Dramatizing the Past

Murder at Harvard is the dramatization of a past event based on incomplete historical evidence.  The work is an attempt to explore an historical mystery while also investigating the ‘making’ of history.  It is based rather loosely on the book by Simon Schama.  Given the time constraints of making a television program, all of the material covered in the book would be impossible to present.  Therefore, the makers departed significantly from the book in terms of the breadth of historical insight as well as the granular detail of Schama’s story.

One thing that struck me about this book/television combo however, is that it departs from many book-to-documentary presentations by being more transparent about historical knowledge and story telling than the text version.  Most history books are heavily footnoted, Dead Certainties is not.  Most non-fiction films obscure the process of their creation, but Murder at Harvard invites the viewer to engage with a number of interpretations and historical contingency.  The film’s historical recreation is generally more compact and precise than Schama’s, again due to time restraints.  But the docu-drama still seems unique because, while the medium would seem to invite a more dramatic experience than text, I found the book more suspenseful and dramatic and the visually oriented version to be more intellectually engaging.

Schama’s book, unlike many works of history, and similar to the popular format of a murder mystery, depends largely on suspense and the predictions on the part of the reader.  Few historical documentaries invite speculation on the part of the viewer.  In the context of PBS, the British TV murder mysteries (Mystery) probably invite more participation than American Experience does.  Murder mysteries are dreadfully formulaic, I know, but there is a teasing out which particular formula might be or is being used.  So, formulas are a very important part of the analysis of media, text being no exception.  What are the formula’s at work in Murder at Harvard?  Well, there are the oppositional talking heads, a must for any documentary.  It is extremely important that those on different sides are framed oppositely, and consistently.  Wide to wide, close to close.  Left, right, left, right.  Also, lest we look at scholars too long, their comments should be visually covered with archival photographs.  The minor detail that the actors in the recreation barely match the overused photographs will likely be forgiven by the audience, who is accustomed to this technique.  Also, intermittent teases are of the utmost importance.  Viewers apparently get bored with talking heads and it is necessary to break up a television show every ten minutes or so with a question-like tease, preferably from the over-arching narrator.

I may seem overly critical, but I am analyzing not criticizing.  If, while making a television show, one were to disregard convention altogether, the entire point or argument would likely be lost.  Television has a language, it has specific visual cues, dim lighting, (which you may have noticed), bright lighting, natural sounds, (shoveling?), etc.   Murder at Harvard has the difficult task of treading on fiction-film territory, which has a different language, and from my perspective a more complex one.  Documentary filmmakers are not particularly well versed in dramatic conventions, which is why Murder at Harvard‘s recreations are probably the weakest part of the film.  Doc TV folks use narrator teases for tension, or open ended ‘talking-head’ voiceover prompts, more often than lighting changes or eyebrow close-ups.  Either way, like Hitchcock said, it helps to have to have a ticking time bomb.  I applaud the film directors with engaging with historical disputes and temporal contingencies and feel that the film is an important contribution to understanding the professional critique of primary source material, or rather how historians might do ‘what they do’.  American Experience(s) are usually less forthright about the workings of narrative making, by themselves or others.

Still, the film rings pretty authoritarian.  We ‘know’ who done it.  And even if one doesn’t know who Schama and Haltunnen are, they are pretty academic types.

As an aside…if it were left to me, I would have sold the whole affair as an episode of Mystery using professional actors and fiction directors in a multi-view dramatization with a docu-segment at the end about the ‘true story’ and how the different viewpoints were developed by an historian, rather than adapting the story to an American Experience format, which seems to only bring success if one is a Ken Burns clone.  I would like to point out that, generally, success in public television is not gauged by viewership or the amount of underwriter support.  Though you might occasionally see Ken Burns described as the filmmaker who pulls the largest audience, you will rarely hear his name without award-winning preceding it.  Furthermore, at the expense of using this as a forum for some sort of animosity, I heard they look through a Ken Burns filter when judging historical documentaries for awards.   Burns has no Academy Awards, though.  It’s television after all.  Knowing a little about lighting is a very important asset for video-makers.  Shadows can have many layers.  In focusing the many lights on historical documentaries, I get the impression that it’s not the historians who do the trick, as large as personalities like Schama’s may seem to loom.

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