Archive for the Category »W4: Murder at Harvard «

Goals of the Filmmaker

Murder at Harvard tells the story of author Simon Schama’s investigation into the trial of Harvard professor John Webster for the murder of Dr. George Parkman.  It is based on the second half of Schama’s book, Dead Certainties.

When analyzing the film, I think it is important to keep Eric Strange’s article Shooting Back in mind. Strange writes about the dilemma faced during the planning phase of the film due to the lack of available imagery and conclusive historical evidence. How does a filmmaker convert the written word into film when faced with the issue of footage shortage? How does he keep the topic as fascinating on film as it was on paper? The creative forces behind Murder at Harvard decided to resolve these issues by approaching the gaps in knowledge and imagery as imaginative speculation on the part of author Simon Schama. Simon openly speculates and hypothesizes theoretical events and actions, which leads to character reenactments throughout the film. Strange writes, “What history on TV and film does best is entertain and engage while issuing an invitation to the viewer to learn more. What it lacks in depth it makes up for in reach.”  The result was a film that entertained while it informed, even if the information being presented was from the perspective of Simon Schama. The reenactments were hokey at times, but it kept the storyline moving and helped to clarify the characters and events. Without these reenactments, there is a strong possibility that the film would have been too boring to keep viewers engaged until the end. Strange admits he is not sure if the film should be considered history or drama, but that doesn’t appear to be the goal of the film. Strange says, “We only hope that it will be entertaining enough to keep viewers from switching the channel and, if we really do our jobs, intriguing enough to send them to a library.” If Strange, Schama, and company are successful at turning viewers on to history, and engaging people to investigate the trial thoroughlyenough to draw their own conclusions, then to some degree, this film is successful at educating in an indirect manner.

This concept also brings to light Willingham’s article, The value/problem of showing popular movies of historical events in class. Willingham’s research appears to support the power of visually imagery on comprehension. He states that as long as the inaccuracies are specifically pointed out, the use of films for educational purposes can be beneficial. Schama deliberately points out the parts in his film which are parts of departure from historical evidence, so perhaps Willinghams’ same line of reasoning can be applied to the casual viewer watching Murder at Harvard for both entertainment and educational purposes.

Thinking Outside of the Box

“Murder at Harvard” in its book form tells the historical tale of the murder of Dr. George Parkman. It is an unconventional history told from several points of view, steeped in the story yet lacking much of what conventional historians require for serious consideration. Murder at Harvard as a documentary tells the historical tale of writing the book form, detailing the process Simon Schama used to arrive at his historical narrative. Schama’s dialogue outlining the process of writing history draws attention to how little we actually know about the past and must make conventional historians at the very least uncomfortable.

One of the strong arguments against the film was the way in which Schama made up (gasp!) the conversations between the historical actors. Even Schama admits that this was the case in the film. This detracts from the history, the argument goes, because we have no evidence of what was said and how can we know? 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? By using their vast expertise to extrapolate the form and structure of the skeletons, archeologists are able to provide a much more compelling story about the bones they dig up from the ground. The “story” in history is the value, and crafting a more effective story sometimes requires filling in the gaps. The value historians bring to the story in history is the deep understanding of the historical environment that brings vital context to the creation of accurate extrapolations of things that are lost to History.

Documentary versus book. That’s a little bit unfair to ask historians to choose, isn’t it? The conventional wisdom of academic History maintains that if it isn’t written, it isn’t history – instead it’s anthropology (or maybe economics). Perhaps it’s my background in blended learning, but I do not see an “either…or” situation. Instead, I’ll choose to use them together since they compliment each other rather well. The book provides the myriad of details that create a historical topic, along with the footnotes, bibliographies, foreign language phrases and other accouterments that prove historical scholarship. The movie supplies a focus on the narrative of the story, stripping away the layers required by academia in favor of the base elements of a dramatic account. The story itself is what is valuable to everyday people, while the details and the scholarship have value only for fellow academicians. The film gets us back to the story in history – but without the details provided by the historian, the film becomes an exercise in imagination instead of scholarship.

