Forrest Gump, Titanic, and Winking at History

But a critique of this mode of history-on-Twitter is actually the opposite of elitist schoolmarmery. By posting the same types of photographs over and over and omitting context and links, these accounts are robbing readers of the joy of the historical rabbit hole—and they’re taking a dim, condescending view of the public’s appetite for complexity and breadth of interest.”

-Rebecca Onion, “Snapshots of History

While I understand Onion’s concern, this is why so many of the historical pictures on twitter are of subjects that are already famous and studied. There is already a fair amount written about Jimi Hendrix, Barrack Obama, Marilyn Monroe, and their other famous counterparts. It then makes the potential searching that people could do easier than if there was a photo posted of a non-famous person or event.

I just watched the 1997 film Titanic again (for a class) this week. Something that I hadn’t been fully aware of the previous times I watched the film was the art that Rose has with her on the ship. She picks up a Picasso and remarks, “They’re fascinating. It’s like being inside a dream or something. There’s truth but no logic” to which her fiancé Cal replies “Something Picasso? He won’t amount to a thing.” The lines are no doubt idiotic sounding and serve the purpose of making Cal sound like a moron. But they also reflect a larger trend in movies “winking at” history. I use this word because there is never any complexity (which Onion calls for) and usually little accuracy in their depiction. It is a simple flash of a famous historical person, object, or event that serves to make the audience smile or laugh. In the Titanic example, the featured Picasso painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, was never on the Titanic and is now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Many movies play with these types of historical “winks” such as Forrest Gump (which Onion names) and more recently Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. Their purpose is not to complicate prior constructed historical narratives around a topic or artifact nor is it to even portray the basic history accurately. While I share Onion’s concern for public historical education, I think it is only a problem when this watered down version of history, without the potential to enjoy the dive into “the historical rabbit hole” is the only version people are receiving. There is a potential to follow @historyinpics, watch Forrest Gump, see Hamilton, and read The Vault blog. I don’t feel there needs to be one proper way to consume history.

To address my own bias, I love movies like Midnight in Paris. If I participated in Twitter, I would no doubt follow things like @historyinpics. I like feeling like I have an inside look into characters in history, who are often talked about and depicted in such a polished way. Like reading a tabloid’s “Stars—They’re Just like Us!” section, it feels nice to see pictures of historical icons differently and that make the topic or person more relatable. It feels even more magical than a tabloid actually, because not only are these people famous, they are also usually dead. This is why I don’t find these movies or Twitter accounts altogether problematic. They play with history and make it fun and approachable in a way that public historians who are tied more strictly to the facts cannot. When watching Titanic, I opened up my laptop and started doing research on the details of the Titanic’s sinking, about Picasso’s works aboard the ship, which led me to other historical inaccuracies the movie portrays. These depictions of history obviously do not help to bring to light the stories of average people, as a public historian showing artifacts from archives can do. However, it does make already famous histories more accessible and might encourage the curious layperson to seek out more information on the topic.