Sunday, January 06, 2008

Truth v Fiction in Art (Comment Pull Quote)

Mitch reivewed the Farnsworth Invention this week, and in that review he wondered

Can an ending still be true to the story if it isn’t actually true to the source material?

I wrote

I think folks around here will already guess I think it CAN, and also that to a certain extent IT MUST. Oscar Wilde famously complained that the problem with life is that it has not sense of dramatic structure, or proportion, or timing. Art, said Wilde, was our chance to teach life its proper place. That being said, it still may be the case that in Sorkin may have gone too far in simplifying the ending -- not because it is false, but because it suggests that the audience is too dumb to understand complexity. Changing the ending of such a recent piece of history, he should also have been prepared for the backlash -- it is not like he is making 300.

HCDuvall, in the comments, is our Pull Quote of the Week. Here is what he said:

I think the creative impulses might be the same in film, to sum up in a dramatic. Witness the The Aviator, one of the many Scorsese films that makes me sit there and think that he should either cut the thing in half or make a Ken Burns length mini-series.

As for fiction and truth, I’m borrowing the phrase from a Sandman comic, but the power of fiction is that it can tell true things without being true. But another facet is that fiction can play with real people. It’s one thing to write a romance now that says Mary Boleyn left the court to her sister for true love and family, it’s another to make a movie about Jonathan Nash and skip over the abandoned wife and kid who he once told, more or less “I like the new one, he’s smarter” (a Beautiful Mind), for sheer dramatics. Which is a longwinded way of saying these endings may be true the story, but if the story isn’t true to life, then why are you telling it this way? If the story is meant to be saying something else, why not use “pure” fiction? I believe when based on facts it is important to be true—if the ending needs modified facts, the ending isn’t wrong, it’s the story you’re telling that’s broken. It’s like building a stagecoach out of car parts or something. Somebody’s being simpleminded, but it’s not necessarily the driver. It’s a disservice.

I'm not so much arguing against dramatic license, I hope, as contrived simplicity and I realize that Geoff is too, taking it from the audience pt of view. The thing about Wilde’s statement and it’s ilk, though, and this might just be a peeve of mine, is that when melding facts and truth with entertainment and art, that life is complex is the first to fall to “true endings” and commercial drives…People get a lot of their fact from fiction. I let Sorkin off the hook for that astronaut moon urban legend he included in the play (The version I heard had Neil Armstrong, which Sorkin didn’t use, and when I mentioned that to my viewing companion when I saw the play, she figured Sorkin probably had it righter than me—and we were both wrong).

I’ll finish off with another wordy example of things, to say that I know these things are harmless but it’s so easy to lose sight of how easy mixing is (and elsewhen I’d argue unnecessary). So there’s this place in New York hidden away in behind a big curtain, in the middle of the lobby of a swank midtown hotel. The place has vinyl fake wood walls, great burgers, cramped booths, and long lines. And last time I was there a tourist sits down next to my group, he’s an airline pilot, and he says whenever he’s in New York from Israel he gets a burger before he flies out. And the man says how before they built this hotel this divey place with beer pitchers below room service with $20 burgers was here and the owner wouldn’t sell out, so they built around him. Thing of it is, and I didn’t correct him, that’s bull. The place has been open maybe six years. It’s a great harmless story, but it’s marketing. Get in the habit of letting facts go to suit fiction and you can sell anything.

21 comments:

neilshyminsky said...

HCDuvall wrote: Which is a longwinded way of saying these endings may be true the story, but if the story isn’t true to life, then why are you telling it this way?

I'm a little troubled by the seeming obviousness with which an ridiculously complex word like 'truth' is being deployed here. What does 'true to the story' or 'true to life' actually mean? Because for all of your rather moving and compelling text, I can't tell. There's an assumption underlying it all, I think, that there's some concrete truth out there that we can objectively unearth if we work at it. But even if we could ever agree on 'facts', what they mean doesn't necessarily have a single or a true answer.

It’s a great harmless story, but it’s marketing. Get in the habit of letting facts go to suit fiction and you can sell anything.

