Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Based On A True Story

I often complain here about the rightwing Cultural Commissars; a trope I employ as a thumb-in-the-eye to those whose fealty to the party line trumps their aesthetic judgement. I stole it from Hitchens who stole it from a Soviet exile. I quite like it.

Others do it rather better than your humble blogger. One of these others is Roy Edroso of Alicublog, whose periodic thrashing of wingnut kulturkrit gives delight to anyone who gives a flying fuck about the arts.

That said, the occasion of the Academy Awards has underlined some distinctions between Roy and me. He, apparently, has a doctinaire laissez-faire attitude toward the arts. I disagree; exceptions must be made for history and biography.

In comments to this post, in which Roy predicted a victory in the Best Picture category to The Aviator, I replied:

I know I'm comitting the signal crime of slagging a movie before seeing it, but if what I've read and heard about The Aviator is true, I'm glad it didnt win.

Biopics should be true to their subject, and HH was always an antisocial weirdo -- and fuck-up -- even before he dropped out completely and began the Vegas phase. He was also a lord of corruption who bribed every politico possible, from [one of] FDR's son[s] to Tricky Dick himself. From what I've heard the movie says nothing about this, and what's more, presents HH as a plucky type going up against Sen Brewster who [in real life] HH couldnt bribe because he was already bought by Juan Trippe.

Or have I been misinformed about the movie?

(Brackets are my corrections.)

To which Roy replied:

Retardo: "Confusing art with politics -- that's romanticism!" -- La Chinoise

But it's not art -- fiction -- that I'm upset about, it's that a history, even a "dramatized" one, must account for some facts. I am greatly tolerant to a selection of facts which constitutes an artist's point of view in telling the story, but some facts, by which I mean events or important characteristics, cannot be honestly excised in a work of art without eliciting legitimate complaints, regardless of the ideology of the artist or the critic.

Roy, I know, but I think biopics are an exception of sorts. I can see taking liberties, but (especially when the subject is so historically and politically significant) when it is slanted so much that it's a complete mischaracterisation, I get a little ruffled.

As an analogue, think of if someone made a biopic about Henry Ford next year and completely excised his antisemitism. I wouldnt want to see anything new about Jefferson that didn't at least account for the Sally Hemmings story. And so on. My feelings on art and politics arent much different -- I dont think -- from your own, but this isnt about that; it isnt about fiction or even having a point of view.

I actually think that The Patriot set the right precedent, in a sense, because it knew better than to call Gibson's character Francis Marion, who was in history an abominable racist even for the time. The Patriot wished to tell a certain sort of story, which is fine, but didn't bastardise history by "officially" sugar-coating Marion (nor, for that matter, "officially" demonising [Banastre] Tarleton, whom the Brit thug in the movie is based on but conspicuously not named as). If Scorsese had wished to invent an aviation hero who fought corruption, fine with me; if he'd wanted him to interact with real people history, that's fine too. Just don't call him HH -- people are taught history poorly enough as it is in this country.

Of course the specifics of this may be rendered moot if commenter ChrisV82 is right:

Retardo, didn't they say the movie was "based on" the life of HH? As in, it was "influenced" by his life, but not actually "about" it, a la Ray.

But then there is still an argument to be had on grounds of principle.

Gore Vidal, our finest historical novelist, has the same misgivings. I'll quote two passages to drive home the point. In the first, Vidal is reviewing The Odessa File by Frederick Forsyth:

What is important is that Mr Forsyth and Viking Press want us to believe that the Vatican knowingly saved thousands of SS men after 1945, that six of the ten high-ranking Hamburg police officers in 1964 were former SS men, that President Nasser authorized a clandestine SS organization to provide him with a means to attack Israel with bubonic plague, and that when this plot failed, the Argentine government presumably offered asylum to Captain Roschmann. Caveat emptor.

The boldness of the author and publisher commands...well, awe and alarm. Is it possible now to write a novel in which Franklin Roosevelt secretly finances the German American Bund because he had been made mad by infantile paralysis? Can one write a novel in which Brezhnev is arranging with the American army defectors in Canada to poison Lake Michigan (assuming this is not a redundancy)? Viking would probably say, yes, why not?

He makes the point even more plainly in the "in spite of yourselves"-toned conclusion to an essay in which he roundly thrashes the bureaucratic "Priests of Academe" who attacked his novel on Abraham Lincoln:

Of course, there is a problem with historical fictions or fictionalized histories, and I tend to be on the side, if not of the paid propagandists for our corporate way of life, of those historians whose teeth are set on edge by the fantasies of the talented E. L. Doctorow or the wistful musings of the author of Roots. For a people as poorly educated as Americans (take a bow, teachers), it is a mistake to play any sort of game with agreed-upon facts. Certainly, it is hardly wise, in what looks to be a factual account, to have Harry Houdini chat with Walt Whitman aboard the Titanic, or whatever. Fantasy, as such, should be clearly labeled, even for our few remaining voluntary readers. I trust I am, in this, as reactionary as any turf-protecting bureaucrat of academe.

I set my fictions within history. Imagined characters intersect with historical ones. The history is plainly history. Fiction fiction...

This isn't about art. It isn't even about propaganda. It's about, for lack of a better phrase, false advertising. Scorsese, and anyone else, can obviously make whatever films they wish. But when they take a historical figure and hugely diverge from the facts of his life and personality, a harsh critique is warranted and it has nothing to do with politics or ideology. For instance, the History Channel is sometimes good on this, though in my opinion also often woefully inadequate and, sadly, given in its own way to an ideological purity (but again that is beside the point). But beyond all that, there is the fact that these controversies could be avoided if more artists would employ a few time-honored tricks such as, per Vidal, observing historical figures only through the consciousness of a fictional character, or, more simply, to just change the name of the historical figure when liberties are taken too far, as per the instance of The Patriot. And in lieu of such tricks, how about emphasizing the old caveat, "based on a true story", that has, post-Fargo, dropped out of favor in our blurred fiction-fact culture? When it's so easy to avoid or even minimalize such false advertising, one's suspicions are naturally aroused when those steps aren't taken by the artist; one asks, "Does he mean to say his version is definitive?"

*Edit -- cleaned it up a bit, though probably not enough.