Band 6 Levertov with My Lai Documentary & Big Fish


Denise Levertov


The multifaceted interplay between history and memory is integral for us to realise that only when taking both into account does a greater truth emerge, shown through Alfred de Vigny’s quote “History is a novel for which the people is the author”. To an extent memory is an integral part of history that can be usurped by the strength of individual feelings and the subjectivity of history. The relationship between history and memory is explored through the synthesis of evidence and fact, as well as human accounts and emotions in order to achieve a more reliable truth. From her collection “The Freeing of the Dust” 1975, “In Thai Binh Province” Levertov deliberately selects iconic war-torn of North Vietnam photos to represent a facsimile of a tabloid representation of war as the disruption of a pastoral utopia. PBS’s confronting documentary “My Lai” 2010 explores the complex interplay between personal experience, memory and documented evidence in order to create a more reliable representation of the massacre that occurred.

“A Time Past” is a lyrical poetic memoir in which her sensory memories conflict with the unreliability of her emotional memories.  Tim Burton’s thought provoking movie “Big Fish” 2003 explores the ambiguity of memory and history through the quest of a son to create a greater truth about his father through a mixture of his tall tales and evidence.

Levertov’s Thai Bin juxtaposes of the journalistic representation of horrific scenes that have come to characterize the Vietnam War and her personal memory of the tranquillity of the country she visited towards the end of the war. Initially, Levertov evokes the coldly violent images of “bombed…villages, schools, hospitals innocuous silk factories”, somewhat like the headlines that documented the atrocities of the Vietnam War. Her “film” alludes metaphorically to the historically significant photo- journalism that emerged from the Vietnam War. Images such as, “yet another child’s feet blown off, a girl this one…bewildered” demonstrates the hyperbolic violence that was beamed onto televisions across the globe. To accentuate the sense of intrusion and violation that the US war brought to Vietnam, Levertov illustrates a pacifist perspective through the emotive imagery of the consequences of the American bombing campaign through her memory of a tranquil natural landscape described using peaceful imagery in the lines, “A place of afternoon light and a place of grazing buffalos”. She selectively depicts her personal memories of “Church and Pagoda”, “Boy and buffalo” to highlight the potential for peace that has been usurped and disrupted by conflict. Similarly, in “The pilots” her representation of the pilots all the audience to gain an alternate perspective rather than the one the media presents. As such, through the interplay of Levertov’s consciousness of a false official history and her own subjective personal memory a greater appreciation of the horrors of the Vietnam War are exposed.

Another text that explores the unreliability of all representations of history is the historical revisionist documentary “My Lai” by the Public Broadcasting service (PBS) which demonstrates that only through the interplay of history and memory did the truth of My Lai emerge. Official history is proven to be unreliable, highlighted through the conflicting accounts of the commanding officer’s dialogue, “never reported of anyone firing into the ditch with dead bodies” against the soldiers who reported “I saw about a hundred bodies… there had been a massacre”. Both Levertov and PBS’s authorial purpose is to emphasize the unreliability of official fact based upon the biased political rhetoric of the Cold war, which is subverted by the sincere personal accounts of witnesses and service personnel.  The documentary utilizes a juxtaposition of the victims recounting their experiences, “we hugged and cried…we were covered in blood” against the strong denial of officials, “american soldiers were not involved in the killing and slaughter of women and children” to demonstrate the unreliability of memory. Much like Levertov’s own representation of Thai Binh, the PBS also chooses to utilizes a cross editing of peaceful, utopian rice field montage against that of war torn villages and bombed out shelters. Both Levertov and PBS utilize a mixture of personal and interpretitive memory as well as fact which is impersonal but prone to political influence in order to create a greater truth.

Similarly, in “A Time Past” Levertov explores the unreliability her emotive recollection which contests the sharp muscle recall of tactile sensations. Factual history is represented through the employment of imagery, as in the line, “wooden steps to the front door” and the solid flatness of “replace with granite hard grey, handsome” evokes a domestic scene associated with intimate recollections of Levertov’s personal history. She conveys a tone of reminiscence through the use of reported dialogue in her emotive recall of “how much I loved you” highlighting her subjective representation. This recollection of emotional memory is further illustrated through the indefinite “somewhere” suggesting the expendable nature of the steps, whereas memories of the past and emotions can be preserved in individual memory. Levertov’s employment of synaesthesia in “the quiet broken by no bird…leaves spinning in silence” positions responders to perceive a distilled tranquillity that is resonant in memory. Her direct access to her personal memory is shown through the reminiscent tone of “I recall” and the line “or was it the second one”, which subverts the reliability of memory as a representation of history. Thus through, the duality of approaching subjects, both objectively and subjectively through photographs and persuasively selective moments, she achieves a complex interplay between history and memory.

Big Fish explores the father’s personal narrative account of his past, combined with an factual account by the son in order to create an extraordinary life journey of a traveller. The closeup shots of the son’s face accompanied with his words “I just want to know who my father is!” highlights his frustration and conveys his desire to discover and expose the fact in his father’s tall tales. The son exclaims “What’s true? he has never told me a single true thing” with a long shot illustrating his exasperation through his body language further reinforcing the complex search for perfect transience between history and memory. Burton employs ultra saturated camera colours as he illustrates various memories through rose tinted glasses creating an atmosphere of warmth and happiness that his father associates with his memories. One much example is the title sake “Big Fish” in which fuzzy, tinted hyper saturation depicts the extraction of a wedding ring from an enormous cat fish. These bright colours of his father’s memories are then juxtaposed against the dull sombre cold colours of the hospital beds, and the funeral establishing the cold light of reality as well as creating an atmosphere of gloom. The keynote of history and memory then, lies in Edward’s observation that,  “The thing with icebergs is you can only see 10%…not the other 90%.” The aphorism is delivered through a cross edited close up shots of Edward and William as William finally accepts his father’s wild tales as truth. This notion is further highlighted through the line “a man tells his story so many times he becomes the stories” which emphasises the unreliability of memory, as each person’s stories become less valid over time.

History and memory are both reliable to a certain extent, however due to the interplay between the two it is often difficult to achieve a fully reliable account of the past. The subjectivity of human memory can be seen either to validate history or contest it as shown through Levertov and PBS’s a study of representations of the past, which adversely affects reliability, hence it is necessary to achieve a balance between history and memory.


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