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June 2000, Week 5


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Peter Rollins <[log in to unmask]>
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Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Wed, 28 Jun 2000 20:03:15 EDT
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Book Review:
    Patrick Griffin is an award-winning historian-filmmaker whose
    grasp of both disciplines makes him especially qualified to comment
    on the challenges of a major historical PBS series....
    The review is a publication of Film & History and duplications
    should credit the journal.   PC Rollins  [log in to unmask]

Nova: Secrets of lost empires, II. Broadcast PBS: 1999-2000 season. Executive
prod., Paula Apsell. Series prod.:Michael Barnes. 1. Pharoah's obelisk, prod.
Julia Cort. 2. Easter Island, prod. Liesel Clark. 3. Roman Baths, prod. Nancy
Linde. 4. China Bridge, prod. Michael Barnes. 5. Medieval siege, prod.
Michael Barnes. $69.95 (order through

    The "secret" in each of the "lost empires" is technology. How the
Egyptian obelisks were erected. The engineering and sacred movement of the
Easter Island moai. The construction of the Song Dynasty wooden Rainbow
bridges. The technology, heating systems and aqueduct engineering of Roman
baths. And the trebuchet  -- the gravity driven "warwolf" medieval siege
catalputs that rendered castle walls helpless.
    Despite the glitzy series title, which calls up the sins of much of
current cable documentary, the series is straightforward and on the mark.
Nova, historians, engineers, archeologists, technicians and master
craftspeople seek to discover the technologies that have been lost or are
vague in the annals of history.
    Nova has 25 years of tradition in exploring science in all its aspects.
It doesn't disappoint us in this second of a series on science and technology
in historical context. Each show is built around challenge and conflict. The
challenge presented to other civilizations and cultures, and the challenge
presented teams of scholars and technicians seeking to correctly find the
secret in competition with the themselves, sometimes in actual teams, always
in group conflict.  The contemporary technologists compete with an enthusiasm
that is sometimes childishly  petulant but often playfully charming. ("What
are we going to do, fight over it?" asks one archeologist at a point of
crisis in the attempt to move the Eastern Island moai )  Sometimes the
competition seems overemphasized and forced. But the excitement that
surrounds each show is always infectious
    The concept fills the bill of what any film should accomplish in a double
sense: conflict. The challenge then to develop the technology, the challenge
now to find it. And it can draw the viewer, scholar and student, into the
on-camera solution. The Nova production itself organizes the search, so the
film has a sense of verité often missing in historical documentary, even
though at times the scholars play to the camera and the production has
touches of artifice and limitation (budget) of the scope of the exploration.
    The "Pharaoh's Obelisk" is illustrative of the storylines and a template
for other shows in the series. Nova supports  experiments in Egypt to
understand how exactly  the 100 foot, 500 ton  obelisks were floated down the
Nile to be raised in the desert. Under team leader and archeologist Mark
Layer, Mark Whiby , a British engineer,  attempts to apply a kind of cradle
frame which, the team  demonstrates, was probably used to haul the immense
quarried stone on to the vessels to haul them down the Nile  With Nova
cameras rolling, Whitby and his team tries to erect a very small obelisk,
dropping it in the foundation pit at an 80 degree angle.  The effort fails.
The ropes stretch, the rollers creep. The obelisk takes a dangerous attitude
as it moves into the support hole in the ground and the experiment has to be
scrapped for safety reasons. A second experiment by stone mason Roger Hopkins
with a  2 ton  (!) simulated rock  obelisk makes use of a second technology:
filling the foundation pit with sand and letting the sand flow out of the
wooden barriers enclosing the foundation pit. The obelisk tips and human
power pulls it upright. But could the real 500 ton real obelisks be hauled
that way into place?
    However, another team member, sculpturor Rick Brown of Maassachusetts,
thinks that he has the right answer. A turning groove and dry sand  -- not
wet sand as used in the experiment in Egypt. So, in the backyard of the Nova
production house in Boston (so to speak), the raising of an obelisk is
undertaken. Is ---the geometry and attitude right? Will the simple technology
of sand flowing out of the  sand pit, dry sand pit, give the correct angle
which will nestle the obelisk into its upright position?
    Each show follows this pattern. In "China Bridge," the problem of the
long lost technology of wood rainbow bridge construction is tackled by
Professor Tang Wong Chang, bridge historian and engineer. Nova brings him
together with  Dr. Barrchar Atamar,  MIT engineer, in Chinja, just outside
Shanghia. They set out to build a wooden rainbow bridge like that depicted in
the famous Rainbow Bridge painting, using only old techniques and materials.
The first question is to answer  how the load is transferred to the
foundations of the bridge: by beam or arch forces, a critical question for
hadling stress factors and building the foundations  But there are other
problems soon to emerge, such as how the beams are secured secured together
and misunderstandings and conflicts over materials and in the construction.
    In the case of the Easter Island moai,  conflicting views concern rollers
and pulleys used possibly to  transport them over the contoured landscape --
or does the myth about "walking" moai contained a germ of technological
truth? In Scotland two competing teams of 50 carpenters seek the correct
balance of the trebuchet in order to hurl 250 pound stones at a castle wall
in the Loch Ness area.
    One might ask: So what?  Each show is, however,  more than a lesson in
five obscure technologies. The shows very consciously enter the mind of a
people and a historical period. In "Roman Baths" (my favorite of the five
