06 August 2007

What I've Been Doing

A few people have asked me what exactly I do at History Television. A fair enough and quite normal question to ask. I ask people all the time what they do when at work.

Here's a quick breakdown: the other people (the actual employees) at History give me projects to work on. I work on them, then they give me more.

I also do lots of other things.

We all clear now?

Alright. All kidding aside, I get to, as I said before, watch films and tv shows. It's called "screening" in the film and television industry, and when one receives an advance copy of a show or film, that's called a screener. I've been watching screeners for a series called Crime Stories. Since it's a History Television original series, we ("we" is more a "they", since I am only an intern, and don't really have a whole lot of say in what happens) actually have a lot of input into how the episodes turn out. Not total control, mind you, but editorial and producer-type input. So the production company will go through many stages for each show, from the idea stage, to the scripts, to the screeners.

There may be multiple versions of the script, which are submitted to us, and we read them and give them back for revision. Same for the screeners. The company will submit what is called a "rough cut," which is exactly as it sounds: a rough version of what they envision for the final show. The narrator in the rough cut is likely just someone who works in the studio, there may be footage missing, and the music and sound effects are likely not finalized. Next is the "fine cut," the last step before the show is complete. Again, we'll watch the screeners just as we read the scripts, and submit to the production company what we'd like to see changed, where the story is weak, what needs tweaking, etc.

For Crime Stories, I've been watching the rough cuts and marking down all the scenes with grisly violence. Each cut, rough or fine, or anything else I watch, really, for that matter, has a time code right on the screen. Here's a screen shot with a time code from Deadwood, my favourite show on History (the third and, unfortunately, final season airs on History, beginning in September):

So every time someone is shot, or stabbed, or there are scenes or oral descriptions of violence, I mark down the time, along with a brief description of what is on screen. Its to make sure we are okay to air the episode during daytime television. We wouldn't want any children watching someone lying in a pool of blood, or seeing a re-enactment of Richard Ramirez (a very sick, sick individual) knifing someone.

I've also been working on a project where I check out what's going on on other networks. A bit of seeing what the neighbours are up to, so to speak. I can't say much else about it. It's top secret.

But I would like to share a show with everyone I came across that I think is absolutely hilarious. It's called Flight of the Conchords. It grew out of a stand-up act. Check out this video on YouTube. The two Kiwi blokes who are the stars of the show have some of the driest humour I've ever heard.

In a totally unrelated vein, I came across this great app. More reason for Donna and I to live in Toronto, not some walker-unfriendly suburb.

20 July 2007


I was fortunate enough to be able to attend Alliance Atlantis' final staff party last week. I was expecting a smallish affair, but was blown away when I walked in the door. There were (I was told) some 600-odd people there. Which, upon reflection, really shouldn't have come as a surprise, since Alliance Atlantis is a pretty darn large company.

And that makes the fact that it was the last such party all the more sad. It only dawned on me on the day of the party that, by January 1st 2008 at the latest, Alliance Atlantis will cease to exist. Many of the more than 600 employees have no idea what the future holds for them. Kind of like me. So I felt even more like part of the group that night, the fear and trepidation about the future gripping more than just me.

I've been thinking a lot about what I'll do come September, when I'm no longer a paying member of the academic community. Where does an historian fit into the film and television industry? Does an historian have any place in this industry?

WAAAYYY back in the late 1980s (remember those days, when the neon we wore was matched in tackiness only by the size of women's bangs?), the American Historical Review dedicated an entire issue to this very topic. There are some useful points made by some of the contributors, such as the need for historians to understand how a motion picture actually, practically comes into existence. This back door entry into the film and tv industry is likely going to be the best way for me to have an impact as an historian.

The ethics of public history notwithstanding, a lot of historians look down on works produced and aired on History Television and the like. Part of the disdain, I believe, lies in a perverted sense of the medium in which I now operate. Historians are not, generally, trained to study moving pictures the way they are the written word. The two are very different, yet many continue to apply the same standards and rules to both, which is where things break down.

Perhaps, if I can keep my own standards up, and constantly remember what it is that I think is important in history, and if I work diligently in whatever aspect of the industry I find myself, I'll be able to make decisions that have a positive impact on the public and it's perception and favour for history. That's all I really want to do: make people interested in what happened before today. To do that, the history I create can't be like a chore for those I try to engage. Much of the criticism I've heard - and felt - leveled at history over the years is that it's boring. Which is why I called this blog The Pastime of Past Time; I think history should, and can, be fun, not taxing to the spirit.

