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In fact-based films, how much fiction is OK?
February 20, 2013 12:03 PM   Subscribe

With the "true story" films Argo, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty having been nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, discussion has risen about storytelling accuracy: "Does the audience deserve the truth, the whole truth and nothing but? Surely not, but just how much fiction is OK?"
posted by The Girl Who Ate Boston (160 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
Never let the facts get in the way of a good story. Not sure who said that, but attribute it to whomever you like.

I assumed Lincoln is as factually correct as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

As long as he gets shot in the end I treat it like Titanic. The boat sinks in the end. Everything else is handwaving to get to the credits.

Even "Based on a True Story" movies are obvious fictions. Be educated about this and you shouldn't have a problem.

Me? I'm off to kill some Natzis.
posted by cjorgensen at 12:08 PM on February 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


cjorgensen: Even "Based on a True Story" movies are obvious fictions. Be educated about this and you shouldn't have a problem.

The problem is that people aren't educated about this sort of thing, and therefore form historical inferences and political philosophies based on erroneous information.
posted by Mitrovarr at 12:14 PM on February 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd called on Spielberg this weekend to adjust the DVD version before it's released — lest the film leave "students everywhere thinking the Nutmeg State is nutty."

Dowd should have instead instructed Spielberg to include a note at the beginning of the film: People attempting to learn historical facts from fiction are maroons.
posted by shakespeherian at 12:16 PM on February 20, 2013 [5 favorites]


"When I am hungry and crave a tuna fish sandwich, I don't go to a hardware store,"

When I first moved to the West Coast, the only fast food place I really craved had exactly one location - hardware store.
posted by mannequito at 12:17 PM on February 20, 2013


The problem is that people aren't educated about this sort of thing, and therefore form historical inferences and political philosophies based on erroneous information.

Fine, but I think this is pretty far down the list of my List of 99+ problems. If people can't/don't want to distinguish between "True Story" and "Based on a True Story" and "Inspired by True Events" [what isn't?], then aside from a bit of education I'm not sure what else can be done to help them. I don't think "stop telling stories that blend fact and fiction" is an option.

My answer to this question is "there is no upper limit."
posted by craven_morhead at 12:18 PM on February 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Don't believe everything you read in fiction - then again, you never know when Troy might be real.
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:19 PM on February 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Frankly I think Carol Honsa should have been upset at At the President's Men for implying that her husband looks like Dustin Hoffman.
posted by shakespeherian at 12:21 PM on February 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


The problem is that people aren't educated about this sort of thing, and therefore form historical inferences and political philosophies based on erroneous information.

A direct response, from a professional historian: "More importantly, most historians know better than to claim there’s a linear relationship between “accuracy” and “critical thought”, the latter being what most historians would like to see as the outcome of reading or learning about the past from a trustworthy source."
posted by asterix at 12:22 PM on February 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


The problem is that people aren't educated about this sort of thing, and therefore form historical inferences and political philosophies based on erroneous information.

A problem which should be addressed by educators not entertainers, surely.
posted by Bookhouse at 12:22 PM on February 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


craven_morhead: Fine, but I think this is pretty far down the list of my List of 99+ problems.

Honestly, I think it feeds into them. I think this sort of thing contributes a lot to exceptionalism, jingoism, and militarism.
posted by Mitrovarr at 12:24 PM on February 20, 2013


Ahem, Les Miserables: also based on a true story.*

*In the historical version, the cop could fucking sing
posted by FelliniBlank at 12:27 PM on February 20, 2013 [5 favorites]


I think this sort of thing contributes a lot to exceptionalism, jingoism, and militarism.

Interesting idea. Do you have modern examples?
posted by craven_morhead at 12:28 PM on February 20, 2013


I think this sort of thing contributes a lot to exceptionalism, jingoism, and militarism.

I think filmmakers (and artists of any stripe) have an obligation to truth in terms of human character or the nature of the world (however that obligation works its way out in a particular piece is up for grabs), but not to accuracy of historic detail. If your film portrays three guys in the room when in reality there were eleven, then whatever. If your film portrays everyone in Iran as a crazy AK-47-having America-hating rube, then there's a problem. So I don't think the two are necessarily connected.
posted by shakespeherian at 12:28 PM on February 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


"Based on a True Story" is a selling point for movies and TV shows and as such should be treated like any other advertising ploy (like those glowing reviews from GreatMediaStuff.com). Its usefulness in the writing/production process is much more dubious.
posted by oneswellfoop at 12:28 PM on February 20, 2013


"When I am hungry and crave a tuna fish sandwich, I don't go to a hardware store,"

When I first moved to the West Coast, the only fast food place I really craved had exactly one location - hardware store.


There used to be a restaurant in Charlottesville, VA that was, in fact, The Hardware Store.
posted by LionIndex at 12:31 PM on February 20, 2013


Looking at the Lincoln trailers I see that Lincoln does not have quite the expected booming paternal voice, but his voice is not as it has been described: high pitched, feminine and girlish.
posted by StickyCarpet at 12:33 PM on February 20, 2013


craven_morhead: Interesting idea. Do you have modern examples?

Even something as outwardly-harmless as 300 might influence modern ideals by promoting militarism as a good thing historically compatible with a love of freedom. This is opposed to the actual Spartans, who were pretty much as much an enemy to freedom as the Persians if not more so (they had a holiday based around murdering slaves).
posted by Mitrovarr at 12:34 PM on February 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Dowd should have instead instructed Spielberg to include a note at the beginning of the film: People attempting to learn historical facts from fiction are maroons.


Then why is it that if we watch a sexist film, or a racist film, we're angry that the film is promoting negative values? The filmmaker of said films could just as easily say: "This film isn't real life, it's just a fictional world; if you can't distinguish between the n-word and misogyny in movies, and in real life, I can't help you."

Isn't this because we understand that fictional films, despite their fictional, made-up, fabricated nature, have lasting effect on those who see them? Because we understand that even a fictional movie with sexism is still sexism, no matter the reality of the setting?

Obviously a historical movie that takes liberty is a little bit of a different matter. But I don't think ignoring the fact that a movie has a great deal of emotional, mental influence, and that it often has an immense ability to convince (hence, propaganda) is the simple answer, either.
posted by suedehead at 12:34 PM on February 20, 2013 [5 favorites]


Dowd should have instead instructed Spielberg to include a note at the beginning of the film: People attempting to learn historical facts from fiction are maroons.

DVDs of Lincoln will be distributed to all public and private middle and high schools in the U.S. once the DreamWorks Pictures/20th Century Fox film becomes available on home video.
posted by mediated self at 12:35 PM on February 20, 2013 [8 favorites]


Mitrovarr: I'm struggling to understand the concern about political philosophies or exceptionalism. Could you provide me an example of what you are worried about? Like, if person X watches Y then they will think Z and that is dangerous.
posted by dios at 12:36 PM on February 20, 2013


I felt that Argo (while an entertaining movie) libeled Carter and the British and New Zealanders enough not to recommend the movie to others.

Also, the last 747-car chase was so over the top, I _had_ to go home and figure out what other liberties were taken with the truth.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 12:37 PM on February 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


The problem is that people aren't educated about this sort of thing, and therefore form historical inferences and political philosophies based on erroneous information.

I don’t watch a lot of movies based on real events unless they are so far into fiction that it doesn’t matter, or occasionally if I’m fairly certain they are really accurate. I find it confusing. I may be educated about the actual events or not, but 3 or 5 or 10 years from now when I’m thinking about that event am I remembering something from the movie that wasn’t true? Memory is very tricky and unreliable. Most people don’t like to admit that though.

It’s also just a weird idea to me that I don’t totally understand; You want to tell the story, just not the way it happened? So, it’s not really that good of a story? Why not just write another story then, just change some names and say it’s fiction? Because you’re afraid it won’t sell as well, it’s about using the fame of an event or person to sell things.

A: See my new movie about X!
B: I don’t think so.
A: It’s a true story though, it’s what really happened!
B: Well in that case, I’m interested in the subject…Did it really happen like that?
A: Uh…No. But you should see it anyway.
posted by bongo_x at 12:42 PM on February 20, 2013 [5 favorites]


Also problematic is the tendency of most viewers to take documentaries as gospel truth -- problematic because while few viewers take a "based on a real event" film as the definitive narrative, the same viewers of media constructed from primary source material and presented as non-fiction often claim to know a certain level of "truth." But documentaries can be just as if not more unreal than any narrative film. Herzog once said something like he always tried to make his narrative films as real as possible and his non-fiction films as unreal as possible.

An interesting question to tackle would be *why* is it necessary/desired to "Hollywoodize" real events? Kushner changes the votes of some Connecticut lawmakers -- why? Certainly there were real reasons why those real people voted the way they did. And Kushner changes them to push a certain narrative along. So there's a conflict here -- between what actually happened and the narrative that Kushner wants to tell. But why does Kushner feel the need to change those votes? In other words, say there wasn't a cliffhanger vote on the amendment -- certainly real drama was found elsewhere, in the backroom deals and in the impact on the vote to real, specific people. But no, no, there needs to be a climax! Even though EVERYONE knows what will happen, we need to build the suspense somehow that the vote won't go through. The problem here is that if you do that enough (and this is where the fundamental issue of the complaint is, I think), you risk boring the audience with artificially contrived plot points and plot devices. The smarter and audience, the less they want to see a predictable climax in original works, let alone historical events that at least some of the audience already knows.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 12:42 PM on February 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


Looking at the Lincoln trailers I see that Lincoln does not have quite the expected booming paternal voice, but his voice is not as it has been described: high pitched, feminine and girlish.

I've never heard his voice described as "feminine" or "girlish". Based on descriptions I have read, Lewis' take was pretty accurate. High pitched, or shrill, sure, but girlish is one I haven't seen.

For example William Herndon described it as such: "Lincoln's voice was, when he first began speaking, shrill, squeaking, piping, unpleasant; his general look, his form, his pose, the color of his flesh, wrinkled and dry, his sensitiveness, and his momentary diffidence, everything seemed to be against him, but he soon recovered.'

I've heard historians attribute the same sort of initial high-pitched voice to Lincoln when he began speaking but by the finish of his speeches he had leveled out. Either way, no one liked the Lewis voice because it wasn't what they were expecting.

What they were expecting was that booming, paternal voice, which was based upon myth. And, thus, back to the original point of the thread . . .
posted by IvoShandor at 12:43 PM on February 20, 2013


Then why is it that if we watch a sexist film, or a racist film, we're angry that the film is promoting negative values? The filmmaker of said films could just as easily say: "This film isn't real life, it's just a fictional world; if you can't distinguish between the n-word and misogyny in movies, and in real life, I can't help you."

I think I addressed this above: Sexism and racism aren't just 'negative values,' they're skewed interpretations of reality presenting as reality. The idea that, for example, women aren't very good at math is an inaccurate observation-- presenting such a thing as truth in your film is lying to your audience, or at best presenting that notion that your film is idiotic and doesn't care about reality. It's insulting.

That has nothing to do with fictionalizing historical facts.
posted by shakespeherian at 12:45 PM on February 20, 2013


I felt that Argo (while an entertaining movie) libeled Carter and the British and New Zealanders enough not to recommend the movie to others.

Actually, Argo's worst sin was that it turned the Canadian ambassador -- who actually did most of the legwork on the escape plan -- into a sort of bland placeholder, and wrote his co-conspirator out of the script entirely:
The Americans were housed by two Canadians: the Ambassador Ken Taylor, and a Canadian embassy employee, John Sheardown. (In the film, all of them stay with Taylor; Sheardown does not appear at all.) It was Taylor who cabled Washington to begin the escape plan in earnest, and once the plan was decided on, Canadians “scouted the airport, sent people in and out of Iran to establish random patterns and get copies of entry and exit visas, bought three sets of airline tickets,” and “even coached the six in sounding Canadian.”
I still thought it was a great movie and I don't think it's categorically wrong to delete Sheardown or downplay Taylor's role, but the piling on of dramatic tensions in the climax did burst my suspended-disbelief bubble. And it was unnecessary: you could've ratcheted that tension up before they got to the airport by documenting all the stuff the Canadians actually did to test the escape plan.

But then Ben Affleck wouldn't have been the lone gunslinging hero who MADE IT ALL HAPPEN, and I suppose that confuses Hollywood producers.
posted by gompa at 12:47 PM on February 20, 2013 [17 favorites]


presenting such a thing as truth in your film is lying to your audience, or at best presenting that notion that your film is idiotic and doesn't care about reality. It's insulting.

That has nothing to do with fictionalizing historical facts.


Maybe it’s me but that sounds like exactly the same thing. Which is my point.
posted by bongo_x at 12:51 PM on February 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


mannequito, when I was a kid I had a sitter who must have grown up there. Whenever I asked her what she was doing, she'd snap "making sandwiches for the hardware store!" True story.
posted by Greg_Ace at 12:52 PM on February 20, 2013


Ahem, Les Miserables: also based on a true story.

So was Operation: Dumbo Drop.
posted by radwolf76 at 12:57 PM on February 20, 2013


Maybe it’s me but that sounds like exactly the same thing. Which is my point.

I'm sorry, I should say: Fictionalizing historical facts is mucking with details. Whether Ambassador X said whatever before or after Event Q, and whether there was a dramatic shootout at the heist or the bad guys were just quietly arrested is not fundamentally dishonest or ignorant about how the world works or the characteristic of the human condition. These are details.

Presenting torture as effective, or sexist or racist or homophobic tropes as accurate isn't just fudging details about what individual people did at one particular point in a particular history, it's funding details about how all people behave in the world. I think it's a big difference.
posted by shakespeherian at 12:59 PM on February 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


bottlebrushtree: “I felt that Argo (while an entertaining movie) libeled Carter and the British and New Zealanders enough not to recommend the movie to others. Also, the last 747-car chase was so over the top, I _had_ to go home and figure out what other liberties were taken with the truth.”

gompa: “Actually, Argo's worst sin was that it turned the Canadian ambassador -- who actually did most of the legwork on the escape plan -- into a sort of bland placeholder, and wrote his co-conspirator out of the script entirely...”

