Both Sides Now

December 20, 2006 History, Interpretation, Vision and Style Comments (0) 1191

Two similar things occur and you imagine you have spotted a trend. Yesterday I read an article by Neil Asher Silberman in Archaeology magazine about Waterloo, where a new interpretive scheme and visitors center are being built. This is in Belgium, where Napoleon was finally defeated by Wellington in 1815. Silberman was very critical, both because the new visitors center construction would destroy archaeological evidence of the battle and because the new interpretive scheme would take pains not to portray the battle in nationalistic terms. Silberman was nonplussed: “one side undoubetedly won and the other quite certainly lost.” This was Waterloo, after all. Moreover, the plan was being done by an advisory panel, an exhibit design firm and the dude who directed Cirque de Soleil. The implied commodification of history was disturbing.

Then this morning’s paper announced Clint Eastwood’s new film, “Letters from Iwo Jima,” released two months after “Flags of our Fathers”. Both are about the same World War II battle – one told in English from the American perspective; the other in Japanese from the Japanese perspective.

So here is the trend and here is the misreading: Hysteric ideologues would see all this as political correctitude gone overboard (although if they were honest, they would admit that they don’t need “overboard” to go ballistic – even the hint of balance will do it.) We can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys!

To me the problem is not one of telling both sides of the story or whose perspective is right. It isn’t even about who is telling the story. It IS about who is hearing the story and how they hear it. No one – not even in Wal-Mart – is a mere passive receptacle fit only for premammalian imprinting. A good Waterloo or Iwo Jima interpretation – like a good movie – lets the viewer in and gives them the tools to craft their own interpretation.

There is a marvelous, frightening feeling to ambiguity and a corresponding claustrophobia to certainty. Several years ago, two World War II movies came out near the same time – Matlick’s “The Thin Red Line” and Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan”. The latter was a bigger hit but the former was a better movie because it was loaded with ambiguity from the get-go – you couldn’t even tell the main characters apart. Private Ryan required not a moment’s thought afterwards. I’m STILL thinking about The Thin Red Line. Spielberg won the box office and the awards, but even his good movies are one-track roller coasters without room for ambiguity. I remember seeing Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” when it came out in 1979. I was only a kid, but I knew I had been cheated and suckered, taken for a ride on a roller coaster. I walked away with that dirty feeling of manipulation and violation. Forced onto the one-interpretation-only express with no room for my thoughts or emotions. “AI” was the same.

All of this is not to become a film critic but to understand that interpretation – and I am doing a seminar on interpreting historic sites next semester – can take people on rides or treat them like adults. This is a vote for the latter. And for archaeology – don’t let the suits run your history.

BTW – I am on the radio tomorrow night (Thursday)– AM 720, WGN, Milt Rosenberg’s show, with Wil Hasbrouck and Richard Cahan – talking about preservation…..tune in

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