I was speaking with Michael Kot, the Director of Original Production at History, about where film and history intersect. One thing he reiterated - and that I've heard almost constantly at History when talking about the production side of the business - is the importance that story plays in everything we do. Having a strong story will draw people in. If people are entertained, they'll keep watching. And maybe, just maybe, we can trick them into learning something. For me, all history (that is, the product of someone's work, not the past as it happened) is about is telling stories, anyway.

I listened to a great podcast this week that mentioned how the things that stay in our brains are the things we focus on and spend more time doing. And it makes sense that people are going to spend more time watching a film or television show they enjoy, rather than one they don't. And since probably 99% of people who tune in to movies and television do so for entertainment first, and education second (if at all, myself included), they're not going to watch something that doesn't entertain them.

Rather than try to get people to change the reasons why they watch history programming, I think the people working at, for, and with History have it right. They're attempting to make and choose shows that fit in with peoples' expectations, without sacrificing their historical integrity.

04 July 2007

Can I Carve the Turkey?

I noted in my last post that I’m interning at History Television three days a week for the next three months. One challenge I’m already facing is shifting my mindset from history to one focused on television; I am fairly certain that the “television” outweighs the “history” in History Television.

I do not mean that as a sleight; it’s just a statement of fact. History Television is a specialty television channel whose content centres around history. In spite of its name, the medium sometimes has priority, not the content, at least as far as historians are concerned. And especially since History Television is but one channel in the Alliance Atlantis constellation (which was recently purchased by CanWest Global).

There are people and executives within the organization who, no doubt – and I don’t blame them – are less concerned about historical accuracy than might be the average historian; what they want is to see the right kind of Nielsen ratings. I am not saying that they have no concern for accuracy, but that theirs is of a different nature than most historians. This is just a practical matter, not unlike a museum’s need to get people through its front door (more on this in a future post).

Moreover, as Robert Rosenstone argues in Revisioning History: Film and the Construction of a New Past, moving image media requires of the viewer an entirely different form of reading than written media. If we take it that film must follow the same standards as the written word for its historical accuracy, we are sorely mistaken, and greatly neglecting wonderful opportunities to present the past.

Film (and when I say film, I mean moving pictures, so television here applies) as history has its own rules and codes and ways of telling about the past that mark it as unique from the written word. I watched a screener with two colleagues here at History Television the other day, and it dawned on me that I need to brush up on my visual reading skills. I'm not terrible at reading film, but I'm not the best I can be, either. I am aware, however, and fully acknowledge that it takes some skill to be able to "read" visual media.

Over the course of my university education (both in and outside the classroom), I acquired the skills necessary to be able to read the written word. Only rarely was I ever made - or challenged, for that matter - to read visual media. So now, wanting to enter the working world as a public historian working with visual media, I find it necessary to develop these skills that my education sorely neglected. Which is a damn shame for a historian, since, as Rosenstone notes, "the visual media have become arguably the chief carrier of historical messages in our culture."

All of this, of course, is not a preface to an argument that says history programming is boring, or that the history presented on History Television is inaccurate. As a matter of fact, in my first week, I re-watched two excellent Canadian historical documentaries: The Bomber’s Dream, by Barry Stevens, and Fatherland, by Manfred Becker (Oh yeah, did I mention that I was paid to watch them? How great is that?). Both of the documentaries – as is the case with all histories – are tainted by some lack of objectivity, amongst other faults. But more so than that, the documentaries (and other television shows I watched) are entertaining, informative, and compelling stories and histories.

Back to my original point.

I think, then, that I need to find a way to reconcile my academic history training with the media in which I plan to work. Taking Rosenstone's point that most of the public gains most of their historical knowledge from visual media, I think it is of utmost importance that historians be involved in the creative processes behind historical films and television (and programming of specialty history channels).

My goal, then, is to try to learn as much as I possibly can about the film and television industries, with the eventual goal of finding employment in those fields in such a way as to exploit my knowledge and, as a coworker put it, historical expertise.

As Bill Turkel once told our Digital History class, if historians want to sit at the table with the people making changes in the world of digital technology, we need to be able to speak the language. Which is what I hope to achieve in the world of television and film: a place at the table, preferably the head, you know, carving the turkey.

08 June 2007

History Television: Week One

I started my internship at History Television this week. Pretty damn cool. It's the most laid back (professional) work atmosphere in which I have ever been employed.

