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Murder at Harvard Revisited

I know I’m late…..but I missed the class where we watched Murder at Harvard, so here is my quick take on the film.

The film Murder at Harvard is an attempt to tell both the story of George Parkman’s murder and historian Simon Schama’s approach to this sensational event in Boston’s history.  Schama utilizes the documentary to explain the methodology behind his writing of Dead Certainties, which uses fictional narratives based in a historical context to bring past events to life in the minds of the reader.  I appreciated the literary and historical exercise in Dead Certainties, because it drew me in as a reader.  If I had been using this text to learn about class conflict in mid-nineteenth century Boston, I would be able to appreciate the intricacies of the social relationship between a janitor and chemist, but I could not simply read Schama’s prose and accept it as fact.  As a reader I would have to work to validate the interactions he constructed with the historical record, and I found this non-traditional format engaging.

Murder at Harvard did not captivate me in the same way, because Schama’s discussion of methodology turns into a detective story that he goes about solving on his own.  Instead of allowing viewers to draw their own conclusions based on inventive narratives grounded in historical context, the film ends with Schama solving the case and validating Webster’s guilt.  The sensational murder of George Parkman, and the trial surrounding it, can and should be used to investigate Boston society in the middle of the nineteenth century, but as the film concludes I felt as if I was watching a murder-mystery where all the sleuthing had been done for me.

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Blog Highlights: “Murder at Harvard”

“In the documentary, all we get for the alternative (Webster was not the murderer) is a brief statement by an armchair historian. It is not very convincing. So, Schama’s view of the story prevails, both in the book and the movie.” [douglass]

“I think that if we, as historians, force the public to see and read historical fiction that is completely historically accurate, or refuse to consult with film directors and authors that do not plan to have a completely historically accurate final product, then there is no future to history as a profession. I don’t know anyone who picked up The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire at the age of 10 (or 40 for that matter) and fell in love with history. However, I know a lot of people who went to Williamsburg and came away wanting to learn about Colonial America, or who saw Casablanca or Schindler’s List and wanted to learn more about World War II.” [blaher]

“So, should we consider Schama’s work history or fiction? I think that was his point. The more I read about Dead Certainties and reactions from diverse people, the more I am inclined to believe that Schama intended to shake things up and make people question our discipline. We should be critically asking “What is history?” We should be questioning the methods, traditions, and ingrained perceptions academic historians before us have long accepted as the norm.” [sibaja]

“the unknowable truth is not synonymous with the nonexistent truth.” [bergman]

“Storytellers need to stay out of the story unless their presence is relevant.” [warburton]

“How does a filmmaker convert the written word into film when faced with the issue of footage shortage?” [cook]

“I think that perhaps the criticism of the film is the very thing that makes it interesting. Historians debate the ambiguity of fact vs. fiction and this film/book is no different. It just happens to make the statement more in our face.” [giampa]

“One thought is that history is a series of stories that come together through the voices and perspectives of many people, both involved with and removed from the actual events. If viewed in this way, Schama speaks to the very essence of history, which like a murder mystery, is filled with holes, inconclusive evidence, and much left to the imagination.” [lapple]

“Therefore it must be better to not report on the unknown (stick to the facts) than to extrapolate what is known to fill in the gaps. That is to say, this is a better representation of the past:
than this:
Which of these two historical representations gives you a better understanding of how the past fit into the surrounding environment?” [king]

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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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Murder mystery… gone wrong?

The file Murder at Harvard tells a story about a historian that attempts to explain the past using creativity and imagination, as well as evidence. The film makes history look more fun as an engaging murder mystery than a traditional documentary with only facts and mild speculation by experts about the past. It seemed more cohesive and entertaining than reading the book because  the actors could reenact multiple scenes of the same potential event without losing the audience over timeline issues. Going back to the question of whether people dream in “movie time” or movies have encouraged people to think this way… I think seeing something occur makes the possible events more real than simply imagining the different scenarios. Therefore, the film reaches a larger audience to become excited about exploring history in a way they might readily understand without prior experience or training.

History presented in less traditional formats seems to be threatening to the traditionalists if it includes a non-academic sense of entertainment. For most traditionalists, “popular” and “academic” a.k.a. “real history” appear to be diametrically opposed in the history field. While this seems unfortunate, the bookstores hold many books written by non-historians (often journalists) and famous historians examined with more criticism for their popularity (like David McCullough). Ironically, Bancroft Prize winning books exhibit similar qualities to these popular books such as readability  to a general audience or some kind of relevance to the present that might make the topic interesting. Perhaps the lesson drawn from these thoughts is making the “mystery” accessible to more than just fellow historians and engaging of the largest possible audience no matter what the topic might be. Murder and medical mystery shows abound on television… history becomes another mystery that deals in the realm of real past events and evidence that the historian plays a starring role in.

