How Does History (Literally) Speak to You?

One thing we can’t glean from history prior to the invention of the phonograph is how people’s voices sounded. We may feel a profound connection with historical figures but can never hear how they spoke, a key aspect of their identity and personality. 

By Serena Ypelaar 

Historical figures are more than just pictures on a page. They are people who lived and contributed to their communities, and trying to imagine them doing so can be a challenge to historians depending on what evidence remains. We’re always searching for more insight into the key quality that truly brings a historical figures to life: their personality.

Just as we once had no photographs to see what people really looked like, so too did we once lack film evidence that people really lived and spoke in distinctive ways. In trying to get a sense of mannerisms and voice, we first had to rely on audio.

Why do I think voice is such an important aspect of connecting to those who have predeceased us? I’m going to use politicians as my prime example. Many politicians are remembered as great orators whose speeches have moved and influenced societies during major events, from celebrations to declarations of war. I believe our voices carry much emotion, therefore conveying an important aspect of who we are.

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Martin Luther King Jr. addressing crowds in Washington, DC. Photo: National Park Service

Think about it: how many times have you seen/met someone, and at first glance expected them to have a specific kind of voice (low, high, quavery, strong, accented)? And then they open their mouths and a completely different voice comes out! It changes your impression of them, doesn’t it? For instance, Daniel Day Lewis speaks in a higher pitch in the film Lincoln (2012), illustrating the surprising truth about former American President Abraham Lincoln’s high, reedy voice. It just goes to show how much the quality of one’s voice defines their presence.

Voices can be commanding or meek; soft or loud; rough or smooth; and all these sensory elements shape and cement identity, especially in public memory.

Take King George VI of Great Britain, and his speech of 3 September 1939 in which he confirms Britain’s involvement in World War II. This is the very same speech featured in the 2010 film The King’s Speech, as played by Colin Firth – and we can gain such a significant connection when hearing the King’s voice that it’s as if he’s in the room with us (such was the initial reaction to radio). If you listen to the real speech, you can hear George VI’s inflection and get a better impression of his presence, breaking an interpretation barrier that keeps him (and likewise, other historical figures) at a distance from us today.

Would Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech (28 August 1963) be as rousing if we had read it on paper? Dr. King’s delivery of the speech is often remembered as an iconic capstone of the Civil Rights Movement, demonstrating the significance of voice and audio in preserving historical records. Similarly, former British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill’s characteristic drone is recognizable to many of us, and his famous WWII “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech (4 June 1940) has also been recreated in recent films such as Dunkirk (2017) and Darkest Hour (2017).

Charlie Chaplin, a British actor who was primarily known for his silent films, also understood the power of speech and voice in captivating and inspiring audiences. Taking advantage of the emergence of sound in film, his speech in The Great Dictator (1940) subverts Adolf Hitler’s acknowledged oratory skills and uses them for good in his own parody version of a wartime dictator’s speech.

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Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator (1940). Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Still further, accents offer a whole different opportunity for biographical interpretation: for example, though former Canadian Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier was a Quebecois francophone, he learned English in New Glasgow and therefore spoke with a slight Scottish accent, something I could never learn from merely looking at photographs or silent film clips. Observations were written down, but without audio we can never hear them for ourselves. The first Canadian Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald’s accent is also in question, as he was raised in the Bay of Quinte/Kingston, Ontario, far from Glasgow itself (though the latter was his birthplace). American President John F. Kennedy’s Boston accent also defines his aura in our memories. If we can hear politicians speak, we can further understand their essence as people and their leadership qualities.

Is this post, then, a prolonged lamentation that I’ll never get to hear the voices of so many historical figures who captivate me? I’m not denying it – and I’m arguing that we could all do with taking some time away from our highly absorbing smartphones to be present. Listen to people’s voices, enjoy the timbre and cadence, connect with the emotions that shine through when people speak. We often take it for granted that we’ll get to hear their voices every day, but when they’re gone, all that will be left of them is our memory and the records we’ve kept.

Monument Men: Constructing Likenesses

Creating commemorative likenesses – statues, wax figures, paintings – is no easy feat. The way an individual is remembered could have repercussions for years to come, so how does creativity factor in?

By Serena Ypelaar

When we visit a wax museum, we’re usually prepared for a couple of duds that look nothing like they’re supposed to. Perhaps it’s due to the levity of such a space – after all, what purpose do wax museums serve apart from the fleeting amusement of seeing celebrities’ likenesses up close?

However, with commemorative likenesses such as statues, busts, or paintings meant to immortalize public figures, there’s a lot more to it. A grossly inaccurate portrayal could be damaging to a person’s public image, and depending on the nature of the commemoration, may be seen as unflattering or even disrespectful.

Take footballer Cristiano Ronaldo’s infamous bust, which was unveiled at Madeira Airport in Portugal last year. The bust was mercilessly ridiculed and made the subject of numerous memes, to the point that the artist had to redo it.

