“The past is a foreign country,” runs L.P. Hartley’s famous quotation: “they do things differently there.” Has Hollywood ever heard this? Not, apparently, when it was decided that Cleopatra looked like Elizabeth Taylor or that a US military hospital in the Korean War was staffed with sensitive proto-feminists, and not even in the sophisticated meta-culture of the present. The slew of recent films and TV series set in bygone times carries on the show business tradition of misrepresenting how people looked and spoke decades ago, and in a deeper sense the works even fail to capture the way their characters would have really lived. The loss is the audience’s, and history’s.
Anachronisms abound. In the acclaimed Mad Men, Don Draper’s wife tells him, “I can’t deal with this” during an emotional confrontation – is that how spouses argued in 1962? In another episode Don and a female partner share a passionate embrace at a decadent pool party, while just across the water two gorgeous women are themselves kissing erotically. Same-sex amour and faux-lesbianism are no big deals nowadays, but were they so openly conducted fifty years back? Recently, Don has even reflected to the psychedelic strains of the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” in 1966 – a great song, we now know, but would a Brylcreemed ad exec really take an interest in an experimental album track at the time?
In Mad Men and elsewhere, the common mistake is in depicting the past with the sensibility of the present: costume dramas are appealing enough as long as the costumes are the only foreign element for viewers to take in. So, yes, it’s entertaining to see how ad executives of the Camelot era guzzled martinis and smoked heavily, but seeing how they also wore galoshes, used toothpicks after a meal, enjoyed leisurely games of bridge, or uttered phrases like “By God,” “See here now,” or “Black as the ace of spades” might not be so palatable. Who finds retro hipness in the mannerisms and mindsets of one’s grandparents?
Sometimes the bloopers are unintentionally comic. Think of 1997’s Titanic, when Rose and her mother are prescient enough to travel with some canvases of Monet’s Water Lilies they’ve acquired on their European jaunt, or when the elderly Rose (Gloria Stuart) recalls her nude portrait sitting with Leonardo DeCaprio’s Jack: “It was the most erotic experience of my life,” she says wistfully, in language typical of every other centenarian you know. Sometimes the mistakes are grating, as in the recent World War II movie Red Tails, where racially segregated African-American fighter pilots – highly professional aviators, in other words, with a lot to prove in 1944 – behave and talk like homeboys just hangin’ in the hood.
More often in these films there is simply some indefinable inaccuracy in the way people carry themselves, or their vocabulary, or even their physiques. Just as you can usually tell when a photograph was taken by the clothes and hairstyle of the subject, you can also date the picture by her pose or his posture. It’s not always the fashions that are the giveaway – it can even be in the facial expressions, the body shapes, the dental health, the consciousness of the camera. When we talk about a current decline of civility, we are referring not just to profanity or public slovenliness, but to an overall erosion of personal dignity and decorum that has been occurring for generations. The point is not whether this erosion is good or bad (or just the way things have always gone), but that, at some intimate levels, we just aren’t the same as we used to be. Computer-generated imagery (CGI) can recreate P-51 Mustangs and Edwardian ocean liners, but it can’t fake the civilization’s worth of learned habits held by the individuals they carried.
Likewise, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln bio-pic, and versions of On The Road and The Great Gatsby (with a hip-hop soundtrack), are set in the 1860s or the 1920s or the 1950s but made by filmmakers and performed by actors who live by Twenty-First Century standards of nutrition, grooming, verbal styles and rhetorical inflection. Some works of historical fiction may be more “accurate,” technically, than others, but few really recreate the cultures of the eras they depict. To best capture the original sixteenth president, or Nick Carraway or Dean Moriarty (or Don Draper, or Rose, or the Tuskegee airmen), cineastes would have to resuscitate someone who actually lived and breathed and was socialized in the same period: very old or long dead men and women raised in separate, distant worlds which, the expensive efforts of casting directors, set decorators, wardrobe personnel and special effects notwithstanding, are now irrevocably lost to us.