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Murder at Harvard

The film “Murder at Harvard” discussed the process of creating the book Dead Certainties about the murder of Dr. George Parkman and trail of his accused killer Dr. John W. Webster in Boston. The book talks about more than just this event. It is a well written narrative that is a compelling read.  It is not until the end that Schama even lightly delves into the process as he does in the film. He does make some interesting points about historians and history.  He writes “historians are left forever chasing shadows, painfully aware of their inability ever to reconstruct a dead world in  its completeness, however thorough or revealing their documentation .” (320)  I think this does a nice job of describing the historians dilemma, at lest the one he describes he faced in making the film.  Schama is clear, however, in stating that this is not scholarship. “Both stories offered here play with teasing gap separating a lived event and its subsequent narration. Although both follow the documented record with some closeness, they are works of the imagination, not scholarship” (320).

When thinking about how these two works compare to one another there really is no comparison.  These are two distinct experiences.  When we discussed this in class it was petty clear that there was a self-serving element to the documentary.  The film is more about his process and how he arrived at guessing how this event occurred. I’m less annoyed by the book than I am the film.  The book certainly does not give the reader a clear idea that he’s teasing out narrative and making things up.  The film is somewhat more bothersome to me, because in away I feel manipulated.

I was accused of being somewhat narrow minded in my assessment of how “history” should be done. I want to clarify that I think is it an interesting approach to present history and it opens it up to more interesting questions.  Interesting is good and will bring in the crowds but is it history? Is there a right or wrong side to this film and book.  Do I have to pick a side? The presentation of the film certainly sheds light on the process, but more to the self-serving historian- that is what I find most disturbing.  I can find an argument of making history sexier as Schama has attempted to do here, but I’m not sure where I fall in regards to whether it is good or bad/right or wrong.

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W4: Dead Certain Keys

Mark knew for a certainty what he would write for the week’s blog posting. He shared much with Simon Schama. Why write a boring old blog posting about a dusty, dry book when he could use his substantial intellectual gifts to infuse blog writing with new life and vigor. Of course he would have to invent a whole new approach to blog writing. He considered carefully the important elements: historians speculating about the motivations of important persons long since dead, the “myth” of historical certainty, and differences between the medium of documentary film and the written word.  Yes, this would indeed be a revolutionary undertaking. The only question was, which writing tool would he use to begin his writing – the computer,  the pencil, or the typewriter?

The invention of the future. That is what they called him for decades. He was the tool of choice for writers and serious journalists. But these newfangled “computers” were getting all the attention now. The unwashed masses were using these new, uncouth “PC” devices for their youtube and their facebook and God knows what else. Well, if the computer wanted to be the tool of lowly, common, Irish rogues, so be it. What really irked Typewriter is that this “Computer” was passing itself off as a genuine academic instrument. Bah! After he had lent his good name to the QWERTY keyboard system! He certainly wouldn’t be fooled and someday they would all see Computer for the charlatan he really was.

Sketching. That was what people thought about the function of pencils now,  and sketching ain’t get no good respect. Sure, folks would “sketch” their ideas with graphite and paper, but then they would write with their fancy keyboards which got all the glory. They thought Pencil was only good for a rough draft, not serious intellectual labor.

Pencil knew all about the writing process and when Typewriter showed up missing, pencil rolled off of the desk to examine the floor. There (gasp) he saw a grisly sight. Three typewriter keys lay jauntily askew. The keys “O,” “M,” and “G” lay at disturbingly odd angles as if screaming their shock and surprise to textmessagers everywhere.

“Ah Typewriter, I’m glad U R here” said Computer, slipping into the less formal written form to which he had become accustomed. “I realize that I promised to footnote you in my latest article, but I’m having a little trouble with my……………….wordprocessing program.”

“That is it!” exclaimed Typewriter. I will expose you for the Wikipedia-copying, Google searching, plagiarist that you are!”

“Please Typewriter, be KEWL ’bout this” stammered Computer but he knew it was no use. He could see only one way to save his public honor and it involved murder most foul!”