See, here I thought Argo's worst sin was being a boring, bland pile of weak narrative and one-dimensional characterization, all wrapped up in that "hip" 1970s-style washed-out filmstock color scheme that everybody seems to adore nowadays because they think it gives a movie "authenticity" and a "contemporary feel." Affleck was even careful to make sure to have the token innocent Iranian woman who was just prominent enough to deflect any charges of racism, yet just faceless enough not to steal precious screen-time from the action heroes.
posted by koeselitz at 12:59 PM on February 20, 2013 [6 favorites]


Honestly, I think The Social Network did about the best job at this: saying, basically, "Some of this is kind of real, a lot of it isn't, it doesn't matter because we couldn't verify it anyway. It's a just a friggin story. Figure it out for yourself."
posted by General Malaise at 1:01 PM on February 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


A problem which should be addressed by educators not entertainers, surely.

Or, you know, parents. I'm very skeptical of these kind of throwaways. Fact is, we're all responsible for telling some version of the truth (artists, educators, storytellers). Or more to the point -- we should not deceive or bullshit (deception being a conscious redirection of what we know to be true, bullshit being the act of making shit up on the fly which may or not be true, but it suits our agenda).

Do I want laws here, legal actions? No. But I reserve the right to loudly and publicly shame some asshole who is making personal and/or political gain by messing with our collective ability to be able to communicate with each other.
posted by philip-random at 1:04 PM on February 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


The problem is that people aren't educated about this sort of thing, and therefore form historical inferences and political philosophies based on erroneous information.

It's not Based on a True Story in any real sense, but Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was apparently cited by a number of current/recent senators as a bedrock reason why they are so fond of the filibuster.
posted by psoas at 1:19 PM on February 20, 2013



bottlebrushtree: Also, the last 747-car chase was so over the top, I _had_ to go home and figure out what other liberties were taken with the truth.

Bottlebrushtree (and gompa),

I felt exactly the same about Argo. And I also started reading up the background.

That's when I began to wonder - darkly - if there was actually a single Iranian in real life who was even aware there was supposed to be a movie being made by the "Canadians"?

I get that the Americans in hiding mostly thought the "Argo" cover story was sort of cool, and that it gave them the confidence to walk through the airport and on to the plane using the crucial perfect-fake Canadian passports.

But is there any evidence the cover story actually fooled anyone at all where it mattered - in Iran?

It wasn't needed for any of their forged Canadian identity paperwork - and, of course, the scene when the guards at the airport apparently examined - in raptures (!) -the fake movie's fake story boards was also totally fabricated to give the film tension. It just didn't seem to me that anyone at the airport had a clue the "Canadians" were supposed to be film makers?

I may be wrong - but that seems to me the biggest fiction of all. That the fake movie cover story actually ever fooled anyone in Iran?
posted by Jody Tresidder at 1:24 PM on February 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


My position is that if a film is a "documentary," I assume it to be, at least essentially, non-fiction. (Even at that, cynically old bastige that I am, I weigh information from multiple sources and form my own opinions. Shocking I know.) Every other genre is an entertainment, and fair game.

Perhaps interestingly (perhaps not), I think one could argue that film makers and marketers are fairly restrained in their application of the "Based on a True Story/Torn from the Headlines," appellation. If the label was applied to every story that had an element of non-fiction in it, the label could be applied to almost any story. The works of Ian Fleming, Eric Ambler, John LeCarre, et.al. spring to mind.

tl;dr: What is truth and who decides?
posted by spacely_sprocket at 1:30 PM on February 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


See section U571 from Alan Smithee's acclaimed thesis on screenplay adaptations: "one is no slave to the events of real life: the liberty to pursue parallel storytelling to the truth is entirely acceptable when it makes America feel better about itself."
posted by MuffinMan at 1:38 PM on February 20, 2013


I really liked Argo, but the final scene where a 747 is almost chased down by a truckload full of Revolutionary Guards was so over the top and unneeded that it really pulled me out of the story when I should be fully invested in it. The first thing I did after watching the movie was to google the takeoff speed of a fully loaded 747. It's 160-180 MPH. I guess the biggest danger the Iranians pose to the international community is not from their nuclear program, but rather their incredible souped-up hotrod trucks.
posted by vibrotronica at 1:40 PM on February 20, 2013 [14 favorites]


It is so that even "truthful" movies like documentaries are made with a slant, that actual histories by historians suffer from the fact that the histories are filtered through the historian's eyes and beliefs, and that absolute truth can be a slithery, wriggly, difficult thing to pin down.

But having said all that, it irritates me no end that real life just isn't good enough for movie makers -- that they must take wonderful or remarkable real stories and consciously twist them for some artificial drama. This leads directly to the misapprehensions of real things like significant historic events that we all complain about in other contexts. I mean, really, do we truly think everyone who sees Lincoln is going to go out and read a detailed history of how the 13th amendment passed so they can figure out what the movie deliberately got wrong? I'd add that how a state actually voted on a major constitutional amendment is hardly a mere detail to me. By contrast, the ability to get it right -- to have Daniel Day Lewis really be Lincoln, as his contemporaries described him and as his writings convey him -- is what makes movie making about real history so special.

Of the three movies mentioned. Zero Dark Thirty seems to have the least to apologize for, as the movie makers appear to have tried very hard to get it right. That's precisely why prominent members of Congress are asking who told them that torture led to some actionable intelligence about OBL's courier and hence the ability to deduce where he was.

In short, I'd forgive any scriptwriter for the slant, or bias, that all history involves. But conscious fabrication about real events is an entirely different and to me, unpardonable thing.
posted by bearwife at 1:42 PM on February 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


This is, I think, one of those debates that never goes anywhere and never changes its terms--the participants in the heated nineteenth-century quarrels over Walter Scott's historical fiction could drop right into this article without missing a beat.
posted by thomas j wise at 2:01 PM on February 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Considering how many people think Hurt Locker is realistic*, let alone 'real', I would not be surprised if people are now going to take Zero Dark Thirty as gospel truth. I'm not saying that would should do something to fix this, or that we can, but it does underscore the effect films can have on the narrative of what people think is 'real'.


*and it really isn't
posted by Megami at 2:03 PM on February 20, 2013


While I have some concern, I think audiences of today and tomorrow are simply going have to deal with a greater degree of ambiguity. We should not accept any source as the ultimate arbiter of truth, as any conception of history is at best an evolving understanding emerging from a dialogic process. Some films stay closer to the uncontested facts, while some embroider and shortcut and imagine quite a bit more. But either way, for me the most important message is that we all must think about what we're seeing. Hollywood playing fast and loose with history goes back to Birth of a Nation, and what's needed is not more control on filmmakers but far better critical thinking skills taught, shared, and celebrated across the society.

The Lincoln movie did amazing things for the sale of Team of Rivals. Downton Abbey, to throw in more "historical" entertainment, has driven people to fashion history blogs, to look up "erysipelas" and think for a moment about trench warfare in World War I, to inquire and reflect upon class and servitude and the economic and social conditions that those ential. What I see is people becoming interested in history who previously, were probably not. Some proportion of them will continue to investigate and develop a more complex perspective. Some will not - but would they have anyway, had they never seen the films?

Hollywood does a hamhanded job a lot of the time. Lincoln was excruciatingly mawkish. Downton Abbey is a travesty. But I would prefer a world where a history film - even a profoundly inaccurate one - exists to one in which it is simply of zero interest, not at all viable.
posted by Miko at 2:04 PM on February 20, 2013


The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith : 2013 Oscar Nominees Q&A
posted by Artw at 2:04 PM on February 20, 2013


I mean, really, do we truly think everyone who sees Lincoln is going to go out and read a detailed history of how the 13th amendment passed so they can figure out what the movie deliberately got wrong?

Okay but question: What is the purpose of the film Lincoln? What's it for? Historical education?
posted by shakespeherian at 2:18 PM on February 20, 2013


I think the two truths shakespeherian talks about are an important distinction. I don't think they're "the same" in terms of degree, anyway. An artform depicting actual people in an actual event doesn't have any kind of obligation to be accurate about concrete details, unless it presents itself as depicting what actually happened. To not abide this is to be untruthful in this regard, sure. When art inaccurately depicts the qualities of a group of people, though, through hurtful stereotypes, this is to be untruthful, too, but on a whole other scale and in a whole other way.

So, my tenuous understanding is that while yeah, the "truth" is not told in both instances, they have separate consequences for both the art and the people around it.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 2:22 PM on February 20, 2013


Okay but question: What is the purpose of the film Lincoln? What's it for?

It is presented as the story of how the 13th amendment was passed.

It's disingenuous to say one is presenting a film about a (critically important) real event in history while consciously changing real and significant known facts about that event.

I speak as someone who is a big Lincoln and Civil War history buff and loved the movie.
posted by bearwife at 2:28 PM on February 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


That didn't answer the question.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:33 PM on February 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


In one of the HP Lovecraft Literary Podcasts (one of the three on "The Call of Cthulhu," I am pretty sure), Andrew Leman, the director of the silent film version of the story, told how he discovered that the earthquake that rocked New England in the story, which he assumed was made up, appeared on the front page of the New York Times. First he described the shock and dismay in discovering what he assumed was a fictional flourish was real, then the glee when he he realized he could label his film "Based on True Events." Which he didn't actually do, but would have been amusing....
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:36 PM on February 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


I may be wrong - but that seems to me the biggest fiction of all. That the fake movie cover story actually ever fooled anyone in Iran?

And the whole "suspense" surrounding calling the office in LA to "confirm" there was a prodco. I'm pretty sure in 1979 a fake phone # could've been rerouted to a CIA phone anyway.

I just saw the film on video this week, and was rather underwhelmed. Being old enough to remember that time period I didn't want to relive the whole era, yet another in the long story of the US' constant clusterfecks in the Middle East. (Speaking of which, the one thing I was glad for was the brief mention at the beginning of the US overthrow of the Iranian govt./installation of the Shah. AKA Mission Accomplished 1950.)

In the same way, reading David O. Russell is doing a version of the Abscam story leaves me meh, despite the signing of a stellar cast.
posted by NorthernLite at 2:42 PM on February 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


I prefer when directors have enough respect for the source material to depict it accurately, or at least to preserve its essence. But I'm willing to grant artistic license if it's in service to the story. To use a notorious example, Braveheart is a garbled mush of lies, half-truths, and preposterous anachronisms from start to finish. But it's a great, entertaining movie, and would likely be far less so had it strove for historical accuracy.

That said, I can fully understand why some people react with convulsive fury to this sort of thing. I'm the same way when it comes to scientific inaccuracies. It's wrong and upsetting and RRRGHH. If it's blatant enough, it can completely destroy my ability to enjoy a film.
posted by dephlogisticated at 2:43 PM on February 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


If we can't boil down a misrepresentation into a neat "ism" or ideology, can we guarantee it is harmless?
posted by RobotHero at 2:47 PM on February 20, 2013


The thing is, narrative feature films (ie: non documentary), whether purporting to be fiction or fact, are first and foremost attempts to engage with an audience in a (dare I say) artful way. That is, the primary goal is not educational. So there's all kind of grey area when it comes to the relevance of certain historical facts, much of it tied up in notions of tone.

That is, I have no problem with the historical inaccuracies in something like Inglorious Basterds but I do with Titanic. It doesn't remotely bother me that (SPOILER ALERT) the basterds end up killing Hitler in a Paris movie theater, whereas it bugs the hell out of me that, as the Titanic is sinking, there's suddenly a nasty bad guy shooting his gun off at Leonardo C below decks. The former is an artist messing around with history (and art history) tongue firmly in cheek. The latter is obnoxious pandering that does nothing but detract from the drama of what's going on in the movie.
posted by philip-random at 2:47 PM on February 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


I demand that the so-called "History Plays" be corrected. Or, at least, that a statement be read from the stage warning the audience that they are not, in fact, completely accurate.
posted by Area Man at 2:49 PM on February 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Does the audience deserve the truth, the whole truth and nothing but? Surely not, but just how much fiction is OK?"

Surely why not? At the very least, I want to know what might be propaganda, what simply poetic license.

Area Man may be flippant, but I've known people who do take Shakespeare's history at face value. So, yeah - it's a problem.

This is one more area where historic novels have it over fillum. A decent author will add a chapter explaining what is and what is not verified, what is just story telling.
posted by IndigoJones at 2:54 PM on February 20, 2013


Area Man may be flippant, but I've known people who do take Shakespeare's history at face value. So, yeah - it's a problem.

Yes, but not as big a problem as it would be to not have Shakespeare or to have Shakespeare that was less compelling. Historical accuracy isn't the only thing at stake.
posted by Area Man at 2:58 PM on February 20, 2013


I'd argue it's a problem of those people not understanding how fiction and genre work, not a problem of how fiction and genre work.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:59 PM on February 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


But isn't this problem with "history" movies the innate problem of history itself. The past is always repackaged in a way to make real life seem more narrative, story-like, and many times to give rationality to real life that just doesn't exist.

We constantly repackage historical events in ways that back up important things we want to say or to just make the story sound better. How the past is repackaged, either by movies, oral tradition, novels, or statues and memorials, is as intresting and important as what actually happened in the past. And what actually happened is really up to the group telling the story.

Take the Emancipation Proclamation. It freed the slaves. Well, some of them. Because freeing the slaves was a good thing. And slavery was wrong. And Lincoln was a good man. And, removing the bulk of the South's labor force would seriously hamper the Confederate Army. And it was an awesome way to further piss off the South. And it was because Union Generals like Grant wanted to be able to enlist freed slaves to take the brunt of the labor off of the fighting man.

