Friday, January 23, 2015

"Thinking About Selma"

The movie based on the historic civil rights demonstration, not Selma Eisen, one of my mother’s closest friends, who was also Rick Moranis’s aunt.  Just to be clear about that.

You have probably heard the saying, “You cannot have things both ways.”  Well, in the movie business, it appears that you can.  Which is arguably appropriate, since movies are a place where dreams come true and who of us hasn’t dreamed of having things both ways?

“I ate six sundaes and I didn’t throw up.”

“In your dreams.”

“I know.  But still.”

I have not seen the movie Selma, and have no plans for doing so.  I shall have to content myself with recollections of the original, searing news footage of police dogs attacking defenseless demonstrators.  (I know that wasn’t Selma, it was Birmingham, but it was enough.  I remember sitting in Toronto, watching people skittering around in the face of powerful water hoses and wondering,  “What the heck is going on?”  That experience is memorably sufficient.)

Stipulated Going In:  The movies have never been mistaken for actual life.

Arthur (1981)

“You get the girl and the enormous inheritance.  I know we told you you wouldn’t, but this is a movie, so you get both.”

Paraphrasing a song lyric from Cinderella:

“A film is a wish your heart makes.”

As with movie scenarios, so with the movie business itself.

Having not seen Selma, I am unqualified to evaluate its artistic merit.  I am focusing today on its reception; specifically, the accusation of the film’s “having things both ways.”  I realize this is hardly an original perspective, but if I waited to be original… I don’t even have an original way of finishing this sentence.   Having said that…

How does the movie Selma have things both ways?

“Tis story is based on historical events.  But we readily admit that we changed stuff.”

That’s having things both ways.

“Based on historical events.” – “Check it out.  This really happened.”

“But we changed stuff.”  – “So do not expect it to be accurate.”

The question is,

Is that dichotomy acceptable, because it’s a movie?

The kerfuffle is ignited.  Heavyweights are solicited to weigh in.

“The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inner significance.” – Aristotle.

Big man, Aristotle.  And he’s saying it’s okay.  More than okay.  It’s actually better. 

“The truth is dramatically fascinating enough.  Why twist it? – Maureen Dowd, columnist, New York Times.

Maureen Dowd understands what the deal is.  She just wants the filmmakers to leave the history alone.

“I wasn’t interested in making a white-savior movie.” – Ava DuVernay, director, Selma.

Replied in response to accusations that LBJ was portrayed as being more adversarial in the proceedings than he historically was.  Inviting the next question, “What movie was she interested in making?”

Defending her creative selections, Ms. DuVernay shot back:

“This is art; this is a movie; this is a film.  I am not a historian.  I am not a documentarian.”   

A point thoughtfully examined by Ms. Dowd, who had seen and loved Selma


“And that’s a shame… Artful falsehood is more dangerous than artless falsehood, because fewer people see through it.”


“I think people who are as shocked as Capt. Louis Renault was to discover that there was gambling in ‘Casablanca’ when they find errors in films are missing the point…    Because of the intrinsic nature of the medium, film inevitably glamorizes and mythologizes.” – Kenneth Turan, film critic, Los Angeles Times.

Meaning, “It’s the movies.  We dramatize.”  And, “It’s the movies.  We distort simply by projecting things onto a really big screen.”

My wish is that moviemakers, respectful of the responsibility of their undertaking, would place the highest priority on getting the real life events they have chosen to depict as historically accurate as possible.  (Understanding that even historians often differ in their interpretations.)  But I understand the artistic obstacles working against that objective.  (Just in this story, with an eye towards “presentation”, I have moved quotes around and have deleted the “extraneous” parts.  Though the speakers’ intentions, I believe, remain intact.)

The thing is – and this, to some degree, makes this excursion a classic exercise in “Ho hum”:

The situation comes up again and again. 

And nothing ever changes.

Lincoln.  (“They had Congressmen voting against the amendment who historically voted in favor of it!”)   Zero Dark Thirty.  (“Torture helped in locating Bin Laden.”  “No, it didn’t!”)  The Imitation Game.  (“Alan Turing was a lot nicer!”)  The Theory of Everything.  (“They screwed up the science, for heavens sakes!”) 

A familiar three-step process:

They make a movie “based on actual events.”

There is a furor concerning its historical accuracy.

It is defended as a creative undertaking.

End of story.

Till it happens again.


Canda said...

Hollywood has a long history of biopics that are totally fabricated, and historical films that are completely inaccurate.

Unfortunately, given the low levels of education abounding today, particularly in history, I have no doubt that most of the people who see SELMA will assume it's historically accurate.

This brings me to the Al Sharpton furor over SELMA. Did he not notice that 12 YEARS A SLAVE won last year as Best Film, and took some of the top categories, providing African-American artists Oscars. If he indeed is going to march on the Academy Awards, then any Oscar any African-American wins in the future will seem compromised, and questions will be raised whether the award was given on merit, or in response to pressure from Sharpton.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

This -
“Tis story is based on historical events. But we readily admit that we changed stuff.” - is precisely why I do not go to Hollywood movies based on real people or events.

It was also my objection to THE IMITATION GAME - as soon as you see how formulaic the film's structure is you *know* stuff was distorted. And so it was - Wikipedia has a good summary (I saw it for professional purposes; my review is here:

I understand that making a movie about complex subjects that people will enjoy is hard. But I really resent the distortion of *fact*. Leave things out by all means, but don't falsify real people's lives. Under the law, you can't libel or defame the dead...but it's really not fair.