Murder at Harvard, reviewed

Schama’s book, Dead Certainties presented several problems for me, the most compelling of which was that Schama failed to differentiate between fact and fiction.  He presented the story as a narrative, and without prior knowledge of the Parkman murder, it was hard to know which part of his story could be fact checked and which could not.  The film, Murder at Harvard, was much clearer about making the distinction, and it allowed Schama the chance to tell his audience which parts of the book were his own imagination.

The film had several problems, notably Schama himself.  If it was not for his commentary, the film might have been able to come across as a documentary, or an episode that could have been shown on the History Channel.  It presented an episode of American history that has not been resolved, and different view points regarding what really took place.  These types of films, particularly those involving re-enactments are valuable and can be a great tool for the general public.  Unfortunately, Murder at Harvard stopped with Schama’s take on the events around Parkman’s murder.  The film makes use of several experts, but stops short of really allowing them to debate the issue and the murder, instead they seem almost to be mouthpieces for Schama’s conclusions.

It might be that reading the book influenced my dislike of the film, but I disagreed with Schama’s classification of his story as history.  He presented no source material at all to support his conclusions. Schama makes the point in the film, and it has also been discussed in this blog that the distance between history and fiction is short.  That might be true, but the distance is not anywhere near as short as Schama portrays.  The difference between solid history and fictional speculation is that history built on evidence and facts.  While the movie certainly has more historical merit than the book, Schama is incorrect to pass off his story as anything but fiction.

I believe that the documentary as an art form has great benefits and can be an extremely useful teaching tool.  I do not think that Murder at Harvard falls into this category.  Documentary, when produced properly, can tell a story about a historical event, illuminate an ongoing controversy, and display informed debate.  Schama and Murder at Harvard displays one side of the controversy without letting its audience make their own conclusions.

Schama ponders the role of a historian

Much has been said already on the blog about two particular topics: the insertion of Schama into the story and the merits of the documentary.

On Schama as a character in the novel: already we’ve seen some (if not most) in class dislike the level of insertion the author used to place himself in the story. It strikes me as mostly a matter of taste, or perhaps (deservedly) a push back against his ego. But, is there an academic merit behind such an inclusion? Or should we reject such a style of writing as a distraction from his argument? It’s interesting that we debate such a style when, in academic texts, historians are often guilty of the same type of insertion when they take time to explain why certain topics were ignored, or why certain sources were left aside, or defend controversial choices.

On the benefits of the documentary: I find myself in the growing minority of those who preferred the book over the documentary (which was well done). Why? I was actually surprised at this since I am much more of a visual learner. But, the book presented questions I didn’t think about during the documentary. Reading print gave me time to reflect on the blurring of history and fiction that Schama employs, it gave me time to think about what we do as historians, and whether Schama is at least being blunt about the “hypothesizing” that scholars often use to fill in holes.

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.

Schama created controversy; he also created discussion which, if structured well, could be a healthy re-assessment of history as a field. He states that all history work is like grasping at straws , bungling and fumbling your way around. When historians today are still producing new insights into figures like Napoleon and Lincoln, it shows that one interpretation of the past is simply that: an interpretation. Historians by trait expect us to follow them along as they present their case. Our gender, race, economic background, nationality, training…are all part of what lie beneath our methodologies and approach. So why should Schama’s approach be less valid? Because he doesn’t follow conventions? Are we so tied to conventions that we can’t accept alternate approaches?

I am not sure of the answers to these questions myself. But I do agree with Eric Strange when he asks: “But where is that line [between history and fiction], exactly? And more to the point, does it ever serve the purposes of historical inquiry to blur it–perhaps even to cross it altogether? Can it ever be both? I hope more can follow Schama’s lead and blur the lines of academic history. It may lead to a vindication of tried-and-true methods, or it may lead to an exciting new approach to history, but the conversations to be had will be the richest of results.

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Perspective in Less Traditional History Writing

Murder at Harvard – the book and American Experience episode – are both distinctive for their use of varied perspective.  The book alternates between first person (from the perspective of actual historical figures) and omniscient third-person narration.  In doing so, it tells the story of Webster’s trial and implies that telling history is difficult and fraught with uncertainty.  The film version alternates between omniscient third-person and first-person from the (meta-nonfictional?) perspective of the author. In doing so, this version tells the story about writing a history fraught with uncertainty.  What is only implied in the book is explicitly stated in the film.

