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Reconstructing the Present/Past: Antimodernism and Early Film Reenactments

This dissertation examines the cultural history surrounding early film reenactments and elucidates their relationship with modernity. Beginning in the 1890s, motion pictures became part of modern unreality. In a world that seemed increasingly more abstracted from reality, antimodernism emerged in a variety of sectors as a quest toward authenticity. Early film reenactments, despite being ancillary fabrications of real events, aligned with this antimodern sensibility, which would ultimately, and somewhat paradoxically, inform modern culture. The motion picture’s appearance of reality at a cultural moment of modern disillusion, or in some cases outright discontent, formulated a simulated version of reality distinct from the quotidian. Yet the search for authenticity through indexical representations ironically informed the increasing virtuality of modern society. In the nineteenth century, both Marx and Nietzsche addressed the inherent contradictions and ironies of modernity, which have yet to be associated with the development of motion pictures and the telling of nonfictional historical events through this medium. This dissertation outlines three specific themes prevalent across early film reenactments: public executions and lynchings, battle scenes and imperialistic conquest, and Indigenous cultural performances. Each theme demonstrates a desire to reject the unreality of modern experience and reconstruct it by underscoring and fetishizing what are perceived to be primitive behaviors, concomitantly promoting racism, colonialism, imperialism, and American exceptionalism. A close historiographical analysis of realism and fakery throughout this period informs the practice of reenactment in the digital age as we increasingly find the boundary between reality and misinformation difficult to navigate.
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