Commonplace
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www.common-place.org · vol. 1 · no. 3 · April 2001
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Webster and Parkman

Eric Stange is an award-winning independent documentary film producer, director, and writer who specializes in history and science subjects. His films include Zamir: Jewish Voices Return to Poland (2000), Brother, Can You Spare a Billion? (2000), Love in the Cold War (1992) and Children of the Left (1992).

 

 

"Too often reenactments come across as just what they are--half-hearted attempts to make history come alive in a dramatic way without using the elements that make for dramatic story-telling . . ."

Shooting Back
By Eric Stange

Part I | Part II

In November 1849 Dr. George Parkman, a physician and scion of one of Boston's richest families, was allegedly beaten to death and dismembered by a Harvard professor of chemistry named John Webster. A week after Parkman's disappearance, the janitor of the Harvard Medical School discovered body parts hidden in Webster's laboratory. Webster was put on trial in a spectacle that drew tens of thousands of onlookers, as well as journalists from as far away as Europe. Webster was convicted and hanged. But his guilt is one of many uncertainties that have confounded those attempting to tell the story of the Parkman case for the past 150 years, including historian Simon Schama, who explored the case in his aptly named 1991 study, Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations) (New York, 1991).

Parkman's murder was nothing if not infamous. Edmund Pearson, the historian of homicide, called the Parkman case "America's most celebrated murder." Edward Everett, a president of Harvard from 1846 to 1849, said it was "the most painful event in our domestic history." And when Charles Dickens visited Boston in 1867, one of his first requests was to see the room where Dr. Parkman was murdered. Even by today's numbingly sensationalist standards, the grisly tale is shocking and disturbing.

poster
One of the thousands of posters circulated by the Parkman family.

It's a riveting story, but can it be a riveting documentary film? I hope so. For the past two years, my colleague Melissa Banta and I, along with Schama, have been developing a sixty-minute television documentary about the Parkman murder. (We are also designing an interactive Website, whose prototype is currently online.)

Massachusetts General Medical College
Harvard Medical College c. 1850 (right), next to Mass. General Hospital

To our endless frustration, this most mysterious crime is made even more mysterious by a dearth of images: Parkman's murder took place just a few years before the advent of popular photography. Fortunately, because the case was so celebrated, a number of woodcuts, maps, and other illustrations have survived. And some of the principal characters were illustrious enough to have had oil portraits painted of themselves. A search of the archives also yields a few later photos of some of the buildings--including the Harvard Medical School, where the crime took place. But a short stack of drawings, portraits, and photographs of buildings does not add up to a compelling film. Although I've produced documentary films for more than ten years, The Murder of Dr. Parkman is my first time tackling a subject that predates photography. And it's led me to wonder: when the very building blocks of documentary film are images, is it even appropriate to make a documentary about a subject that has left behind only a tiny handful of visual traces?

Thinking about The Murder of Dr. Parkman has also led me to take another look at how other documentary filmmakers have approached the problems of portraying pre-photographic stories. In my admittedly cursory survey, I've looked particularly at historical documentaries that rely on "reenactments"--putting people in costume and having them act out an historical scene or event. While reenactments share important conventions, they range widely in quality--and credibility.

Documentary reenactments are almost always shot without dialogue, through fog or haze, or in a shadowy half-light. The camera often focuses only on close up details--a hand on a quill; feet running through the woods; a sword being buckled on--and almost never on an actor's face. (The American Experience film, George Washington, the Man Who Wouldn't Be King [1992], by David Sutherland, is a good example.) Or, conversely, the reenactments are shot so wide that we see only a distant figure on horseback wearing a three-corner hat--à la Ken Burns's Thomas Jefferson (1996).

These visual cues send several important messages: that the reenactment is not fictional (if it were, there would be dialogue); that the reenactment is only a "suggestion" of what might have happened (signified by the ambiguous fog or haze); and that the actors are not portraying specific people so much as representing them (e.g., this pair of hands is not George Washington's hands, but hands that represent his; the figure on horseback could be Jefferson). Each of these devices, it bears mentioning, also saves money. Speaking roles require skilled actors and directing; scenes that portray actual events require sound stages, expensive locations, props, and costumed extras.

The trouble with reenactments that rely on the camera slowly panning across interior spaces where something important once happened and hazy shots of quills, weapons, and detached body parts is that they leave viewers feeling distanced from the action instead of closer to it. Too often reenactments come across as just what they are--halfhearted attempts to make history come alive in a dramatic way without using the elements that make for dramatic storytelling: language, facial expression, bodies reacting in relation to one another. Burns's Thomas Jefferson is in many ways a thoughtful essay on a fascinating man, but is it really a film? Do the endless slow-moving images of Monticello, the pans across portraits and drawings, the tilts down documents, and the occasional distant figure on horseback really add up to something that is driven by visual images which in turn are supported by spoken words? I think it's the other way around--an illustrated lecture that could have worked equally well as a lavish magazine spread or coffee-table book.

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