Much, most, actually all of the last week was spent in bed with the world’s worst cold, which dragged on and on and on. At first I thought fine, I need a break, I’ll just lie here and read, but I was so stuffy and sneezy and miserable that I couldn’t really concentrate on most of the books I had on hand, so I gave in and turned on the television. Hours passed by staring rather blankly at the screen, and my beloved TCM let me down by showing too many Marx Brothers movies and musicals, so I became my own programmer and ordered up a bunch of HBO movies. I know we’re in the (second) Golden Age of Television, but I really couldn’t commit to an entire series–after all, I could have died at any moment. I started with Elizabeth I (2005) which is actually a miniseries, but I have seen it before so I thought I could commit (or live through) four hours–and it always makes me feel better to see or think about Elizabeth. This particular Elizabeth is characterized by a rather plodding narrative of events during the latter half of the Virgin Queen’s reign, but Helen Mirren (of course) gives a tour-de-force performance and the production values are amazing: you don’t feel as if you are jettisoned into Tudor World as completely as with Wolf Hall and its natural light filming, but Tudor texture is definitely there. Nevertheless, I grew increasingly weary of the exclusively romantic focus: the hardest thing to govern is the heart reads the film’s tagline, but that’s not really true.
Once I left Elizabeth I, I started searching for something that was a bit more foreign to me–and that brought me to films about the twentieth century. I’ve actually watched some of HBO’s films about the very recent past (Recount, Game Change, Too Big to Fail), but I wanted to go a bit further back: the twentieth century is my least-familiar, least-favorite century, so I knew I wouldn’t grind my teeth over every little detail as with a Tudor film. I landed on a rather inanely titled film named Conspiracy (2001) which I had never heard of but which almost immediately caught my attention–and held it, rapt. Conspiracy is about the January 1942 Wannsee Conference which settled upon the Final Solution in a single afternoon, actually only 90 minutes as it was more of an announcement that a settlement. The whole movie is Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil in action: the conversation about “evacuation” happens during a long lunch in the beautiful dining room of a suburban Berlin villa. Not just the idea, but the logistics of the Final Solution are discussed while horrible men (played by wonderful and familiar actors, including Kenneth Branagh, Colin Firth, Stanley Tucci, and Downton Abbey’s Brendan Coyle) are eating and drinking. A really chilling film that deserves a less generic title.
Conspiracy was so good I wanted more, but I didn’t really find anything that came close among my options: John Frankenheimer’s Path to War (2002), about LBJ’s escalation of the Vietnam War, probably came the closest because you felt a bit of a chill (when American generals were talking, rather than German Nazis) but it still seemed like more of a “made-for-television-movie” rather than a film. Michael Gambon as Johnson was riveting, though, as most British actors playing American presidents are. Most, but not all: Kenneth Branagh’s performance as a pre-presidential FDR dealing with his diagnosis of polio in Warm Springs (2005) really pales–I suppose it has to–in comparison with his haunting characterization of SS General Reinhard Heydrich, the so-called “Hangman” and/or “Blonde Beast” and chair of the Wannsee Conference, in Conspiracy. Nevertheless, I felt sorry for Mr. Roosevelt and grasped the empathetic development of his social conscience, just like HBO wanted me to. Still in the mood for statesmen, I finished my HBO history film series with two biopics about Winston Churchill: Winston in the wilderness in The Gathering Storm (2002, featuring Albert Finney and Vanessa Redgrave) and Winston at war in Into the Storm (2008, featuring Brendan Gleeson and Janet McTeer). Both were fine, with the first better than the second, which suffered from the Elizabeth I problem: we are not satisfied to focus exclusively on Winston when World War II is on in full force. By that time, even with my foggy brain, I had discerned the HBO formula for a historical film:
- A lavish budget: to purchase the services of the best directors and actors, and realistic sets, perfect in every little material detail.
- A focus on personalities. “History” is represented solely as the acts or reactions of people, with little or no attention given to larger environmental or intellectual forces, or context. This approach works best with individuals, which is why so much of HBO history is biography. Conspiracy is an exception, as multiple viewpoints are represented, and even though the context is assumed, there is an underlying subtext of SS infiltration of the entire Nazi regime which enhances the complexity of the presentation.
- Narrative. Given this biographical approach to history, departures from narrative can be as confusing as multiple perspectives.