The internship is only three days a week, and I’ll have to commute for about two hours every day, all told, on the subway and train. So, I have a lot of sitting to do, trapped in locomotives.

Thus, to wile away my time, I’ve set myself the lofty goal of doing some readings. Because I’m working in film and television, but coming at it from a public history viewpoint, the major theme of my reading list is film / television and public history.

For anyone else interested, I am including my reading list here. It’s a compilation (though incomplete, I know) of works I think are pertinent to the subject matter. If I were doing a dissertation on this subject, I think I'd submit this, with other supplementary works, as my proposed reading list. If you know of any other readings I could - or should - add, please let me know.

I have no grandiose illusions of getting through this body of literature. But merely compiling it has been a helpful exercise in seeing what's out there on this topic. And besides, even if I could read fast enough to get through this list over the course of my internship, I doubt I would; there are other things I want to read this summer too, you know? I mean, let’s be honest: it’s not as if I am writing a dissertation or anything. Which, by way of tribute, is, sort of, where the idea for posting this reading list came from.

1. Allen, Gene, et al. “’Canadian History in Film’: A Roundtable Discussion.” Canadian Historical Review 82:2 (June 2001): 331-346.
2. “An Interview with Steven M. Gillon, Host of the History Channel's History or Hollywood.” Film & History September 2000 (30:2): 60-62.
3. Barta, Tony, ed. Screening the Past: Film and the Representation of History. Westport: Praeger, 1998.
4. Bercuson, David J. and S.F. Wise, eds. The Valour and the Horror Revisited. Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1994.
5. Carnes, Mark C., ed. Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1995.
6. CHR Forum: “Canadian History in Film. Excerpts from a Roundtable Session on Canadian History in Film, University of Alberta, 2001.” Canadian Historical Review 82:2 (June 2001): 331-346.
7. Cohen, Barri. “Senate Hearings: The Valour and The Horror.” Point of View 21 (Spring 1993): 16-19.
8. Collins, Anne. “The Valour and the Uproar: The Battle over the Valour and the Horror.” Saturday Night (May 1993): 44-49, 72-76.
9. Collins, Peter C. Hollywood As Historian: American Film in a Cultural Context. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1983.
10. Cook, Pam. Screening the Past: Memory and Nostalgia in Cinema. New York: Routledge, 2005.
11. Davis, Natalie Z. “’Any Resemblance to Persons Living or Dead’: Film and the Challenge of Authenticity.” Yale Review 76:4 (September 1987): 457-82.
12. Davis, Natalie Z. “Movie or Monograph? A Historian/Filmmaker's Perspective.” Public Historian 25:3 (Summer 2003): 45-9.
13. Druick, Zoe. “’Non-Theatrical Dreams with Dreams of Theatrical’: Paradoxes of a Canadian Semi-Documentary Film Noir.” Canadian Journal of Film Studies 12:2 (Fall 2003): 46-63.
14. Druick, Zoe. “’Ambiguous Identities’ and the Representation of Everyday Life: Notes Toward a New History of Production Policies at the National Film Board of Canada.” Canadian Issues 20 (1998): 125-137.
15. Edgerton, David. “Television as Historian: An Introduction.” Film & History 30:1 (March 2000): 7-12.
16. Edgerton, David. “Television as Historian, Part 2: Reframing the Pat from Inside the TV Environment.” Film & History 30:2 (September 2000): 5-6.
17. Ferro, Marc. Cinema and History, trans. Naomi Greene. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1988.
18. Forsyth, Scott. “The Failures of Nationalism and Documentary: Grierson and Gouzenko.” Canadian Journal of Film Studies 1 (1991): 74-82.
19. Guynn, William Howard. Writing History in Film. New York: Routledge, 2006.
20. Grindon, Leger. Shadows on the Past: Studies in the Historical Film. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994.
21. Hanke, Robert. “Quantum Leap: The Postmodern Challenge of Television as History.” Film & History 30:2 (September 2000): 41-49.
22. Harcourt, Peter. “A Moving Target: Federal Film Policy within a Global Culture.” Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada 4 (1989): 169-179.
23. Herlihy, David. “Am I a Camera? Other Reflections on Films and History.” American Historical Review 93:5 (December 1988): 1186-1192.
24. Hughes-Warrington, Marnie. History Goes to the Movies: Studying History on Film. New York: Routledge, 2007.
25. Kaes, Anton. “History and Film: Public Memory in the Age of Electronic Dissemination.” History and Memory 2:1 (1990): 111-29.
26. Landy, Marcia. Cinematic Uses of the Past. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1996.
27. Landy, Marcia, ed. The Historical Film: History and Memory in Media. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001.
28. McIlroy, Brian. Shooting to Kill: Filmmaking and the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. Richmond: Steveston Press, 2001.
29. Moore, Christopher. “Valour, Horror and Freedom.” The Beaver 72:6 (December 1992 / January 1993): 54-56.
30. O’Connor, John. E. “History in Images / History in Words: Reflections on the Possibility of Really Putting History into Film.” American Historical Review 93:5 (December 1988): 1200-09.
31. O’Connor, John. E. Image as Artifact: The Historical Analysis of Film and Television. Malabar: Krieger, 1990.
32. O’Connor, John E., Robert Brent Toplin, Steven Mintz, Ron Briley, and Ken Nolley. “Michael Moore: Cinematic Historian or Propagandist?: A Historians Film Committee Panel Presented at the 2005 American Historical Association Meeting.” Film & History 35:2 (September 2005): 7-16.
33. Rosenstone, Robert A. “History in Images / History in Words: Reflections on the Possibility of Really Putting History into Film.” American Historical Review 93:5 (December 1988): 1173-85.
34. Rosenstone, Robert A. Visions of the Past: The Challenge of Film to Our Idea of History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.
35. Rosenstone, Robert A. Revisioning History: Film and the Construction of a New Past. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.
36. Rosenstone, Robert A. History on Film/Film on History (History: Concepts, Theories and Practice). Harlow: Longmans, 2006.
37. Rozensweig, Roy. and Thelen, David. The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.
38. Schama, Simon. “Fine-Cutting Clio.” Public Historian Summer 25:3( 2003): 15-25.
39. Sorlin, Pierre. The Film in History. Oxford: Blackwell, 1980.
40. Taves, Brian. “The History Channel and the Challenge of Historical Programming.” Film & History 30:2 (September 2000): 7-16.
41. Toplin, Robert Brent. “The Filmmaker as Historian.” American Historical Review 93:5 (December 1988): 1210-1227.
42. Toplin, Robert Brent. History by Hollywood: The Use and Abuse of the American Past. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996.
43. Toplin, Robert Brent. Reel History: In Defense of Hollywood. Lawrence: Kansas University Press, 2002.
44. Toplin, Robert Brent. “Cinematic History: Where Do We Go From Here?” Public Historian
45. Walkowitz, Daniel J. “Visual History: The Craft of the Historian-Filmmaker.” Public Historian 7:1 (Winter 1985): 52-64.
46. Walz, Gene. Flashback: People and Institutions in Canadian Film History. Montréal: Mediatexte Publications Inc., 1986.
47. White, Hayden. “Historiography and Historiophoty.” American Historical Review 93:5 (December 1988): 1193-1199.
25:3 (Summer 2003): 79-91.

