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Reel History: The World According to the…
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Reel History: The World According to the Movies (udgave 2016)

af Alex von Tunzelmann (Forfatter)

MedlemmerAnmeldelserPopularitetGennemsnitlig vurderingSamtaler
212852,060 (2)Ingen
Was the printing press invented by King Arthur? Did William 'Braveheart' Wallace father Edward III of England? And did Jon Bon Jovi rescue an Enigma machine during World War II? From ancient Egypt to the Tudors to the Nazis, the film industry has often defined how we think of the past. But how much of what you see on the screen is true? And does it really matter if filmmakers just make it all up? Picking her way through Hollywood's version of events, acclaimed historian Alex von Tunzelmann sorts the fact from the fiction. Along the way, we meet all our favourite historical characters, on screen and in real life: from Cleopatra to Elizabeth I, from Spartacus to Abraham Lincoln, and from William Shakespeare to John Lennon. Based on the long-running column in the Guardian, Reel History takes a comic look at the history of the world as told through the movies the good, the bad, and the very, very ugly.… (mere)
Medlem:jenn.juniper
Titel:Reel History: The World According to the Movies
Forfattere:Alex von Tunzelmann (Forfatter)
Info:Atlantic Books (2016), Edition: Main, 352 pages
Samlinger:Dit bibliotek
Vurdering:
Nøgleord:Ingen

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Reel History: The World According to the Movies af Alex Von Tunzelmann

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One of the most astonishingly inept, flighty and inconsistent pieces of writing I have ever come across, written with a chest-puffed-out brainless confidence that seems to have duped a number of readers. I feel overwhelmed at the prospect of writing this review, such are the size and multitude of the errors, fallacies and banal prejudices that Alex von Tunzelmann has delivered to us in Reel History. God help me…

Inconsistency, hypocrisy are the main characteristics of the book, flavoured with a joyless insincerity that someone seems to have told her at some point was in fact a razor-sharp, aloof wit. The jokes are lazy and clumsily inserted ("some of us passed History GCSE with less" (pg. 4), for example) and seem to be there because it is expected that books like this are meant to be light and zany and self-referential, rather than because it helps the book's argument. "Bad news for our plucky heroes: it's human sacrifice day in Maya Town", von Tunzelmann writes of Mel Gibson's Mayan epic Apocalypto (pg. 94). You might get away with lines like that when you're churning out daily copy for the Guardian's puff pages, but not if you're going to collect that work and publish it as a book.

"I have certainly never suggested…", von Tunzelmann says in her fatally-inept introduction, talking down to the reader from the off. This intro claims that the book will be objective about the real history, that it will 'go easy' on movies for making legitimate storytelling decisions (such as condensing a timeline or simplifying peripheral characters), and that it takes a dim view of history being used as propaganda. She then spends more than three hundred pages – including in the very same introduction – doing the complete opposite.

There is a persistent, sour-faced strain of right-on political correctness that borders on self-parody, as you might well expect from a Guardian columnist. Criticising the number of films that are focused on the Western-based "doings of white, heterosexual, Christian men of the upper classes" as early as page 2, von Tunzelmann continuously plucks at such low-hanging fruit. This would be tedious enough, but she cannot even make a meal out of it. In true Guardian style, she uses one tweet by some random person on the Internet as evidence that American Sniper encouraged outpourings of racism (pg. 6). She condemns old Fifties movies for casting white people as Egyptian rulers (pg. 12) and, bizarrely, seems quite put-out that Black Hawk Down did not have any women with guns (pg. 306). She claims the idea that a white abolitionist could save a black slave is "far-fetched" (pg. 182), and seems quite astonished that the historical source material for 12 Years a Slave confirms that such an act of basic human decency, quite divorced from and unaware of 21st-century intersectional politics, is indeed true. Should any film emerge in future that makes a pro-imperial argument, von Tunzelmann writes in a pompous pledge on page 195, "Reel History will be ready to challenge it." Presumptive and subjective dismissal of hypothetical arguments that have not even been made yet. And this is a book that claims to be preserving the practice of history! Academic historical discipline has always been based on objectivity, evidence and sober consideration of the facts as they become available. It is ironic that a book about how history is so easily distorted for propaganda is so slavish and myopic to its author's own ideological prejudices.

And it is not only the right-on criticism, but the hypocrisy of it. Von Tunzelmann chokes at the injustice of young actresses "forced to do a sexy dance" in a film, seeing this as evidence of "patriarchy" (pg. 12), and says this only two pages after she makes disparaging remarks about Mickey Rourke's looks. Whilst the actresses are summarily described as 'forced', not long after von Tunzelmann assumes that the male actors in Roman epics are looking for "excuses… to pose wearing only… scanty peplum" (pg. 33). The shallow, self-parodic Guardianista tendencies of the book are – remarkably – not its worst feature, but the harping-on and lack of self-awareness only make a tedious book even more so.

Rather, what proves the fatal flaw in Reel History is its omnipresent inconsistency and lack of coherent thought. As an argument, a thesis, a polemic or a reader, it is appallingly amateurish. I have already mentioned how von Tunzelmann sets out her parameters in her introduction, only to immediately and then continuously ignore them over the next three hundred pages. There seems to be no overarching purpose to the book, only the shuffling of a deck of film titles and then commenting briefly on whichever one emerges. There is no comparative discussion of movies and their trends or features in how they approach history, or their cultural impact. Consider the following two passages from the book:

"There are heart-stopping recreations of wartime experiences, such as Saving Private Ryan (1998), Schindler's List (1993), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) or Das Boot (1981)." (pg. 241)

"There are plenty of fine American films about the [Vietnam] war. The Deer Hunter (1978), Coming Home (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979), Good Morning Vietnam (1987), Full Metal Jacket (1987), Casualties of War (1989) and so on." (pg. 277)

Those three descriptive sentences are the only occasions when any of those seismic historical movies are mentioned in Reel History. I am quite serious. And they are far from the only omissions. You could probably write a more comprehensive or incisive book on the historical film genre by using only the ones von Tunzelmann omits, rather than the ones she does choose.

