Monday, January 19, 2015

Hollywood Is Burning

At some point, I hope that Hollywood's historical irresponsibility bites it in the ass.  I hope that good citizens like you will stop going to films that are "based on a true story" or, even worse, that pretend, without clarification, to create a visual representation of historical fact.

Put bluntly, if Schindler's List, Argo, The Blind Side, Lincoln, and American Sniper play with the facts, they not only don't deserve Best Picture consideration, their participants should also not be eligible for awards.  What's the reasoning:  "It was a beautifully-rendered, visually stunning false recreation?"

Concerning a true event, it either happened or it didn't.  And if it didn't happen, it has no business being in a movie.  Real life does not exist to create dramatic fodder for creative filmmakers.  Of course, you know that the impetus for this discussion is Selma.  Now, I never had any interest in seeing the movie in the first place, having seen the trailer.  It struck me as a typical biopic, artificial and cheesy.  But now that the film is garnering praise and buzz, I side with those historians who are outraged that the fulcrum of the film is an inaccurate (as in, flat out historically wrong) portrayal of LBJ's role in the Civil Rights Movement.

If a movie is to be nothing but entertainment, I understand that.  If that entertainment is to be based on a false historical record, I find that absolutely unethical.  One of the most moving movie experiences I ever had was The Killing Fields.  Imagine how, when I read The Death And Life Of Dith Pran, I felt violated.  Only the outlines of the story were true.  The climactic scenes in the movie that supposedly happened to real people in real situations never happened at all.

I don't know about you, but I find real life endlessly fascinating.  My friends and I, in work or social situations, can parse the small statement, gesture, or nuance into the highest drama.  A comment or a rumor can fuel life for days.  An ethical violation of the absolute smallest caliber can tell us everything we need to know about a person.

At the same time, I love fiction.  I subscribe to the notion that great fiction can be more real than actual truth.  A movie like Apocalypse Now proves this every time I watch it.  There may never have been a surf-obsessed officer like Robert Duvall's character in that entire war, but he and his actions feel entirely true as he tries and succeeds in making a large-scale war an opportunity to serve his personal needs.  He tells me about that war as much as real footage.  In fact, when I see real footage, I think, 'This looks just like Apocalypse Now.'

Apocalypse Now has never pretended to be a real rendering of events, so there is no confusion.  It just carries that kind of authority.

But let's acknowledge, even if you don't know me, that I'm a fairly sophisticated viewer of film.  But what about our countrymen?  It is not practical to assume that the same is true.  You tell most of our American citizens that what they are about to see is a historical record, or worse, you don't tell them that it isn't, and they are going to think that they are viewing historical fact.  Maybe that shouldn't be so, but it is so.

And that isn't to say that I can't be and haven't been fooled.  Certainly I have.  The people behind the cameras during my lifetime have become increasingly skilled, and I have been tricked into accepting both products and political perspectives.  Maybe if I worked a little harder...

Which is why it is essential that a movie about something that supposedly really happened has a responsibility to do its best to convey the events as they happened.  People go to movies for a complex set of reasons.  If you go, for example, to see Selma on this 2015 Martin Luther King birthday, you are most likely not going just to be "entertained."  You want a reminder or a clarification of what actually happened.  And a misrepresentation of that offends not only President Johnson's legacy, but also Dr. King's.

 Certainly there have been times in our history when people needed heroes who were larger than life.  But one of the messages on Martin Luther King's birthday is that an ordinary man could find it within himself to lead a movement that would change a country and would do so with "grit, spit, and Mother wit," and would do it with all of his human failings and with support from unlikely places.  The story is compelling the way it happened.  It needs no alteration of the facts.


troutking said...

I agree in principle with your comments. Obviously fabricated, misleading movies like Oliver Stone's JFK are irresponsible and unethical. However there are two complicating issues (at least):
1. the need to simplify to fit into a 2 hour movie or 8 hour miniseries or even a 300 page book to a lesser degree.
2. the fact that history is itself a construct subject to the biases, agendas and assumptions of the historian. Who is to establish what "truth" is?

That said, I think it's completely fair--in fact necessary--to subject movies to scrutiny and a critical eye, perhaps whether they measure up to Colbert's concept of "truthiness."

