BY Gregory Williams in Reviews | 05 MAY 99
Featured in
Issue 46

Matthew Buckingham

BY Gregory Williams in Reviews | 05 MAY 99

Aside from the cold, hard facts of history - dates of wars, treaty signings, executions, etc - there is much that is eternally unstable, subject to the forces of current social needs and conditions. But although the liberties taken in the development of cultural myths have now been acknowledged, we still haven't got over the compulsion to create legends around the famous, and even not-so-famous, dead. In Matthew Buckingham's The Truth About Abraham Lincoln (1992, 18 minutes), one of two black and white 16mm films recently screened at Murray Guy, he explores the possibility of getting to know a national icon by trying on his clothes. A female actor of Asian descent incongruously dons the apparel and facial hair of 'Honest Abe', interspersed with a series of true/false statements, ranging from the trivial to the mildly surprising, read by several unseen narrators. For example: 'As Abraham Lincoln grew up, he lived in six nearly identical houses in the midwest' (true); or, 'Abraham Lincoln dreamt of his own assassination one week before it occurred' (false). These statements are often accompanied by brief shots of flimsy models and crude, miniature sets that stimulate a visualisation of Lincoln's circumstances.

The combination of grade-school historical nuggets with the truly comic scenes of 'Lincoln' ambling silently through various rooms - including a hilarious segment in which he is treated to an awkward dinner in a 1963 home - takes on a reality all of its own. It recalls the way in which history assimilates itself into our everyday lives, as we unconsciously shuffle and categorise randomly acquired fragments of information. By the end of the film, despite our full awareness that the beard was fake and the assertions spurious, a more complete picture of Abraham Lincoln seems to hover before our eyes.

If Lincoln presents its story in a fractured, piecemeal way, the 21 minutes of Amos Fortune Road (1996) utilise the more successive, narrative-driven structure of a road movie. The film begins and ends with the sounds of a car, driven by the protagonist 'Sharon', as she makes her way through the back roads of New Hampshire before navigating the crowded highway that leads into Manhattan. While exploring the local hamlets, Sharon's life converges briefly with that of Amos Fortune, an African-American who had been born a slave and later bought his freedom in the 18th century, eventually settling in New Hampshire. Sharon's adventure unfolds around a historical marker, found on the side of the highway, which she regularly passes with just enough time to read the words 'Amos Fortune'. This accidental introduction to the distant life of a local resident leads her to gather more disparate clues to his past, assembled incrementally from sources of varying reliability. As she becomes more intrigued, her passage through space is paralleled by a leap backward in time.

To the viewer of the film, the story is communicated partly through the act of reading, since most of the 'factual' information is presented with inter-titles that interrupt the flow of images. Like the roadside sign, these brief flashes of provincial anecdote form one piece of the larger puzzle. Upon her return to New York and a visit to the Public Library, Sharon discovers that the bulk of the data she has compiled on Fortune's life came from two works of fiction - the only thing she could know with any certainty is that she had regularly traversed the same country highways he had used two centuries ago.

Buckingham's films deal with the fine line between history and fiction, but in a way that is subtle enough to evoke a sense of our daily reconstruction of the past. He demonstrates that this is a process that is constantly evolving and which occurs in the most unexpected places - and that it doesn't take a famous career to make one worthy of future placement on a pedestal. Through our boundless capacity to re-examine the lives of the dead, we establish the ever-changing templates for our own existence.