A muddled series of essays investigating the limits and possibilities of film as a medium for comprehending the past. While Rosenstone is an accomplished historian (Calif. Institute of Technology; Mirror in the Shrine, 1988, etc.), he approaches film with all the zeal and incomplete understanding of a novice, particularly regarding film history. For example, the multiple perspectives, untraditional structure, and experiments with time that he identifies as hallmarks of the postmodern historical film have all been utilized in Hollywood as far back as the silent era and D.W. Griffith's Intolerance. Many of his arguments also have a warmed-over quality, as he rehearses the tired paradigmatic posturings of postmodernism (i.e., limits language of meaning impossible make). Still Rosenstone offers some worthwhile analysis of why films so often fail as history, especially when it comes to complex and/or nonvisual material. How do you show, after all, something like the rise of Portugal or the moral decline of the French aristocracy? Rosenstone offers some useful criteria for what makes a good historical film, what liberties it should and shouldn't take with the past. Then, in a game but vain bid for popular relevance, he proposes film as a fully viable alternative to history books. He wants cinema that ``create[s] a historical world complex enough so that it overflows with meaning; so that its meanings are always multiple; so that its meanings cannot be contained or easily expressed in words.'' But the decidedly obscure films he champions, such as Walker and Sans Soleil, are hardly encouraging models. The brave new multimedia world may make books seem a little dull, but despite Rosenstone's high hopes, ``Western Civilization: The Movie'' is unlikely to be playing at the local multiplex any time soon.
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