Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Local History, Recent History, and Authenticity: What Patriots' Day Gets Wrong

One of my post-election actions was to purchase a subscription to the New York Times. I added the app to my phone, and since then have read a handful of articles every day. (I'm also loving the mini crossword puzzle as a quick jolt of puzzle-solving & success to start my day.)

An article I read on the day it came out last week has stuck with me and bounced around in my brain ever since.

'Patriots Day' Disconnect Between Bostonians and the Rest of Us

I wasn't in Boston on that fateful Patriot's Day. I had moved to Vermont a few months earlier. I did have the day off, and had the race on TV and was tracking several friends on my phone to see their finishing times. When news of the bombing broke, I wanted to be in Boston, the city of my childhood and my graduate years. I quickly found that I couldn't listen to or watch anything but local news. I downloaded the WBUR app for my phone and listened to it nonstop for breaking news. I wanted voices and faces I recognized and trusted.

I followed those voices through the manhunt in Watertown, and soon had my own unnerving connection to the tragedy: Sean Collier was from my hometown, a few years behind me in high school. I knew his sister better, but I still have a wisp of a memory of Sean as a freshman in the band room. Now he was dead, and though I had perhaps said a half-dozen words to him in my life, it was personal all over again.

I was lucky enough, in 2014, to see Rainey Tisdale's exhibition at the Boston Public Library, "Dear Boston." I had a few hours to spare while visiting Boston and seeing the exhibition was on the top of my list. It was a deeply emotional exhibit, and one of the rare exhibits that my "museum brain" fizzled out repeatedly while viewing. Each time I focused on construction, design, or theory, that thought stuttered to a stop, half-formed. I simply reacted.

I'm not sure someone who wasn't from Boston would have had that reaction. In a similar way, I doubt I would have that reaction at the 9/11 Memorial site. Though deeply affected by that tragedy, like all Americans (it was my first day of classes at college, and it seems like every minute of that week is engraved in my memory) New York is not my city. It wasn't a personal tragedy.

From the moment I saw the previews for the movie Patriots Day, I also felt like many of the people quoted in the New York Times article: uneasy, offended, even borderline repulsed. The author of the article chalks that up to a deep familiarity with the facts behind the narrative. She argues that many Bostonians have followed the story of the bombing so closely that they are jarred by the artistic licenses taken by the film.

I don't think that's right. I think there's something deeper. I think that Bostonians are reacting on an emotional level to the simple existence of the movie, in the same way that I felt in "Dear Boston." I think that there's an exposed nerve here, and it's mixed up in some deeply profound and personal touchstones.

First: local history. Why are people so passionate about things that happened on their block, in their town, their county, their state? Is it some kind of ingrown nativism, a pride of place? Is it simply more accessible? Or is there something deeper, and more primal - is there something deeply satisfying in looking at a moment in history and saying mine? Where are the intersections of this impulse and place? Is this part of that alchemy of place-based history that I am still not sure we really understand? Either way, Boston is already a place with territorial impulses, the Hub of the Universe, and the local history of the Marathon bombing is theirs, "Our Marathon," as the Northeastern University digital project titled it.

Second: recent history. This is a much more obvious call-out. There's a reason that films about recent history, especially recent tragedies, are decried as exploitation. Sometimes - oftentimes - they are. There's money to be made in hitting those raw emotions with a mallet, and human beings are drawn to the manipulation of those emotions like moths to a flame. Every movie made about a recently dead celebrity, terrible tragedy, or deeply emotional event that's still in the news will be decried by many as a cash grab. I think there are a few things at play here: on the most obvious level, people often reject obvious manipulation of their emotions. I think there's also a sense that a properly thoughtful treatment of events needs time to simmer. It needs time for us to think and process instead of simply reacting. But that could be the historian in me.

Third: authenticity. Can you ever really suspend disbelief to participate in a fictional narrative about something that you were so deeply embedded in? This is where the New York Times article gets closest to the truth. There definitely is a tendency to subject movies based on real events to a deeper scrutiny. Sometimes that's appropriate, sometimes not. Movies are not documentaries are not history books. They have a specific type of storytelling that strives for emotional impact over hard adherence to the facts. That's right and good; they are true to their medium. But it's a tough balance, and it's rare that a movie is made about something that is so personal to so many people.

I think that it's the confluence of these three strong wells that explains why Boston is upset about this movie. I also think it offers hope to us in museums and history for thinking about going forward. Where there is deep emotion, there is also strength, and there is potential. In this instance, it's negative, but we need to remember that going back to those wells can be reinvigorating for positive purposes as well.

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