31 May 2007

My Digital History Internship

As I noted in my last post, I am currently working with Bill Turkel on a digital history internship. I'm using MIT's Exhibit software to create a website that documents street name changes in London. The idea came out of a major paper I wrote last term on the same topic.

My website is going to be a very simple, interactive site providing information about street name changes such as: the original name, the new (not always current) name, the date of the name change, who initiated the change (was it a private citizen, a corporation, or the municipal council?), the bylaw that changed the name, and, where possible, I may opt to include a little social history behind the name change.

The last component is a sticky part for me. The reasons why people wanted to change the names of their streets in London was what I examined in my term paper. Luckily, in the paper, I could limit my focus to the number of streets for which I could find evidence. I found eight. Eight, for a website-creating internship of this nature, was, to play on a hackneyed old television show name, not enough. Bill told me I should aim for 20-30, just to make the website interesting.

Finding the social history behind the eight street name changes required a whole lot of digging, hair-pulling, and frustratingly long hours in libraries. That's history work, for you, though. I suppose.

I didn't have enough time to do an equivalent amount of research for the additional 12-22 streets. Nor do I believe that the information I would need is even available.

Surprising as it may seem, why someone wants a street name changed from one name to another is not always a requirement of street name changes in London. And often, the name changes occurred because of an annexation (there have been 17 in London between 1826 and 1993), where duplication of street names poses a potential for communication error with the 9-1-1 system. Think about it: if a call for a fire truck goes to the wrong Elm Street, the repercussions could be deadly. Literally.

