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Report from Video Round Table, American Library Association Annual Conference, June 26, 1999, New Orleans, LA.

Biography: From Page to Screen.

Invited Speaker David Grubin, producer.

Reported by Diane Kachmar, Florida Atlantic University


David Grubin has worked extensively for PBS producing several documentaries that have aired in the series: The American Experience, and also in the Bill Moyers series Healing and the Mind. His efforts have won eight Emmy awards.

Grubin started his speech about his six presidential biographical documentaries by saying that he liked talking to librarians and that the first librarian he was aware of, was a personage whose job it was to keep the caravan camels in the right numerical order so that the Grand Vizier of Persia could always find the scroll he wanted as he traveled all over his Empire. It was not a job Grubin envied.

The process of putting researched material onto videotape changes and focuses the print information into a more emotional and vital image. Grubin showed his audience selected clips from five of his presidential biographies to prove this point. He delineated his editing process and the advantages and disadvantages of the film medium. Grubin quoted Robert Frost as an example of the distrust that a lot of writers have when their writing is used in video form. "Tape recorders never get it right," Frost observed.

Television is Grubin's medium of choice, mostly because it reaches a much broader audience. An average book is read by two million people; the average TV show is watched by 25 million. The difference is well worth the effort that goes into each and every one of his documentaries. Grubin wants each film to enlighten its viewers and bring them some information that they had never known.

Gurwin used a poem about Napoleon and a dog who died to illustrate that children felt more for the Dog's death than for the historical person. Grubin's observation was that if you do not make history immediate, accessible and emotional, and tell your story with a strong narrative drive, you risk losing the viewer.

A clip from Grubin's video biography of Theodore Roosevelt showed how Theodore's father's death at 46 affected his presidential career. On the eve of his reelection Roosevelt declared to the press that he would not run again. He did not have the vision to see that he wished to have a further political career. A later letter made clear that Theodore could not fathom the notion that he would outlive his father and thus made himself a lame duck president. Roosevelt spent the rest of his life seeking reelection because of this error. Sometimes the smallest things can have a lasting effect on one's life.

The next clip was from the biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Grubin pressed home the point that Roosevelt couldn't walk and then showed the audience the elaborate arrangements that were taken to never reveal this fact to the public at large. Grubin found almost no pictures of Roosevelt in his wheelchair, even after extensive research. FDR would not allow them to be taken. Roosevelt worked his upper body until he could support himself and the two leg braces he wore. Leaning on one of his sons, he would then appear to walk short distances with the braces. Supposedly there is no video footage of this particular maneuver, but Grubin found a four minute amateur home movie that records this feat, at least until the Secret Service agent put his hand in front of the camera lens.

This amateur production contained some of the most powerful imagery Grubin has ever seen. It is an image that could not be found in any book and thus the film brought this particular past alive for the current viewer. That is what Grubin wants for his audience a melding of words, images and music into coherent history. More and more television audiences are learning history from the media and not books and thus Grubin feels heavily the responsibility of presenting accurate yet exciting depictions.

A clip of Grubin's film biography of Lyndon Johnson showed the Johnson/George Wallace meeting that broke the deadlock against school integration in Alabama. Grubin was complimented by an audience member because this biography was the first to show Johnson, not as a war monger, but as a human being. Grubin deliberately uses the phrase, "we shall overcome," which was a civil rights anthem very heavily associated with the Reverend Martin Luther King, and it resonates to excellent effect here. He has counteracted the public perception that Johnson did nothing good during his presidency by not concentrating on the Vietnam war but on Johnson's civil rights record.

As a video producer, Grubin always tries to script his video images to show the real person in each biography. Each new image he finds can add to that perception. He distills the images to get the emotional reaction he desires. Grubin showed how the distillation takes place, how the images are compressed into felt thought until they become the emotion he wants the viewers to feel as they watch the history unfold before them on the television screen. The final mix has to be right and it is a lengthy editing process, but one Grubin clearly relishes. The power of the image is so great that the film maker must use it wisely.

Grubin's final clip was a preview of his new presidential documentary biography on Abraham Lincoln, called "Abraham and Mary--A House Divided." It is December 1863. The Lincolns are still grieving over the death of their son, Willie when Mary's sister, Emily Helm, comes to visit and offer comfort. At a small dinner party, Lincoln is verbally attacked by one of his guests for having a known confederate at his table, (Mrs. Helm).

Lincoln replies that she is also his sister-in-law. The guest then attacks Lincoln for not letting his son, Robert, serve in the war. Lincoln defends that choice as well. If Mary loses another son, it will be too much for his wife.

Grubin uses the divided household of Lincoln to mirror the divided nature of the war. He shows how everything was not blue or grey, north or south, but that everyone suffered in this divisive war. As a work in progress, Grubin still had more editing to do on this documentary, but his imagery is already quite powerful. Grubin concluded with the statement that he hoped through his images viewers would better understand how hard it is to be a president. The audience left with a greater understanding of how history could be illuminated by Grubin's work.


Copyright 1999 Diane Kachmar. All rights reserved. Commercial use requires permission of the author and the editor of this journal.

The author and editors do not maintain links to World Wide Web resources.


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