Selma probably isn't a great movie, but I'm sure it's better than JFK.

rodle said...

I sorta agree, but I sorta don't...and I'm a history teacher.

It's definitely sad that Hollywood seems to think altering the truth is necessary, since true stories don't NEED embellishment.

But I love movies for the personal experience they give ME, and I love historical movies because it prompts me to have a conversation with the past just like a history book or an historical novel. Anything that I read I often subject to extra research to see if I consider the author's interpretation accurate or at least plausible. I love doing the same thing with movies, and I love discussing the discrepancies with my family, my friends, and my students.

And if the bulk of movie viewers don't go and check their facts? Well, neither do most viewers of the news. If those people elect to avoid the tough and interesting conversation with the past, that's too bad for them. I/m not convinced it's Hollywood's job to change because of their laziness.

Bob said...

Why not leave historical events, speculative or otherwise, to the documentary format? Then you can offer as many perspectives on what the truth is as you want and not push a blatantly-false version of events?

Your question about the 2-hour or 8-hour version presupposes that the historical event needs to be dramatized in the first place.

Billy said...

@Bob -- Doesn't that mean we must give up "Hamlet," and "Julius Caesar," and "The Crucible" as well? They're not movies, but they are highly-fictionalized stories based on very real events that many people (myself included) cannot help but intertwine with our understanding of the True Story.

It's unfortunate, but the onus should be on the viewer/reader to be a critical thinker and to engage in the experience rather than sit back and take it like a feeding tube. It's unfortunate because expecting most people to get better at something that takes thoughtfulness and effort seems to be a lost cause.

Billy said...

"Real life does not exist to create dramatic fodder for creative filmmakers."

Bob, if you really believed this, you would have stopped reading any and all fiction long, long ago, since almost all fiction -- even science fiction and fantasy -- is inspired by real life, real events, real experiences that become fodder for the creative storyteller.

Bob said...

@Billy. Great insights and challenges. I'm not sure that anyone equates plays with non-fiction, but I could be wrong.

A better way to say "Real life does not exist..." would be something like "real events, while certainly the fodder for many fictional stories, deserve to be rendered as exactly as possible when they are represented as real events." That doesn't remove bias, but it would prevent a screenwriter from making LBJ act in the exact opposite way from what the historical record shows.

Your latter point, by the way, is why I hope to rewrite some of these pieces this summer.

rodle said...

I'm reminded that painters in late-19th century France were often highly criticized for paintings that were thought to lack historical accuracy. Now we call those guys Impressionists, and we are damn glad to have their work. I'd hate to think we might lose out on modern artwork because it doesn't fit into predetermined criteria.

Bob said...

@rodle Hmmm...maybe. The photographs of Matthew Brady might make for a stronger case for changing the "facts" and still representing history.

What complicates the issue for me even more now is American Sniper, the film, which is an inaccurate rendering of an inaccurate source book, since Chris Kyle made a good bit of it up in the first place.

Of course, the Big Lie works in politics, where 1/3 of conservatives still believe Obama is a Muslim, where 10 years after 9/11, nearly 40% of Americans still believed Saddam Hussein was connected to Al Queda, so wny not in Hollywood? Here's to a passive acceptance of obvious falsehoods!

Robert Berman said...

Two impulses are at war here. One is the desire to tell a story designed to inculcate certain values into the audience. A good storyteller knows the elements of a true story which need to be "massaged" for the purposes of his medium: combining characters, exaggerating events or people to generate archetypes and stereotypes, streamlining timelines, and so on.

The flip side is the moral obligation to avoid calumny. The kid in "Last Action Hero," upon seeing F. Murray Abraham, blurts out, "He killed Mozart!"

Well, no. Abraham did play composer Antonio Salieri in the film "Amadeus." But neither Abraham nor Salieri killed Mozart.

Salieri also did not rape Mozart's wife, prank him with fake tutoring jobs, ensure the failure of his projects, or any of the other reprehensible things his character does in the film. Salieri was a peer of Mozart; no more or less.

But no matter how often one says, "Based on a true story; some events were changed for dramatic purposes," the real Salieri is now albatrossed with those images which bear no resemblance to history. He's now a black villain that our hearts and minds cannot unsee.