“What a great Blog entry I have written” thought Mark. “All this brouhaha with the murder is interesting, but I’m certain everyone wants to know more about how I came up with this wonderful, new approach to blog writing. You know, that would make a great movie..

Murder at Harvard: An Opportunity Missed

Like the book upon which it was based, Murder at Harvard was not without merit. It was an interesting story that can be used to tell an interesting story about the nature of history as a discipline and a profession.

That said, both the documentary and the novella-zations fell flat under the weight of the self-promotion and self-importance of the author. In the book, Schama is the narrator who cannot help but interject on his own behalf, who cannot even feign any attempt at objectivity (no matter how impossible a goal that may be), who aims comments randomly at dead intellectuals outside his weight class (how does that feel, Foucault?), and who ultimately takes the story of one man taking another’s life… and makes it about the man telling the story.

In the novel, Schama analyzes the texts involved in an interesting manner– but then obfuscates what he’s doing by not giving us even the illusion of access to his sources, and by burying the whole thing in his purple prose and confusing flourishes. The reader is left feeling misled and confused by his storytelling just as often as he is left feeling like he’s heard the story or understood the truth.

This process is reproduced, to a lesser extent, in the film version as well. Schama is not hindered by his confusing prose patterns, and thus seems to be a bit more forthcoming and straightforward. And yet at the same time, this is still the story of a man, struggling with interpreting difficult and ambiguous texts that are full of lacunae

And told in such a way that said texts are conspicuously absent. This is a story about interpretation that, like the book, does not trust its audience to actually do any interpreting itself.

And that’s the rub, for me, at least. I’m all for what Schama’s doing. I’ve been saying for years now that I’m all for ambiguity, that “historical truth” is a misnomer at best, that “objectivity” in the creation of history is a pernicious myth… I want to like what Schama’s doing because it fits in with how I see history. And yet when I look at either of these works, all I really see is Schama. They feel like ego projects.

The book had, at best, mixed results. But honestly, I felt like the documentary was the real missed opportunity.

I loved the bits with the various historians arguing about his approach, about whether or not this book is “history,” etc. But it all could have gone further. I think that the story of a simple but perplexing murder, such as this, could have been a perfect opportunity to introduce lay audiences to what it is that historians really do, namely, that they debate historiography, methodology, that they interrogate texts and try to see ambiguities as the complex heart of the truth– that the past is always up for debate, unknowable, a matter of opinon and subject of argument.

Made a bit longer, and with more historians debating the advantages and shortcomings of Schama’s approach, and the film could have been a real comment on the profession of history– something that illuminated the processes and debates we go through to a more general public. Instead, we ended up with a movie that, like the book, used the rest of the historical profession to reaffirm why Simon Schama thinks he’s such a rock star.

Analysis of Murder at Harvard

In analyzing the movie, Murder at Harvard, I’m not sure the average viewer (even the average PBS viewer) is interested in the innerworkings of how Schama arrived at his conclusions. Yet the movie presents this complicated story in a dramatic format that is helpful to the viewer. History is filled with unpredictable people and events that are very hard to analyze. To that end, I don’t think this film should be faulted by introducing dramatic components that evoke emotion since history is filled with people making irrational emotional decisions. Yet, Schama has so much angst about his subject! If I were to change anything, I would make it smoother and less about Schama. I believe that storytellers need to stay out of the story unless their presence is relevant.

Compared to the book, Dead Certainties, Murder at Harvard had broken out elements of the story for the viewer to analyze. This is in contrast to the book, which is told as a murder-mystery type book, and the reader is taken along for the ride. For example, Schama does not shy away from commentaries such as: “the wonderful strangeness” of the Doctor. Additionally, Schama brings out the personalities of the trial by adding his own narrative commentaries. In contrast, the movie breaks out Schama’s thoughts and posits alternative theories based on the evidence. While this method is awkward, the viewer gets a better idea of what is fact and what is opinion. It’s a device that probably works better with multimedia.

When history is told in nontraditional formats, it can provide more tools for the viewer. It may be a further step in unraveling the scientific method as applied to history, or it may build it up. It may break it down by adding dramatic elements such as sound and acting, obscuring “objective” history. However, the website is helpful for analysis– providing a window to analyzing documents which, if became more popular, could really educate the public to the skill of analyzing primary sources. For example, in the special features of the PBS website, the poll on the level guilt American courts should apply is something that engages the viewer and helps them to think about the trial in a new way. They can also apply this knowledge to modern analysis of trials, which strengthens their citizenship.  Furthermore, the multimedia cuts against scientific analysis in the commentary and explanation of why the producers made choices they did. This is very helpful because we can account for these elements before buying into them, as the book is more likely to have the reader do.

