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kottke.org posts about Slow Burn

The Historical Cinematic Universe

posted by Jason Kottke   May 28, 2019

In the latest issue of his newsletter, Rex Sorgatz proposes a name for the growing collection of media about the recent past: the Historical Cinematic Universe (HCU for short, name after the MCU, naturally).

By my estimation, the uptick started in movies, with a surge in reality-based Oscar-bait like Spotlight, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Post, The Social Network, and the films of Adam McKay, especially Vice and The Big Short. More recently, and more significantly, the trend has spilled into scripted television, with such ambitious projects as HBO’s Brexit movie, Paramount’s Waco miniseries, Netflix’s Unabomber series, USA’s Tupac / Biggie miniseries, Hulu’s 9/11 series, Buzzfeed’s 1968 series, and, of course, HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries, which is the best show on TV right now. (A+ rec!)

With the influx of scripted historical reinterpretation, traditional documentaries have broadened their scope, expanding into binge experiences. The boomlet is most obvious in those esteemed investigations from HBO, such as Leaving Neverland and The Jinx. But this vim for verisimilitude has spread to unexpected locales, like Lifetime, with Surviving R. Kelly, and A&E, with The Clinton Affair, my personal favorite of this genre. Each of these historical investigations have yielded massive cultural influence.

I am a huge fan of the HCU, particularly of podcasts like Slow Burn and an excellent documentary he doesn’t mention, OJ: Made in America. As Sorgatz notes, Slow Burn creator Leon Neyfakh just launched a new podcast called Fiasco, the first season of which is about the 2000 Bush/Gore election.1 The podcast is only available via subscription, but you can listen to the first episode on the website.

Update: In this video, Patrick Willems talks about accidental cinematic universes, like the one about the US space program, which combines films like The Right Stuff, Apollo 13, Hidden Figures, and First Man into one overarching narrative. Or the British WWII cinematic universe that includes movies like The King’s Speech, Darkest Hour, and Dunkirk.

(via @davextreme)

Update: See also the Ken Burns Theory from XKCD:

XKCD Ken Burns

  1. Which I have been thinking about a lot recently — it is recent history’s biggest counterfactual. Imagine a world where Al Gore became President in 2001. The US taking climate change seriously back then would have made a huge difference. No using 9/11 to sharply escalate our meddling & deadly presence in the Middle East. Perhaps no financial crisis in 2008. Perhaps no Roberts or Alito on the Supreme Court. Sigh.