By the way, I never liked the Sex Pistols. I found them about as contrived as this guy's jounalistic stance. - Jonah
Battlefield Potemkin: Reenactors Are Cattle!
by Tom Carson
(Village Voice, July 9, 1996)
Assuming you buy my notion that drag can be a highly illuminating analogy for all sorts of otherwise perplexing late-20th-century phenomena, you probably won't have much trouble understanding my interest in Civil War reenactors. Fanatical about approximating an experience whose reality they're barred from -- by chronology, not biology -- what are these simulated Yankees and Confederates if not Middle America's unwitting answer to RuPaul? (Okay, so a case could be made that RuPaul herself is/was Middle America's answer to RuPaul, which speaks well for them both. But never mind.) For my money, on the impossible- dreamers scale, a guy in a Union suit beats out one in a dress any day of the week. After all, the relatively few drag queens who want to make it literal can always opt for surgery. But even the Johns Hopkins people still haven't figured out how to perform an era-change operation, and . . . if happy little bluecoats fly, why, oh, why can't I?
Then again, since I admire drag queens, mistrust of double standards compels me to wonder why I've always been so appalled by their musket-toting, false-bearded heartland counterparts. One answer's probably that, as a history fan, I'm every bit as priggish about its proper uses as the average Christer is about straight-and-narrow sex roles. But be that as it may, I can't help it: While basically I've got no quarrel with the idea that identity can and maybe should be found wherever you care to find it, I get all grouchy at the faintest implication that historical experience is or should be transferable, even in (however heartfelt) fantasy. (I'm even too annoyed to be amused when the makers of movies about Vietnam and such routinely equate their cinematic travails with the event itself; you can imagine with what bated breath I awaited Steven Spielberg's Oscar acceptance speech for Schindler's List.)
Still, never mind why Civil War reenactors interest me. More to the point, why should they interest you? If for no other reason, because they've got so much instantly recognizable company, from renaissance- fair aficionados to Trekkies to Deadheads (lately turned by Jerry Garcia's death into Deadhead reenactors, which just conceivably the younger ones were verging on already). These are all hobbies upgraded in status to function as the keel of self if not the meaning of life, and even as I fight off Mistress Pundita's siren call to maunder about the sense of estrangement that presumably underlies such choices, I'm still agog -- that is, both impressed and depressed -- that devotees can find so much quasi-spiritual value in them. For the dedicated Civil War reenactor, no less than the dedicated female impersonator, playing Billy Yank or Johnny Reb is no trifling commitment; the last I read, a full set of authentic accoutrements costs around $1500, and that's leaving out the hassles of travel, coordinating vacations and weekend plans with the like-minded fantasists in your "unit,'' and finding a mate willing to put up with all this shinola. Or not, so far as the final item goes.
Given that the actual Civil War ended some 130 years ago, you might think that even in their own minds the reenactors' craving to somehow elide the gap between their simulation and the real thing is up against at least one insuperable obstacle. But before you can blurt "New Age,'' you'll learn that you're wrong. Whaddya know, it seems that a fair number of today's reenactors are all too understandably beguiled by the notion that they were genuine Civil War soldiers in a previous incarnation -- enough of them, at least, to have provided the raw (and the cooked, as we Levi-Straussians say) material for a book called Echoes from the Battlefield: First-Person Accounts of Civil War Past Lives, by a hypnotherapist named Barbara Lane who sounds like she knows a smart career move when she sees one.
A story by Phil McCombs in The Washington Post not long ago managed to be hilariously skeptical without turning outright cruel as it depicted Lane "regressing'' one eager reenactor who sure could use a heroic past, given his ingenuously betrayed opinion of himself in the present: "My only fear is that you'll find I'm a deserter, or something worse,'' the poor guy worries out loud just before trance time. (If you're worried too for his sake, breathe easy: Turned out that he'd been there right up to the end, saw Lee's surrender and everything.)