In fact, von Tunzelmann seems to go out of her way to find the worst examples of historical inaccuracy in film, even relatively obscure ones, simply so she can deploy her tired snark. For example, on page 151 she perfunctorily notes the historical merit of one film, Revolution, but only so she can introduce another, lesser, film – an obscure 1972 musical about the Founding Fathers called 1776, whose rhymes she then sniggers at. The supposed historical merits of Revolution are not expanded upon, in this, a book about the portrayal of history on the movie screen.

What is more, her opinions are entirely facile, with a very shallow reading of both history and cinema. On the cinematic validity of that 1776 musical, she snarks at how someone could be so dense as to write a musical about the Founding Fathers of all things, but no doubt within a year of the book's publication she would be waxing lyrical along with all the other worthies about a little play called Hamilton. Regarding the history, among the worst of the many partisan readings is when von Tunzelmann tears into Margaret Thatcher for the sinking of the Belgrano (in a discussion of Meryl Streep's The Iron Lady), arguing that the warship was sailing away from the exclusion zone (pg. 300). Denouncing the sinking as a cover-up, she fails to appreciate that a) there was a war on, in which Argentina had been the unprovoked aggressor; b) it was a warship still in that clearly-demarcated exclusion zone, and c) ships are capable of turning around, and in fact do so quite often.

Consider also that she opens a discussion of the Zack Snyder film 300 by quoting some rather astute observations on the film made by historian Tom Holland, before ignoring them completely and giving them an 'entertainment grade' of 'E' and a 'history grade' of 'Fail'. Von Tunzelmann is not objective or weighing things up even-handedly; the book is the personal, prejudiced blog thoughts of a writer who is not particularly interesting, insightful or consistent.

Rating systems are always fraught with peril, but von Tunzelmann's are particularly disputable as she does not seem to have any rules and does not follow any from film to film. The history grades are all over the place, but von Tunzelmann's personal preferences are particularly egregious in the entertainment grades. Subtitled and high-brow movies are routinely given an 'A' for entertainment, where some quite nifty crowd-pleasing blockbusters are given a 'B' or a 'C' for the same. She is quite impossible to please, and it seems like she does not really enjoy film. She allows each of her rating systems to influence the other, and is bad at assessing both. The 9/11 film United 93 is described as "superbly made and authentic in feel" (pg. 319), two pages after she gave it a 'C' grade for both entertainment and history. It is never all that much fun to read a book that the writer is making up as they go along.

All of this is to say that Reel History is a fart in a room with no windows. Sour, purposeless and self-satisfied, and not so much breezy in tone as flighty, the book is incomprehensive and overly dismissive. It does get some things right (on the stopped-clock principle), such as caustic denunciatory passages of both the church-massacre scene in The Patriot (pg. 155) and the snobbish 'Shakespeare couldn't possibly have written his own plays' conspiracy theory (pg. 115). But these are the only two passages for which I am grateful for, and whilst I was stimulated by the book, this was because of my bafflement at its ignorant confidence rather than any of its opinions. It was always going to be hard to get a reader onside when the whole premise of the book is to critique, often negatively, but Alex von Tunzelmann does not help herself. A genuine love for either movies or Western history – both of which characterised a quite wonderful book with a similar premise by George MacDonald Fraser – would have helped Reel History immensely. As it is, you don't learn anything new. All you get out of it is that, well, sometimes historical films are made and they are sometimes inaccurate. As a more incisive guide, or even as a light overview, Reel History is lamentable. ( )
1 stem MikeFutcher | Jul 7, 2019 |
The premise that historical films have little to do with the actual historical events they are based on is not something new. We all know that (I hope) and this is one of the reasons I try to do my homework before I watch a film or any TV-series based on a by-gone era. If I discover that they vary from the truth, I will not watch it. Having said that, I am not sure what this book wanted to prove and, frankly, amidst all those poorly-made jokes, the witticism (just because books like these are supposed to be witty) and the dubious attempts in film criticism, I did not have the patience to find out. In my opinion, it was an interesting idea, it looked as if it had some potential, but its execution was just not there.
  AmaliaGavea | Jul 15, 2018 |
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Was the printing press invented by King Arthur? Did William 'Braveheart' Wallace father Edward III of England? And did Jon Bon Jovi rescue an Enigma machine during World War II? From ancient Egypt to the Tudors to the Nazis, the film industry has often defined how we think of the past. But how much of what you see on the screen is true? And does it really matter if filmmakers just make it all up? Picking her way through Hollywood's version of events, acclaimed historian Alex von Tunzelmann sorts the fact from the fiction. Along the way, we meet all our favourite historical characters, on screen and in real life: from Cleopatra to Elizabeth I, from Spartacus to Abraham Lincoln, and from William Shakespeare to John Lennon. Based on the long-running column in the Guardian, Reel History takes a comic look at the history of the world as told through the movies the good, the bad, and the very, very ugly.

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