Thursday, September 27, 2012

Film Friday: A Dispatch from the Film and History Conference!

Greetings from Milwaukee!

(Yes, everyone is still talking about the lousy refs costing the Packers the game Monday night...)

I'm presenting a paper at the Film and History Conference.  The conference theme is "Film and Myth."  I've attended several fascinating panel discussions so far, examining a range of topics and approaches. Without getting very specific, it seems very clear from the panels I've attended that the post-9/11 landscape has precipitated a whole set of film and television narratives that confront or reinforce many mythic narratives America tells about itself.   Eleven years after, with people now serving in Afghanistan who were mere children then and have to be told about it, the September 11 attacks momentarily disabled our capacity to narrate: for a very short while, nothing was comprehensible.  Before the evening arrived, the narrations were being formed, though imperfectly.    We began to fit the events into modes that we could comprehend: the western genre, evoked by Bush's "Wanted: Dead or Alive" rhetoric on bin Laden; the gangster genre, evoked by Bill O'Reilly suggesting on Imus's show that some of the response will resemble the finale of The Godfather; and of course the proliferation of the superhero film.

There is no singular, dominant narrative that has emerged in American cinema post-9/11.  I suspect this is the case because the Bush invasions of Afghanistan and especially Iraq have not been uniformly discussed -- and the longer those occupations dragged on, the less and less support they have maintained.  

Myths are very powerful ways that we make sense of our surroundings.  The line between history and myth is a thin one at best, an arbitrary one at worst.  Films contribute significantly to our history and our mythology.  The films that have lasted are the ones that don't just re-tell our stories, but make us think about how we make them.  Long after the vanity documentaries of Justin Bieber and Katy Perry are forgotten, we will still turn to the Maysles Brothers' and Charlotte Zwerin's documentary about how an ill-conceived free concert turned what could have been a vanity documentary about the Rolling Stones into an examination of the nature of the image and the relation between the performer and the camera, Gimme Shelter.  While superhero films may re-cast themselves in the War on Terrorism, there will still be those that force us to think allegorically about the nature of the superhero, like many of the X-Men films.   What I think we try to do in academia at conferences like this is to examine the processes at work, and make all of us re-examine our own assumptions. 

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