Perhaps it's only natural that a history professor with an expertise in the American West, while living in the environs of Los Angeles, would be called on to apply her expertise in one of the area's major industries: film. That's just what has happened to Tamara Venit-Shelton, assistant professor of history at CMC.
Venit-Shelton worked as an historical consultant on a film which just premiered to rave reviews at the Los Angeles Film Festival. The movie, Dead Man's Burden, takes place in New Mexico Territory in 1870 and follows the track of two families trying to reconcile in the wake of the Civil War.
We recently sat down with the new CMC faculty member for an illuminating primer on just what a historical consultant does on a film, and what films (and documentaries) she considers good and even not so goodwhen viewed from an historian's exacting perspective. CMC: How were you approached to consult on Dead Man's Burden and what exactly did your contribution entail? Tamara: I went to Amherst College with Jared Moshe, the writer and director of the film. As students, we worked together at the campus center movie theater, and we shared a love of old westerns. After we graduated, he went into film financing and then production, but he always had an idea for a screenplay set in the "Wild West" kicking around. Meanwhile, I went on to graduate school and became a historian of the American West. We kept in touch over the years, and occasionally, we would chat about what he was working on. Last summer, he asked if I would read and consult on a screenplay set in New Mexico Territory in 1871.
The script centered on a homesteading family, torn apart by their divided allegiances during the Civil War and then reunited in its wake. Their reunion is short lived, however, due to an unresolvable property dispute. It just so happens that the history of land rights in the 19th- century American West is my area of expertise so I was thrilled to lend my services. I made suggestions to Jared for how to revise the script to eliminate some anachronisms and to be more consistent with the laws and customs of the era and the demographics of New Mexico. I also prepared a guide for Jared and his team of designers and actors that described the material culture (objects, furniture, etc.) that a homesteading family would have had and that explained what life would have been like for such a family, especially for the film's central female protagonist. I tried to emphasize the isolation that this family would have experienced to offer some historical context for the plot and their character's choices. The film was in production when I was about nine months pregnant so I never had a chance to go on set. CMC: What do you think of the final cut of the movie and your contributions? Were they followed? Tamara: I have not seen the final cut, but I have seen a lot of the photographic stills and the trailer and short clips. It looks like the production designer, Ruth De Jong, did an amazing job of capturing the textures and sparseness of the homestead, and I have read the reviews that applaud the attention to historical detail. I also know that my suggestion to revise one of the characters (E.J. Lane, played by Joseph Lyle Taylor) was adopted so a railroad agent seeking right of way became a copper company agent seeking water rights in the final script. There are a few other smaller, more subtle changes, too, (to one character's back-story, to the name of a neighboring rancher, etc.) that will probably only stand out to me but will make the whole story more consistent with the bigger historical context both for post-Civil War New Mexico and the United States. CMC: Is this the first film on which you consulted? Tamara: Yes, this will be my first historical consultant credit. I worked as an archival researcher for an installment of The American Experience on the California Gold Rush. The actual research was fairly mundane, but it was fun to see my name roll by in the credits. CMC: What in your view is a film that seems to follow a scrupulous attention to historical detail? Tamara: Director Ang Lee's Ride with the Devil seems to fit that bill. Lately, I have been really impressed by a couple of HBO series: John Adams and Deadwood, both in terms of their attention to period detail and in their recreation of the spaces, habits, and relationships of their period setting. I recall an early scene in John Adams, where Paul Giamatti, who plays the title character, doffs his wig upon returning home in the evening, and he begins to scratch his head furiously. I love that detail because it conveys to the audience a real and relatable feeling for what it would have been like to work as a barrister and the relief of coming home at the end of the day and taking off the wig.
I also loved the series Deadwood, which was set in a hardscrabble mining town in late-19th-century South Dakota. It was a soap opera and a melodrama, to be sure, but it recreated the look and feel of a town like that, how it developed, who lived there, how they related to one another. I loved that there was a Chinese grocer in the town! Chinese people rarely make it into westerns, and yet, they played a major role in the history of the American West. I think both of those series, in their own ways, really understood that a period film should not just show pretty people in corsets or handlebar mustaches but that it should make those people as real and dirty and mean as they would have had to have been to survive.
