In reviewing ‘A beautiful mind’ NYT reviewer said of Nash
January 20, 2002 8:02 PM   Subscribe

In reviewing ‘A beautiful mind’ NYT reviewer said of Nash "Before he married Alicia …he fathered another child…. and abandoned both mother and child to poverty. He formed a number of intense, apparently sexual bonds with other men, and he lost his security clearance ….. after he was arrested for soliciting sex in a men's room. When his illness became intractable and his behavior intolerable, Alicia divorced him. …. None of this has made it to the screen." It went on to say that "The story ….egregiously simplifies the tangled, suspicious world of cold war academia." Most other reviewers appears to have judged that movie on its merits as a work of art and seemed to like it. Recently, the plans to build a statue to honor the FDNY firefighters were dropped after a controvery broke out over plans to alter the original image of three firefighters hoisting the American flag. In an article that tried to put the later controvery in a context, NYT said that that "Sculptors, and artists in general, always take liberties". Conservative columnist Jonah Golderg in a different column defended the sanctity of ‘factual accuracy' in art. I rarely agree with Goldberg. But I think if one is depicting an event or a likeness of an event one has an obligation to stay close to the truth. Where do you draw the line between creative freedom and factual accuracy?
posted by justlooking (27 comments total)
Whoa, whoa, whoa. Mefi week in review isn't a good thing... I don't think. Try sticking to one topic at a time next time. My feeble brain cannot decide which topic to comment on!
posted by geoff. at 8:05 PM on January 20, 2002

Geoff: I thought about sticking to the more recent event ie the staute controversy. But the subject is potentially loaded and people may feel inclined to take predetermined positions. And since I had been thinking about 'A beautiful mind' for some time anyway, I decided to make one post. ...Because the essential question is only one. How much creative freedom can u take with facts? Is it right to alter facts - if what you are doing in your creative quest is representing facts?
posted by justlooking at 8:12 PM on January 20, 2002

But I think if one is depicting an event or a likeness of an event one has an obligation to stay close to the truth.

Agreed, to a point. A Beautiful Mind, Pearl Harbor, and Titanic are all popular or semi-popular movies based on real people and events, but the big thing is that not a one of them claims to be wholly real. I don't have too much of a problem with this, so long as what is depicted on the screen isn't taken as gospel.

I'd draw the proverbial line when it comes to education. If kids see a movie like A Beautiful Mind, for instance, and walk away feeling like they have an accurate perception of the real Nash, that's bad. What is potentially worse is if there is no followup to correct this error - and I can see this happening if the lines of entertainment and education blur moreso.

These movies are designed to tell stories. All of them have love story components to them, and that's what sells tickets. Even if it was well done, a documentary of Nash probably wouldn't sell many tickets - though I'd love to be proven wrong.

(Kaushik, as a side note, you may want to break up your posts - keep it short on the front page, and then expound by replying to your own post. YMMV.)
posted by hijinx at 8:13 PM on January 20, 2002

I think it's pretty easy to decide which topic to comment on:

Where do you draw the line between creative freedom and factual accuracy?

I draw it a lot clearer than the creators of A Beautiful Mind. If you're representing historical events, you are obligated to depict them as accurately as possible. If you are inspired by actual events, but have no interest in portraying the actual event, then you can take liberties, and are probably obligated to obscure names, dates, etc.

A Beautiful Mind does a disservice to the movie going public by lying to them (by omission). It tries to depict actual events, and dramatizes their events (necessary for movies). But they changed the direction of this man's life. Not good at all. I think it should have been more accurate.

I recently saw the movie "Bully". Thought it was pretty cool. Had a lot of overt dramatization and was not very truthful to the actual events. In fact, it even got the sentencing of the killers wrong. I think it should have been considered "inspired" by actual events, and should have been LESS accurate.

So where's the line? When you're portraying that which is real, instead of being inspired by reality, you're obligated to go for the factual accuracy. Creative freedom when replaying history is like making a movie about Abraham Lincoln depicting him as freeing the slaves because of his own altruistic views, and not as a political move. If you know anything about history, you know what I'm talking about.
posted by taumeson at 8:14 PM on January 20, 2002

I guess when you put it that way, yeah I see how it's the same thing. I was reading as two totally different entities.
posted by geoff. at 8:14 PM on January 20, 2002

This is, I think, an example of a common problem in American culture, especially with my generation: kids learn everything they know, about history, their values, international affairs, what have you, from pop culture.