Human history is not a simple list of if...then statements, there are nuances and layers of whys and hows that may not be readily apparent or may never be fully understood. Sometimes shit just happens and all the historians and filmmakers in the world can't parse out why.

I say this as a lover and a student of history, it's a fickle bitch and that's why I love it, however, I do wish filmmakers in particular would get away from the long-standing trend of changing things just because they can. Oh, and when they stop adding dumb ass love stories to every single thing that has happened I'll be delighted. Sometimes, people do things that have absolutely nothing to do with love of someone else.
posted by teleri025 at 3:03 PM on February 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


The latter is obnoxious pandering that does nothing but detract from the drama of what's going on in the movie.

But...the "drama of what's going on" is also entirely speculative, hyperbolic and artificial. It is no more a rounded perspective of the events on the Titanic as they unfolded from accurate, historically documented individual points of view than Dr . Strangelove is an exigesis on the Cold War or Deadwood is an introduction to the settlement of the Western plains. Titanic is, first and foremost, an entertaining work of art built around a set of tools, tropes, and references, some of which come from a historical event that has been retold in song, film, and story countless times, some of which are entirely creative. Again, if it has inspired anyone to delve more deeply into early 20th century nautical design, disaster response, biography or social history, that's wonderful. But it's not a work of documentary history. Far from it.
posted by Miko at 3:05 PM on February 20, 2013


Like, if person X watches Y then they will think Z and that is dangerous.

If X = American citizen watches Y = 24, they will think that Z = torture is only used in cases of extreme urgency (W = nuclear bomb about blow up Los Angeles), when it had become a regular repeated process during the Bush presidency.
posted by benito.strauss at 3:06 PM on February 20, 2013


I remember once being really upset because an episode of Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman depicted Gen. Custer as a habitual drunk. I knew that he'd stopped drinking during the 1860s. No one seemed to understand why I was so upset. (I think my concern was that Custer had been made into a simple, drunk villian which wasn't fair to him and seemed to lay the problems with U.S.-Indian policy onto one cartoon villian.) This all took place in Moscow, in Russian. Dr. Quinn was a fairly popular show there at the time.
posted by Area Man at 3:09 PM on February 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


What I see is people becoming interested in history who previously, were probably not. Some proportion of them will continue to investigate and develop a more complex perspective. Some will not - but would they have anyway, had they never seen the films?

This is a great point, Miko. It's similar to how I came to terms with adults I love and respect thinking Harry Potter books were groundbreaking and wonderful. At first it shook me, that grown folks were going apeshit over children's books, but then I realized -- with my mom's help, natch -- at least they're reading something, right?
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 3:14 PM on February 20, 2013


I do wish filmmakers in particular would get away from the long-standing trend of changing things just because they can

But, as you say, the practice of history necessarily has to address and engage with the inevitability of myth. History is practiced in specific ways in academia, but it does not belong to academia except as a specific professional practice, and academia cannot control its facts or the complex of ideas and fantasies that spring up around those facts. Academia, as well, has of course been caught up in its own myth-making projects, projects usually only revealed in outline by some distance in time. The Colonial Revival historians, of course, thought they were correcting the record.

I say this as someone who works in public history. It can be distressing to think about how WRONG and deluded "everyone" is because of pop culture depictions and discussions of historical material. But I have moved from that stance over the last decade. I find that I am a much more effective presenter of public history since I let go "but they're WRONG" as a point of order and an insistence, and instead waded in to engage in the messy swill that is the emergent public perception of the past, taking along a little box of documented fact and primary source to introduce, knowing that we can't disagree about the realness of these artifacts of the past but acknowledging that ever since they were created, historians and others have engaged in continuous reinterpretation of them. The general public is chiefly impeded by having less background to draw on in terms of context, interpretive frameworks, and body of established fact, but they have interests and ideas - powerful ideas that they hold very close - and those ideas are every bit as real and significant as the facts that may relate to them. Negotiating that murky territory between myth, fantasy, and fact is really the basis of a pretty wonderful conversation - a conversation which would never happened if I insisted only on didactic lecture keeping strictly to the nuts and bolts.

There is a place for historical fantasy and historical fiction. And we simply do not have a mechanism of control for the human propensity to remember, commemorate, and tell stories. We may as well work with it, not against it.
posted by Miko at 3:15 PM on February 20, 2013 [6 favorites]


I think I would feel better about it if more people elevated the value of their art, instead of denigrating the value of accuracy.


What I mean is I want more people saying, "I'm trying to be Shakespeare, dammit!" and fewer people saying, "Oh, those are details. They don't matter." The latter gets my back up more than the former.
posted by RobotHero at 3:17 PM on February 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's like nobody has ever watching any Turner Classic Movies and a lot of the biopics presented there. This kind of things has been going on FOREVER with filmmaking. It isn't new, and it isn't news. Think that old black and white movie about the life of Tommy Dorsey is the true story? Nope. Heck, think any of the other Lincoln biopics are what actually happened? Nope.

Hollywood is about telling stories, not depicting fact. Heck, even documentary filmmakers, who ostensibly are presenting reality, have the power of the editing room at their disposal.

No fictionalization of history surprises me. Not even history texts are without an editorial point of view which skews the focus in one direction or the other. The true scope and sweep of real history is only known by doing deep research and reading real-time emerging documents in archives. Everything else is a fiction, and it's best to shed any illusions to the contrary.
posted by hippybear at 3:21 PM on February 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


whereas it bugs the hell out of me that, as the Titanic is sinking, there's suddenly a nasty bad guy shooting his gun off at Leonardo C below decks.

To be fair, do we know this /isn't/ historically accurate?
posted by corb at 3:58 PM on February 20, 2013


we simply do not have a mechanism of control for the human propensity to remember, commemorate, and tell stories. We may as well work with it, not against it.

I relate to this statement quite a bit, and I have a good deal of tolerance for this. It is indeed very human to package messy facts as a coherent story, to mis-remember, and to cast events that were simply events into plays with characters. I see this constantly in my field, which is courts and litigation. This probably also takes Shakespeare off the hook. He popularized some accepted mythology with regard, for example, to Richard the III being an evil hunchback who murdered children. Lots of well accepted distortions like Biblical stories and Shakespeare come from the phenomenon of people telling histories based on old stories.

But we are worlds away from that when people who know particular facts just change them because they like their story better and/or think it will sell more. Whether driven by egotism or greed, the consequence is that all of us are misled, and quite deliberately so. I expect more from gifted directors and writers who are conveying actual history -- not that they'll never err, but that they won't purposely lie.

And, shakespeherian, if your point is that it's fine to do this because these moviemakers create these films primarily to make a buck, then my response is that doesn't cut it. None of these changes were necessary to keep these movies engaging and entertaining and profitable. It's egotism, greed and laziness at bottom that allows these deliberate misstatements to go on film, go unreprimanded, and leave the public that much less informed.

As teleri025 says, history is tough enough without this extra layer of widely told misstatement.
posted by bearwife at 4:01 PM on February 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


No, my point is that before we can make arguments about the content or execution of a piece we first need to propose some kind of idea of what we think it's trying to do. It makes no sense to say for example 'Lincoln needed to include the whole battle of Gettysburg in real time, or it's bad' unless we've already proposed some framework for this critique. So: what is the film for? What is it trying to accomplish?
posted by shakespeherian at 4:16 PM on February 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


I want more people saying, "I'm trying to be Shakespeare, dammit!"

He famously did whatever he wanted with the facts.

But we are worlds away from that when people who know particular facts just change them because they like their story better and/or think it will sell morw

I think it's all on a continuum. I don't really think we're "worlds away." The important part is knowing what frame you're in - how much accuracy to expect (on preview, what shakespeherian is saying). And that's where I think the responsibility is really on the community and culture side - encourage critical thinking, recognize genre categories - than on the side of people making creative products. "All of us are misled" implies that you expected accuracy and feel there was a bait and swtich. I'm not sure it is reasonable to expect a historically "accurate" - whatever that means - 90-or-so minute movie about Lincoln. Ever. By anyone. It is not possible to contain Lincoln in a film. There might have been a film by someone else that did not conflate characters, that did not muddle timelines, that offered fewer imagined conversations chock full of pithy witticisms. But that film was not made. No one decided to make that film. We can wish that a different film existed, but not will it into existence. And even a different film would still be creating only an illusion of depicting history. A film can't depict history.

None of these changes were necessary to keep these movies engaging and entertaining and profitable. It's egotism, greed and laziness at bottom that allows these deliberate misstatements to go on film, go unreprimanded, and leave the public that much less informed.

There are a lot of terrible movies. About everything. Who's going to "reprimand" them? Who has that authority?

history is tough enough without this extra layer of widely told misstatement.

But contestation and mythology is exactly what makes history tough. It's the interesting part. If nobody cared to retell stories of the past, we would not have a problem with depictions of the past at all. If there were only one demonstrably true point of view, there would be nothing to say about the topic again ever. Because we have kindly avuncular Lincoln on the big screen, we also rousted out all the folks who have something to say about it - "Hey, that's not a good depiction of Lincoln. Hey, there's another way to look at Lincoln. Hey, why does Lincoln's fascination endure?" And so we get a great discussion, like this one, about what we know and don't and how that has been variously interpreted over time.

I mean, if we think this is a false and shallow depiction of Lincoln, you would be shocked at how they were depicting his life in the decades just after he died. The stuff of the past belongs to the people. Do what you will with it; just as long as we keep finding opportunities to talk about it, I'm thrilled.
posted by Miko at 4:18 PM on February 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Just a heads up, the best "based on true events" work of fiction ever (ever, EVER) is Declare by Tim Powers. I finished the book and went, "Huh, that was a neat story," then I read the Author's Note and went, "WHOA."
posted by adamdschneider at 4:32 PM on February 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


Miko, we are actually in agreement, I believe. Because I am fine with different views of historic characters -- an avuncular versus a manipulative versus a political versus an idealistic Lincoln, for example. That's one reason I loved this movie -- it was sophisticated in the way it depicted Lincoln, incorporating all these ideas and views in its perspective on this very complex man.

No, I am angry about changing things like how Connecticut voted on the 13th amendment. As I said above when shakespeherian asked, this film purports to be about how the 13th amendment was adopted -- how the U.S. amended its constitution to outlaw slavery. So the actual vote is pretty darn important and there isn't any room for debate about how the people involved voted -- we know. (Why they did is a much slipperier animal, open to multiple perspectives and stories.)

As for who reprimands -- well, us, the film-going public and general critics of the movie. That is my very reason for saying we should.
posted by bearwife at 4:37 PM on February 20, 2013


Ahem, Les Miserables: also based on a true story.

So was Operation: Dumbo Drop.


I'm pretty sure that elephant could also outsing Russell Crowe.
posted by FelliniBlank at 5:01 PM on February 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


I am angry about changing things like how Connecticut voted on the 13th amendment.

Why? I know there isn't any room for debate about what actually happened. And there is no debate about what actually happened. I don't understand the reason for anger.

There are reasons given:
Harold Holzer, a Lincoln historian attached to the film, pointed out the mistake to Spielberg and Kushner, telling them that voting in those days was done alphabetically by lawmaker. But Kushner said the director left the scene unchanged because it gave the audience “place holders,” and it was “a rhythmic device” that was easier to follow than “a sea of names.” They gave fake names to the Connecticut legislators, who were, he said, “not significant players.”
Those strike me as artistic reasons. I don't think they're great ones, but I also think that the small number of people who may have retained an insignificant mistaken detail from the movie plot is probably outweighed by the number of people who have learned, because of this flap, which way CT actually voted. And it is not obvious - CT was full of Copperheads, and even I might have hedged if you quizzed me, and I used to live there. It has given any number of people and organizations an opportunity to talk about what really happened during the brief window of time in which anybody cares.

I am not sure what kind of lasting damage might be done if someone believes the mistake to be fact. Presumably that person has no serious interest in the topic, because anyone with the slightest glimmer of serious interest in CT's vote will rapidly find out the way CT really voted. And if the person has no serious interest in the topic, the worst fate that I can predict befalling them is losing at bar trivia, or something like that, because obviously they are not thinking about Civil War politics too much at all in the first place.
posted by Miko at 5:02 PM on February 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


I guess the biggest danger the Iranians pose to the international community is not from their nuclear program, but rather their incredible souped-up hotrod trucks.

Well, yeah.

Lamborghini and Maseratis are all over the Niayesh expressway. Lots of speedy, good looking American cars too. Still a lot of money in Iran from oil, sanctions or not.

Actually, the thing I liked about Argo was the protests. I don't think they made a point of showing it, but there's the protest, then you go a block and there are people shopping, working, and it's like any other city in the world.

I think you can get some truth from a fictional portrayal, but it always seems oblique.
When they're not pushing anything you sort of default to the "people are people" thing and assume someone would act pretty much the same way you do as a person and that seems to be where more truths about the human condition come from.
And the film often speaks volumes about the culture it's made in. Inadvertent or not.

I've always enjoyed watching film noir and old gangster movies like Black Tuesday where you can take hostages and murder cops and priests, but no one uses harsh language.
posted by Smedleyman at 5:09 PM on February 20, 2013


RobotHero - I want more people saying, "I'm trying to be Shakespeare, dammit!"

Miko - He famously did whatever he wanted with the facts.


If you think you're correcting me, I must have not made my point clear. I wasn't trying to hold up Shakespeare as a paragon of historical accuracy.

I was rolling with what Area Man said:
Yes, but not as big a problem as it would be to not have Shakespeare or to have Shakespeare that was less compelling. Historical accuracy isn't the only thing at stake.

My point was I'd rather see people argue in favour of the value of their art than see them argue that historical facts are useless trivia.
posted by RobotHero at 5:17 PM on February 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Hollywood is about telling stories, not depicting fact. Heck, even documentary filmmakers, who ostensibly are presenting reality, have the power of the editing room at their disposal.

