Monday, January 05, 2009

Representing the Past

A variety of styles, from near-fantasy to realism, is shown in three 'historical' films I’ve seen recently. All have a political message and two focus on a love-relationship.

In epic-romance style, ‘Australia’ climaxes those tourism ads that ended with someone pleading direct-to-camera, ‘Where the hell are you?’ - as if the cinema audience should rush to fill those wide open spaces. Despite Lady Sarah (Nicole Kidman ‘progressing’ from tight Edwardian clothes and parasol to riding boots and horsewhip); cattle-droving looks less appealing than jeep safaris. The appeal, for me anyway, was akin to that of the Saturday morning cowboy films, when I galloped home neck and neck with my sisters. The ‘exception story’ about an aristocratic white woman who fosters an aborigine child shows liberalism alive and well and living in Oz. Very ‘Over the Rainbow’.

History as a source of today’s problems is shown too in ‘The Reader’, but not so easily resolved. In fact, some critics have thrown up their arms in ‘Not again!’ protest. Reconciliation here is more as suggestion than fact and closure more complex than mere survival. The opportunity to rewrite history and ‘rescue’ the vilified is refused. Unlike the aboriginal child, the illiterate SS guard is abandoned. The causes lie within the protagonists’ complex psychologies, unlike the cartoon simplicity of the Lady and the Drover. A film to be mulled over with friends.

‘Che: Part One’, is superficially about a different kind of oppression, but rooted in similar territorial and cultural conflict. History here is a media matter, partly the hero’s voice-over memoir, pretend documentary style glossing-over the individual’s tendency to selection and interpretation. Scenes of guerrilla warfare and political discussion alternate with recreated black and white news-reel footage. Late on, an incipient romance throws a sop to mere human interest (apart from sympathy for an asthmatic hero), and maybe a hook for Part Two. History is our contemporary, the struggle endless and, as Mao Zedong declared, revolution’s a constant process. At least, that’s how it seems in Part One. There’s a good chance that Part Two won’t succumb to supposed box-office demand for a happy ending. The Spanish dialogue was a bonus that helped make up for a hazy start.

I read somewhere that Horror-genre films reflect society's contemporary pre-occupations. Maybe that's true, too, of History-genre ones.


The Reader:

Che Part One:

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