I'm reminded of the girl who, in a high school report, quoted R. Kelly (R&B artist): "Greater love has no man than he who lays down his life for a friend." Incidentally, this quote comes from the Bible. It's good that she heard that useful proverb, but she has no idea about where it's from, or its context. I'm sure for lots of kids, the only things they know about World War II are from movies like Pearl Harbor.
posted by insomnyuk at 8:18 PM on January 20, 2002

This is a double post, basically.

Did I say that politely?
posted by raaka at 8:29 PM on January 20, 2002

This is a double post, basically.

Did I say that politely?

No, you said it wrong. The link(s) is/(are) different. The topic, while being related, is not the exact same topic.

Anyway, in regards to the topic, I think it's a tragedy and a sad reality when making movies in Hollywood. The world is still not ready for a homosexual/bisexual protagonist in a blockbuster feature length film and that is why historical correctness had to be substituted for political correctness. Otherwise, this never would have been a blockbuster film to begin with.

Maybe in 30 years they will do a remake when the world is ready to know the real truth.
posted by PWA_BadBoy at 8:47 PM on January 20, 2002

It's a bit late in the game to criticize Hollywood for the factual correctness of movies. Movies have rewritten history since they've existed.
posted by RylandDotNet at 8:52 PM on January 20, 2002

People have been retelling the past using the terms of the present for as long as history has existed. I think this will always be the case. Admittedly, pop-culture pushes the limits of fact to retell stories in the terms of our modern dramatic Hollywood vernacular, but this is nothing new.

High school textbooks pick and choose the past events they want to include based on what has become important to us in the present. As such, Americans learn about Europe, and rarely discuss "uncivilized" tribal cultures. World War two movies from the 40s characterize Japanese soldiers as crazy monkey-men. Mark Twain told a story of the 1830s South to make a point about the attitudes of the 1880s. I live in Plymouth, MA, and grew up learning that Thanksgiving was a big feast enjoyed by Pilgrim and Indian alike, arm-in-arm. The stories in Genesis evolved over thousands of years, and were eventually written down, with all their inconsistencies and uncertainties.

In re-telling a story, we incoporate our present values. This is what stories are for. It would be nice if we didn't have to sacrifice truth to accomplish this, but usually we do. It's deplorable, though, that filmakers often sacrifice truth to make a buck.

There is a longstanding argument between art and philosophy that will never be resolved. Art is beautiful and open. Truths, facts are sometimes ugly, and generally inflexible. We all want both at once, and that's impossible.

"Facts just change the truth around. Facts are living turned insde out" -- Talking Heads.
posted by sixfoot6 at 8:55 PM on January 20, 2002

The line is drawn where it's always been drawn and always will be drawn. Where whoever is writing the cheques wants it to be drawn.
posted by BGM at 9:02 PM on January 20, 2002

As others have said, this is not by any means a conventional double-post. Thanks, kaushik, for a fairly well-researched FPP which focuses on a new facet of a worthy debate and approached the subject by way of an interesting, new link.

I think that it's one's responsibility as an artist not to mislead. In the FDNY example, the statue was not being touted as a "3D rendering of a real-life event!", it was an attempt to represent and honour the dead firefighters. That it was based on an actual photograph was a sidenote. As for A Beautiful Mind however, from what I understand, it promotes itself as a biography, and yet it seems to misrepresent the personality and life of the man it is centered around. This, to me, is not fair use of an artistic license.

For future knowledge, kaushik, much of the criticism here is valid, if a bit over-the-top. You could have more succinctly linked the review and the statue controversy, while referring to past MeFi discussion and presenting the question that you conclude with. Perhaps something like this:

A.O. Scott's NYT review of A Beautiful Mind criticizes the lauded film for its artistic liberties with John Nash's homosexuality, promiscuity, criminal record and the realities of his marriage. Our recent discussion of the (now cancelled) FDNY firefighters' memorial raised several questions about the legitimacy and responsibilities of adaptations. "Artists ... always take liberties," say some, while others promote 'factual accuracy' in art. Where does one draw the line between creative freedom and historical truth?

posted by Marquis at 9:04 PM on January 20, 2002

I think that a good way to go through life is to not ever - EVER - go to a movie and think you are getting the whole 100% true story on any real figure or event from history. Whether you're a kid or an adult.
posted by braun_richard at 9:07 PM on January 20, 2002

Hijinx, Marquis: Thank you for your feedback. Using any of the two suggestions would make for a better quality post.

Re: re-telling a story: I felt that there is a fine line between history and interpretation of history. What or how facts get presented in high school textbooks is usually a matter of interpretation or perspectives. When an education board goes overboard about the twist that it gives to a given event, one can (hopefully) assume that in an open, reasonably democratic society, outside authorities would cry foul and others would start taking notice.