I also highly recommend the recent film, Meek's Cut-Off, which did a superb job using the medium of film to show how abjectly miserable life on the Oregon Trail could be, especially for women. It's a film about the monotony of the trail, but it is not at all monotonous itself! In fact, it's quite suspenseful for a film where nothing really happens. I read an interview with the filmmaker who said she used a narrow frame (more like the one used for television than for film) to mimic the narrow view from under the wide brimmed bonnets that women wore to shield themselves from the sun. CMC: What film just doesn't measure up or is laughable in its lack of adherence to historical detail? A 1961 John Wayne film called The Comancheros comes to mind. It takes place in 1846 and has The Duke and Stuart Whitman fighting with Winchester rifles! Tamara: Because I am a social historian, what I tend to notice most are the historical demographics of movies. Films (and television shows) set in places that would have been highly racially diverse and yet have not a single black, Latino, Asian, or Native character annoy me to no end. On a related note, one thing that continually baffles me is how reluctant historical movies are to address slavery. I remember getting a good giggle out of that Mel Gibson movie about the American Revolution, The Patriot, in which Mel is portrayed as a benevolent Virginia planter who hires "free" African-Americans to work his field. The English villain is the one who ultimately impresses them into slavery. I also recently saw The Conspirator, a Robert Redford film about the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. Amidst all the discussion of Confederate pride, I don't think slavery came up once.
But more egregious to me are the documentaries that take liberties with historical accuracy. If you go see The Patriot or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, I don't think you expect to get a lesson in actual history. But if you watch Ken Burns' Civil War, The West, or National Parks, there is an assumption that what you're seeing is something very close to what professional historians actually believe about the past. Burns does a lot of things very well, but he also plays so fast and loose with chronologyusing photographs to represent people who lived decades or centuries before the advent of photography, for example. He also has a tendency to emphasize feel-good history, leaving Reconstruction out of The Civil War or Native American dispossession out of The National Parks. Again, this is where I think historians and filmmakers can find themselves at cross-purposes. Historians don't often tell stories with happy endings, and filmmakers think audiences prefer happy endings. CMC: How much in your personal view do you think a first-rate historical consultant can add to a period film? Tamara: I think a historical consultant can certainly add accuracy to the material culture, costumes, etc. that you see on screen, but I don't think that is the only or even the most important way that a historian can work with a filmmaker. Of course, seeing two actors in a period piece wielding Winchester rifles a couple decades before their actual invention can be distracting to viewers, but I think the historian's greater contribution is lending historical texture and complexity to the plot and characters. As historians we are in the business of reconstructing what it was like to live in another time, not only in terms of what people wore or what tea cups they drank out of, but what they thought, what they felt, how they made choices for themselves and their families. My goal in Dead Man's Burden was to make Martha, Heck, and Wade's choices consistent with what their options would have been had they truly homesteaded in New Mexico Territory in 1871.
That being said, historians like complexity, and film especially commercial filmis not a genre that can accommodate a lot of complexity. Filmmakers are under pressure to please audiences and to tell their story in an economy of images and dialogue. CMC: You're brand new to CMC, although your husband is an economics professor here. What was your impression of the College before you started working here? Tamara: Growing up in Pasadena, I was vaguely aware of the college and knew at least one person from my high school class who went to CMC. I had the impression that it had a very politically conservative, masculine culture. Even after my husband got his job here four years ago, I felt like I knew very little about CMC outside of the economics department and the tennis courts, which we used quite frequently before they took the nets down and built the new tennis center.
Now being here, I realize that there is actually quite a diversity of political opinion both among the faculty and the students, and the campus is much more beautiful than I first thought. The new Kravis Center and fountain are gorgeous. CMC: What excites you about teaching at CMC and the kinds of students the College attracts? Tamara: I am thrilled to be at a liberal arts college where students and faculty can work closely together. I am a graduate of Amherst College, and prior to coming to CMC, I taught at Reed College for four years, so I feel quite at home with the scale of a small college and the kinds of relationships it fosters. CMC's emphasis on cultivating leaders is also quite appealing to me. I like the idea that my students will take what they learn in the classroom and endeavor to act on it in the real world. It creates a very energizing and inspiring environment. Relative to other liberal arts colleges that I know, it seems that the pre-professional culture is more front and center, and it has forced me to articulate why history matters not just to academics but to everyone. And I do truly believe that history matters deeply. I believe that an understanding of history is fundamental to good citizenship and good leadership. After all, at its most essential, history teaches us to cultivate empathy with people who lived in wholly different times and places. How can you be a productive member of society, let alone a leader in society, without empathy?