My musings here were inspired by a line of thought in the Boy in the Striped Pyjamas thread on narrative art and the Holocaust, which included such comments as
What I am wondering is just how particular to the Holocaust this principle is.
The Holocaust obviously occupies a unique place in Western history and imagination. Yet similar principles would seem to apply, for instance, in responding to films about the Rwandan genocide, like Hotel Rwanda (which, like Schindler's List, is more about people who don't die than people who do), and in fact similar criticisms were leveled at that film.
Questions of memory and truth also apply to other events besides genocide. One school of dramatic thought says "Never let the facts get in the way of a good story." Yet it seems to me that the more we know about the facts, and especially the more we care about them, the less likely we are to feel either that departing from them actually does make for a "good story" (or a better story than the facts themselves, or than a more truthful story hewing more closely to the facts) -- or that a "good story," even if it succeeds on its own terms, justifies the distortion of the facts.
The closer we are to the facts, the more likely we are to find the real facts a good deal more interesting than the dramatist's conceits. Questions about historicity matter more to me with a film like World Trade Center than with a film like Braveheart, because 9/11 is more important to me than a thirteenth-century Scottish freedom fighter. On the other hand, historically minded Brits might care more about the historicity of Braveheart than I would.
Apart from questions of dramatic interest, there are also questions of justice and truth. Cinderella Man makes Max Baer a villain that, apparently, he wasn't; I would argue that that doesn't make it a better story -- a more nuanced character would make a better story -- but even if it did make a better story, would this justify the injustice to Baer and the pain caused to his family members? Likewise, James Cameron's Titanic depicts First Officer William Murdoch taking a bribe, shooting passengers and eventually committing suicide. Such things do happen, of course, and they can make for good drama. However, Murdoch's surviving relatives were reasonably aggrieved by this depiction, for which apparently little evidence exists (and once again my own feeling is that the depiction harms rather than enhances the drama).
Events don't have to be recent to be relevant. The history of Kingdom of Heaven is more ancient than that of Braveheart, but I care more about the former than the latter because Christian-Islamic issues are more important to me than English-Scottish issues.
Obviously, how much we know about an incident directly impacts how much liberty we can take. The Ninth Day is mostly speculation about a period in a concentration camp prisoner's life about which nothing is known. If the real story were known, and if it mattered to us, we probably wouldn't be able to appreciate the film the same way. I can live with United 93's speculative depiction of the last minutes of the flight because we don't really know what happened. If we did know, I would want the depiction to match what we knew, just as I want the parts of the film that depict events we do know about to match those events.
And it's not just history. Anything you know about, you like to see accurately portrayed. Professionals in any field -- healthcare workers, computer experts, military or law enforcement, whatever -- find that it takes them right out of a movie when filmmakers get things wrong. Individuals from a given culture or familiar with it find inauthentic depictions detrimental to a film. If you don't know anything about Somalia, you won't know or care that the African-Americans in Black Hawk Down don't look like Somalis; if you do, you may. Similarly, those in the know about American Indian cultures often find the depictions in classic Westerns variously hilarious or offensive.
The smaller the world gets and the more familiar we become with things outside of our parochial experience, the less willing we are, at least in some ways, to accept falsifications. It's hard to believe today that Charlton Heston could ever get away with playing a Mexican, as in Touch of Evil, or a Spaniard, as in El Cid.
Science too. The more you know about the natural world, or the closer you are to it, the less willing you may be to accept stuff that's wrong. To pick silly examples from a couple of computer-animated films, consider the male cows with udders in Barnyard or the male "pollen jock" bees from Bee Movie, or the way that the latter film depicts "pollen" as magic plant food "fertilizer" that revives withering plants, rather than botanical reproductive material. In my review of Bee Movie I called it "an urban comedy about the circle of life made by filmmakers a generation too many removed from life on the farm." In other words, it seems to me that a certain amount of distance -- or ignorance -- is required to conceive of the world this way in the first place.
All of this raises an interesting question. To what extent is all art like that? Could it be that art is essentially something we do between the cracks of what we actually know? Is there a sense in which the more you know, the less room there is for "art"? Conversely, must literal historical and scientific truthfulness always be the ultimate ideal in art, so that to depart in any way or on any level from such truth always weakens a work of art?
Should all films dealing with historical facts seek to be as scrupulously factual as the most objective documentaries? I am not disposed to this way of thinking, although I confess I do find again and again that historical movies are invariably weakened by departures from the facts.
A few counter-examples. Christian eschatology and angelology are subjects of the greatest importance to me, yet the patently false portrayal in It's a Wonderful Life bothers me not at all. Likewise, I know very well that the Lucan adoration of the shepherds and the Matthean adoration of the magi are two entirely distinct events, yet I don't at all find "pastores et magi" scenes and depictions problematic. And while I know that Thomas More had several children, I don't mind the conflation of them all to Meg in A Man for All Seasons.
Edited by SDG, 06 December 2008 - 04:27 PM.