Thursday, November 30, 2006

Sampling history in the movies

Desson Thomson has a great piece in today's Washington Post about the way recent movies seamlessly blend historical footage into their stories. It was a bit of a stunt in "Zelig," "Forrest Gump," and "Dead Men Wear Plaid," but in movies like "Bobby," "The Good German," and "The Queen," it enhances the way that the fictional characters respond to real-life events. Thomson compares it to sampling classic riffs in a hip-hop song.

As we watch the candidate deliver his ill-fated victory speech -- moments before his assassination -- the interplay between real footage, our knowledge of what's to come and the dramatic reactions of actors such as Hopkins and William H. Macy make us believe we've witnessed Kennedy ourselves. The emotional jolt we're feeling in that moment is a response to something that happened almost 40 years ago.

How much better this is than watching actors -- no matter how assured -- replaying famous people of the past. In Oliver Stone's 1995 "Nixon," Hopkins can never really make us feel we are in the presence of the former president. And try as he might, Bruce Greenwood in the 2000 Cuban missile crisis picture "Thirteen Days" can never evoke President Kennedy the way actual images can. Playing real life people is so analog. In this digital age, why not roll out the real McCoys? This way, great figures of history can walk among us again.

The cross-pollination of images is such a regular part of our Internet-savvy lives -- right now, with just a few Google clicks, you could watch Vice President Cheney spit out Al Pacino's profanity-laced speech from "Scarface." Despite the questionable taste of showing a real president being killed in "Death of a President," it's gratifying to see filmmakers find greater purpose -- and thoughtful artistry -- in our ever-growing backlog of history. Not only can this development underscore movies as a viable pop-cultural force during a time of changing technology, it gives younger generations a living, breathing link to what might otherwise seem a dusty past.

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