- The more recent, the better. Because of the reluctance to engage in complexities and the personal approach, the better HBO histories are going to be focused on relatively recent topics and personalities where there is some familiarity or expectation on the part of the audience. This is why, despite all of the above, Helen Mirren, and a reliance on the BBC’s 2005 Virgin Queen series, Elizabeth I seems rather soul-less and unsatisfying.
- Intimacy. Ultimately, HBO wants to get us into the room where it happened. And of course, we can’t go there.
January 3rd, 2016 at 3:07 pm
Corollary to point #4: Depictions of earlier eras will try to make the characters seem contemporary, especially in those concerns nearest the heart. Otherwise they won’t seem relevant.
January 3rd, 2016 at 3:54 pm
Accepted, because of course matters of the heart are TIMELESS.
January 3rd, 2016 at 6:09 pm
Rules for neoVictorian novels http://littleprofessor.typepad.com/the_little_professor/2006/03/rules_for_writi.html
These apply more widely than to neoVictoriana and to films as well. In the end, we’ve got to be persuaded that everyone in history – or at least the nice chaps – was just like us, really.
January 3rd, 2016 at 8:16 pm
Ummm kind of contrary to my teaching philosophy but understandable!
January 4th, 2016 at 8:14 am
Rule #2 even seems to have been true for some genuine Victorian era novels.
January 3rd, 2016 at 4:26 pm
“too many Marx Brothers movies”
However, I hope you’re recovering well.
January 3rd, 2016 at 8:13 pm
Sorry. Just not a fan. Much better–had my first glass of wine in a week!
January 5th, 2016 at 1:43 pm
…and I’ve got a dreadful cold. The first recoded instance of a genuine virus going across the ‘net?
January 5th, 2016 at 1:58 pm
Oh sorry! I hope it’s not as bad as mine, which lasted a good solid week. Well, maybe you can find some Marx Brothers movies!
January 3rd, 2016 at 5:23 pm
The Goebbels Experiment (2005) is another one that Branagh narrates (reading entries from Goebbels diaries against a historical film backdrop that is well related) and it is riveting–you’ll forget all about the runny nose: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/goebbels/filmmore/index.html
The selection of entries is well done. Conveys that sense of inter-relation between personal and larger history–of someone who at a specific point in his life, just might have gone down a different path,if…. But don’t know if it’s widely available.
That Branagh sure has quite the range, doesn’t he? Not just Shakespeare for him!
I always want Joan Crawford when I’m too sick to read… Have been tempted to buy a DVD set of my favorites but waiting for the next cold/flu to induce me to act.
Hope you continue to mend!
January 3rd, 2016 at 5:34 pm
There’s actually a pretty “reputable” copy of it on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=78_-TQAVIPM
By reputable I mean, no ads, and decent pixel resolution and sound. Must have been posted by PBS.
That is, of course, if you have an appetite for more 🙂 which I would understand if you did not!
January 3rd, 2016 at 5:49 pm
Ah well, actually looks like it’s been edited down from what I remember… Silly me…. trying You Tube … heh.
Maybe TCM will refresh its movie selection!
January 3rd, 2016 at 8:14 pm
Much better–thank you, and thanks for the suggestion. Joan Crawford is great ANY time.
January 3rd, 2016 at 8:20 pm
With YouTube you always get the good with the bad
January 4th, 2016 at 5:14 am
Agreed! for sure!
January 3rd, 2016 at 9:39 pm
THANK YOU! I am thinking of downloading some good viewing into my computer for the next round of endless flights ! I am thrilled with your choices.. you have saved the day! Sorry about the cold.. hope you are feeling better now.. c
January 4th, 2016 at 10:12 pm
Donna, I want to recommend Timothy Snyder’s ‘Black Earth’ compelling interpretation of the holocaust that sets the context for WWII, Holocaust, and our politics now. Snyder deftly organizes many many voices into a page turning narrative. Your movie about Reinhard Heydrich finds him placed in a wider context by Snyder. That context is what I think you are looking for in HBO. Germany and the Soviet Holocaust though are far too complex for HBO, but not for us to grasp now.
thanks for finding a way to cope with your cold. You have so much more reading to do with time passing fast during your break! Please look into Timothy Snyder.
January 5th, 2016 at 7:48 am