Friday, February 21, 2014

"A Simple Issue Of Clarity"

It may not be precise, but I think the line on the screen before American Hustle was:

“Some of this actually happened.”

(Or, in this blog post’s version:  “Some of my American Hustle quote is actually correct.”)

That American Hustle preamble got a solid laugh from the audience I saw the movie with.  Few, I imagine, were aware that it was either stolen from or an homage to – whichever you prefer – the line preceding Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) that read:

“Not that it matters, but most of what follows is true.”

One movie claims “some”; the other claims “most.” 

But neither tells us “How much?”  Or, more importantly, which part?

“What’s the matter with you?  It’s a moo-oovie!” a devoted Garry Marshall impressionist might chucklingly remind me.

Yes, it’s a moo-oovie.  But it’s a movie – as are many movies that came out last year – Captain Phillips, The Wolf of Wall Street, 12 Years A Slave, Saving Mr. Banks, Dallas Buyers Club, to name five others – that believes there is a significant advantage – in the “cha-ching” context – in investing the movie they are promoting with a “Some of this actually happened” legitimacy.  (The sheer volume of recent “Reality Based” offerings suggests that the “Smart Money” sees this strategy to be a box office winner.”)

My point today is that, this type of labeling reflects, in my view, a desire on the part of the filmmakers for having things both ways.  “It’s real, so you should take it more seriously than a story that is entirely made up.  However, understand – and I know you do because you are reasonable adults, unlike the lunatic that scribbles this blog – that, sometimes, I mean, “real” can get boring, or meander aimlessly away from its gripping dramatic center. 

“In such moments that, believe me, you do not want to sit through, we feel it entirely appropriate to draw upon the respected and longstanding tradition of  “artistic license” to make the “real” – which, may we remind you, lies at the heart of this movie – more compelling and more watchable.  I mean, if you want to watch a one hundred percent “real” movie, check out Andy Warhol’s picture of a guy sleeping for fifteen hours, and see how you like that!”

So, they get us in the theater because it’s “real”, and then they do what they want to it.  In an article I read on this subject, Danny Boyle who directed the “fact-based” movie 127 Hours (2010), fended off criticism of his use of “artistic license” by claiming, “It may not be factual, but it’s truthful.”

Folks, I do no know what that means.  And I am a college graduate!

Can you imagine such a wavering level of veracity standing up in a court of law?

“Well now, I don’t know about the whole truth, but I swear to tell some of it.”

A “smooth operator” is putting the moves on their intended quarry (I am shooting for gender neutrality here):

“I love you.”

“Is that true?’


I mean, how well it that likely to work?

Movies get away with mixing the factual with the fabricated because the audience allows them to.  Although, apparently, not always.  It was reported in the same article that the government’s insistent denials that torture played an important part in uncovering the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden severely damaged the credibility, and consequent box office, of 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty, the central premise of the movie being it did. 

(I will be taking no sides on that one, other than to say that if your movie plans to embellish the facts, you should probably steer clear of embarrassing the government.  They do not like it, and they’ll “git ya.”)

There is another layer to this, but I shall leave it for tomorrow.  Before I depart, however, – a modest proposal for ameliorating the situation.

If you choose to make a movie “Based on Actual Events” – and I am sure the technology exists to do this – as the movie unspools, it should be required that all such movies post an “Electronic Guide” at the side of the screen, saying, 

“This part actually happened.”

“This part is entirely made up.”

“This part is a conflation of events; they happened, but not in the same scene.  And the characters are composites.”

“This part is only in here because we wanted the leading lady to take off her shirt.”

The essence of the proposal:  Don’t try to fool me, passing off fabricated fiction as actual events.  Come clean on the matter.  Make the distinction!

To me, the most honest movies are the ones that are totally fictional from the get-go.  Those movies you can trust.  Run an opening preamble, saying

“This movie is made up from beginning to end.” 

And I’m there!  I can sit back in my seat, luxuriating in its flight-of-fancy fictionality, feeling at no time agitated by the question,

“Is that part real?  How about that part?  Oh now, certainly not that part!”

None of it it’s real!  Enjoy the movie!

The alternative is…well, lemme explain it this way:

On Law & Order – my surrogate law school – when an attorney catches a witness is a lie – even a little one like, “I did not have sex with that woman…Miss Lewinsky” – or, God forbid, two lies, like “I did not have sex with Paula Jones” – they immediately turn to the jury, throw their hands dramatically into the air, and, in a tone of mock exasperation, ask, “If you are lying about this, sir, how do we know you’re not lying about everything?”

Exactly, what part of “Some of this is actually true” is actually true?  This is important to me.  As a kid, I agonized watching Davy Crockett dying at the Alamo.

Now I’m not sure he actually did.

Tomorrow:  Documentaries – I’ll do it like the tabloids do it:

“Are they the biggest liars of them all?” 


Keith said...

Or, as the entirely fictitious "Fargo" puts it, "Based on a true story". I guess if you're making the whole thing up, you can make that part up, too. You might even win best screenplay.

pumpkinhead said...

I immediately thought of Fargo also.

I do feel like I take some issue, though, with the suggestion that the caption, a similar thought expressed in mostly different words, would be potential theft from the earlier movie. To me, that suggests that no movie could ever begin with a caption telling the audience that a portion of what they are about to see is true without it being a rip-off of the earlier movie, and I don't think the earlier movie gets to claim, let's say, an "ethical" copyright, over something as broad as telling the audience that a story is partially true.

Does this make "based on true events," the exact wording I see over and over again, theft from the first movie to use it?

And I don't think taking into account, as I think you are doing, that this was done specifically for humorous effect in these two cases, changes it.