Also, accessibility to information has been growing exponentially throughout the the second half of twentieth century. So while the world is not quite a 'global village' yet, people typically would find objective sources of information if they go looking for it. (Of course when society as a whole decides to ignore or accentuate something for whatever cultural, societal or emotional reasons it is a different story - e.g. the coloration of WWII events in Japan are apparently very different from that elsewhere).

Cultural prejudices do color how you relate to an event and would color how you narrate it in the privacy of your house/barrack/club etc.

However, mainstream art or enterainment tends to take a higher ground. They also have a wider audience in today's age. I quite agree with a previous poster who said that kids would typically get their WWII lessons from Pearl Harbour. That is why the movies that are supposedly conveying events have a responsibility to be honest. And when a widely watched and widely praised movie presents a sanitised biography, one feels troubled.

In retrospect, FDNY is probably not in the same league -I do feel they should have created an image rather than try to borrow one from real life and work on it. But yes, there is a difference between the two examples.
posted by justlooking at 10:35 PM on January 20, 2002

The movie was inspired by the real story, but it would still have worth if it was completely fictional.

The statue was intended as a memorial to an actual occurence, and would have practically no value without the existence of the event it was to memorialize.

That's the difference - the worth of the memorial is gutted by disconnection to reality, the movie's is not.
posted by NortonDC at 11:34 PM on January 20, 2002

sixfoot6: There is a longstanding argument between art and philosophy that will never be resolved. Art is beautiful and open. Truths, facts are sometimes ugly, and generally inflexible. We all want both at once, and that's impossible.

But isn't that one of the peculiar capabilities of art: that we can have, for example, a beautiful painting of an ugly man?
posted by juv3nal at 12:35 AM on January 21, 2002

The reason A Beautiful Mind is reprehensible isn't to my mind because it's untruthful -- it's because it's lazy and takes the path of least resistance. Life is rich; John Nash's life was full of rich complexities and complications. It's a waste and a shame to give up so easily, and to pander to audiences because you think that they, too, would give up . . . . It's all about respect.

The FDNY memorial respects its audience's intelligence . . . A Beautiful Mind doesn't.
posted by josh at 1:42 AM on January 21, 2002

ABM sucked, and not only for its lies. I'm lame, so I'll quote a review that I completely agree with from the SJ Metro rather than write my own:

Not since the film Awakenings has the career of a scientist been subject to such terminal dumbing down. Russell Crowe brings a certain sway to the part of Nash--he's good with bemusement and panic. Still, Howard and Goldsman's anti-intellectual approach to the material insures A Beautiful Mind is a disease-of-the-week film shot in the dullest colors. Crowe's virility is shorted out here for 'Oscar-caliber acting"--the standard sloppy, shoe-gazing, awkward little boy portrait of an intellectual. His Nash is redeemed by true love (Jennifer Connelly, gorgeous as always but unable to draw a bead on her shying co-star). We have the usual tour of Cuckoo's Nest madhouses, before triumphs are received in alarming old-age makeup.

ABM is a boring luubbb conquers all story with a bit of hack action thrown in. Reminded me of why I hadn't seen a Hollywood movie in ages, and won't again, even if, especially if, they get their bloody hands on Alan Turing.
posted by mlinksva at 1:47 AM on January 21, 2002

An artist, upon completing a portrait, was told by the client-model "But it doesn't look like me?", and answered

"Yes, but it will...."
posted by dglynn at 2:35 AM on January 21, 2002

...and George Washington died of a sore throat, I have the textbook to prove it.
posted by bjgeiger at 3:46 AM on January 21, 2002

Let's not forget last year's movie 'Enigma', based on the war-time code-cracking of Alan Turing (and named after the computer he developed), but removing Turing himself from the story and substituting a fictional character called Dougray Scott who is -- conveniently -- heterosexual.
posted by Hogshead at 4:55 AM on January 21, 2002

reminds me of a quote by gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson -- "Don't let the facts get in the way of the truth".

I don't entirely agree with him on this point, but it is true that facts can be delivered in different ways to achieve different effects on the audience. If it's art we're talking about, creative liscense applies. The burden of divining historical accuracy is on the audience. The tricky area is when a work of art is not clearly art, but portrays itself as journalism or somesuch. Ultimately, the burden rests on the audience seek out other sources for their own historical schema.
posted by glennie at 8:42 AM on January 21, 2002

"The reason that fiction is more interesting than any other form of literature, to those who really like to study people, is that in fiction the author can really tell the truth without humiliating himself." Eleanor Roosevelt

Like ER, I much prefer genuine, well-written fiction to fictionalized facts.
posted by Carol Anne at 9:21 AM on January 21, 2002

Kaushik: That is why the movies that are supposedly conveying events have a responsibility to be honest.

