There exists a historical trend where, amidst great cultural shifts and moments of political precariousness, certain citizens choose to actively — albeit often only half-consciously — distance themselves from history and instead indulge in vague nostalgias about the parts of history which fit neatly into a false national narrative that they so desperately wish to preserve. I have seen it in both Greece and America. When, two days ago, I read a Rolling Stone headline that pointed out that Fox News tried to keep the American national narrative intact through a type of mild censorship, I was not surprised. Specifically, the Ministry of Truth rejected to air an advertisement for a seven-minute documentary about a Nazi rally that occurred in Madison Square Garden, New York City, in 1939, shortly prior to Hitler’s invasion of Poland. The short film—which Fox News’ national ad sales representative described as “not appropriate for our air”—is called, “A Night at the Garden” and is nominated for an academy award.
“A Night at the Garden” is entirely comprised of archival footage and can be accessed for free on the web. In the way of artistic merit, the film has little to show for it; frames are a grainy blur and shot angles look uninspired. I am not sure what else you would expect from an all-archival-footage film. However, the raw nature of this production — with its unedited takes of the German-American Bund’s leader Fritz Kuhn mocking “the Jewish-controlled press” and calling for a “socially just, white, Gentile-ruled United States”—seems like a conscious choice. Considering Fox News’ reaction, I will call this choice successful—the choice to depict history in the most direct and unfiltered way, to point out that over 20,000 Americans did, in fact, gather to perform the Nazi salute in front of a giant banner of George Washington, during an event that they called a “Pro-American Rally.” The film’s tagline — “it can happen here” — emphasizes this notion.
The film’s harshness constitutes its artistic merit; its unearthing of an event that most Americans would likely wish to forget as soon as its discovered — of an event that is practically invisible in course syllabi, popular culture and the national consciousness as a whole. Really, this film is its own art form. The film shocks and educates, and thus challenges the national narrative — the constructed and often mindlessly perpetuated American identity and I am happy. Because reflection is vital, and history is inescapable. To try to maintain a picture of what one wishes one’s nation is — or even worse, a picture of what they were brought up to believe their nation is, regardless of what events and perspectives are excluded from this rosy and alluring vision — is to deny historical responsibility and to remain a slave to the systemic norms and sensibilities that have and will cause so much grief.
But as always, I focus on art. And I ask, putting aside this film’s immeasurable value as a historical artifact and a sobering educational tool, does a seven-minute collection of old footage contain enough artistic merit to be included in the most prestigious awards ceremony and celebration of the cinematic form? That is, how aesthetically vivid is the impression that the film paints of reality? Does it highlight or challenge? Well, it certainly challenges. But, although I am certainly not consciously trying to take away credit from director Marshall Curry and everyone else who worked hard to put this necessary documentary together, I am still not entirely persuaded that “A Night at the Garden” belongs in conversations about art in the truest sense of the term. And yes, I recognize that I may sound contradictory. But, if movies of such roughness win the highest awards, and thus become the standard whereby we judge all future art, do we run the risk of watering down our most universal and beautiful channels through which we explore, celebrate, and scrutinize human experiences? Is realism even the most effective way of changing widespread sensibilities? Or is it just the most ethically safe one? As with most questions worth asking, clean and pithy answers don’t exist.
In short, I love that “A Night at the Garden” was released and I recommend that everybody sees it, but I am unsure of whether it should be considered “Oscar material.”
Christoforos Sassaris is a third-year student majoring in English with minors in computer science and creative writing. PS868710@wcupa.edu