What all this means is that the social history on my website will likely not exist (except, perhaps, in those eight cases where I already have it). Which is fine.

It's fine because, while I was not engaging in the kind of historical work most historians crave, developing London Streets Renamed (the website's tentative title, coined by Bill) has been a useful learning tool for me, both in using code (HTML, JavaScript, and JSON), and in understanding the difficulty in conveying useful, interesting information to the public in a format other than a written document.

So now I've a couple more tools to add to my public history tool belt.

**A short post-script: You'll have noticed, no doubt, that I did not provide a link to the website. It doesn't yet exist, but once it does, I'll post a link.

30 May 2007

To Be Continued

I'm taking this blog on a slightly different tack from now on. Since I'm no longer being graded on the frequency and content of my blogging, I have a little more leeway in what I can write. What this greater freedom will mean, I cannot say.

Plus, it's not as though I was all too limited before.

I can say, though, that in spite of the approaching end to my studies, I plan to continue blogging about public history, using the blog format as a tool of reflective practice.

So, for the next few months, in conjunction with the final stage of my M.A., I'll be blogging about things in the orbits of my internships.

The first internship I'm doing is a digital history project with Bill Turkel at the University of Western Ontario (wait for the blog post about this one soon).

The second, starting June 4th, is with History Television. I have a slim idea of what I'll be doing there, but rest assured, blogopeople, I shall keep you...posted(?).

My proclamations about change may end up being imperceptible. Maybe I'll start cussing, just to shake things up a little.

18 May 2007

Public History Controversy: An Obligation?

An interesting idea was brought to the fore in our public history class on March 7th. It was suggested (by whom I cannot remember) that when faced with two or more choices, people inevitably choose the easiest of the options. The example given was the choice between curating two museum exhibits: one that deals with a touchy issue, such as the racialized colonization of African peoples (as in the Into the Heart of Africa exhibit displayed at the ROM in the very early 1990s) or a less politically-charged dinosaur exhibit. The assumption is that the latter would be the choice of most people.

I question this assumption. Is it true that people always choose the easy route? I know from personal experience (or rather, from my wife telling me) that I often choose to do things the hard way. So I don’t buy the argument that humans are, by default, lazy (which is what this argument implies).

I do wonder, though, if people working in public realms like museums must, for pragmatic reasons, choose less difficult subject matter. Actually, we as a class know of a at least one example of this. We visited a local London museum (which will go unnamed) earlier this year. The curator told us that there are certain artefacts in that museum’s collection that s/he will never display because s/he is certain that such an exhibition will result in a politically-charged headache for her/him and her/his institution, as well as for the larger body to which the museum is attached.

So yes, public historians do sometimes take the easier choice when confronted with controversial issues.

But that sucks, doesn’t it? I mean, these people have the opportunity – some might even say the responsibility – to engage the public in important debates. Someone else in that March 7th class also suggested that we as public historians exist for the very purpose of poking the sleeping giant. Good point. Yet, in our short tenure as fledgling public historians we have already witnessed at least one such a figure who balks at this opportunity.

I do not want to back down from making meaningful change in the world. I admit, however, that it scares me. I mean, what if I mess up and end up a Jeanne Cannizzo, or better yet, given my career objectives, the McKenna Brothers? But if I end up a demon in the public’s eyes, I may, as Prof. MacEachern kept trying to get us to argue throughout the year, be more successful than my counterparts who are not so scandalous. After all, if I get people talking about the subject I present, doesn’t that make my public history venture a success?

Look at Jack Granatstein. He’s practically created an art form of making outlandish claims in the press, more often than not sparking the ire of the public, often to the benefit of society. I think, and this is pure speculation, that Dr. Granatstein says some of the things he does to produce the exact opposite effect of what it is he appears to be claiming. Take for example his assertion that the Canadian War Museum could solve its financial woes by selling Hitler’s car. It made a lot of people upset, and caused quite a stir in the media.

This is exactly my point: he got peoples’ attention, and their butts (and minds) followed, right up the steps and through the front doors of the museum, of which he was the director. And who knows, since what he was trying to do was raise money for the ailing museum, he may have prompted some people, who may otherwise not have, to donate to the museum.

I am not suggesting that everyone adopt this approach. But controversy can sometimes be the best thing for you. And me. And your neighbour. Even if we can’t see it right away.