shows), Nova attempts to find a process of heating which has been lost  over
the centuries, and build a Roman bath from the scratch.  "Nova  assembles a
team, call it an experiment in history," heralds narrator Stacy Keach. The
team includes a Turkish engineer and archeologist, an expert in heating who
has designed systems for the Tate Gallery and the Savoy, an archeologist who
is the head of the Roman Buildings Foundation, an expert in Cretan building
technology, and a smattering of historians whose bailiwicks are general and
technological  histories  of Roman. With the use of occasional well placed
re-creations, done with the usual excellent Nova  camera style and historical
realism, the team sets out to build their  Roman bath.
    They walk off and survey an empty field near Sardis in Turkey, a Roman
city which left a legacy of the steam bath in the region. They set a time
limit and begin build  a small private bath, customary throughout the Roman
world, using only the techna and methods of the Romans. But in the process
the show becomes a text book on Roman sensibility and what will come to be
called Roman "practicality" and and the "instinct" of engineering. The
program spins off to explore the science of vaulting, the process of making
concrete, the aqueduct system, even the system of public lavatories. The show
points out how the experience in vaulting and the use of concrete in bath and
other public and private buildings led to the technique of building massive
structures such as the Pantheon and Coliseum. There is a sequence in which
members of the team explore the inside of an open lower aqueduct, the Acqua
Claudia, in the aqueduct system which brought water to Rome. Clean, very
explicit animated graphics show the technological process as they works in
each of these specific technologies.
    The "touch" of this world is overwhelming, and gradually the sense of the
Romans themselves as people begins to shape itself -- without ever resorting
to crass re-enactments.
    The issue focuses on how exactly the flow of heat was flued to equally
heat the floors and walls and precisely and effectively exhaust. But the time
limits the team sets on itself  begins to work against them: Will the
concrete and especially mortar have time to dry -- "season" -- so that the
small bath will not leak or even crack. Then come the rains which wetten
concrete and mortar already problematic in the time allowed to dry. A baker
in the village nearby, who works daily with the heating of furnaces, is
consulted. Will the furnace draw properly, will the building crack?...
    As usual in each of the shows, there is a crisis in the final stages. Can
the team  finish the job despite heated opposition among themselves to final
decisions concerning  the technology, will the team be able to actually have
their own personal Roman bath 2,000 years later....
     Nova Executive producer Paula Apsell and series producer Michael Barnes
have here a winning product for the teaching historian. Each show is 60 (54)
minutes, slipping right into the class time for  presentation and discussion.
Each show spins off broader issues which anchor the mind and product of the
cultures/civilizations under class consideration. There is enough story and
conflict to  hold the attention of the most resistant student viewer.
    The goal of history "on film" is to get behind the doors to whatever
remains of the human past and whatever that historical reality is.  Motion
picture features have their own grounding in history as a product of the
values and technologies of a 20th century time; documentary is another
matter. Too often the history gets trapped in the contrivances and aesthetics
of film (and this applies also to study of the feature film). Or, put another
way, in the self posing style of the documentary maker. Historical
documentaries, especially many produced for the new cable market, sacrifice
the semblance of reality for a sensational plot hook for the general
audience. Or, resort to a few costumed individuals who are to "represent" the
people and actions of the past (the tight shot on the eight marching feet
that are supposed to be the march of the Roman legions). Or resort to black
and white archive footage from the early days of motion pictures
("Intolerance," the American or European epics of massive Roman armies
clashing, volcanoes erupting, Romans orgiastically relaxing) as if, somehow,
the black white is supposed to show a historical "reality" whether or not the
original motion picture was concerned at all with historical  "authenticity."
 Or montage sequences, repeated sometimes interminably, which are supposed to
"be" a historical reality ( repeating close up images of a sword slashing and
dripping blood -- the point of the  gladius was that it was mainly a
thrusting weapon! --  the image of a  howling she-wolf to represent the
violence of Rome, the same African American slave running through the brush
again and again in the underground railroad, etc.).
    Well, these are, I know only too well, the ambivalent tooling  that the
historian qua filmmaker has to use if he/she is to attempt at all the
"documenting" of history. However,
in this series Nova illustrates another way. The producer does history, but
the shows are aware  of the distance between the profilmic and the putative
(the first virtue needed  in making documentary film). And, at the same time
the film is connecting with the values and people of the past through the
very concrete and shared experience of technology.
    When the modern science and art of history was shaped at the end of the
19th century, Wilhelm Dilthey stood out among the positivist historians of
the era by his attempt to get at the mind of the past through the art,
artifacts, products of past peoples. It was not only the pyramids which were
important, but the technology of cloth, of painting, of ceramics and
artifacts in context. These opened the door from the present to the past
mind. This Geisteswissenschaft is in fact (whether or not acknowledged) the
foundation on which studies of film and history rest. How much Dilthey (as
dour as he was!) would have exulted in this double thrust provided  by  the
use of film and the use of technology!

Patrick H. Griffin
College of the Canyons and El Camino College

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