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History In The Raw

May 2024
6min read

When I was in school in the 1950s, audiovisual aids were still pretty primitive: jittery 16-mm movies shown on a battered pull-down screen, using an ancient projector whose eccentricities were understood only by the pale initiates of the AV club. Educational films were most often shown in science classes, usually lent free by industrial firms looking for recruits.

The big, gray cans of film turned up at the school on a tight but mysterious schedule of their own, so that just when we were about to begin dissecting frogs, we would take an unexpected hour out to see a movie on glassblowing or pouring molten steel. The classroom was dark and warm. The projector’s loud, steady whir was restful. Even the teacher often dozed—altogether a nice break.

. The history films we saw were still less riveting: earnest, costumed playlets, usually, made on minuscule budgets. I remember one film in which Lincoln and Douglas debated the spread of slavery before an excited mob of three.

In the last few years, of course, the VCR has made everyone a member of the AV club; more and more schoolrooms are now arranged around small screens, and distributors are scrambling to provide material to fill them.

Last winter the New York-based CEL Communications, Inc., unveiled what it calls The Video Encyclopedia of the 20th Century , a set of seventy-five hour-long cassettes made up of 2,217 brief clips. Its producers’ intention for the series is “to develop an educational resource that’s literally as indispensable to the learning process as a dictionary.” This is a lofty goal.

So is its cost—eighty-five hundred dollars per set.

Certainly the idea seems sound—a well-indexed collection of taped scenes and events and personalities that will help make modern history vivid for a student generation bored with the bloodlessness of standard textbooks and already accustomed to getting its information from television. At the push of the Play button, students can glimpse San Francisco after the earthquake, Lindbergh landing in Paris, John Glenn returning safely from his circuit of the globe.

The sequences—the longest run about ten minutes, most are two minutes or less—are arranged in roughly chronological order, beginning with Little Egypt’s alarmingly wobbly dance at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 and ending with the accession to power of the Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev just last year. A massive, cross-referenced index provides the location of each clip —though a lot of reversing and fastforwarding is still required to pinpoint it exactly. And partly because much of the footage is silent (except for speeches and interviews), background material is provided for each sequence so that a teacher can cobble up his or her own narration to suit the special needs of the class. New cassettes are promised annually to bring the series up to date, and sometimes to include older material that only recently has come to light.

But after working with the indexes and commentaries and watching several hours of tape, I’m sorry to have to report that the series falls sadly short of what it might have been.

Despite its new, more dignified garb —each cassette comes in a classy maroon box with gold stamping—this is a repackaged version of Videotape News Library , which the same firm has been leasing to local TV news departments for years. Compiled for the most part from snippets of old newsreels, supplemented by low-cost footage from various sources, mostly governmental, it was meant to provide overworked news directors with instant access to background material for a breaking story or for a daily one-minute feature on “What Happened Today in History” (in fact, the new index still includes a section organized by dates).

Much of the raw material is compelling, and 1 envy the students who will now be able to produce their own inhouse historical documentaries on, say, presidential inaugurations (all of them since McKinley’s are here), or women’s fashions (the fashion show was a newsreel staple for fifty years, and there are scores of them in the collection).

It is great fun, too, to be able to summon up great events and important personages at will. I was especially struck by the earliest sequences on the cassettes, simply because it will always seem astonishing to me that there should exist any motion-picture film of, say, returning Spanish-American War veterans stepping up Broadway in 1898, or the traffic streaming past London’s Marble Arch two years earlier than that—two dozen different kinds of horse-drawn vehicles, from lumbering double-decked streetcars to spidery little runabouts driven by swells in top hats, with a lonely bobby waving vaguely at the flood as it breaks over him.

And even a few feet of well-chosen film can often convey more about a person than can whole chapters of conventional biography. No writer, for example, has ever captured the hyperkinetic, heedless side of Theodore Roosevelt’s personality quite so well as does a single brief sequence made at Sagamore Hill: TR stumps across the lawn and into the woods, ax in hand, flings off his jacket, and assaults a slender tree, chopping furiously until it falls—unfortunately, toward the camera.

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.

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