Friday, October 1, 2010

A pilgrim's progress

What are you working on? I'm sometimes asked. This is my attempt to answer that question in 300 words or less. There's still a lot to be worked out. But this is the state of play in October 2010. --JC

Sensing History: Hollywood Actors as Historians

My current project looks at the way trajectories of American history are embedded in the careers of movie stars. Rather than looking at the interpretation of a particular event in one or more movies, or an interpretation in the acting performance in a movie, it surveys the output of six actors and how each body of work as a whole offers a coherent vision of U.S. history. These versions are not necessarily conscious, are never incontestable, and indeed may be marked by any number of contradictions. But for better and worse they both reflect and project collective understandings that are quite powerful and often independent of academic historians, whether or not these actors are influenced by them.  The six subjects that will be the focus of this inquiry are Clint Eastwood, Denzel Washington, Daniel Day-Lewis, Jodie Foster, Tom Hanks, and Meryl Streep.  For all their obvious differences, each came of age in the second half of the twentieth century, inheriting a skepticism about national institutions that is both characteristic of American history as a whole and particularly intense when their careers crested in the second half of the twentieth century.  In an important sense, they are the most important people of our time in making sense of our national experience.

There are some secondary themes here as well. One is to question to what degree the written word must or should be the primary vehicle of historical analysis, and to what degree other elements, like gesture or emotion, function as legitimate vehicles for historical understanding.  This study also implicitly questions a sometimes presumed difference between history and myth, a distinction that is as often ideological as it is methodological. By focusing on the degree to which both cinematic acting and historical writing are matters of choice that involve winnowing information to its essence, it invites a reconsideration of history as an art rather than a (social) science, and posits the question of what it would take that truth seriously, in terms that are as likely to be moral as they are intellectual.