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Portuguese footballer Cristiano Ronaldo was commemorated with this bust by sculptor Emanuel Santos in 2017. Public opinion ensured that it was replaced by a new, “more accurate” version, which can be seen below. Photo: Know Your Meme

Admittedly, famous individuals like these are exposed to these depictions by the very nature of their existence – they’re well-known, so people are going to make fun of them, whether it’s creating unflattering portrayals or vocally enjoying such parodies. That doesn’t make it right or excusable, especially if the public figure is a good person (if they aren’t, well, have at it!). Nevertheless, the fact remains that famous people lose the ability to regulate their public perception. The same goes for unauthorized biographies and the like – there isn’t much that can be done to prevent these interpretations unless someone wants to sue for libel.

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Photo: Bleacher Report

The new, sleek Ronaldo statue reflects what we’re conditioned to expect when it comes to commemorative statues, though – a public monument is no hokey wax figure. We seem to expect accuracy and a display of strength or nobility in these types of depictions, which is why more gutsy interpretations often get shot down. Yet we can’t pull the plug on artists’ interpretations altogether. To do so would be to rob artists of their style and create a mild form of censorship that could inhibit creative thinking. (Whether we want to foster “creativity” when it comes to portraying likenesses for public commemoration is another question altogether).

Still, that won’t stop me from expressing my dislike for what I call the “Paper Airplane Portrayal” of Canada’s longest-serving Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King. Cristiano Ronaldo is one thing – as an athlete, he doesn’t carry the same kind of significance that a former national leader might. So King’s statue on Parliament Hill in Ottawa seems even more bizarre to me, since I would expect him to look a bit less cartoony and more like the other statues on the Hill. Sculptor Raoul Hunter was aiming to convey King’s forcefulness as a leader, according to this page on the Government of Canada website explaining the interpretations of the statues. The other monuments on the Hill portray their subjects more proportionately, whereas King can only be described as abstract. His monument makes me laugh at him a little, which, applied in the context of public office, is surely a less desirable outcome.

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You don’t need a picture of King to know that nobody is shaped so angularly. Nor did King’s head appear so oblong in life. I will add, however, that this statue was created in 1967 when this style was in vogue, which could raise another fascinating discussion about how aesthetic standards affect portrayals during a given era. Photo: Flickr

Of course, I’m sure it’s all a matter of personal opinion – I know people who like the King statue (above). And that 81-year-old Spanish lady who famously “touched up” Jesus’ face in the “Ecce Homo” fresco clearly thought his makeover looked fine…

Irrespective of whether we can gauge the accuracy of monuments beyond personal preference, discussing the issue tells us what we value as a society on a surface level. Commemorative monuments rely on context and setting to construct a noble or attractive memory of a person (often a man, statistically speaking) and their contributions in life. Let’s just hope that if we do anything noteworthy, the sculptor chosen to portray us won’t get too weird with it.

The Backbone of a Good Biopic

Biopics offer a glimpse into another person’s life, but if presented poorly, a bad biopic can undermine the truth. So what makes a compelling biopic, then? 

By Serena Ypelaar

Biopics: we see them every year, covering all kinds of notable individuals and their lives. Put simply, a biopic is a film that interprets a person’s life and condenses it into a consumable feature-length story.

The biopic is a tool of remembrance which, done ethically, has the power to record and preserve the achievements of someone’s life.

We’ll be talking about biopics a lot in this column, but what makes a biopic successful? Here are three key elements creative teams highlight to execute a good biopic:

1. Uniqueness/Promising Talent/Struggle

The subject of the biopic usually has some kind of trait, talent, or struggle that sets them apart from others. This can come in the form of disability, a gripping dream or obsession, or a special talent. In The King’s Speech (2010), one of my favourite biopics, Bertie (the future King George VI of England and father of Queen Elizabeth II, played by Colin Firth) has a speech impediment, true to life. His speech impediment causes tension when he’s unexpectedly thrust into the role of monarch and must give speeches to the nation during World War II.

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Colin Firth as King George VI and Helena Bonham Carter as Queen Elizabeth in The King’s Speech (2010) Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In Hidden Figures (2016), we follow Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), black female mathematicians working at NASA during the Cold War. They were trying to use their talents to serve a society that was prejudiced against them – not unlike Benedict Cumberbatch’s Alan Turing, The Imitation Game (2014), who was discriminated against for his homosexuality. By emphasizing their perseverance, filmmakers tell the story of marginalized individuals in a compelling light.

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Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson, Taraji P.  Henson as Katherine Johnson, and Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan in Hidden Figures (2016). Photo: Flickr

2. Emotional Outlook/Relationship with Society 

Perhaps the most central element of a biopic is raw emotion. Loss, heartbreak, poverty, abuse, and any kind of hardship can shape the subject’s emotional state and outlook on life, and these feelings resonate with us in some way or another, if depicted in a way that’s just abstract enough for us to relate to, but still precise in the plot of the movie (and in the greater scheme of the subject’s life).