Yeah, the "fudging of facts" bugs me most when it results in dumb, lazy storytelling. My go-to egregious example is A Beautiful Mind. I can live with the shallow portrayal of schizophrenia as having imaginary friends; sure, fine, that and some of the other devices/effects are probably the most "visual" way to dramatize the condition intelligibly.

But suggesting that a profound brain disease can be cured by willpower and the love of a good woman just rankles -- not so much because it's crass misinformation (and quite possibly injurious to real humans) but because it's just narratively and aesthetically absurd. John Nash's actual character and life had so much potential to be a great story, but as usual, it's rendered as another insipid cartoon.
posted by FelliniBlank at 5:19 PM on February 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Wait, does this mean Spartacus didn't really meet Julius Ceasar?!
posted by homunculus at 5:54 PM on February 20, 2013


DVDs of Lincoln will be distributed to all public and private middle and high schools in the U.S. once the DreamWorks Pictures/20th Century Fox film becomes available on home video.

The schools would benefit more from American Experience: The Abolitionists
posted by homunculus at 5:58 PM on February 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Those strike me as artistic reasons.

I'm your average pedantic academic and all, but historical fiction is one of my primary research interests, and so when I watch historical films just for fun, my immediate response of UM WAIT WRONG usually gives way to "yes, but why?" My go-to example is Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown, which is no-holds-barred, flat-out wrong in terms of most of its verifiable facts (as in, dude, you mislaid an entire Prime Minister in here...), but virtually every change makes perfect sense in terms of genre conventions, narrative structure, plot coherence, and/or the filmmakers' historical argument. (On the other hand, there's no excuse for referring to "Lord Tennyson" in the 1860s.)

Which is another way of saying that I ultimately come down on the side of asking, "But what was the film trying to argue about this specific historical moment, and why?" as opposed to fixating on "is it right or wrong?" Because--as creators of historical fiction from Scott on have usually recognized--historical fiction/film/drama explores the past very much from the POV of the present's needs, values, preoccupations, and priorities. (Why biopics about Disraeli and Pitt the Younger during WWII? Why the current obsession with the Victorians in historical fiction? Why do Hilary Mantel's novels about Thomas Cromwell work now, when they might not have forty years ago?) Lincoln is not an "accurate" historical retelling of what happened--but how the film narrates events emerges right out of our own political and cultural moment, as some reviewers noted when it first came out. Why invoke this past at this present moment?
posted by thomas j wise at 6:13 PM on February 20, 2013 [7 favorites]


Why invoke this past at this present moment?

I have to say, I felt much better about the Cornhusker Kickback and other deals Obama made and attempted to make when pushing through Obamacare.
posted by Area Man at 6:27 PM on February 20, 2013


to have Shakespeare that was less compelling.

Well, I can't hazard a guess as to how Tony Kushner's work will be viewed in 400 years. I do know that he is one of the most prominent dramatic writers alive today and will be remembered, if not revered, for a long time. But Shakespeares are rare, and if we only had pop culture that met that standard, we would not have much. And I had to take a complete Shakespeare class and let me tell ya, we would be all right without some of that lesser work.

I guess I don't see much solidity in an argument for truth that says embroidery and fact-changing is fine when a virtuoso does it, but not when an artist I [or whatever entity is assumed to have the power of absolute judgment] deem less worthy does it.

Onward, Bill and Ted.
posted by Miko at 7:24 PM on February 20, 2013


felt much better about the Cornhusker Kickback and other deals Obama made and attempted to make when pushing through Obamacare.

Absolutely! And to thomas j. wise's point, I think it's no coincidence that this film came out when it did, focusing on the artistic goals that it had - showing how a well-intentioned person in power can forge alliances, manipulate, use both aboveboard and underhanded tactics, and play foes against one another in order to achieve a specific legislative goal - in this case, one from history which we all universally consider laudable and uncontroversial 150 years later, and are hard pressed to understand serious opposition to. It is this truth, not the truth of any particular action in that timeline, that the movie was made to tell. In a time when it seems our divisions as a nation are more profound than ever, when the parties in power can find almost no common ground, and we police our leaders for impurities of thought, word, and deed, it's useful to remember that the years have just separated us a bit from the no less passionate differences, disagreements, hatreds and nastiness of their own times and that we can still manage some positive results from the miserable processes of our governments.

I do think that emphasizing that set of points requires dramatic simplicity (Lord, Congress could use a lot more dramatic simplicity), and though I'm not sure I'd dig in and be as stubborn as Kushner, he is right to consider that his audience is not holding a state by state scorecard and to make the action clean and direct. I wish he would just change it, and I know it's wrong and perhaps that's a shame, but I do think the "why this? Why now? and why not the other?" questions are the most interesting ones about stuff like this.
posted by Miko at 7:34 PM on February 20, 2013


Well, I can't hazard a guess as to how Tony Kushner's work will be viewed in 400 years. I do know that he is one of the most prominent dramatic writers alive today and will be remembered, if not revered, for a long time.

In 400 years, Kushner's depiction of Roy Cohn may be considered the historical reality by the masses, with historians taking pains to point out that it isn't really....
posted by hippybear at 8:35 PM on February 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Maybe I shouldn't be, but I'm kind of okay with that.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 9:13 PM on February 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Regardless of whether it's good or bad, every detail has an effect. If you write a story about a generic president who passes a generic bill, that has a different effect than calling that president "Lincoln." The type of difference varies with the viewer: naive viewers or children might believe that this is all historical truth about Lincoln, but even the most sophisticated viewer will view an otherwise identical story differently if the hero is called "Lincoln." And that's as it should be -- the author chose to call his protagonist "Lincoln" for a reason (or many). There's no such thing as "just fiction," because these details matter.

A TMC movie with a simpering black servant produces a different effect than one with a simpering white servant, and a movie with a torture scene that successfully produces intel has a different effect than one with a fruitless torture scene. The authors are to some degree responsible for these effects because they make the decision to make the torturer likable or the servant black. Even for all of us sophisticated enough to not believe everything we see just because the people have historical names, the entire purpose of giving these characters these names is to evoke history. The history inflects our understanding of the characters, and the characters color our conceptions of historical figures, even if we don't accept anything we see as "factual". That's the way people think, and they way artists know we think. That's why they give their characters these names in the first place.

Few people took Uncle Tom's Cabin as literal truth, but it played a huge role in turning contemporary views against slavery; few took Birth of a Nation as literally true, but it too had significant effects. Even if we don't "believe" it, we can't help but see these artworks as being in dialogue with reality -- and this is only intensified when names and events echo and represent history. It's the complete opposite of what a lot of people seem to be saying: because it's fiction, it's not that no detail matters, but that every detail matters. Even if we accept none of it as "true", it still produces effects: about how we feel about Lincoln, black people, torture, etc. The story is piggybacking on truth to make us care a lot more about a story of parliamentary debate than we would if it was just generic politicians in a generic land; but the authors also have a responsibility the other direction, since the feelings of even the most sophisticated viewer will be affected by "Lincoln" and attached, to some degree, to "Lincoln" himself -- and certainly to other more indirect things, like how Congress functioned in the 19th century and so on.

This is not a problem solved just by knowing it's not true. If I circulate a newsletter about a character with my neighbor's name, set in something that resembles his house, with his family, and describe this character horribly murdering children and having sex with animals -- even if I put across the top "This is just a work of fiction", I'm still a dick. Historical fiction has powerful effects regardless of whether the cover says "based on a real story" or whether we laugh whenever we read those words.
posted by chortly at 9:57 PM on February 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


"When I am hungry and crave a tuna fish sandwich, I don't go to a hardware store,"

When I first moved to the West Coast, the only fast food place I really craved had exactly one location - hardware store.

There used to be a restaurant in Charlottesville, VA that was, in fact, The Hardware Store.


Here's the problem in a nutshell. The first line makes a great soundbite. The followups show that it's better as a story than a reality, and yet--the principle holds! There are cases when something called "hardware store" provides food, but this fact is neither a way to figure out where to eat in general, or even a way to think about the world. You might think of them as rounding errors. In a blockbuster, those rounding errors compound and propagate into big lies. (or else they don't--see, there's no way to get at the truth that is 100% correct--you have to gesture and hope for the best.)
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:26 AM on February 21, 2013


I don't disagree with that, chortly, until you suggest that you'd have to be a "dick" to a alter details in storytelling. First of all, character assassination is not the aim of a work like this, as it is in your analogy - and in fact, libel law could punish you for distributing such material even if you've changed the names and details, if a reader can still identify the character based on what you have offered.

But second, people do not operate in a pure environment. They already have mistaken and mythologized ideas. This movie is not ruining some pure state of accurate knowledge about Lincoln. I guarantee you, the popular image of Lincoln before this film came out was no more accurate than the popular image of Lincoln after it came out. In general, I'd say that the impression of Lincoln among otherwise not well informed people who have seen the film is better, closer to reality, than the popular image people had before (he freed the slaves, he was tall and wore a hat, he got killed).

The stuff of the past is a raw material - for fictionalists as well as for historians. No one owns it. I don't think it's bad that content from and references to real characters and events in the past can be used for ends relevant today. As you say, Uncle Tom's Cabin was a powerful social force regardless of the fact that Stowe herself played very fast and loose along the line between fiction and reality, and in fact, it's not true that "few people thought" it depicted elements of reality - that became the subject of a pretty big and public debate. Would it have had to be more purely fact, or more purely fiction, to be "better" than what it was? Is it an overall social negative that it took a vivid novelistic presentation of slavery - in contrast to reams and reams of sincere polemic, petition, sermon, editorial and soapbox speech - to galvanize popular opposition to it?

Yes, individual people may have had their affect changed as regards Lincoln or Congressional procedure. BUt I can't agree that it's bad.
posted by Miko at 6:27 AM on February 21, 2013


Just because I see so many people jumping on the movie Titanic, I must note:

A significant amount of the dialogue in Titanic spoken by historical characters is lifted word-for-word straight from the conversations recounted during the Congressional inquiry on the Titanic sinking. I recommend the book The Titanic Disaster Hearings: The Official Transcripts of the 1912 Senate Investigation, which contains the entire transcript. Yes, I read it all because I'm a geek like that. What is surprising is that not only are conversations in the foreground lifted from those transcripts - if you listen carefully, you'll hear dialogue from the transcripts in the background too, for example in the scene where some of the first class passengers find ice on the Titanic after it hits the iceberg. My roommate and I were both gigantic Titanic nerds and bounced up and down in glee the first time we saw the movie, because we'd read so much of it and had it memorized.

Yes, Cameron wedged a love story into the middle of Titanic, which I loved at the time and now find a bit wearying. If he hadn't he probably couldn't have gotten the movie made. He was also pretty damn particular about historical accuracy in general and was upfront about a few changes he had to make for filming, such as providing one of the lifeboats with a flashlight so they could find Rose (no lifeboats had flashlights, although the devices were technically possible at the time). Heck, even Rose leaving the lifeboat is taken from a real-life incident (the woman who fled the lifeboat was never seen again), Rose surviving by floating on a door is also taken from a real-life incident (a Japanese man who was rescued by Fifth Officer Lowe), and the chef who stands on the stern of the Titanic as it drops and takes a drink, next to Jack and Rose is also in the historical record. I could go on all day.

There were many gunshots fired on the Titanic, but of the gunshots reported, it was generally officers firing at the passengers (often third-class passengers) rather than passenger-on-passenger gunfire. As noted in several sources, however, the reports of gunfire from the crew came from the people who survived; 2/3 of the people on the ship died, and we'll never know for sure if there was more gunfire or not. However, I seriously doubt that a real-life Billy Zane chased Leonardo Dicaprio belowdecks.
posted by rednikki at 7:52 AM on February 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


I think about this a lot when reading fictional accounts of modern-day conflicts. I think it totally fine to take whatever historical liberties you want in telling a fact-based fictional story for something that happened 150, 300, 5000 years ago--but then there's things like Holocaust fiction where I feel the author who is not a survivor has a duty to research exhaustively and use their fiction to uphold the truth because that truth is still challenged on a semi-regular basis. Fiction about controversial, emotionally-charged events that people alive today lived through--9/11, the Vietnam War, Apartheid, things like that--have to be handled with as much faith and delicacy as possible.

But, y'know, have Anne Boleyn be a time-traveling lesbian space-vampire I super don't much care.
posted by piratesriding at 7:55 AM on February 21, 2013


This movie is not ruining some pure state of accurate knowledge about Lincoln. I guarantee you, the popular image of Lincoln before this film came out was no more accurate than the popular image of Lincoln after it came out.

Do recall that last year also saw the release of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and I have a few historicity quibbles with that one as well.
posted by shakespeherian at 8:26 AM on February 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


the author who is not a survivor has a duty

This is a theme I keep seeing in the objections - that creators should not do something because of a moral code stipulating that some subject or other is too important or too contested for fictionalization. I just wonder who the authority being appealed to is. Why "should" people not do this? Whence comes this "obligation?" Who is imagined to be in charge of such decisions and what moral force "should" be preventing them from exploring a period or topic which has fascinated them?

I can think immediately of several cultural products about the Vietnam War, in which my father was a combatant, which are loaded down with bullshit and imaginative product and which contributed in negative ways to the struggles of veterans of this conflict and the public understanding of it, but also contributed in positive ways to increased attention to veterans' affairs and a general cultural empathy with the position they were in. I can't for a minute understand who could or should have stopped the production of this range of artistic products, or why their creators should be "obliged" to interpret the material in specific approved ways. If anything, I want there to be many interpretations. The negatives of Vietnam and the Holocaust indicate that it is a healthier society which can allow a range of points of view and treatments of fact.

