Should we bring historians to the movies?
Guest post by Thomas Leitch
Why do otherwise intelligent and discriminating people routinely come away from movies like Selma, American Sniper, The Imitation Game, and The Theory of Everything under the impression that their fictionalizations of history are true? Can’t they tell the difference between real life and the movies?
In a word, no, they can’t, says Jeffrey M. Zacks. Zacks, a professor of psychology and radiology at Washington University in St. Louis and author of Flicker: Your Brain on Movies, argues in a column in the 15 February issue of the New York Times that “our minds are well equipped to remember things that we see or hear—but not to remember the source of those memories”—because “our brain’s systems for source memory are not robust and are prone to failure.” Whether we read something in the newspaper, see footage of it on television or online, or watch it in a movie theater, we come away with much more vivid and precise memories of the content than the source. So we store memories from these very different sources in much the same way, and draw on them as equally authoritative when we search our memories for information.
So far, so illuminating. My only quarrel with Professor Zacks’s perceptive analysis of why people so routinely confuse movies with real life even if they know the movies are fictional concerns its last two sentences: “Having the misinformation explicitly pointed out and corrected at the time it was encountered substantially reduced its influence. But actually implementing this strategy—creating fact-checking commentary tracks that play during movies? always bringing a historian to the theater with you?—could be a challenge.”
The suggestion that bringing a historian along would protect me from indiscriminately remembering misinformation in movies implies that historians are uniquely qualified to pass judgment on factual accuracy. But in fact Professor Zacks’s whole column makes this assumption because it conflates history with what Professor Zacks calls “facts” and “the real world.” As police officers across the country agree, however, there’s a large and troublesome gap between even eyewitness testimony and the facts concerning real-world events. Sergeant Joe Friday was wrong: since the best testimony in the world is still testimony, not even the most reliable witness can give the police just the facts.
Historians are obviously more reliable than eyewitnesses in some ways. They’re more reflective, more disinterested, more likely to check their hypotheses against multiple sources. But since their testimony is always based on other people’s testimony, they’re less reliable than eyewitnesses in other ways. In addition, there are too many examples of biased histories (e.g., North Korean history textbooks, along with any number of textbooks produced around the world during wartime), racist histories (Woodrow Wilson’s History of the American People), and factually inaccurate histories (Michael Bellesisles’s Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture) to justify any such assumption. Since the main reason for writing history, in fact, is to correct earlier histories, it’s doubtful that even historians trust other historians quite as completely as Professor Zacks thinks the rest of us ought to do. If they did, there would be no need for any further histories, only periodic updates, and historians would vanish.
I’d certainly agree that historians and filmmakers adopt very different attitudes toward history, facts, and the real world. But I’d still want to make distinctions among those three different subjects. And although I’m happy to acknowledge that filmmakers often play fast and loose with the facts, even when they advertise their products as “inspired by true events,” I’m a lot less confident than Professor Zacks that historians are so disinterested, reliable, and authoritative that they have a monopoly on the truth. So the next time I take a historian to the movies, I’ll be sure to follow it with dinner—not so that the historian can set me straight, but so that we can talk over the movie as more or less equally intelligent adults. I’m all for watching movies with a critical eye, but I’m not ready to farm out that job to the historians unless they understand that I plan to keep an equally critical eye on them. Meanwhile, I wonder exactly who’s going to be producing those fact-checking commentary tracks Professor Zacks mentions, and what makes them so sure that they have a corner on the truth, too.