People’s experiences influence the way in which they view and interact with the world, and we can connect to those feelings. A good biopic will manage to encapsulate a real-life public figure’s inner emotions accurately, while sometimes bending the narrative to foster emotional reactions.

3. Overcoming (or Failing to Overcome) Adversity or Discrimination

In The Theory of Everything (2014) there’s a scene in which physicist Stephen Hawking (played by Eddie Redmayne) slowly stands up, despite being paralyzed in a wheelchair. It’s a scene of his own wishful imagining, of course, but the image is so powerful that it moved me to tears.

When biopics stress the subject’s determination to overcome adversity or pain, they hit upon a commonality between all people: we all struggle with something in life. The intensity of struggle in biopics can often test limits, in a way that’s so dramatic that we are compelled to react and feel.

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Mohandas Gandhi, played by Ben Kingsley, in the multiple-Oscar-winning film Gandhi (1982). Photo: The Telegraph

Similarly, in Gandhi (1982), Mohandas Gandhi (played by Ben Kingsley, oddly) leads India’s non-violent independence movement after being thrown off a whites-only train car in South Africa in 1893, though he had a first-class ticket. The fight against injustice can carry a biopic and ensure it resonates with human empathy.

How can biopics improve? 

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Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing, British computer scientist and logician who analyzed the Enigma code during World War II, in The Imitation Game (2014). Photo: Flickr

There are a lot of biopics about white men. If we had even more breadth and diversity in commemorating individuals, we could connect to even more people on a more representative level, and celebrate achievements that may be overlooked due to classism, racism, sexism, or inequality in general.

With the emotional threads I’ve outlined above, many biopics admittedly follow a structural formula – but for a good reason. It helps introduce us to people as human beings and forge connections with them on a personal level.

How to Save a Life

By Serena Ypelaar

This past year, I’ve often reflected on our inability to control the passage of time. It’s something that haunts us throughout our lives, since it’s beyond our power to stop time from unraveling. We often wish to transcend mortality, and while that’s an unattainable goal, there are ways we can deal with such a dark reality.

One such method is the art of biography. How can we hold on to what we have left of people? Our family and friends aren’t gone without a trace when they die, nor are public figures. Why? Well, because we remember them.

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Museums can facilitate biography in their exhibitions, such as this one in Jimi Hendrix’s London flat (Handel & Hendrix). Photo: Serena Ypelaar

Regardless of who you are, you will die having left some indelible mark on the world, no matter how small. Biography is a means of harnessing what we can control about life and preserving it for the future. It doesn’t just document birth, life milestones, education, work, marriage, family, and death. Biography also captures the emotional experience of a person during their life. It gets to the heart of who they were and how they interacted with others.

We can study the lives of the living as well – there are plenty of biographies written about those who are still with us. The bottom line is that biographies outlive us if they’re preserved in the public eye – they can be immortal.

I won’t even wonder whether biography is important: it is. We can’t hope to learn from those who have lived before us, or in some cases alongside us, unless we keep their lessons accessible for future reference.

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The film “12 Years A Slave” (2013) illustrates the life of Solomon Northup based on his written memoir of his enslavement in America. Photo: Flickr

That said, biography is still an act of interpretation. Even autobiography, the act of telling one’s own life story, consists of interpreting one’s own life and defining it. We must consider the issues that come with biographers as individuals, as their own interpretations can influence the way an individual’s life story is retold.

I think it’s fair to say that we all have some kind of role model (or in my case, many), some of whom we may not have met in person. We venerate them because they made a contribution to public life that would have us remember them. It’s worth questioning what merits a full-scale biography, whether in book form, biopic, documentary, or otherwise. Something in our ability to connect to individuals lends itself to widespread commemoration through biography. But these forms of media aren’t the only kind of biography – for instance, we write our own bios all the time for professional purposes. Biography is an engine of self-definition, a tool of categorization; it’s also a means of trying to understanding each other.

In this column, “On Biography“, we’ll take a look at why we remember certain individuals, how they are remembered, who remembers them, and how this affects their identity, both during their lifetime and after it. We’ll examine what it means to be a person and how public memory can rearrange the collective understanding of people’s lives. And, perhaps most importantly, we’ll learn how people make connections.

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The diary of Anne Frank, a young Jewish girl who lived in hiding during WWII, is a moving document that has informed countless biographies. What’s so compelling is the diary’s ability to connect us with Anne Frank and her experiences; in reading it, we can hear her speak. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A biography saves that which we never thought we could save. While it’s not the literal act of saving a life, creating a biography ensures that we can connect to people long after they are gone, whether to learn something or merely to take comfort.

How do we save a life using the limited means afforded to us? Preserve it, and make sure we never forget.