The film is much more successful because it is explicit.  The metafictional narrative device of inserting the author into a fictional plot has been a well-worn (even cliche) tool of authors ranging from Kurt Vonnegut to Richard Powers, and likely promises little to young authors.  Yet this device was very effective in a nonfictional setting.  It allowed Schama and the American Experience filmmakers to engaging (and even exciting) stage reenactments, yet pick apart those reenactments for their inherent flaws.

Our readings last week demonstrated that historical documentaries typically struggle with the philosophical implications of staged reenactments.  We’ve also learned that these reenactments (even fully fictionalized history-based Hollywood films) can be educational when presented properly.  Inserting the historian’s first-person voice, then, can allow historians to stage fictional reenactment and directly, consciously explain how that reenactment is constructed.  Such techniques could make history both engaging, nuanced, and sophisticated.

Murder at Harvard

In an interview with Schama, he was asked what he found most compelling about Parkman’s story.  He replied that, like history, it had so many loose ends, and little of a conclusion. In the film, Murder at Harvard, this perception is magnified through the interplay between the dramatic content and narrative speculation regarding Parkman’s disappearance.  In the absence of the narrative interludes, the story portrays a typical murder mystery plot with enough twists and turns to keep the viewer’s interest.  However, the narrative speculations of historians and scholars add another layer of intrigue that extends beyond temporary interest to a genuine inquisitiveness on the viewer’s part.  The additional context of the testimonials creates an atmosphere of historical incongruence that is more intriguing than a standard mystery plot because of the lingering questions and questionable assumptions. 

This intellectual engagement is what makes this film quite different from the book.  It encourages the viewer to regard the components of the story, the history within the story, and the impact of the story contextually for a more complete account of the events that took place.  Furthermore, it requires the viewer to become an active participant in the process of history and of storytelling.  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.

Dead Certainties as Detective/Crime Novel

The most fascinating insight into the book and the American Experience documentary on Dead Certainties was when one of the commentators made the connection between the mid-nineteenth century public’s early encounters with the genre of crime fiction, and the trial of Dr. Webster for the Parkman murder. She noted that the real story of the trial and its protagonists and antagonists had all of the elements of detective or crime fiction as it was developing at the time. The significance of this statement brought the issue of fictionalization by Schama full circle. The events surrounding the murder were real, and the written as well as physical sources consulted by historians were authentic. The surrounding human response, both at the time and today, involved imagination and fictionalization. Literate observers at the time, which may have included journalists who covered the trial, had been exposed to the elements of crime fiction—a new and stimulating genre of literature. Perhaps some of its elements came from broadside sheets—penny news sheets that contained quick narratives, or from journalistic stories built around standard elements. According to the observation shared in the film about crime fiction, then, the public would have projected these elements onto the story that was unfolding about the murder. This, the observer implies, may have influenced the outcome of the trial. Fiction affecting history.

Simon Schama’s fictionalized historical version today may be seen as projecting these elements of a well-worn genre back into the story even more strongly. This is perhaps most evident in the conclusion to the film and the book, in which he feels it necessary to say what he thinks happened—to reconstruct the murder scene according to his reading of the historical evidence. This is a very common aspect of crime fiction. The writer cannot leave the audience without solving the mystery. Historical studies may not always be so neat, but Schama doesn’t leave much room for any other outcome but the one he postulates. 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.

The background segment to the documentary, “Behind the Scenes,” tells us that the style of videography chosen by the directors is reminiscent of film noir. So the viewer is also being intentionally influenced (manipulated?) to view the historical incident through this lens. Other conventions were followed as well, especially the way in which the characters were introduced, their possible motives and personalities that led them into the position they inhabit in the story, the various props, vocational aspects, and so on, even to their dress. So, with this circular observation about fiction influencing the historical event, and Schama’s fictionalization along the lines of crime novels, the contemporary reader/viewer is left in the middle of a dilemma.

As for comparison of the film with the book, I find that the film did a much better job of bringing to life the social and cultural history of the period. Schama’s personal style in the book got in the way of that—he is too much in the story. The film-makers, however, skillfully wove this aspect of the story into the documentary. As a part of the American Experience series, this is to be expected, but it is a particularly well done aspect of the film. It answered the “so what” question in many ways. The historical issues that the book raises became very graphic as well—such as the legal aspects that applied to the use of forensic evidence, the lack of testimony by the accused, and the standard of evidence. Schama’s use of thick description obscured some of these points. It seemed sometimes as if he was channeling Charles Dickens in his character portraits, for example, of the lawyers for the defense and the prosecution.

