Just yesterday we saw the 70th anniversary of the attacks on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Whether the date still lives in "infamy" as President Roosevelt declared is debatable, and arguably 9/11 has supplanted December 7 in that regard, and certainly the attacks on the Twin Towers holds a more significant place for most of today's Americans, who were raised in an age when the Japanese represented partners and competitors in the international marketplace, and not mortal enemies who caused grave harm to the United States with an unconscionable Sneak Attack 70 years ago. And while the comparison/contrast between September 11 and December 7 is interesting and worth exploring in its own right, I wanted to use a couple of points I heard on the radio and saw in the news yesterday to reflect upon how we understand the relatively recent past - and to specifically look at the role film has played in that regard, and examine to what extent media in general, or motion pictures in particular, still plays the role it had for much of the 20th century in shaping national consciousness of national historical memory.
I read an article noting the official disbanding of the nationally chartered Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. Not surprising giving the age and health of those who still comprise its membership. One of those interviewed for the piece remarked that when he had recently been brought in to address an elementary school class and the kids were told their speaker was going to talk about Pearl Harbor, one of the kids asked "Pearl who?" - and this was not a unique incident. Few American kids today would easily understand the reference.
I also heard a piece on the radio which mentioned the film Tora! Tora! Tora! as a pretty accurate portrayal of both the American and Japanese activities leading up to the attacks of December 7. Those interviewed on the radio "of course" had seen the film - even if it was some time ago. Now whether or not the film is an accurate representation I cannot say, as I am no expert on early 20th century Japanese/American relations - but I do think it is clear that from the 1950s through the 80s, films did play a significant role in shaping Americans' understanding of our own history; and while sometimes, perhaps often, the history presented therein was skewed, biased, and overly nationalistic, one can nevertheless make a good case that at least our population had exposure to our past through that medium in a way that could give a broad segment of our population at least a common frame of reference to access that shared history.
The nature of media, in general, has changed to the point that only on extremely rare occasions can a film, TV broadcast, or any other media content, have such broad consumption as to directly impact the national culture - and typically such programming falls more squarely in the realm of shear "entertainment" than making any attempt at historical or any other sort of edification. A combination of factors have contributed to this new reality, which plays its own part in the broader "dumbing down" of America. The fragmentation of media in general - first through the proliferation of cable television, followed by Internet - in conjunction with multiple screen households has led to a scenario where consumers of media (and this includes the very young)increasingly have a voice in shaping content into even further highly segmented patterns. Like it or not American Idol, Harry Potter, Project Runway, etc. are shaping our sense of national culture.
There must be some middle ground between the free market proliferation of content to the nth degree and the relatively tight control on culture and information exercised back in the day of the big 3 networks and the major Hollywood studios - but the trends increasingly tend towards greater entropy - and if you remember your high school physics, that's simply how the universe functions.
So Tora!Tora!Tora! may seem to many today to be a phrase one might expect to hear chanted in a synagogue, with no other historical relevance.