Monday, February 15, 2010

Film Preservation Blogathon: Film Preservation and Teaching History

I am a late 19th and early 20th century U.S. historian by training. Although I can teach widely within the field, I'd prefer to talk about this period as often as possible.

The work of the National Film Preservation Foundation has added a tremendous tool to my teaching repertoire. It's one thing to talk about race and it's another to supplement that with showing a racist film from the 1910s. You can yap on and on about immigration, but to see an early gangster film overflowing with Italian stereotypes drives that home in ways I cannot.

Just today, my American Cities class read and discussed an article about how Progressives thought the urban environment of immigrants was icky and was contributing to race suicide. They felt the need to get immigrant children out of the urban nature they were used to and into beautiful bucolic rural nature.

That fit perfectly with the 1912 film The Land Beyond the Sunset, available on the 4th disc of Volume I of the NFPF's Treasures from American Film Archives. In this film, a young boy lives a terrible urban life. He is taken care of by a drunken abusive grandmother. He sells newspapers to earn income, which his grandmother promptly steals to buy more booze. But he has a ticket from some reformers to go out in the city for a day. While in the park, a woman tells a story called "The Land Beyond the Sunset." In it, a young boy is mistreated by an evil witch but good fairies intervene. They then put him in a boat and go to an island beyond the sunset without evil old witches. The boy sees his own life in this story. He then doesn't go back to the city. He escapes, steals a boat, and sails into the ocean to the land beyond the sunset.

Of course, you know he's probably going to die. And that's the point--this film is a middle-class fantasy about how awful the slums are. The boy would rather die than be poor.

Thanks to the National Film Preservation Foundation, I can show The Land Beyond the Sunset and any number of other silent, rare, and experimental films to my classes. I owe them tremendously. The students got the point in a way they never would have without the film. It was wonderful.

The NFPF is preserving our glorious history. Give them a little cash if you can spare it. I want more awesome silent movies to present my students.