Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Addressing Gettysburg

150 Years of Tours and Tribulations . . .
Filmmaker Matt Callery shares some thoughts with me in this interview regarding his upcoming documentary on the history of tourism and memory at Gettysburg.  You can learn more about his film by visiting the film's website.

Jared: 1. The historical memory premise of your documentary is one that we do not see often in cinema. What inspired you to make a film about Gettysburg's post battle history?

Matt: Mostly from my experience owning a tour company, GettysBike Tours. I went into it expecting that Gettysburg was a popular place for people to visit and all one needs to do is hang his shingle and the money will pour in. I found it wasn't at all that easy. As time went on and I became more involved in the local goings-on, I started to see that Gettysburg was doing a juggling act between free enterprise like the rest of the country and being responsible custodians of this American Shrine. Also, it seemed that Gettysburg has a habit of only seeing itself in terms of the past and not looking to the future or even imagining what the future could be there. I happened upon a book by Jim Weeks that told of the history of tourism since the battle--how popular culture influenced the enterprises in Gettysburg and how Gettysburg's enterprises influenced historical memory. That's where we get the tagline "because history is how you see it" in our promotional material. The other thing that inspired me to do it is when I started talking to another filmmaker, Eric Koval, and he had wanted to do something about tourism in Gettysburg. At that point, I knew we just HAD to do this film.  Eric happened to bring it up around the time I started Jim Weeks's book. So, it just made sense.

2. You mentioned you had previously owned a business in Gettysburg. Did you come to appreciate history at that moment or did the "history bug" bite you at an earlier stage of life?

I opened that business because I caught the bug as a small boy. I have family in Northern Virginia and my uncle had a huge collection of relics he had dug up on the private property of his friends. Being only a 10 minute drive from the Manassas battlefield, visits to my aunt and uncle's home always included a trip to Manassas. I couldn't get enough of it. Of course, as a small boy, you're swept up in the romance and pageantry of war, not realizing the true horrors of it. Still, as I grew older, my interest in history grew with me. I was always disappointed in how history was taught to us in school. That is, until my senior year of high school when I took military history. Our teacher was one of those teachers you never forget. Mr. Foreso was his name. He was a reenactor who was in the movie Gettysburg. So, of course, we watched the movie in class and he paused it when you could see his face. Thank God he did. Otherwise, we would have never known it was him. He was just a face in the ground. Anyway, that spring, we took a field trip to Gettysburg National Military Park (GNMP) and I fell in love. This place kicked the pants off of Manassas. I couldn't believe it was so close to where I grew up and I was only now discovering it at the ripe old age of 17! When I got home that night, I told my dad that we had to go there. Thus began a father-son tradition of visiting Gettysburg during the anniversary days every year until 2005 when I moved down to open GettysBike. 

With GettysBike, I wanted to do whatever I could to make history as interesting and exciting as it is, as opposed to how it is taught in schools. GNMP is a tremendous resource to the nation as it is an enormous outdoor classroom. I had taken bus tours and horse tours and tours in our car with a guide. Canned narration is good for the casual tourist, but I wasn't a casual tourist. I wanted to live that history as much as I could. Having a living human being in front of you engaging in a dialogue, not a lecture, about where we were and what we were seeing was the best way to go. So, GettysBike had to use Licensed Battlefield Guides, not a recording. So, no, I had the bug all along. Owning my business only made it grow.

3. Can you offer us some key historical events you plan to discuss in your film? How have they shaped the trajectory of Gettysburg's cultural importance? If you could sum up the major theme of your documentary in one word, what would it be?

At this stage (4/3/2012) we are researching and writing, so this will be honed the deeper we plunge into this. Regardless, at this point, the theme of the film is "History is how you see it." Here's a quick example of what I mean. When I owned GettysBike, I would often accompany the guide and our customers--mainly to learn, but also for the exercise and to support the guide if the group was large. Most people came to Gettysburg with little to no knowledge of the battle's story. I would say that the vast majority of the customers we had saw the movie Gettysburg. A good handful also, or instead, read The Killer Angels. Naturally they had to see Little Round Top. So, of course, we took them there. Seven times out of ten, after the guide was finished giving the historical account of what occurred on that ground, someone would raise their hand and ask "So, what ever happened to Buster's body?" Or "Where is Buster buried?" Always with grace, the guides would explain to them that Buster wasn't real. And always, with some embarrassment, the customers would laugh at themselves. So, if we see history from a movie, we tend to assume that if the movie is about actual events and actual people, then everything we see must be true, even though everyone will agree that you can't trust what you see in movies. Well, the same goes for attractions you visit while in Gettysburg. If you had gone up the National Tower and were awed by the unique bird's-eye view it gave you and appreciated how it took this confusingly large battlefield and its phases of action and made it easier to understand, you see history in a better light than someone who sees it while stuck on a bus at ground level.