Certainly products may be better and more highly thought of if they move closer to integrity with facts or particular experience - but the idea that they should not exist at all seems controlling and proscriptive to me, the same variety of control and proscription that suppresses creative content from being produced in the first place. If we want people to engage with real events, offer alternative narratives, open a discussion, and be able to present the truth as they see it, when we like it as well as when we don't, in a tolerant society I think we need to tolerate products of all levels of quality, about all kinds of content.
posted by Miko at 8:30 AM on February 21, 2013


As always: The best critique is to make something.
posted by shakespeherian at 8:32 AM on February 21, 2013


We used to watch an old VHS copy of Zulu regularly until I discovered the multiple inaccuracies, especially concerning the men of the regiment. For example:
Private Henry Hook VC is depicted as a rogue with a penchant for alcohol; in fact he was a model soldier who later became a sergeant; he was also a teetotaller. While the film has him in the hospital "malingering, under arrest", he had actually been assigned there specifically to guard the building.[10] The filmmakers felt that the story needed an anti-hero who redeems himself in the course of events, but the film's presentation of Hook caused his daughters to walk out of the film premiere in disgust.[11]
I understand the need for characters and events that make a movie more exciting, move the story forward, etc. but can't see the point in taking an already exciting period in history, full of interesting characters and telling a different story.

Haven't watched the movie since, doubt I ever will.
posted by humph at 11:25 AM on February 21, 2013


[I] can't see the point in taking an already exciting period in history, full of interesting characters and telling a different story.

Because it's the story the storyteller wants to tell. What more do you need?
posted by craven_morhead at 11:30 AM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Story is everything - and event facts are subservient to a good story. People don't watch films to learn facts. We watch films to be transported to an understanding of timeless truths.

“Why covet a knowledge of new facts? Day and night, house and garden, a few books, a few actions, serve us as well as would all trades and all spectacles. We are far from having exhausted the significance of the few symbols we use. We can come to use them yet with a terrible simplicity.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson

-John
posted by ScreenCraft at 11:47 AM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


New York Times article on two current stage shows in Chicago related to real-life events (the Tyler Clementi suicide, Columbine).
http://theater.nytimes.com/2013/02/21/theater/teddy-ferrara-and-columbinus-in-chicago.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Ginormous generalization ahead: Why do I feel that the live-theatre medium seems more forgiving when plays diverge from fact?
posted by NorthernLite at 12:43 PM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Miko: “But second, people do not operate in a pure environment. They already have mistaken and mythologized ideas. This movie is not ruining some pure state of accurate knowledge about Lincoln. I guarantee you, the popular image of Lincoln before this film came out was no more accurate than the popular image of Lincoln after it came out. In general, I'd say that the impression of Lincoln among otherwise not well informed people who have seen the film is better, closer to reality, than the popular image people had before (he freed the slaves, he was tall and wore a hat, he got killed).”

I agree, on the whole. However: on what can we blame popular misconceptions of history if not on sloppy renderings of history in pop culture? And is there really a spectrum between true and false such that we can say that it's a good thing that this rendering of Lincoln is "closer to reality" than previous renderings? I mean, if we're not presenting an accurate picture of history, we may just be trading one set of misconceptions for another.

Personally, I try to avoid historical films; it's not that I think they're evil, I just have two problems with them.

First of all, they're almost always feeding the public a flawed notion of what really happened in the past, as I said above. It's not so much that people must, must, must have a perfect idea of history. That's a pipe dream; I may as well demand that the sky be green. It's more that – well, I think they're often manipulative in a way that almost betrays the medium of film. Film is inherently both a more lush and immersive and also a more passive medium than the printed word. When film is honest, this can lead to a lot of incredible things – a medium that is four-dimensional in a true sense, giving a sense of space and time in a way other arts generally can't. But film as entertainment often has a tendency to be reduced to a set of tricks and gimmicks – a kind of paint-by-numbers where the screenplay is just filled in and filmed by a set method, camera distance is at a given standard, and the viewer isn't given much time to look at anything because it's assumed there isn't much to look at. That's a fine thing in itself, it should be said; there's nothing wrong with films as entertainment. But I think we as a society have gotten used to placing ourselves into stories that are told that way; and when a story from history gets told that way, we tend to become convinced, often without even meaning to be convinced, that that is exactly how it was. I think this happens more with films than it does with other mediums, too; it has to do with the lushness of film and the passiveness of the experience of it, combined with how accustomed we are to the common techniques and rhythms that are used in movies today.

The result, I think, is that people today are much more certain that they know precisely what historical events actually were like than people were before the advent of film. That conviction – the sense that, even if some details are off, a Lincoln or Titanic or some other historical film pretty much presents things exactly as they were – seems dangerous to me, because it dissipates the mystery that naturally surrounds historical events and blinds people to the fact that they might actually not be so very well acquainted with those events at all. And, in fact, they aren't. Titanic, for example, does a superb job of presenting visual details and a horrific job of presenting the landscape of the inner lives of people who lived in 1912. But people who watch Titanic are told that all details are correct – and they walk away convinced that they now know what it must have been like to live in 1912, to sail on the Titanic, etc.

My second problem with historical films is more ephemeral – it's more a personal annoyance: the historicity is often a selling point of films, when really it shouldn't be at all. "BASED ON A TRUE STORY," we are told solemnly, when really that doesn't matter, does it? What matters is whether it's a good story. The fact that some details were plucked from history shouldn't convince us that it's more serious or more worth our time.
posted by koeselitz at 1:13 PM on February 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


Very late to this, but for anyone still reading, Ben Affleck was interviewed on Fresh Air a few weeks ago, and Terry Gross pressed him a bit about the legitimacy of fictionalizing history. Starts at that link a bit after 12:00 for anyone interested.

(I agree with vibrotronica, the airplane chase scene took me out of the story completely. Whether it was a legit addition or not in terms of Affleck's intent, it was a hackneyed sequence that undermined the effect of the movie.)
posted by torticat at 1:43 PM on February 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


n what can we blame popular misconceptions of history

Really poor history education. No, I'm serious. Pop culture is not meant to teach you history.

The fault is in our education system and, in general, our culture itself: we need to value critical thinking, basic research skills, and history as a discipline much more highly. This cannot be solved at the movies.

I mean, if we're not presenting an accurate picture of history, we may just be trading one set of misconceptions for another.

That's kind of what the discipline of history is.

"BASED ON A TRUE STORY," we are told solemnly, when really that doesn't matter, does it?

"Based on" is your clue that it's not just "A true story." And I always appreciate knowing when a film is based on a true story, so I can go learn the true story. The fairly terrible movie Songcatcher , for instance, clued me in to the existence of a folklorist who worked with Cecil Sharp collecting Appalachian songs. Even though that's one of my biggest areas of interest, I had never run across Olive Dame Campbell. The movie let me know there was a real story, which I then got to learn about.
posted by Miko at 2:38 PM on February 21, 2013


Torticat,
Thanks very much for the Fresh Air Argo link - in the interview Ben Affleck says smoothly that he is okay with "embellishing" & "compressing" the facts when turning true events into a movie "as long as you don't fundamentally change the nature of the story..."

I wouldn't have expected him to say anything else - but it's still self-serving waffle!

I've heard Affleck elsewhere use a similar line to the one he uses here with Terry Gross - for why he stuck in the runway airplane chase scene - and all the other white-knuckle airport shenanigans that never remotely happened.

Affleck says the embellishments were mainly to make the audience understand how genuinely terrifying the escape felt for the Americans at the time.

It reminds me of the James Frey - and how he used to argue (so horribly!) that he only altered facts in his "memoir" to communicate basic truths more vividly to the reader.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 2:59 PM on February 21, 2013


Doesn't really seem fair to compare a suspense thriller movie to an autobiography.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 3:17 PM on February 21, 2013


Mean to say, Argo is a movie. It has never pretended to depict what really and truly happened, as Affleck affirmed. A Million Little Pieces, on the other hand, was purported by Frey to be a true and actual account of what happened, until he was found out, at which point he hemmed and hawed.

If you go to see a thriller with Affleck to learn the truth about history, you're only fooling yourself.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 3:21 PM on February 21, 2013


also, Ben Afleck didn't write Argo. Chris Terrio did.

Which reminds me of an old Billy Wilder line. When asked where he got his ideas, he said, "I find the script is a good place to start." (or words to that effect)
posted by philip-random at 3:59 PM on February 21, 2013


[Argo] has never pretended to depict what really and truly happened, as Affleck affirmed.


Marisa Stole the Precious Thing,
I take your point.

But as I quoted Affleck above, he also affirms that Argo offers a version of events that, he says, does "not fundamentally change the nature of the story..."

So he is concerned with truth & how far you can bend it before you alter its "fundamental" nature.

His "suspense thriller" is not just a suspense thriller, after all?
posted by Jody Tresidder at 4:02 PM on February 21, 2013


Re: Based on a true story:

Fargo.
posted by shakespeherian at 4:04 PM on February 21, 2013


What's funky about Fargo is the Japanese woman that went digging in the snow for the money because she thought it was a true story, ostensibly because of the opening statement of the film.
As it turns out, that story, the Japanese woman died doing that, was debunked. It never happened.
Except, the debunking was debunked. It actually had.
And then someone who looked just like the woman who had died walked into a truck stop to make a true-story movie about the woman who had died thinking Fargo was a true story.
No, really.
posted by Smedleyman at 6:07 PM on February 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


I also have it on good authority that Star Wars did not take place in a galaxy far, far away but much closer than that, my friend.

Also, if you aren't comfortable not knowing which is fact and not fact, don't ever watch Exit Through the Gift Shop.
posted by Miko at 8:51 PM on February 21, 2013


I never understood that Japanese woman went to find the money from Fargo thing. The only person who would have been able to tell the filmmakers where the money got buried died before he could have told anyone, so if the movie had been based on a true story, the part where he hides the money would be pure speculation.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:00 PM on February 21, 2013


I guess my only point is that there's no such thing as "just as story," or "just entertainment" or "just a movie", etc. Every depiction of a politician negotiating with other politicians reflects, however indirectly, the views of the writer, and affects, however indirectly, the views of the audience. Every depiction of a black person, woman, or straight white guy in a suit affects how we view those people, even if we consciously know it's fiction. And that's because "knowing" it's fiction doesn't matter very much: everything is a melange of truth and fantasy, and our beliefs about gravity and how people behave in the 1950s affects what we think the straight white guy in a suit will do in the fictional movie we're watching and what his actions mean. Our beliefs about the world, about Lincoln and people in 1865 and how horses work and how Congress works and so on, are all chugging away regardless of what we call "fiction," and we are also picking up new impressions about the era and what we believe of it, even if we believe that what we are seeing is "just a story". That's why it matters if your narrative or even just your narrator is racist; it's not that sophisticated readers can't distinguish the author from the narrator or their own beliefs from what the narrator wants them to believe, but there are still all these indirect, semi-conscious, back-door effects as well, the ones you might miss while busy preventing your brain from recording the actions of the Connecticut congressmen in the "this is true" parts of your memory banks.

So miko, when you say "people do not operate in a pure environment," I think that was exactly my point too. Goodness knows the solution isn't to abstain from historical fiction! Nor is it to stick scrupulously to historical fact as best as that may be known. It's just that these authors and screenwriters and directors don't get off the hook by claiming "it's just fiction" or harmlessly embellished for the sake of a good story. That may be the motivation, but they well know that calling it Lincoln in DC or the CIA in Afghanistan -- let alone all the other historical stuff -- means it will necessarily have huge effects on how people view those things. It's impossible to just wander into a theater, have a fun 90 minutes, and wander out without having been changed a lick. My argument is just that these artists need to acknowledge their probable effects, not that they need to stop producing the artworks.
posted by chortly at 11:14 PM on February 21, 2013


I don't think anyone has said that because something is fiction, details don't matter. I certainly haven't used the term 'just fictuon' - - I take fiction pretty damn seriously. But fiction based on true events isn't obligated to mirror those true events down to the detail. Fiction has other obligations.
posted by shakespeherian at 5:06 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Every depiction of a politician negotiating with other politicians reflects, however indirectly, the views of the writer, and affects, however indirectly, the views of the audience.

In fact, even every depiction of our real politicians right now today reflects this. If we think we know the true facts about our public figures because we saw them on the news, we're wrong. Even the news is constructed to form a narrative, and is edited and manipulated and comes from a particular point of view (as Fox ably demonstrates, but even our more mainstream sources engage in this, and do plenty of omission and distraction and sometimes fabrication).

authors and screenwriters and directors don't get off the hook by claiming "it's just fiction" or harmlessly embellished for the sake of a good story..these artists need to acknowledge their probable effects.

Well, I don't see them "getting off the hook." It's obvious that they are accountable for what they produce, they know it, and in this case they're engaging in dialogue about it. Much like the movie JFK before it, and many more in a long long list. We know who made the film, they are the only ones who can account for their artistic choices, so they are indeed accountable.

I don't even know that that's a "need." I again keep seeing this argument for loyalty to a particular moral responsibility and I am still unsure about where this responsibility is imagined to emanate from. It may be that a movie does have a huge effect on how people view things. But why should that mean a moviemaker has an obligation to help people view them some other way? Why? To whom is the moviemaker supposed to be reporting, here? What authority stipulates that movies must never change facts and movies must never manipulate people's point of view on topics through their powerful storytelling capabilities? That is what movies do, after all. "Holding them accountable" is exactly what's happened with Lincoln. They screwed up Connecticut (among other things), historians pointed it out, there are interviews, they've explained their reasoning, and anyone who cares the slightest about the facts still has ready access to them. I think any obligation to society has been well fulfilled here.

