“The past is a foreign country,” runs L.P. Hartley’s famous quotation: “they do things differently there.” Has Hollywood ever heard this? Not, apparently, when it was decided that Cleopatra looked like Elizabeth Taylor or that a US military hospital in the Korean War was staffed with sensitive proto-feminists, and not even in the sophisticated meta-culture of the present. The slew of recent films and TV series set in bygone times carries on the show business tradition of misrepresenting how people looked and spoke decades ago, and in a deeper sense the works even fail to capture the way their characters would have really lived. The loss is the audience’s, and history’s.
Anachronisms abound. In the acclaimed Mad Men, Don Draper’s wife tells him, “I can’t deal with this” during an emotional confrontation – is that how spouses argued in 1962? In another episode Don and a female partner share a passionate embrace at a decadent pool party, while just across the water two gorgeous women are themselves kissing erotically. Same-sex amour and faux-lesbianism are no big deals nowadays, but were they so openly conducted fifty years back? Recently, Don has even reflected to the psychedelic strains of the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” in 1966 – a great song, we now know, but would a Brylcreemed ad exec really take an interest in an experimental album track at the time?
In Mad Men and elsewhere, the common mistake is in depicting the past with the sensibility of the present: costume dramas are appealing enough as long as the costumes are the only foreign element for viewers to take in…
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