Yesterday, I talked about movies – and there were a ton of examples of them last season – American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street, 12 Years A Slave, etc. – that were energetically promoted on the basis of their being “Based on Actual Events.” These movies – which I shall call “partials” – because they are, at best, partially accurate – make no effort to distinguish the “actual” portions from the fabrications, producing the unimpeded impression that what the audience is watching is reliably close to “Documentary Reality.”
(Before moving forward, I must, to round out the picture, reference some commercial enterprises that promote themselves somewhat differently. The Law & Orders and SVU’s I watch, while claiming to be “torn from the headlines”, simultaneously insist that they are “entirely fictional.” I am not exactly sure how that works. But I imagine the “torn from the headlines” part emanates from the “Marketing Department”, and the “entirely fictional” part comes from the series’ real-life attorneys.)
My message yesterday involved my discomfort with this hybrid form of entertainment that seeks to exploit the film’s ”Special Status” (because it is based on “Actual Events”) on the one hand, while shielding its factual deviations behind the banner of “Artistic License” on the other.
A position to which my considered response is:
Bushwa. (Or “Gimme a break!” Pick one.)
We now move on to real “Documentary Reality”, which I suggest, at the risk of tipping my ideological hand here, may itself be an egregious oxymoron.
Overall, audiences seem more attracted to the “fake-real” to the “entirely made up.” Why? Because what they are watching, more or less, actually happened to regular people just like themselves. Fiction, as skillfully as it can be executed, is still, in the end, the dramatized story of non-existent people.
Traditionally, non-fiction books sell better than fiction. For what reason? Think about it. “The Titanic” as fiction – sad. “The Titanic” as a “historical event” – devastating.
That water was cold! And actual people turned blue and died in it! Their nearest of kin had to be contacted and informed that their loved ones had perished at sea. In well-crafted fiction, this is upsetting. But there is nobody to contact. Except fictional relatives.
The original “chronicling documentaries” – stories of uncovered atrocities – were books, some of the shocking information embedded in novelistic fiction, some served up via non-fictional J’Accuses (as well as in newspaper serializations.)
One of the most famous of the novel/“eye openers” was The Jungle (1906) by Upton Sinclair, which, in the course of its fictional storytelling, blew the lid off the cruel and unsanitary conditions in the Chicago stockyards.
I have no problem with this manner of expose. Why? Because there is no legitimate “opposing perspective.” Though I have never read The Jungle, I cannot imagine, after finishing it, an insistent desire for a “balancing the books” counter-argument, perhaps entitled,
“The Cows Love It!”
Or even the somewhat less confrontational,
“You Eat The Stuff, Don’cha? So What Are We Talking About?”
They are mutilating the cattle and distributing food products that could kill us. There is no “Opposing Viewpoint” to such criminality. (Except, perhaps, “Be A Vegetarian.” Although who knows what they are doing to the carrots!)
For debatable issues, however, an alternate perspective is not only illuminating, it’s essential. I once read a biography of Ulysses S. Grant that barely touched upon the general’s much-publicized drinking problem. This disconcerting downplaying set me to wondering: Was the issue barely mentioned because Grant, in reality, wasn’t a drunk? Or was it because the Grant-championing biographer was deliberately obscuring the fact that he was?
For clarification on this issue, we are fortunate to have more than one biography about Grant. We can pore over other biographies – of which there are plenty – compare the information therein (specifically, relative to his drinking) and, after steeping ourselves sufficiently on the subject, we can arrive at our own educated conclusion.
So far, I have read only one Grant biography (the earlier-referred-to alcoholism-downplaying version), and finished about a third of Grant’s self-written memoir. Not surprisingly, Grant himself makes no mention of his drinking problem whatsoever.
We now arrive at the cinematic descendant of the muckraking novel or non-fiction expose – the cinematic documentary.
And here the head-scratching begins. (Note: After ruling out dandruff, you can proceed, knowing that you are genuinely perplexed.)
Wait, hold on, here.
Sensitive to “portion control”, I am ever wary of over-filling your plates, turning a gourmet delight for the intellect into an overstuffing disaster, requiring Pepto Bismol and – worst case scenario – a Vomitorium.
I also detect some deliberate foot-dragging on my part, due to the fact that I am about to provide a perspective I am concerned will meet, less with agreement and approbation than with criticism and rebuke, triggering a barrage of (which in the case of this blog generally means one) hostile and possibly personally hurtful responses.
Despite what it says about me courage-wise, I feel no reservations about pushing that possibility off for another day.
Tomorrow (finally): My nagging concerns about feature film documentaries.