Really, again, I am not sure a single movie has ever meaningfully changed society in any significant way. The system of public education, though, has created conditions where people really don't know how to approach content that seems historical, and I think the problem, if there is one, is most properly diagnosed there. And we can hold the public school system accountable, because we the people control it and create the demands on it, and there is a framework of authority that we have the power to change. Arguments for obligation make sense there. They don't make sense in the world of privately funded artistic production which people are free to see or ignore.
posted by Miko at 6:12 AM on February 22, 2013


Really, again, I am not sure a single movie has ever meaningfully changed society in any significant way.

Unless you're Randall Dale Adams.
posted by shakespeherian at 6:17 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sure, and that's a great demonstration of a very positive impact of film, but that's still a single person, not society. And you could say that well, it contributed to a general awareness that a lot of people have been wrongly convicted, but that's a broader shift in awareness that had other contributions too, like journalism and nonfiction writing and political and legal campaigning associated with it. In other words, I'm not sure a single film has ever been responsible for a mass societal shift, all by itself.

It could be, I'm just saying "not sure" because I can't think of a good case for it, though there might be one.
posted by Miko at 6:59 AM on February 22, 2013


Sure, I wasn't contradicting you. I just like The Thin Blue Line.
posted by shakespeherian at 7:06 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Birth of a Nation launched the rebirth of the Klan.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:16 AM on February 22, 2013


me: “On what can we blame popular misconceptions of history... ?”

Miko: “Really poor history education. No, I'm serious. Pop culture is not meant to teach you history. The fault is in our education system and, in general, our culture itself: we need to value critical thinking, basic research skills, and history as a discipline much more highly. This cannot be solved at the movies.”

Well, this is something we can agree on, then. There is no way for a film to really teach history – not even a documentary. Even the best-constructed film or documentary is really going to be giving an approximation.

That was kind of my point: films are crap at history. On the contrary, I think they pretty much inherently ruin it, so they should stay away from it if possible.

me: “I mean, if we're not presenting an accurate picture of history, we may just be trading one set of misconceptions for another.”

Miko: “That's kind of what the discipline of history is.”

It absolutely is not. If anybody actually claims that they're studying history in order to foster their own misconceptions, they're doing it wrong, and I'd wonder why they'd want to do it at all, frankly.

me: “‘BASED ON A TRUE STORY,’ we are told solemnly, when really that doesn't matter, does it?”

Miko: “‘Based on’ is your clue that it's not just ‘A true story.’”

But people don't usually follow "clues" like this; and psychologically, I actually doubt even the best among us even know how to take those warnings to heart. We can say to ourselves "oh, it's just a story," but the historical imprimature quite often leads to subconscious assumptions that the story presents accurately at least the setting. And because film is more vivid than a minor "based on a true story" note at the beginning, we are generally much more likely to take seriously the impressions left by the film than the barely-implied warning in those words.

“And I always appreciate knowing when a film is based on a true story, so I can go learn the true story. The fairly terrible movie Songcatcher , for instance, clued me in to the existence of a folklorist who worked with Cecil Sharp collecting Appalachian songs. Even though that's one of my biggest areas of interest, I had never run across Olive Dame Campbell. The movie let me know there was a real story, which I then got to learn about.”

Oh, that makes perfect sense – and that really doesn't bother me at all. I only meant it annoys me when "based on a true story" is used as a kind of trick to make a movie seem more serious to audiences.
posted by koeselitz at 7:52 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


That was kind of my point: films are crap at history. On the contrary, I think they pretty much inherently ruin it, so they should stay away from it if possible.

History and historical myth are part of the common culture. They aren't the exclusive possessions of a special caste of professional historians. Nor is it clear that leaving history to the historians would be a great idea. To take one example, generations of historians pushed the idea that the slavery wasn't the cause of the Civil War. They fought against the supposedly incorrect folk belief that slavery had been the cause of the war.

Moreover, even if there were no historical films, people would be telling stories about history, including garbled ones. For all the power that movies have, garbled popular understandings of history existed before there was a movie industry and would continue even if no one ever set a movie during a historical period. There would still be novels, family histories, etc. My kids ask me about history all the time and I have to answer them. I'm sure I get some things wrong or don't do a good job of communicating some complicated incidents and issues.
posted by Area Man at 8:37 AM on February 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Birth of a Nation launched the rebirth of the Klan.

A good example. Still, had the nation not been full of white supremacist rumblings and racial tensions at the time, it would not have been of any interest and just been a movie about a weird historical oddity. But yeah, that's about the best example that's come up yet.

I think they pretty much inherently ruin it, so they should stay away from it if possible.

So then - every new film made has to be set in the present day, at the time it is made? How restricting and dull. But that's where we have to end up if you trust no filmmakers with historical content. All films about ourselves, living now. And only accurate! No making up any characters, stories or locations lest someone watching in the future get the wrong idea about us!

It absolutely is not. If anybody actually claims that they're studying history in order to foster their own misconceptions...

That's not what I said. I was saying that the professional discipline of history is the process of replacing one set of what you call "misconceptions" with another. That is a fairly uncontroversial statement, though colleagues might prod me to replace "misconceptions" with "imperfect understandings" or something more neutral.

To do history, you have to accept that we can never understand historical realities that we have not personally lived, and certainly not from all possible perspectives. So historians can only build conceptions of history. Those conceptions of history - interpretations - change over time, which is the best thing about history. Each generation interprets the past in new and different ways, and each new interpretation corrects the record in some ways while unavoidably setting up frameworks which later generations will challenge and change once again. That is indeed the practice of history - replacing one set of imperfect understandings with another set. All about the same set of facts. If you don't believe me, try some historiography. Read on a single American history topic from 1900, from 1935, from 1950, from 1970, from 1995, from today. Maybe a topic like immigration or, as Area Man suggests, slavery. You will be amazed how much change "accurate history" can undergo.

One of the difficulties that happens, I think, between people who practice history at advanced levels and those who don't is that those who don't still think of history the way they were taught to in school - as an established set of facts. They tend to believe that if you line up the set of facts you will have a "true" and "accurate" story, of which there is only one possible.

You stop conceiving of history this way the deeper you get into historical investigation. The process of doing history is a process of framing and examining new questions using historical evidence to test their possible answers. The facts remain, in the form of primary documentary evidence, but the process of understanding those facts and assembling them into a narrative starts to shoot down the idea that there is an ultimate "truth" to be found there. There are no absolutes, only present purposes, despite every effort toward objectivity. In other words, the facts are usually not in dispute, but the narratives drawn from them are always open to challenge. And sometimes the facts very much do come into dispute, as new documents are unearthed or new statistical analyses reveal that something taken for decades as a historical truism is a complete misconception.

But people don't usually follow "clues" like this

Sure they do, it happens all the time. That's why books by professional historians come out in new editions to improved sales when their related films come out. People become curious and seek to know more - not everyone, but it's a well-known and visible commercial phenomenon.

You seem to object to the fact that film is powerful. It is powerful! I still say "so what." It's true that it can be psychologically lulling and create lasting images. So what? It also has the potential to create new curiosities and develop textural understandings of a time period that are useful enough. It has the potential to be a social force deployed toward political ends, and that works in a multitude of directions.

I only meant it annoys me when "based on a true story" is used as a kind of trick to make a movie seem more serious to audiences.

I don't recall ever seeing it used as a "trick," and I think it's an important thing to state for legal purposes as well. In any case, I would certainly prefer that a statement acknowledging that there is a true story that this movie is "based on" - not actually depicting - is there than not there.
posted by Miko at 8:38 AM on February 22, 2013


So then - every new film made has to be set in the present day, at the time it is made?

Q: Does Back to the Future count?
posted by shakespeherian at 8:49 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


koeselitz: I only meant it annoys me when "based on a true story" is used as a kind of trick to make a movie seem more serious to audiences.

Miko: I don't recall ever seeing it used as a "trick," and I think it's an important thing to state for legal purposes as well. In any case, I would certainly prefer that a statement acknowledging that there is a true story that this movie is "based on" - not actually depicting - is there than not there.

Miko,
Yet Ben Affleck, in his role as Argo's director, does seem to exploit "based on a true story" in exactly the way koeselitz objects to - as a kind of trick to make his film appear more serious.

In fact, Affleck takes it to a whole new level.

In the "Fresh Air" interview torticat linked above, Affleck solemnly reminds us that for the real American diplomats in hiding, the actual experience of escaping Iran via a heavily policed airport using false passports was a genuinely terrifying and harrowing one.

Those diplomats way back in 1980, as Affleck argues it, felt terrified in real life. This gave the movie makers the right to throw in all sorts of made up white-knuckle twists to get across just how terrified it must have felt at the time.

Affleck seems to be saying that it is because his movie is based on true terrifying events, that he as director is pretty much required to do what he thinks necessary - including throwing in a fake car-plane chase - to make his (jaded?) movie audience take the terror seriously!

(If I was a fan of Affleck's - I'd think this was actually so outrageous, it was brilliant!)
posted by Jody Tresidder at 10:21 AM on February 22, 2013


But the Fresh Air interview isn't part of the film-- in fact, anything Affleck says about the film isn't part of the film, and many people who see the film won't hear the interview or anything else he has to say about Argo. However serious the film makes itself seem is a notion fairly separate from how the director argues it should seem, because the director can fail at imparting whichever concerns he has. The film pretty much has to stand for itself.

So, yeah, the 'Based on true events' tag at the beginning of a movie can affect how that movie portrays itself, but you also have to remember (cf. Fargo) that that tag is also part of the film-- it's a part of the artifice of narrative. Not all films based on true events include that tag, and not all films that include that tag are actually based on true events. This is a tradition that predates film, too-- literary history is cluttered with epistolary novels which include a false preface in which the author claims to have discovered these documents or inherited them from her mother or whatever.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:29 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Miko: “In any case, I would certainly prefer that a statement acknowledging that there is a true story that this movie is 'based on' - not actually depicting - is there than not there.”

It really feels like this is a misunderstanding of the rhetorical thrust of the phrase – or else I've been misunderstanding it myself all these years. Do people honestly say "based on a true story" to warn the audience that some details have been changed? I mean: if a movie doesn't say "based on a true story," do we really assume that it's verbatim history? It seems like the default assumption is that a film is supposed to be fictional – "based on a true story" is an indication that it's not fictional.

Miko: “You will be amazed how much change ‘accurate history’ can undergo.”

I don't deny that, and I'm familiar with historiography. But the aim of history is not misconception. Historians often have to live with the fact that many of their conceptions are misbegotten; but no historian would willingly seek out a worse misconception to take on.

I brought this up because I said that Lincoln might just be trading misconception for misconception. You responded that that's what the discipline of history is – as though that justified the arbitrary and utterly evidence-free exchange of one misconception for another potentially worse misconception. But that's kind of arbitrary switching around isn't what historians do, is it? Historians might live with misconception, but at least the goal is a correct conception of what happened in the past. That's why historians do research and try to confirm contemporary accounts instead of just going to watch Steven Spielberg movies to find out what happened.

“You seem to object to the fact that film is powerful. It is powerful! I still say ‘so what.’ It's true that it can be psychologically lulling and create lasting images. So what? It also has the potential to create new curiosities and develop textural understandings of a time period that are useful enough. It has the potential to be a social force deployed toward political ends, and that works in a multitude of directions.”

Well – to back up a moment: what I'm concerned about is a sociological phenomenon that (I believe) can be observed. It seems to me that people today are much more confident in their misconceptions about history than people were before the advent of the film medium. I think that's a bad thing, and I think it can be put down to the frequent and consistent misuse of film to tell historical stories. "Textural understanding of a time period" doesn't seem an incredibly useful thing to me when it comes to understanding history; and moreover confidence in one's textural understanding serves to fool one into believing that the more essential parts of history are easily understood as well.
posted by koeselitz at 10:51 AM on February 22, 2013


Not all films based on true events include that tag, and not all films that include that tag are actually based on true events. This is a tradition that predates film, too-- literary history is cluttered with epistolary novels which include a false preface in which the author claims to have discovered these documents or inherited them from her mother or whatever.

Oh, quite true. Good point.

"based on a true story" is an indication that it's not fictional.


I don't think that's the intended meaning. It's not an indication that it's not fictional - not by a long shot! It's just (sometimes) an indication about how the film was inspired.
posted by Miko at 10:52 AM on February 22, 2013


It really feels like this is a misunderstanding of the rhetorical thrust of the phrase – or else I've been misunderstanding it myself all these years. Do people honestly say "based on a true story" to warn the audience that some details have been changed? I mean: if a movie doesn't say "based on a true story," do we really assume that it's verbatim history? It seems like the default assumption is that a film is supposed to be fictional – "based on a true story" is an indication that it's not fictional.

Not to shove words into her mouth, but I think Miko's point is that the phrase is based on a true story, as opposed to This is a true story.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:54 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


You responded that that's what the discipline of history is – as though that justified the arbitrary and utterly evidence-free exchange of one misconception for another potentially worse misconception

My point is that's what the process of understanding the past is like, for both vernacular and professional historians. The process is one of continually revising perceptions. In the case of the general public, they are not working with historical evidence, but they are revising perceptions. Their perceptions can be more or less accurate than they were before. In general people have such a low level of knowledge and carry so many myths that some accurate factual content, delivered along with some myth is at least a bit of an improvement. But it really doesn't matter - it's a side point that film experience can enhance understanding of history, but that all people constantly revise their state of knowledge, professionally or not.

the aim of history is not misconception.

Oh, it certainly can be! It depends on the ideological orientation of the historian (or those who pay him or her) and who takes an alternative perspective.

And the aim of film is also not usually misconception, though it certainly can be.

It seems to me that people today are much more confident in their misconceptions about history than people were before the advent of the film medium.

Really? Were you around before the advent of the film medium? On what primary sources about the historical literacy of the average, popular-culture-consuming person do you base this assertion?

