You might say about such things as Inglorious Basterds that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to $70 million B-movies with hammy acting. Last weekend we were all condemned to ingesting promotion disguised as news about a World War II movie that didn’t give a hoot about real history and was instead more concerned with referencing old war movies which were also rife with dubious historical accuracy.
It’s nothing new. I distinctly remember the reaction to the 1968 John Wayne film The Green Berets: Nice story, but it had nothing whatsoever to do with the realities of the Vietnam War. It was about the reality of Wayne, and why he loved America as per his hit spoken word record album of 1973… released at the height of Watergate. Whether there’s an audio recording somewhere of Wayne, Nixon, and Bob Hope chatting on the phone about how “bums” (Nixon’s choice of words) were ruining things by protesting Vietnam, one can reasonably assume that nexus of super talents still traded notes.
But why guess, and put that forward in print? Isn’t history supposed to be the recorded and documented factual truth about what happens? In our lifetime, we’ve been blessed with an ever-expanding visual history as the result of film and various video formats. Yet with all the verification of accumulated writings and footage, much of it just a few mouse clicks away, we’re still ending up with Holocaust deniers, “revisionist history”, “death panels” that never existed, and now Nazi scalping parties. And at the end of any given news day, one can fairly ask if what they’ve seen was real or Photoshop from The Daily Show.
So we play fast and loose with history. Does it matter? Santa Monica’s Ruskin Theater has extended through August 29th its production of Mutiny at Port Chicago, a telling of the disastrous explosion at the Naval Magazine at Port Chicago, California in 1944 that killed 320 sailors and civilians. Most of the dead were enlisted African-American sailors. With continuing unsafe conditions, hundreds of servicemen refused to load munitions and that became a “mutiny.” Or was it? That’s the point of the piece, and presenting true facts and the racist context of the time the story took place makes all the difference. Lord knows what path the story would follow in the hands of the king of cut and paste with fake attitude, Quentin Tarantino.
But Mr. T makes no assertions that he’s an historian. He graciously allows others to decide if he’s even a decent filmmaker. Compare that to the bellicose history twisters we have in Rush Limbaugh and the FOX News team, or the confusing revisionism of a health reform protestor gluing a Hitler moustache to a poster of Obama. Our interpretation and application of history can be supple, but isn’t actual history itself supposed to remain intact? Aren’t facts naturally supposed to have the last word?
We lost a solid historical resource of and for our times when 60 Minutes producer Don Hewitt passed away recently. While 60 Minutes often pulled in its audience by suggesting that something somewhere was terribly wrong, it then reported on the situation with sober honesty. Or what we used to call “the truth.” The lens would push in just after a key question had been asked, revealing perspiration and twitching lips and a wildly blinking eye. But the question was about the truth, and aimed at seeking it out. Compare that quest to the hours CBS now devotes to getting reactions from some lunkhead on a reality show when he finds out that Tina is having sex with Mooky and Carla doesn’t know because she was out getting a tattoo. Except that none of it’s true. Or it is, but a producer set it all up to look true. Or who gives a squat.
Well I do, if what it indicates is that we are now more preoccupied with fabricated “reality” than we are with actual reality or the truth of history, recent or past. It’s certainly one thing for the Right to invent “death panels.” It’s quite another when weeks go by and we’re still talking about it like it’s something that actually exists just because it’s written down on the Internet somewhere.
The Ruskin Theater production of Paul Leaf’s Mutiny Port Chicago strives to make a theater of truth. But it completely succeeds in bringing to light a little known historical event… a true event. The play had significantly different opening weekend numbers than Tarantino’s soufflé of blood and cartoon writing. Yet my fear is that the words “history” and “historical” will be deployed in dialogues about both projects. At one time, accounts of such things as the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima involved a level of fuzziness and hype that washed because we were at war. After Bush and Iraq, one might hope that truth and honesty would enjoy a renaissance. Instead, history is appropriated and bent like crazy to enliven intellectually impoverished pop movies drenched in blood. That’s, like, weird, isn’t it?