They have that responsibility, I'll agree, but the sad fact is that ultimately the story and the gloss sells tickets. I doubt that a lot of the movie studios, the big Hollywood ones, are concerned about the fact that ABM doesn't correctly depict Nash's life. They're concerned about the ticket sales and, now, the Golden Globes it has won. And unless people express their outrage on a large scale, or simply reject what is given to them, this type of historic bastardization will continue.

I'd argue that mainstream entertainment has no higher ground to strive for, anymore, as people tend to take what is given to them due to a lack of perceived choice. Mainstream art, on the other hand, can still go for that higher ground and often does. I'm wondering if the lure of selling out millions of theaters dirties up the artistic and factual aspects of modern cinema.
posted by hijinx at 10:00 AM on January 21, 2002

I would listen to Jonah Goldberg on art as much as I would listen to Bush on literature; I would listen to Johah Goldberg on factual accuracy as much as I would listen to his Drudge on factual accuracy.

ART IS NOT HISTORY. Art has NO obligations, no matter what its basis. We are far too literal-minded in our assessment of art because we fail to recognize the difference between symbol and reality. The first to appreciate 'The Last Supper' centuries ago were not so simple-minded as to take the scene as literal. Even videotape cannot convey reality--it is merely a representation of it, and everything that is a representation places some kind of filter on reality. Something is always missing. There are debates on 'good' versus 'bad' art, but even Sister Wendy insisted that the controversial 'piss christ' work (a crucifix immersed in urine), while not 'good' art, was still art and conveyed very strong messages.

There would not be hundreds of biographies on Lincoln if just one book could convey his life story. So, let's say we make a movie of Nash's life story that includes everything, good and bad. Invariably, after watching this eight-hour miniseries, there's someone who will be offended because we left out the part about how he might, for instance, have been a vegetarian for three months in college.

A storyteller must necessarily adopt a theme and point of view, or the story has no boundaries and cannot be told; these boundaries are formed entirely at the artist's discretion. 'A Beautiful Mind' was certainly not presented as documentary, and these other aspects of Nash's life probably did not serve the goals of the filmmakers; apparently they made good choices because many people like the film and were inspired by it. You might be so ego-centered as to look down on these people as the lowest common denominator, but the art world is ahead of you on this debate as well (see 'high art' versus 'low art').

Any person who feels cheated that other aspects of Nash's life were not displayed is free to take pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, or thumbs to fingerpaint and create an entirely new version of the story. If you don't like the films out there, take up a camera and we'll see you at Sundance in a few years. But don't sit back and complain that art is not being made to your specifications. That's not its purpose.
posted by troybob at 11:12 AM on January 21, 2002

Clarence Page's column expresses my viewpoint on the FDNY statue:

"Why should black and Latino images be used to mask patterns of discrimination that fire departments have practiced for decades? ... So let history speak for itself. To heck with political correctness. New York firefighters want a memorial like the U.S. Marine Corps Memorial? Fine. The white faces on that recreation of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima have always reminded some of us of how far we Americans have come from the segregated military of those days. An all-white fire department memorial can remind us of how far we still have to go."
posted by Carol Anne at 7:03 AM on January 23, 2002

"In re-telling a story, we incoporate our present values. This is what stories are for."

Saw "A Beautiful Mind" last night. It certainly doesn't reflect the full complexity of the personal relationships and family life of John Nash, and that's part of what I liked. It did bring back fond memories of some of the people I've known who were like John Nash. There does indeed exist at least one devastatingly gorgeous, living female mathematician like the one in the movie. And believe it or not, even scientists who are dashing young cavaliers can still run into similar personal issues regarding things like openness.

Without going into too much detail, let's just say that individuals with certain types of mathematical skills have way too much of an inside track in wartime to simply hit the links to the "Council on Foreign Relations" and spout conspiracy theory. Among MeFi readers there must be at least one highly intelligent person who is finding that wartime puts them in a position to piece things together that would scare the shit out of anyone. Things we'd all rather not discuss. This tale of John Nash surviving the Cold War provides some rather humorous insights into reality testing, avoiding paranoid crackups, and establishing relationships of trust- the sort of insights we all need about now.

(If you're more interested in the impact of homosexuality and extra-marital affairs on security clearances, there's another movie to be made about Nash. Let us know when it comes out!)
posted by sheauga at 6:11 PM on January 28, 2002

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