Even so, I should have known that if anything could get me to question my assumptions about Civil War reenactors, it would be PBS egging me on to feel supercilious about them. In approach, Jessica Yu's documentary Men of Reenaction (airing, with either gauche patriotism or fiendish commie ingenuity, on July 4th), derives from the Frederick Wiseman school of deadpan affectlessness -- the formalist kind that continually reminds you it's much too good for its subject by refusing to relay basic information about it, and encourages viewers to look askance without bothering to articulate any rationale for doing so. (If I say that Wiseman strikes me as the Flaubert of TV documentaries, you'd better understand that by my lights that's no compliment.)
The lack of narration or any other explanatory apparatus means that you never learn stuff that might actually interest you, like just when and how the reenactment craze began. Not to mention any number of subsidiary issues, for instance whether the Park Service's battlefield custodians, who as a rule treat the locales in their care with a seriousness I enjoy, have ever had any qualms about turning over the real sites -- you know, hallowed ground and all that -- to these bogus soldiers. But in fact, the main reenactment featured takes place in Southern California, with palm trees and the like prominently visible in the "battle'' scenes -- as if we really needed the incongruity underlined.
However, Yu is also a filmmaker whose humane instincts often gratifyingly override the tendentiousness of her method. Once these people start to interest her for their own sake, she soft-pedals the Wiseman trick of archly cutting away from them at the moment they make fools of themselves -- not that a few don't deserve the banana peel, like the Dixie-happy dotard who disputes the idea that antebellum slaves had it rough by asking with fatuous slyness, "If you owned a piece of gold, would you mistreat it?'' But from my perspective and possibly yours, plenty of others soon become too unexpectedly recognizable to stay comfortably Other. If nothing else, the prereunion Sex Pistols sure taught me how to recognize a subculture when I see one, and damned if they aren't all just the same under the skin -- the passionate debates about distinctions meaningless to outsiders, the pecking order that ranks self-termed "hardcore'' purists above more comfort-minded reenactors who wear inauthentic cotton instead of wool, the gratifications of being islanded in a Brigadoon of fellow zealots.
As for the zealotry's organizing theme, on most levels I suspect its content couldn't be more irrelevant. Listening to the reenactors talk about the bliss of what they call "a Civil War moment'' -- when the artifice briefly vanishes for them -- I couldn't help being reminded of my favorite line from the movie version of Quadrophenia: "I felt like a Mod!'' says the hero, after the Brighton riot. "That has to mean something!'' Call me perverse if you like -- I always think it's fun to see what I might have in common with a bunch of people I've always thought were chowderheads, even if that only means we both are.
Yet while all subcultures function as a secret kept from the rest of the world, most also have a secret that's kept even from initiates themselves -- some untouched area whose crucial significance to the whole is betrayed by the fact that it's left blank. (Let's see -- what was it for '70s punks? Um, sex, if memory serves. And drag queens? I dunno, childhood, maybe; you can turn yourself into a woman, but you can't have been a girl.) The reenactors have a doozy: death. "I actually felt what soldiers felt -- except for being shot,'' says one of Yu's interviewees. Says another, reflecting on the actual Civil War, "Death was a key to it -- and you don't really get that feeling, because we're not dying.''
But while some reenactors seem genuinely if murkily bothered by just how that undeniable fact might reflect on what they do, more gung-ho types apparently take it as a challenge. The movie's most bizarre scene is of a "field hospital'' where mock amputations are performed for the spectators' (educational, sure) benefit, complete with gory sawed-off limb for the "surgeon'' to brandish and blood oozing from the expiring "casualty'''s mouth. Midway through, Yu cuts to a young girl who's watching with a look of poignant, troubled bewilderment; it's less that she'sunder any illusion that it's really happening than that she can't understand why anyone would want to fake such agony.
I find it pretty distasteful myself -- at once creepy and ridiculous. But the yearning to identify which must at least partially motivate such gruesome kitsch also doesn't seem much less poignant to me than the girl's reaction. Nor is that urge lacking for politer equivalents in other walks of life, come to think of it. FYI: In my most recent conversation with Eleanor Roosevelt, I asked her what she and Hillary talked about -- and Mrs. R. complained that she could barely get a word in edgewise.