History In The Raw

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Another sequence, less familiar to Americans and filmed in 1915, suggests that there was at least some truth to Allied propaganda about Hohenzollern callousness: Kaiser Wilhelm II arrives in the forest for a hunt, wearing a greatcoat and snappy Tyrolean hat, and strides to his shooting stand past a row of helmeted aides. He shoots standing up, his rifle resting comfortably on a shooting stick, then steps back and waits impatiently as a uniformed officer reloads so that he can fire again. Separate shots show that he is shooting into a large herd of stags, milling, antler-to-antler, within a wire enclosure. The captive animals collapse one by one, until His Imperial Majesty grows bored.

Closer to our own time, home movies made in the White House during the reign of Lyndon Johnson display his distinctive brand of megalomania in a scene more telling than any sane novelist would dare invent. LBJ is seen from behind, seated before three big color-television sets on each of which he is seen gravely delivering a speech. A small grandson in pajamas enters and is encouraged to kiss Grandpa good-night on all three giant screens.

It is also refreshing to watch events unreel exactly as they happened, without the sententious narration that was the worst fault of the old newsreels for which most of them were shot, and which remains the besetting sin of modern documentaries.

Historical figures are allowed to speak and act on their own—even to make fools of themselves. I particularly enjoyed a 1935 piece in which a colossally patronizing George Bernard Shaw explains that, thanks to a “very intelligent gentleman named Adolf Hitler,” they needn’t “be frightened anymore about the Germans.”

Fascinating stuff, but no collection is better than its sources; and the newsreels from which most of these brief pieces were culled were short on sub- stance, long on human interest and sports and local color. So is Videotape News Library . Among these seventy-five expensive hours, there are an awful lot of spring hats, natural disasters, needlein-the-haystack contests, and football games photographed from too far away.

In these seventyfive hours of videotape, there are an awful lot of spring hats and ball games shot from too far away.

More recent events are often summarized precisely as they were on the evening news, minus only narration, with quick-cut collages of color tape and news film. Without the reassuring, actorish tones of an anchorperson, the actual sounds of streetfighting in Nicaragua, or the cries of the survivors of the Union Carbide disaster at Bhopal, evoke a disturbing immediacy that even the most sensitive voice-over reporting somehow dilutes.

Yet these reports often seem to have been chosen without any apparent logic other than that the events they record were once judged newsworthy by television, and that at some point they became available to the omnivorous compilers of the series. It’s hard, for example, to see what use most classrooms will make of fourteen separate segments on Spiro Agnew; four minutes on the trials of John DeLorean; two and a half minutes of the (presumably) late Jimmy Hoffa paying tearful tribute to the loyalty and patience of his wife and children; forty-six sec- onds of enthusiastic Japanese eating pasta. (This last clip is solemnly indexed under “Japanese Noodles: A Delicacy.”)

And sometimes the written commentary has little or nothing to do with what is being shown: a fuzzy, silent, twentyseven-second black-and-white sequence of John Kennedy being presented a gift rifle in the White House is accompanied by a two-page biography of Cyrus Vance, ostensibly because Vance was one of the presenters; actually, I suspect, because it was easier to try to provide some sort of tenuous rationale for including this essentially pointless clip than to go to the trouble and expense of replacing it with something else.

A little judicious winnowing would have reduced the set’s bulk—and presumably its cost.

Finally, not enough work seems to have gone into researching what we see in the actual clips themselves; scenes from an early silent burlesquing a small town’s exaggerated reaction to a primitive automobile are presented as if they were the real thing; so is a patently faked restaging of an 1899 fight between Jim Jeffries and Bob Fitzsimmons; a Charlie Chaplin sequence is rendered largely meaningless because the Little Tramp’s expressive face is cut off at the top of the screen; Andrew Carnegie is virtually invisible in a segment entitled “Andrew Carnegie Visits Miami Beach.”

The Video Encyclopedia of the 20th Century belongs in any school or library that is both seriously interested in affording students glimpses of the past and can come up with the money. But it still suffers from the weaknesses that plague the local TV news shows in your town and mine for which it was originally created—haste, inaccuracy, trivialization, lack of perspective.

News producers have a built-in excuse: they have to be on the air every night at six and eleven. The producers of this recycled series had the opportunity to do better, and since nothing remotely like it is so far available elsewhere, it seems a special pity they didn’t take the time.