"Textural understanding of a time period" doesn't seem an incredibly useful thing to me when it comes to understanding history

It's the stuff of history - of course it is. That's actually the foundation of experimental archaeology, for one thing, and is one of the forces behind the rise in importance of social history since the 60s and 70s.
posted by Miko at 10:58 AM on February 22, 2013


shakespeherian: “Not to shove words into her mouth, but I think Miko's point is that the phrase is based on a true story, as opposed to This is a true story.”

Yeah. It's just that my experience is that filmmakers tend to use these two phrases ("based on a true story" and "this is a true story") interchangeably, without any real distinction between the two. Sure, the better filmmakers might not do that – that is, if one were thinking about the literal meanings of the words, there ought to be a distinction – but the most perspicacious filmmakers don't really set the standards, I don't think.
posted by koeselitz at 10:59 AM on February 22, 2013


Are there any films that are "a true story?"
posted by Miko at 11:02 AM on February 22, 2013


Yeah I'm not sure what films you're thinking of that claim to be a true story, outside of documentaries. Even biopics conflate characters, simplify motivations, rearrange timelines for the purposes of narrative and squeezing the whole thing into a 110-minute package, which is why they say 'based on' or 'inspired by' (the vaguer of the tags) rather than HERE'S WHAT HAPPENED, YO
posted by shakespeherian at 11:04 AM on February 22, 2013


Historians quibbling with Ken Burns' The Civil War. True film about a true story?
posted by Miko at 11:10 AM on February 22, 2013


But the Fresh Air interview isn't part of the film-- in fact, anything Affleck says about the film isn't part of the film, and many people who see the film won't hear the interview or anything else he has to say about Argo.

shakesperehian,

True. But I think I remember (only seen it once) that at the end of Argo they show snapshots of the actual diplomats from 1980 - and it's very hard to tell them from the actors you've just seen.

So the movie makers are definitely engaging with the audience about the truthful representation of some of the basic facts even before you leave the cinema!
posted by Jody Tresidder at 11:25 AM on February 22, 2013


me: “You responded that that's what the discipline of history is – as though that justified the arbitrary and utterly evidence-free exchange of one misconception for another potentially worse misconception”

Miko: “My point is that's what the process of understanding the past is like, for both vernacular and professional historians. The process is one of continually revising perceptions.”

It involves revising perceptions, but is it arbitrary? The arbitrarity is what I was pointing to; it seemed to me that what distinguishes doing history from other activities (watching a film was the example we started with) is a standard by which historical study proceeds. Am I doing history when I revise my perceptions by deciding to join a religious cult because I've developed a milder form of schizophrenia?

me: “... the aim of history is not misconception.”

Miko: “Oh, it certainly can be! It depends on the ideological orientation of the historian (or those who pay him or her) and who takes an alternative perspective.”

You're right, "history" can also just mean "a thing that people called historians do," and historians could choose to pursue misconception if it suited their paychecks. But note that if a historian pursues misconception, and tries to be wrong about things, then she or he is not involved in the "process of understanding" that you mentioned above. Misconception and understanding are opposites. A process of understanding might involve misconceptions, but it doesn't aim toward them.

me: “‘Textural understanding of a time period’ doesn't seem an incredibly useful thing to me when it comes to understanding history”

Miko: “It's the stuff of history - of course it is. That's actually the foundation of experimental archaeology, for one thing, and is one of the forces behind the rise in importance of social history since the 60s and 70s.”

You're right – and that was sort of a silly thing for me to say. Of course textural understanding of a time period matters. But I think it's specifically very deceptive in the context of films, which very frequently dress up utterly non-contemporaneous dialogue, characterization, and plot with all kinds of texturally-correct historical details.

me: “It seems to me that people today are much more confident in their misconceptions about history than people were before the advent of the film medium.”

Miko: “Really? Were you around before the advent of the film medium? On what primary sources about the historical literacy of the average, popular-culture-consuming person do you base this assertion?”

Well, I appreciate that this is a broad thesis that probably deserves more investigation than I can give it here, but this is my sense in reading through the works of the past. Plato's dialogues give us a society that still deals with history in the way societies originally did: orally, by retelling events, sometimes from this perspective and sometimes from that perspective. This question – which perspective is correct? – animated history for a very long time afterwards, and is at the heart of that foundational work of Thucydides' which established so much of the practice of historical study. In the Roman period, history shifted to become more textual – a process of reviewing sources and collating and refining them – although I suspect that for most people who weren't historians it remained an oral tradition rather than an object of textual study. And even as the study of history becomes textual, it still retains this aspect of necessary distance; it is not immersive, not deceptively passive as film can be.

In more recent times, I think this still holds true. In the novels of Stendhal, of Melville, even (especially?) of Faulkner, the past is a thing that has to be kept alive through that combination of imagination and thoughtful examination of various perspectives that all studies entail. Faulkner's 1936 novel Absalom, Absalom! – which is my favorite novel of his, and which I think we can say is relatively pre-filmic, or at least prior to the ubiquity of historical films as a way of understanding history – essentially just a long oral retelling of family history from one schoolboy to another.

Of course Faulkner's world is not the entire world or even the whole of America, but it does seem to me that this is how people were forced to understand history in the past. People read books, both in school and as a leisure activity; but I don't think most people really engaged with history until they talked about it with other people. That conversation about history, the dialogue involved, is fundamentally different from the passive experience most people have when they watch most movies.
posted by koeselitz at 11:38 AM on February 22, 2013


if a historian pursues misconception, and tries to be wrong about things, then she or he is not involved in the "process of understanding"

Not if they try to be wrong. But we're often off base not because we're trying, but because of biases we're blind to, political and financial pressures, etc. But I don't think that the folk process of "understanding the past" is any different from that. It doesn't involve an active effort to be wrong, to misunderstand.

this is how people were forced to understand history in the past. People read books, both in school and as a leisure activity; but I don't think most people really engaged with history until they talked about it with other people. That conversation about history, the dialogue involved, is fundamentally different from the passive experience most people have when they watch most movies.

No, I disagree with this. For one thing, it's a fantasy about the past. Yes, people read books and sat in school lessons, but those books and lessons were not superior to today's. School was, from an accuracy standpoint, much much worse than today if perhaps not as uneven, and popular fiction was just about as bad as today's historical fiction. I have read mid-19th century polemics against the falseness and inaccuracy of say, Golden Age of Sail literature and "medieval"-themed literature, which were very popular.

People also went to the theatre and music halls and minstrel shows, and they encountered historical content there in a way quite similar to what you posit as the uniquely "passive" experience of moviegoing. It's hard to overstate the prominence of theatre in the pop culture of the entire post-Englightenment era. Especially in the US after Puritan influence waned. The 'pageant' was a common educational and social technique for experiencing history in staged, scripted re-enactment, promoting socially endorsed values and virtues (Washington chopping down the cherry tree gained its pervasiveness, even in its falsity, through pageant performance; it was taken from this almost completely concocted Washington biography by a minister).

Even storytelling of the griot/oral tradition variety has (a) been shown to generate abundant errors, misdirections and fabrications, because there is absolutely no original text to compare a specific telling to, so there is no way to be confident that a story has been told unchanged for centuries. And it's also been shown that they probably weren't, as I recall reading a study of griots who were recorded telling a story at two different times, each time certain they were telling it the same way, but the two performances of that story varying - and (b) storytelling is not really dialogic either. I have a very good friend who studies Melville and his use of source material from oral traditions - they were, of course, full of falsity, embroidery, imagination. They were first and foremost performances, not histories.

So you're arguing for a decline narrative - people used to understand history better before we left an Eden of pure fact transmission with little opportunity to introduce error - and I don't think the evidence is there. If anything, the state of historical knowledge today, though abysmal, is still better than that which we can measure from even my grandmother's time.
posted by Miko at 12:28 PM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


...and I don't quite know what to do here with the irony of citing works of fiction as historical evidence in this discussion!

If anything, you're concerned not about moviegoing, but about the profound power of narrative in the human brain. That's becoming clearer and clearer with recent research, and explains why false information takes hold just as easily as true information - it's not information quality, but story form, that our brains latch onto. And story in any form - play, movie, storyteller, imagination - is able to carry misinformation just as much as accurate information.
posted by Miko at 12:50 PM on February 22, 2013


at the end of Argo they show snapshots of the actual diplomats from 1980 - and it's very hard to tell them from the actors you've just seen.

I can't remember if it was in that FA interview or elsewhere that I read/heard that Affleck said he was so proud of what their researchers had done with getting so close to the look of the era and the individuals that he decided to showcase their work in this way during the credits. This might be another example (like the airplane chase) of Affleck's attempting one thing and sending unintended messages in the process.

I actually don't mind the altering of actual events in order to tell an "emotional truth" about what the exfiltratees experienced. I just wish the makers of Argo had chosen a more original and realistic way to do this.

...Affleck also said that one difficulty they had in reconstructing events was that they had no way to know the Iranians' perspective on the whole thing: they didn't have the facts on what Iran knew or didn't know about the Canadian filmmaking cover story. (This may be an implicit acknowledgment of the criticism you made earlier, Jody Tressider, that we really don't know whether the cover story fooled anyone at all.) It seems like this lack of knowledge on the part of the exfiltrators could have been enlarged upon to heighten the suspense instead of using the physical tension of an airplane chase. It would have been a harder story to tell, a more psychological one, but it also would have been a lot more interesting.
posted by torticat at 1:01 PM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


...It seems like this lack of knowledge on the part of the exfiltrators could have been enlarged upon to heighten the suspense instead of using the physical tension of an airplane chase. It would have been a harder story to tell, a more psychological one, but it also would have been a lot more interesting.

I so, so agree with all you just wrote, torticat.

I also know that if I were inclined to be slightly fairer to Affleck (and I'm not so inclined; I couldn't even stand the sly physical vanity of his performance by the end!), I'd have to acknowledge that a more psychological story would absolutely have been a much harder one to pull off- and a tough fit given the larky unique selling point of the rest of the film, i.e. the CIA's loopy fake Hollywood cover story.

(It's odd, I was so ready to be engaged and charmed and thrilled by Argo in advance of seeing it. It had all the right hallmarks - but it just started falling apart in the airport for me - with the tickets not being logged in the computer at first & the cross cutting to the shredded photos being reassembled, and the "baddies" hotter on their trail with every passing second- I felt I was being treated like a brainless fool by the director/writer...)
posted by Jody Tresidder at 1:47 PM on February 22, 2013


It's true, Gone Baby Gone is far better.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:16 PM on February 22, 2013


Miko: “No, I disagree with this. For one thing, it's a fantasy about the past. Yes, people read books and sat in school lessons, but those books and lessons were not superior to today's. School was, from an accuracy standpoint, much much worse than today if perhaps not as uneven, and popular fiction was just about as bad as today's historical fiction. I have read mid-19th century polemics against the falseness and inaccuracy of say, Golden Age of Sail literature and "medieval"-themed literature, which were very popular... So you're arguing for a decline narrative - people used to understand history better before we left an Eden of pure fact transmission with little opportunity to introduce error - and I don't think the evidence is there. If anything, the state of historical knowledge today, though abysmal, is still better than that which we can measure from even my grandmother's time.”

That has nothing to do with my point, which was emphatically not that people in the past were more educated about history; it was that people in the past had a better grasp of how little they knew about the past, and what it meant to try to understand it.

But you seem to be responding as though I was arguing that people in the past simply knew more about history. They did not. They knew more about how little they knew. And knowledge about how little one knows can serve one very, very well. In fact, I would argue that realizing how little one knows – realizing, that is, how surrounded we are by misconceptions – is an essential first step toward really understanding history.
posted by koeselitz at 3:10 PM on February 22, 2013


Incidentally, I just got back from a screening of Lincoln. I am sure than 90% of the audience walked out thinking that two Connecticut representatives voted against the amendment. These were sophisticated New Yorkers, as well trained in fiction as anyone. The person I saw it with has a PhD in literature and was from Connecticut and was aghast that her state voted against it until I told her otherwise. These people know not to believe what they see, but it didn't cross their minds to think that that was bullshit when so much clearly was attempting to be true. So when I want authors to acknowledge what they're doing, I want Kushner and Spielberg to say "yes, we are doing real harm to people's understanding of this historical event, but it's worth it for the sake of the story." They say the latter, but don't quite say the former. Same goes for Affleck in Argo or, most importantly, Bigelow in Zero Dark Thirty. Although I guess I care less about what the writers and directors say, and more that the rest of us take seriously the historical damage done by these alterations, even if we decide the damage is worth the story in the end. My own feeling is that you can generally make a good story without those sorts of violations, either by better picking which true events (as best you can learn them) to use in your narrative, or by sufficiently diverging from historical specifics that no one mistakes your fakes as true. But that's just me, I'm not a pedant about that part.
posted by chortly at 9:15 PM on February 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


Seems to me they're only doing "real harm (?) to people's understanding of this historical event" if people go to see a Spielberg film expecting to see pure and absolute devotion to the truth. And even then, it's not exactly the movie's fault. People who eat Twinkies expecting nutrition suffer a similar fate.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 8:31 AM on February 23, 2013


What if history really was mawkish and sentimental?
posted by shakespeherian at 9:02 AM on February 23, 2013 [2 favorites]




Birth of a Nation launched the rebirth of the Klan.

A good example. Still, had the nation not been full of white supremacist rumblings and racial tensions at the time, it would not have been of any interest and just been a movie about a weird historical oddity. But yeah, that's about the best example that's come up yet.


Birth of a Nation is exactly an example of what you had asked for. The fact that there were other reasons for racial tension, etc. in the US at that time does not diminish the fact that the film changed history. Nothing happens in a vacuum.

Other film examples: I remember one of Justice Brennan's clerks talking about how difficult it was to maintain a liberal political attitude towards crime, in an era when the Dirty Harry films were cementing in the public's mind the idea that the solution to rampant crime would be a macho, rule-bending roughneck.

