Martin Miller: Are Reenactments Good TV AND Good History?

Roundup: Talking About History

Martin Miller, in the LAT (3-18-05):

The revolution may not be televised, but it will probably be reenacted.

Around for decades, re-creating historical events for television is flourishing as never before. Once viewed as unsophisticated, hopelessly inaccurate and at times even cheesy, the reenactments are now a documentary staple able to inject thrilling action sequences and emotional complexities into the conventional, staider format of narration, static visuals, archival footage and talking-head interviews. Although the hybrid technique of combining the documentary and docudrama style is winning newfound respect, it still rankles traditionalists concerned over the blurring of reality and fiction.

The technique recently rocketed to national attention as E! Entertainment began unrolling its daily reenactments of the Michael Jackson trial. While Jackson redux continues to draw smirks and darts from cultural critics, reenactments nevertheless are being credited with attracting a new generation of demanding, some might say ADD-suffering, audiences.

Last month, venerated PBS broadcast two highly regarded documentaries -- "Slavery and the Making of America" and "Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State" -- that, among other things, dramatized scenes of antebellum slave auctions and Nazi decision makers determining the fate of European Jews. The History Channel later this month will run a four-part series called "Conquest of America" about the early European explorers of North America that shows the mutiny of Henry Hudson's crew and Francisco Vasquez de Coronado's slaughter of Native Americans.

Such reenactments are no longer the exception but the expectation, particularly for programs courting a bigger audience. Indeed, the vast majority of documentaries greenlighted these days at PBS, History Channel and other stations feature reenactments, which range from a few moments of dialogue-free action to full-blown epic re-creations.

Certainly, broadening television markets and technological advancements in camera and special effects equipment have played a key role in the rise of reenactments. The performances themselves have greatly improved, with many shows seeking out theatrically trained reenactors rather than mere weekend enthusiasts.

But as much as anything, the most powerful force behind the trend is that history-loving, channel surf-happy audiences now demand them.

"People are impatient. TV now has to move fast now. It's hard to move fast if all you can show is a landscape where something happened," said Michael Rosenfeld, an executive producer of an upcoming documentary based on UCLA professor Jared Diamond's book "Guns, Germs and Steel" for PBS using reenactments slated for airing this year. "We are storytellers, and reenactments gives you a bigger palette to work with."

In this visual age, with the camera seemingly omnipresent, the public has become accustomed to witnessing dramatic events in ways never known in human history. A tsunami devastating a small Indonesian village, an American beheaded in Fallouja -- it's all on tape and shown on television or the Internet.

In part, because of the instant availability of these often gruesome realities and because of the rising quality of the reenactments themselves, audiences now expect "the camera to be everywhere and anywhere, even in the privacy of bedrooms and boardrooms," said Joe Saltzman, a former documentarian and now a journalism professor at USC.

However, the trend toward reenactments is not without debate. Critics regard it as further evidence of a dumbing-down of America. Cable stations scramble to fill huge programming gaps with cost-effective, often sensationalized reenacted historical tales, while a recliner-bound audience waits to be spoon-fed a version of events driven more by ratings than a commitment to the truth, detractors argue. Even reenactment supporters worry about this natural tension between historical accuracy and entertainment and ultimately how that struggle will come to color the past.

"I don't mind filmmakers enriching their stories with reenactors if they do their homework," said Robert C. Doyle, an associate professor of history at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, who has consulted on a number of documentary and feature film projects like "Hart's War." "But that's the rub. Most times, history is messy and disorderly, and believe me, filmmakers hate that. They like it tight. Trouble is real life isn't that way, so sometimes they feel they have license to rewrite history, and that's where the real problem lies."

Other critics, such as widely acclaimed documentarian Ken Burns, are more pointed: "I'm against the laziness of reenactments because what they suggest to the audience is that everything can be fudged and nothing is true. If you're going to go that far, why not just make a dramatic film?"

"Reenactments are prettified pictures of the past, they're an elaborate vamping," continued Burns, whose most recent work, "Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson," aired this year on PBS with no reenactments. "I hate them."

Another interpretation

It's precisely the postmodern debate over the subjective nature of truth that has cleared the path for the greater use of historical reenactments. Nobody really knows exactly how or why events happen, particularly as one gets further away from primary source materials. Even if good sources exist, accounts often contradict and conflict with one another.

So why not offer another interpretation, enlivened by reenactments, that can animate the past and even exhume forgotten important episodes once too boring to read? It's little different than reading historical fiction or applauding live reenactments of the Civil War and Revolutionary War, supporters say.

"We're all in this business of speculation," said Robert Brent Toplin, a history professor at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington who has written historical dramas for television. "Even when historians talk about, say, Coronado's travels, they are just looking at fragments, they're just guessing. The problem with film is you can't hide behind words and quotations, you have to show what you think."...

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