A final note on the book and the film. Wisely, the filmmakers resisted any temptation to include Part I of Dead Certainties, which was the story of General Wolfe and historian Francis Parkman’s telling of his story, as well as the digression (interesting though it was) into Benjamin West’s dramatic painting of Wolfe’s death, and the whole business of dramatic, authentic, and classical models for those theatrical history paintings that have mangled history by appearing in textbooks for generations. It was amusing to learn that convention dictated that the characters in such historical paintings should appear in classical dress—togas and chitons. This would have saved generations of students from graphic editors of textbooks who put these paintings as authentic, period illustrations of the events they stand for. They were misled into thinking that there was no—or only minimal—theatricality and artifice because they were wearing period costume. As for Schama, however, it makes little or no sense that he has put this segment into the book about the Webster/Parkman affair. The connection with Boston and with historians, as well as with some of the characters’ families, is too tenuous. The linkage with temperament and obsession is another possibility (Francis Parkman sharing Wolfe’s infirmities, for example). I can only wonder if Schama is perhaps indicating that he, too, has some affinity with either Parkman or Webster that made him delve into their stories. That is not a matter of great importance, however, and mercifully, it was not included in the documentary. It detracted from the book, and should have been a journal article, perhaps, for Schama.

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Murder at Harvard

In his book, Dead Certainties, Simon Schama attempted to fill in the blanks of a historical occurrence in which the sources we have do not leave us with a neat and conclusive story.  We know that Mr. Parkman was murdered, we know the main characters involved, and we know the details of the trial and sentencing.  However, we are left with only blurry clues to how the all pieces fit together, which is where Schama tries to use what is documented to blend history and fiction together to tell the story of the Murder at Harvard.  As I was reading the book, I was at first confused by the mix of fact and fiction that Schama presents in novel form.  He does not distinguish between what we know to be said “true” in the case, and that which are inferences that Schama himself is making from these “facts,”  and for the student of history, I found this to be a fairly frustrating form of presentation.  I personally do not mind the idea of blending history with inferences made from the details we do know, but I would have felt more comfortable with Schama letting the reader know what was fact, and what was derived from fact.  Modern historians have been told to uphold the ideal of objectivity, however impossible that might be, and therefore Schama’s method is unnerving to most.  The PBS film we watched did a much better job of informing the viewer of exactly how and why Schama made inferences to tell the story of the Murder at Harvard the way he did.  It also presented interesting counter-arguments to his version of the story, as well as historians who do not agree with his blending of fact and fiction.  For those of us who are reliant on footnotes and endnotes, this form of the “innovative” historical narrative gives us a crutch on which we can rely.  By seeing Schama admit to places where he made leaps of faith in his narrative, it gives us a more reassuring feeling, and there is less actual blending of fact with inference.

However much I was initially confused with Schama’s method and narrative, and dissatisfied with the end result, I think that he is on to something for the future of the presentation of history.  In order to present new perspectives and ideas about older history in which we do not have an abundance of sources, today’s historians must be more innovative in the way they present their works and analyze their sources.  Perhaps one day, more historians will embrace Schama’s method and refine it to something more mainstream.

Historian Simon Schama writes a book called “Dead Certainties” about a ninteenth-century murder.  We know this book was controversial because Schama interpolates historical fact with fiction.  By using his imagination to embellish the facts of the case, we get a more colorful picture of the actual events.  But it leaves one with the desire to investigate the real from the surreal.  We get a meditation of sorts on the nature of history which makes this film interesting.  Schama must glean some kind of relief from the doldrums of  presenting historical fact in this way.  The fact that he colorizes the plot with his own interpretations makes the documentary more entertaining and more like a movie.  Historians should be frustrated by this subtle remix of fact and fiction because, content and context are both confused.  Overall I think he did a nice job of blending the genre of historical documentation with that of fiction.  How do we know that historical fact is in fact–correct anyway?  We can only base any historical evidence on what another human has recorded.  Is anything ever really accurate?