Murder at Harvard v. Dead Certainties

This film isn’t really a documentary of the Parkman-Webster murder case. Instead, it’s more a documentary of the writing of Dead Certainties. Schama says that the point of both is to try to figure out what really happened. However, the film goes further, intertwining the story of the case with an explanation of Schama’s thought process in writing the book and the methods he used to develop his version of the story. It uses the expository mode of documentary filmmaking, as explained by Bill Nichols, which is a method that “emphasizes verbal commentary and an argumentative logic.” All elements of the film (the voice-of-authority commentary, logical rhetoric, images, historical information, expert testimony) are combined together to recount the history of the case and support Schama’s arguments about it, something which Nichols claims is essential to documentary film as a genre. The film is nonlinear, jumping between recreations of the trial, its historical context, the story from the perspectives of the major players, Schama’s writing process, and the views of prominent historians.

The film and the book present different material, starting with the story structure. In the film, Webster is presented first and is shown very sympathetically. Parkman is then shown negatively. This immediately causes bias towards Webster rather than Parkman, which is enhanced by the presentation of Littlefield as a macabre and bitter man who should have been one of the main suspects. The book tells these stories reversed, with the tale of Webster coming after Parkman and Littlefield, making Parkman the sympathetic character and Littlefield seem misunderstood. There is also a lot of historical information presented in the film but not the book, including the Boston Brahmins, how the case fit into Boston’s history and society, the media frenzy, and the effects of the case. This contextualizes the case in the film in a way that is impossible in the book, making the book seem more like a historical novel than a piece of scholarship. Finally, the film’s focus is different. It looks much more closely at the ambiguities and contradictions of the case. The book makes it seem more cut and dried, while the film shows the fact that the evidence is inconclusive. While both eventually come to the same conclusion, that Webster murdered Parkman, the film is much more focused on a logical argument which examines all sides and evidence before arriving at this decision.

This conclusion shows some of the danger inherent in presenting history in less traditional formats. Neither the book nor the film is objective history, although the film makes more of an attempt. Both present information which is imagined by Schama. He even creates scripted scenes, which he explains by saying, “I felt I had enough information to put words in these characters’ mouths.” While in the film he immediately follows this with historian testimony explaining the problems with doing this, he is still presenting it as history. He acknowledged that he was crossing the line between history and fiction. At one point in the film, based on the feelings and motivations he assumes Littlefield had, he declares him to have been innocent, something which can not be proven. It doesn’t matter how much research he did or how much these added elements could have been true, he is still making things up and presenting false information as history. This will misinform people. As Daniel Willingham explained, people will remember the false information as truth unless they are given specific warnings about what was made up. Schama does this in the film, but not in the book. In the book, the reader has no idea what is real and what isn’t. Because of this, writing historical fiction and trying to pass it off as legitimate is a dangerous way of presenting history.

Murder at Harvard

I liked the documentary Murder at Harvard.  I didn’t love it but it was entertaining.  I am not a huge fan of the reenactment.  I think it works sometimes but in this case I think it did take away from the seriousness of history.  It made it a bit hokey.  I am not a big fan of the type of conjecture that is presented in this documentary.  When Schama wonders the type of face he made when he was outside his door is ridiculous and really not important. 

The book has more info on the backgrounds of the individuals and other information.  This is not unusual when books are turned into film.  The book was a bit hard to read.  I have read a number of books about court cases and it seems to work best when the facts are presented in a way that does not bring up conjecture.  The author does tend to have his ideas about who the guilty party is but it is usually followed up by hard evidence.  But even books leave out facts in a case that

She may find not important but you do.

Two things seem to happen when history is presented in a less traditional format.  People who are more versed in academic history tend to protest against it.  They question its validity.  They ask what knowledge or education the author/presenter of the story has and how that affects the validity of the subject.  They question his sources to see if the sources are valid.  This is their job.  But history presented in les traditional formats does not mean it is bad history.

Less traditional formats tend to be more interesting for the mass culture.  The mass culture does not generally have the interest or knowledge to hear about history at the level of academia.  It comes off as boring and bland and sometimes it really is!  But this less traditional format makes the mass culture more interested.  In the interview with the makers of Murder at Harvard said that it would be great if their documentary caused people to become interested in history and went to the library.  The key is to keep historical integrity while making history interesting to mass culture.