Distortion of History

I was watching part of Joan of Arc for a second time and I noticed something else very interesting. During the trial, we see the judges and priests and theologians talking amongst themselves for several moments before one of them actually builds up enough confidence to place a given question "on the record" (i.e. what everyone in the court hears, as well as what we, as viewers, see as intertitles). We can tell, just by looking at their facial expressions and gestures, that there is much doubt and insecurity within their minds, yet they keep these feelings repressed and off the court record in fear of contradicting themsleves and (more importantly) looking like fools for doing so.


In effect, everything that goes "on the record" in the courtroom has been sent through a sort of filtration system - a network of minds. This means nothing that actually goes on the record is very real. Instead of being a fresh question born from the mind of an individual, it is a politically and theologically safe question born from a collective mentality.


So what goes on record as the reality of what happened during the Joan of Arc trial is filtered and, thus, false. And seeing that the court's record is what will be referred to for centuries later as being the "reality" of the courtroom proceedings, all future historical perception of the trial will unavoidably be distorted.


This man-made molding of reality that we see at Joan's trial is, to me, a microcosm of what goes on in the world in general. It is very rare that our freshest thoughts and our freshest emotions find their way out of our minds and onto the record, so to speak. Before we say something in a public forum or write something in a newspaper or film something for a general audience, we filter our feelings through a sort of inner checks and balances system, making sure everything we say is safe, or, to use a more contemporary term, politically correct. In consequence, the history of our world, of our culture and of ourselves becomes an illusion. True reality rarely makes it into the history books.


Along with playing it safe, we also make a conscious effort to create a reality that is free of doubt, preferring a state of existence composed of objective truths and absolutes. But, as we can learn from Dreyer's film, a reality like this is hell; it is a prison to our souls that want nothing more than to express feelings, no matter how incompatible these feelings may be with what absolutist society defines as "normal."


One possible lesson? Only when we get our unfiltered feelings and emotions "on the record" and learn to embrace doubt (instead of avoiding it) can we free ourselves from this 'prison' we have created for ourselves.


Ray Carney's Response:

I love the Dreyer observation! You're so right. We live in an artificial world of man-made truths (falsities) but can't see them because they are everywhere and everyone mouths them and frowns if we say anything that is not in the script. Here are some authors to read on the "filtration system": Noam Chomsky, Neil Postman, Ben Bagdikian, Todd Gitlin, Robert W. McChesney and Danny Schechter. They all talk about the "filtration system." The more you watch (or listen) the less you know, as Jackson Browne put it. -- Ray Carney, Prof. of Film and American Studies


An excerpt from a John Casavetes forum (deals with same subject)

I'm interested in that quote, "If the legend is more beautiful than reality print the legend!" I don't really know if printing the legend is the best thing to do. Personally, I think what Man has written about history has been more legend than fact. And in effect, history has become deluded with illusion. Is this a good thing or a very dangerous thing? I'm not really sure. But to find out that everything we know of what came before us is all a legend (and thus an illusion) triggers an intense identity crisis.


Then again, it's almost impossible to talk about the past in words because words always fail to encapsulate pure reality. So, in this sense, maybe it's almost impossible to talk about anything without creating an illusion of what happened (or, in other words, an illusion of reality) in the process. In Cassavetes' case, there's almost no way to determine what kind of man he was. In fact, there's no way of determining who WE are. Because we can only talk about ourselves in the past tense and we do this by putting our personal history into words, but in the process we create an illusion of who we are because words, like I said, fail to encapsulate pure reality. These are frightening thoughts. The true identity of anyone can never be determined. Something or someone is as true and real as WORDS describe it/them to be.


I think all this has to do with Cassavetes, especially his films. I think, at least subconsciously, Cassavetes knew that it was impossible for anyone to know exactly who they were and even more impossible for anyone to determine who exactly anyone else was. I think he implied that creating legends of ourselves was a fatal thing to do, and when I say 'fatal' I mean that creating a fake (but definitive) identity for ouselves literally kills us, because in doing so we fail (and this is where William James and pragmatism comes into play) to integrate future experiences into determining who we are. In other words, being alive is all about being in a state of flux, changing our identity accordingly when an event along the so-called river of experience makes us WANT to change. And we can't change who we are if we're clinging onto one definitive identity.


A legend of a man is an oversimplified interpretation of his identity. It changes a man into a myth and a myth is always based on one simple, clear cut identity. The legend of a man manifests itself only when the man is a dead man, and it is deceiving to use this legend when determining the identity of the man when he was alive.


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