I saw it with my own business. Many families were dragged there because the dad was into the Civil War, the mom thought the kids should be exposed to American history even though she thought it was boring too and the kids--well, the kids would rather be at Hershey. That was the typical family that came to my tours. Upon their return from the tour, 90 percent of the time, in that same family I just described, the dad wanted to take up reenacting, the mom "never knew how interesting this all was" and the kids were dumbfounded at why their schools didn't tell them history was so cool. Of course, they still wanted to go to Hershey the next day.

The short answer to your question, is that we will cover things like the Springs Hotel, the electric trolley, Round Top Park, the African American tourists' experience, Fantasyland, the National Tower, when the Ken Burns film came out, when Gettysburg came to town to film, as well some of Gettysburg's most famous residents like Ike and Cliff Arquette. One thing I plan to spend a little time on is the ways reenactments have evolved from the days of the veterans themselves reenacting fights on Culp's Hill with Roman Candles, to the Marine Corps reenacting Pickett's Charge with tanks and planes, to the almost ceremonial solemnity of the high-tech reenactments we see today.

4. Large social issues of respective time periods play major roles in Gettysburg's tourism history. For example, some visitor establishments in Gettysburg were supposedly racially segregated well into the 20th Century. One of the park’s first NPS historians was African-American. Will your film help contextualize any of these larger social dilemmas of decades past?

Yes. We are currently in talks with Ron Bailey, from the Gettysburg Black History Museum, about his appearing in the film to talk about the attitude African-Americans encountered when they used to take bus trips up from places like Baltimore. The attitude of the black churches and benevolent societies that sponsored these trips was that of wanting to take part in America's future by learning about and celebrating its past. Of course, white America did not quite seem to be ready to accept that. The peculiar thing is, as we are researching this aspect of it, the attitude and treatment that African-Americans encountered while visiting, was not too different from what is leveled towards bikers today during Bike Week. Again, from what I have learned so far, most of the opposition was passive-aggressive in the forms of letters to the editor, or biased newspaper articles all done after the black groups had departed.

5. Will you be discussing the abundance of ghost tours now operating in town? How do you think such entrepreneurial endeavors will reshape Gettysburg's meaning--if it all?

Well, I think I answered how entrepreneurial endeavors shape and reshape any history's meaning, and vice versa but yes, I am sure ghost tours will come up towards the end of the film as we bring the audience up to present day. Now, let's look at ghost tours. Like I said before, Gettysburg's businesses, throughout the last fifteen decades, have adjusted to the change in the tastes of the American public at large. If you look at the shows on TV, you will see many having to do with ghost hunting or ghost stories. I believe that started with the popularity of places like Salem, Massachusetts. TV picks up on that and creates a show in that vein. If it does well, they produce more. As they produce more, they need to find new places to visit. If not for visionaries like Mark Nesbitt, these shows might have come to Gettysburg and found no established ghost industry. But because of him pioneering the market, they found things to televise and that put Gettysburg back on the map with visitors. Naturally, more ghost tours will sprout up because that's where some visitors will spend their money. Now, many lament this fact. I used to be one of them. I thought that ghosts can't be proven or denied and have no bearing on your life. What happened on the 6,000 acres of the GNMP. Why aren't you there learning about that?

The simple answer is, learning is not what the casual visitor wants to spend money on. There's no entertainment value to them. Unfortunately, we are at an age where Americans on the whole will only be willing to learn if it's accidentally done while being entertained. If we look back in the past, as we will in the film, we find that not much has changed. So, we can lament that less people go to spend their money in Gettysburg because of history and more come to spend it on ghost tours. But then what? Follow in the footsteps of early1900s merchants and have the town council regulate the fakirs? What the history people don't seem to get is that if we banned all ghost tours tomorrow, all that would do is kill visitation. So, my point is that each generation will attach its own meaning to Gettysburg as each generation before has. Unfortunately, the further we get away from a historical moment, the more "not real" it becomes to most people. Take the recent outrage over the John Wilkes Booth bobblehead. I argue that an earlier generation wouldn't haven't thought of such a thing, but today, Booth and Lincoln are just some crazy actor and the guy on the five dollar bill who freed the slaves. They aren't real people in the minds of most.