While it's television instead of film, I also remember Justice Scalia citing 24 as an influence on his mindset when it come to cases involving terrorism. Scalia wasn't the only one who was taking guidance on these issues from pop culture such as 24.

More recently, you can see heavy influence from the film version of V for Vendetta throughout the activities of Anonymous and Occupy, and not merely just the usage of the mask. Putting to lie the myth that films are only experienced passively, we see how people were able to adopt the film's themes and imagery for their own revolutionary uses, while also of course blending the film's influence with many other influences.

The long and short of it is that film and television comes from society, but they also affect it in the other direction as well. You can't sever these products of culture from culture itself, in either direction.
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:53 PM on February 23, 2013


They knew more about how little they knew.

This hasn't been my sense at all, and I'm wary of how generally this claim is being presented. For example, Serbian epic poetry has been taken rather seriously by Serbs over the centuries, and not just as poetry-as-poetry.
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:56 PM on February 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


Taken seriously, yes, but - here we're getting into my own feeling about the state of society today: we are, I believe, more certain of ourselves than any other society in history. Our deep faith in the specialization of knowledge and the generalization of scientific principles has convinced most of us that everything is known and known well, particularly things in the past. My experience is that it often even shocks people - adults, that is - when they're told that we aren't sure about events that happened a hundred or two hundred years ago; in the public mind, all problems, including problems in the study of history, can be solved by experts, and probably already have been.

But that's pretty far afield; I only say this as an explanation for what I said above.
posted by koeselitz at 1:45 AM on February 24, 2013




Michelle Obama announced Argo as Best Picture? WTF?
posted by homunculus at 9:01 PM on February 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


people in the past had a better grasp of how little they knew about the past, and what it meant to try to understand it.

Yeah, I just don't think this is a supportable assertion, and novels certainly aren't the evidence.

we are, I believe, more certain of ourselves than any other society in history

Also really general. The past is full of examples of people who did not even doubt the creation story they were taught as children. Until very recently. Who were not certain that people of different skin colors were the same kind of being they were. Who confidently pursued systems of medical treatment which offered no evidence whatever that they were effective. And so on. There are certain complexities that result from our relationship to the vastness of information available to us, but I don't think we can say that humans of the past were more skeptical/doubting or less certain than we are about things.

The thing I keep coming back to is the focus on factual error. If you're concerned about the storytelling power of film perverting people's historical imagination, would you be just fine with Spielberg's Lincoln if they changed the CT scenes to align with fact? Would that satisfy you that this film was now 100% historically accurate? A complete and responsible depiction of Abraham Lincoln that could not possibly given anyone a slanted or even wrong impression of who Lincoln was as a character, or the politics of slavery?

Something about the narrow focus on facts concerns me - it's trees, not forest. If you have concern that films harm society, even with accurate facts, you still have to contend with the wrongness of presentism, POV and the rest.
posted by Miko at 10:41 PM on February 24, 2013


...in other words, no matter how they right they make the facts about CT, the movie Lincoln is still fiction, illusion, fantasy, storytelling. It is not a work of history, and accurate facts of one kind or another can never turn it into a work of history. That is why, to me, the fact-fudging doesn't matter very much. It is already in the realm of non-fact. There is no damage to history done by these movies. Such damage can't be done; the facts are secure. Damage to people's understanding of history? Well, a mistaken fact does that, but so does a misplaced frame, elision, delicacy, lionization, selectivity, conflation, simplification, fabrication, and use of archetype and stereotype.

A narrative that is 100% factually accurate can still be misleading. Even were the CT scenes cut - Lincoln is flat-out misleading in several ways. That's fine. It's not a work of history. It says more about our own time than Lincoln's time.

But it may lead - no, it definitely has lead - many new people to read about him, visit sites related to his life, and revisit his legacy. That's always a net improvement for the state of public knowledge on American history.
posted by Miko at 10:59 PM on February 24, 2013


Faulkner's 1936 novel Absalom, Absalom! – which is my favorite novel of his, and which I think we can say is relatively pre-filmic, or at least prior to the ubiquity of historical films as a way of understanding history – essentially just a long oral retelling of family history from one schoolboy to another.

It's ironic that you're looking to novels to undergird your hypothesis about how the age of film ushered in an era of passive certainty. It's also ironic that you're citing a novel which is most famous for critiquing the unreliability and uncertainty of both oral and written historical narratives.

It's highly inaccurate to call 1936 "pre-filmic," especially since 1) it's very much not "pre-filmic" at all, no more than we are currently in a pre-Web era, 2) Faulkner himself was very much writing screenplays at the time, and 3) 1936 is well after Birth of a Nation, which remains to be a high water mark of both "history written with lightning" and high levels of interactivity occurring among films and audiences.
posted by Sticherbeast at 4:06 AM on February 25, 2013


Few people took Uncle Tom's Cabin as literal truth, but it played a huge role in turning contemporary views against slavery; few took Birth of a Nation as literally true, but it too had significant effects. Even if we don't "believe" it, we can't help but see these artworks as being in dialogue with reality -- and this is only intensified when names and events echo and represent history.

Here's the thing. This is and has always existed - and its effects are not confined to historical fiction. And this is what, honestly, conservatives have complained about for a long time. The media - and by that I don't just mean news media, but /all/ media - tell stories that influence people's perception. It's not a conspiracy - but people tell stories that show their bias, and that share their bias and spread their bias - whatever it might happen to be.

So there's really no sense in complaining about the irresponsibility of historical fiction, unless you're prepared to complain about the irresponsibility of /all/ fiction in portraying the world differently than it is. Romantic comedies that portray shlubs as getting - and more importantly deserving - the hot girls. Movies that portray Southerners or conservatives as uneducated hicks. Movies that portray gun owners only as dangerous individuals, not ordinary citizens. Movies where overweight women only get to be the fat friend, not a main character. Movies that portray geeks as nerdy and incompetent with women, and their skills as useless.

Every piece of fiction changes the world. Everything you read or watch influences how you think, behave, and act. Whether or not you know it's fiction.
posted by corb at 8:13 AM on February 25, 2013


A medieval historian's list of favorite historically themed films.

It's possible to critique and not condemn or proscribe.
posted by Miko at 9:11 AM on February 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


Miko: that is a link to someone's gmail account
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:24 AM on February 25, 2013


...the thing I keep coming back to is the focus on factual error. If you're concerned about the storytelling power of film perverting people's historical imagination, would you be just fine with Spielberg's Lincoln if they changed the CT scenes to align with fact? Would that satisfy you that this film was now 100% historically accurate?...

Miko,
Your tolerant approach to facts in films about history works, I think, as long as we stick to discussing Lincoln.
I also believe that a "100% historically accurate" movie about Lincoln, were such a thing even possible, would be - at best - an unwatchable monstrosity!

But your comments do not apply to Argo - because here the muddle over accuracy & facts is a different sort of beast altogether.

This Oscar proclaimed best film of 2012 shows events that exist only in a kind of gap between two perceptions of the same facts.

Here is a key quote from Robin Wright's Our Man in Tehran (2011), a very well reviewed - (Kirkus loved it) & thrilling account of the Argo story. It covers the fake movie cover story but it offers much more detail about the critical involvement at every stage of the Canadian ambassador. (Wright is a Canadian historian):

"Ken Taylor [the Canadian ambassador at the time of the crisis] believes that all of the attention accorded the Hollywood option was misplaced. It was, after all a relatively inconsequential detail in a broad collaborative effort that had been under way for eight weeks by the time Mendez [the CIA guy played by Affleck] came up with it."

This opinion - that the Hollywood cover story was "a relatively inconsequential detail" in the escape of the American diplomats is factually justified. What specifically got the 6 American diplomats out of Tehran were the six Canadian passports, with their perfectly forged visas & stamps. The Hollywood cover story - dreamed up by the CIA guy - was never actually tested.

When the six diplomats walked without a hitch through Tehran's airport that day, it was because they appeared to be Canadian nationals. No Iranians at the airport appeared to even know the six "Canadian nationals" were supposed to be working on a Hollywood movie!

Yet here is what is splashed on the front jacket of the 2012 movie-tie book by Tony Mendez and journalist Matt Baglio. The non-fiction book's title is:

Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History.

(What is truly audacious is how Argo shows audiences a story that didn't really happen!)
posted by Jody Tresidder at 10:03 AM on February 25, 2013


Your tolerant approach to facts in films about history works, I think, as long as we stick to discussing Lincoln.

No. I recognize that it applies to every fiction film and actually every film and every other cultural production, even ones I deplore. The stuff of history enters the popular imagination, and that is OK. I'm making a much broader argument about historical content in pop culture, not just an argument about Lincoln.

I've asked to have the link fixed.
posted by Miko at 10:04 AM on February 25, 2013


Miko: “The thing I keep coming back to is the focus on factual error. If you're concerned about the storytelling power of film perverting people's historical imagination, would you be just fine with Spielberg's Lincoln if they changed the CT scenes to align with fact? Would that satisfy you that this film was now 100% historically accurate? A complete and responsible depiction of Abraham Lincoln that could not possibly given anyone a slanted or even wrong impression of who Lincoln was as a character, or the politics of slavery?”

Well, as I said, I don't think any of this is possible. It is not possible to capture history in a film. Details don't even matter; it's the whole effect of the thing. It is not possible. I suspect we at least agree on that point, although I may be wrong.

“Something about the narrow focus on facts concerns me - it's trees, not forest. If you have concern that films harm society, even with accurate facts, you still have to contend with the wrongness of presentism, POV and the rest.”

Up above, I thought I made this point about Titanic, a film that gets all the facts right but utterly fails as a document that explicates the experiential reality of 1912. Not even just the accents of the characters but the world they move in, the spiritual and political and emotional world, is the world of 1997, not 2012. And that relates to everything else in the movie; no matter how many miniscule details Cameron might have gotten right, the 'forest' (as you put it) is all wrong. That's why I was led to make the (in retrospect, somewhat over-the-top) claim that textural understanding of history "doesn't matter." It's not that it doesn't actually matter, but I do believe that sheer physical detail is not all there is to capturing a time period.

And, again, actually capturing a time period is such a broadly difficult proposition that I don't think it's possible, really. If it is, it's very difficult. In a sense, every film about a historical event is distorting history, whether intentionally or not.

As I said, I gather that we probably agree on that point, although I shouldn't speak out of turn. What we seem to disagree on is whether art has any responsibility to its audience, particularly to those members of the audience who aren't likely to distinguish fact from fiction carefully. (And, given the results of psychological testing of our aptness to believe narrative, I think that's probably most of the audience, frankly.)
posted by koeselitz at 3:26 PM on February 25, 2013


Miko: A medieval historian's list of favorite historically themed films. It's possible to critique and not condemn or proscribe.”

That's a great list, particularly for including one of my absolute favorite things ever, Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc. As one of the commenters notes, however, it probably ought to include Andrei Rublev. Honestly, more than any other historical film that movie has made me think very hard about what the historicity of a film even means and what it can accomplish.
posted by koeselitz at 3:31 PM on February 25, 2013


me: “What we seem to disagree on is whether art has any responsibility to its audience, particularly to those members of the audience who aren't likely to distinguish fact from fiction carefully.”

I'm sorry, Miko – this was a silly thing for me to say, because it's clearly miles from the truth. You haven't even come close to making the claim that art doesn't have any responsibility to its audience. It seems instead like you're saying that art doesn't have as much of a responsibility as I think it does to avoid giving an audience the wrong ideas about history. Sorry; I don't want to mischaracterize what you're saying.
posted by koeselitz at 3:35 PM on February 25, 2013






That's why I was led to make the (in retrospect, somewhat over-the-top) claim that textural understanding of history "doesn't matter." It's not that it doesn't actually matter, but I do believe that sheer physical detail is not all there is to capturing a time period.

It's certainly not all there is. But it is a legitimate realm of topical inquiry into history. Much of what is happening in social history scholarship now has to do with exactly this domain of the sensory - the clothing, smells, sounds, decor, habits, difficulties, technologies of times past and how they (subtly or not) influenced larger social patterns and human experiences. Movies can't instruct you accurately in this, but they can be both platforms for real scholarship (as in costume and dialect research) and inspirations for further scholarship - as well as simply the textural hook that draws people in and enables them to explore historical periods more deeply and expertly using additional sources.

In a sense, every film about a historical event is distorting history, whether intentionally or not.

That's exactly my point. Just as even films about people today are not an accurate and complete and fair picture of life today. We can never recreate history - not in any medium. All we can do i history scholarship is frame questions about history and seek evidence to create an interpretation. And movies aren't history scholarship. Even documentaries aren't history scholarship. But both may draw on that scholarship and present it.

What we seem to disagree on is whether art has any responsibility to its audience, particularly to those members of the audience who aren't likely to distinguish fact from fiction carefully

I think art has its own set of responsibilities - to provoke, to fascinate, to open conversations, to intrigue, to entertain, to transport, perhaps to promote social ends. I don't think the discipline of art is responsible to the discipline of history, and that's the basis of my argument. I do think we agree on a lot of the points you discuss in your last post - films can't recreate history, accurately or inaccurately. Part of my argument is a conviction that the stuff of human experience is all fair game, all raw material for processing through any number of disciplinary lenses.
posted by Miko at 7:07 PM on February 25, 2013


...and finally, that "history" is not something that is, existing outside of time as a true and inviolate thing. It's a process of storytelling - narrative construction - in response to specific questions; it's something that people do using information from the past. All that is in any objective sense is the raw evidence, the set of facts and objects, for people to interpret - and when people do that, they are doing history.

But objectivity is only a goal of history - the very act of doing history is evidence that we can't leave the past alone, content to let its facts rest. We must try to understand it for present uses - and creating that understanding is a messy and complex process, leading to interpretations that fall prey to all sorts of conscious and unconscious biases, even though it is a lot more rigorous about the facts than art is.
posted by Miko at 7:18 PM on February 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


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