing mortars and machine gun fire.  And of course, not only have I never took part in these events, I have never even seen anything resembling them. I have no idea how the human body reacts to physical violence.  And yet, I have no problem proclaiming if violent movies are ‘real’ or ‘fake’.  How odd this phenomenon is.  Evidently, Hollywood has created a sense of real violence in my mind so powerful that when actual violence does not conform to the Hollywood version, it can seem staged.  Does not the actual news footage of Jack Ruby assassinating Lee Harvey Oswald seem far too quick and clean? This is not graphic, ‘real’ Hollywood violence.

The second realization: The gruesome, ‘realistic’ violence of films today doesn’t always disturb me, and yet the ‘fake’ violence of the Godfather films is extremely disturbing.  Like most other Americans, I can watch bloodily disgusting films such as 300, and feel no effects from the dismembering of bodies or close-up decapitations that are central to the film.  In fact, such physically ‘realistic’ violence becomes passé.   In comparison, when Michael Corleone guns down his family’s enemies in the Italian restaurant, signaling the beginning of his eventual status as head of the Corleone crime family, I get sweaty palms, dry mouth, and an uncomfortable lump in the throat.

What is going on here? Simply put, realistic violence is not just about the physical effects on the body, but about the emotional effects on the mind.  Some of my students a couple quarters ago pointed this out.  I showed them a ‘realistic’ war film, The Thin Red Line, and had them compare that to an ‘unrealistic’ war film, Pearl Harbor.  One of my students stated that The Thin Red Line is much more violent.  But how so?  Pearl Harbor has its share of horrifying deaths. There is no shortage of blood.  In fact, The Thin Red Line is really not that graphic of a WWII film, especially compared to the more famous Saving Private Ryan.  After discussing why it seems so much more violent, my students and I realized it was because of the emotionally wrenching nature of the violence in The Thin Red Line.  All a viewer feels during the bombing scene of Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor is awe.  Not awe at the violence, but awe at the technological ability of the movie makers.  The emotions you feel while watching the battle scenes of The Thin Red Line are dread, fear and shock.  You don’t need a slow-motion decapitation to feel the realism.

Special effects in the Godfather I and II were quite primitive, but like all great stories, the wrenching of emotions these films provide for us are primal, and timeless.