The purpose of this film is to show that everything new is old for the most part. Whether it's having vicious word-wars over a casino or a three hundred-foot tower, the rhetoric is exactly the same and the factions are exactly the same. All that changes is the characters and scenery. But whatever those characters and scenery are, the visiting public's view of history is affected by them.

6. What sort of "talking heads" or authorities will you be using to help construct the narrative of your film? How do you hope to style the documentary? Who will be narrating?

We are looking for historians, authors, business owners, former business owners or employees of now defunct enterprises and past and modern day tourists. We already have Eric Lindblade, author of Fight as Long as Possible signed on and we are working with the National Park Service who will provide a ranger, who is an expert on the subject, as well as visual material. Our goal is to make this subject of the history of tourism in Gettysburg interesting and entertaining to the people who would ordinarily pass it by. I mean, let's be honest, who wants to watch a film about the history of tourism? And it's a documentary on top of that? Documentaries are as boring as a math teacher (no offense to math teachers). So, we want to take the style of any given show on the Travel Channel or Food Network. I will be "hosting" it and talking with our experts. In addition to that, I am willing to make myself look ridiculous if it means making the viewer laugh while they learn.

We have approached actor Patrick Gorman, who is famous for his portrayal of General Hood in Gettysburg and Gods and Generals, and he is very interested in the project and on board as our narrator. We are very excited about that. My co-producer on the project, Eric Koval, and I were remarking how we never thought when we were kids watching "Gettysburg" until the tape in the VHS wore down that we'd have "General Hood" in our movie. Very cool. And he's a really friendly fella too!

7. Do you think this film will help mend some wounds regarding more recent Gettysburg controversies--especially the proposed casinos? Could it have the power to do the opposite and keep passions high?

Honestly, those wounds will heal when those who helped inflict them want to heal them. It is, however, a perfect example of some material we will be discussing in the film. Not the casino, necessarily, but the attitude throughout history of "history belongs to all of us, as long as we see it my way." That's just as much a part of what shaped Gettysburg as the entrepreneur who first recognized that he could make a buck off of the area's first Civil War tourists--the soldiers themselves in July of 1863--by charging high prices for bread and water. The entrepreneur needs the preservationist in order to exist and the other way around. Take the preservationist away from the entrepreneur and there just might not be any battlefield left for tourists to come see and, thereby eat at your restaurant, or sleep at your hotel. Take the entrepreneur away and the preservationist has no one to fight and the visitors will stop coming because there is "nothing to do here," which I got so sick of hearing from tourists.

8. How can people help this documentary come to fruition? What are your long-term plans for the film?

We are taking donations here until May 3, 2012. If we reach our goal, we will be able to shoot the film in and around Gettysburg starting no later than Memorial Day weekend and ending on Remembrance Day weekend. Should we exceed our goal, that will enable us to raise the production quality of the film. We may launch another, smaller pledge campaign during post production, but we are trying not to have to do that. Of course, if one of the local Gettysburg moguls with deep pockets who I've spoken to on numerous occasions wants to contribute or back the film, we will gladly go that route. (Wink wink)

Our long term plans are to premiere the film in Gettysburg at whichever theater will have us (although we do have our wish list). We will also approach the Documentary Channel about airing it; make it available on Netflix; enter it in film festivals and donate copies to different organizations. It will be available online for download or sold on DVD. Our goal is to show off Gettysburg. We love it there. Speaking for myself, I have met some of the greatest people I know down there and I want to see it do well. Eric has been visiting family down there for almost 20 years now. It's a special place for both of us and film is the most effective way we know how to communicate that.

9. What do you want audiences to take from this film? What can Gettysburg's tourism history teach us in today's society?

I want people to walk away from this with a smile on their face and a desire to learn more about history by taking a visit to Gettysburg. No matter what time period you study, those stories and people are us. They have the same flaws, the same greatness, the same mishaps and the same laughs. They aren't these stoic-looking, cold creatures we see on tin types, but they are three dimensional, laughing, crying, loving, hating, petty, magnanimous, funny, annoying, generous, stingy and all in living color people we are today. I think if anything, Gettysburg's history as a tourist destination can teach us that a happy medium can be struck between opposing sides no matter what their stance. Look at the town of Gettysburg. A preservationist’s dream might be to see the town of Gettysburg like Colonial Williamsburg is today. But the fact that it is not, could be taken as proof that a happy medium between preserving to the point of freezing in time, and preserving what we can while acknowledging we're a modern town with people who need to make a living has been struck already. And really, these squabbles might not be as catastrophic as some think.

Matt, thank you for sharing some of your thoughts with us.

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