Wednesday, January 13, 2010

In Praise of Worldcat and Recent and Forthcoming History Films

Randall Stephens

What would I do without Worldcat? 1.4 billion searchable items and counting. Sure, that monster library search engine is great for hunting down obscure books, magazines, theses that were read by only five people, and what have you. But I particularly like to use it to find films. I've tracked down loads of documentaries--on everything from serpent-handling West Virginians in the 1980s to Enlightenment philosophes in 18th-century France--and feature films like The Return of Martin Guerre and Andrei Rublev. You can find the most obscure titles on Worldcat. And, if you locate more than a few libraries that have a given movie, there's a good chance you'll be able to get a copy loaned to you.

I'm a firm believer in showing short film clips (15-20 minutes) in class. It breaks things up nicely and provides much needed visuals. (Moving pictures, I hear they call these things.)

I offer up some recent titles, all well worth watching in our out of the classroom. Yet, unfortunately, the BBC Four documentaries are only viewable on-line on the other side of the water.

Influenza 1918
January 18, 2010, 1 hour
It was the worst epidemic in American history, killing over 600,000 people—until it disappeared as mysteriously as it had begun.

American Experience: Wyatt Earp, 2010
Jan 25, 2010 at 9/8 C
Wyatt Earp has been portrayed in countless movies and television shows by some of Hollywood’s greatest actors, including Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, and more recently, Kevin Costner, but these popular fictions often belie the complexities and flaws of a man whose life is a lens on politics, justice and economic opportunity in the American frontier.

Sam Cooke: Crossing Over
PBS, American Masters Series, 2010
American Masters celebrates the wonderful world of music game-changer and definitive soul singer Sam Cooke.

Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind ‘Little Women’, 2009
PBS, American Masters
The author of 'Little Women' is an almost universally recognized name whose reputation as a morally upstanding New England spinster masked a literary double life.

The Pacific
HBO Films, coming in 2010
The miniseries tracks the intertwined odysseys of three U.S. Marines - Robert Leckie (played by James Badge Dale), Eugene Sledge (Joe Mazzello) and John Basilone (Jon Seda) - across the vast canvas of the Pacific. The extraordinary experiences of these men and their fellow Marines take them from the first clash with the Japanese in the haunted jungles of Guadalcanal, through the impenetrable rain forests of Cape Gloucester, across the blasted coral strongholds of Peleliu, up the black sand terraces of Iwo Jima, through the killing fields of Okinawa, to the triumphant, yet uneasy, return home after V-J Day.

Killer Subs in Pearl Harbor, 2009
Military and forensics experts investigate the sunken wreck of a Japanese sub and unravel a lingering mystery of WWII.

Lost Kingdoms of Africa: Ethiopia BBC Four
Historian Gus Casely-Hayford explores the history of the old African kingdom of Ethiopia.

Orson Welles over Europe, 2009
BBC Four
Simon Callow looks at the career of Orson Welles after he went into self-exile in Europe.

1 comment:

Lisa Clark Diller said...

Thanks for these suggestions. Having spent 12 hours over this weekend previewing films for this semester's courses, I am especially aware of how helpful it is to have such a list so one doesn't need to "reinvent the wheel" so-to-speak, especially in areas outside one's own specialty.

(By the way, as an early modernist I'm BEGGING for someone to treat the Inquisition on film in a sane manner. I had some high hopes of the recent PBS treatment, but became almost nauseated about 25 minutes into the 240 minute treatment and had to stop watching altogether due to my anger and frustration. I can't even show bits of it as a demonstration of wrongful thinking on the subject because my students are so steeped in pop culture ideas that the last thing they need is PBS confirming all their worst stereotypes with pseudo-scholars and over-sexed dramatizations. But I digress.)

The real challenge pedagogically, it seems to me, is to find the "right" 15-20 minute clip to show in class. I tend to get lazy and show either all or nothing of a particular documentary. This is much less effective than finding a segment that really illustrates what you want them to know and showing a bit of it at the right time in class. There's nothing for this but some re-watching and careful planning. That often goes by the wayside in my own classes, I'm afraid.