But what if we prefer to the fiction to the fact? I might gently chide the pilot for his gullibility, but I like the story more than the reality regardless. Paul Auster's 'Red Notebook' tells a few stories of this type - he recalls a childhood memory, comes to realize that it couldn't possibly have played out that way, but since he can't reconcile the details he accepts the revisions.

Geoff Klock said...

Neil -- I see your point, but in the future you have to do me a favor and keep in mind that I know people who will not comment on this blog because they are afraid someone is going to call them oblivious, or something like it. A lot of what you mean by oblivious here is oblivious to the academic discussion on the nature of truth, and not everyone is going to be able to quote Lacan back at you. You are, as always welcome to accuse ME of obliviousness -- or willfully ignoring complexities on the issue of Truth, as I suppose I am here. You see my point yeah? Or do I do this all the time myself? Now I want to go back and check earlier posts...

neilshyminsky said...

Yeah, that's fair. Though I wrote 'obvious', rather than 'oblivious', which I don't think is all that harsh. (I'd only use 'oblivious' if someone were being offensive in some way, i think.) So I was just saying that HCD is using 'truth' as if it's obvious that we're all in agreement on what 'truth' is. But I can't say whether I am in agreement or not because I not entirely clear on how HCD is using it. Y'know? (Though if truth=objective fact, here, then it's probably pretty obvious that I disagree.)

Geoff Klock said...

Neil: oh. right. it does say "obvious" and not "oblivious." And that is much less harsh. And I READ THINGS FOR A LIVING. Wow. Thanks for being a nice guy. On a newsarama forum you and I would have had to beat each other up under a bridge after school or something.

You always make me stop and think, Neil. Because I know where you are coming from. I have read all that stuff. And it is not that I don't think about it. It is just that I think about it and then decide I don't really care that much. I suppose I ought to.

Jason Powell said...

I tried to post a comment to this thread, but it is not here. Did I go over the line and get deleted, or did I just screw up in the posting?

neilshyminsky said...

Geoff: But it doesn't seem like you're not thinking about it - the response you wrote that prompted HCD's discussion of truth seems to be using truth in a really nuanced way, even if you aren't all that explicit about it.

Not that I think my original post was saying anything all that deep. Mostly, I was just saying that I prefer what's interesting to that which is ostensibly true. Doesn't every retelling of a story distort the truth just a little bit, in any case?

The funniest thing about this, though, is that I'm actually a real stickler for people recalling the exact words that I or someone else spoke when they repeat a story. You can rearrange other details all you want, but I get annoyed when someone repeats dialogue incorrectly. But maybe that has more to do with the performative aspect of it. *shrug*

Geoff Klock said...

JP: if I delete someone for going over the line I will say so. Otherwise it is the stupid computer. Now I want to see what you wrote -- was it a curse-word filled rant against my mom?

Neil: I think it has a lot to do with being a teacher. First year students do not understand the degree to which words matter, and they screw it up all the time without caring. That's what it is for me anyway.

Jason Powell said...

Geoff, it WAS a curse-word-filled rant against your mom! How did you guess?

Just kidding. Actually it was just some stuff about how "A Beautiful Mind" isn't very good because it takes the life of a real human being and turns it into a poor man's "fight club."

But the thing about your mom is a better story, so I guess in Neil's world that's what really happened.

Scene said...

I'm not so much concerned with when people mess around with "truth" -- I'm in the camp that says whatever is best for the story is cool with me (so long as it actually IS best for the story).

What weirds me out is the *need* for relating things with truth... not even by the viewers, but by the filmmakers, marketers, etc. Like, why does Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights have to start with a title card that says 'Based Upon True Events' (or something like that)? What does that add to the movie?

And on the flipside, why did so many people have to nitpick that 300 was historically innacurrate? Nowhere in that film (unlike the Dirty Dancing sequel) is there any kind of concern for being truthful or realistic, so why give a crap?

This might be a slight tangent off the post (as I know my examples are much different works than The Aviator and The Farnsworth Invention in that 300 is not based on anything recent and Dirty Dancing not based on anything relevant), but that's what it made me think about...

Geoff Klock said...

"But the thing about your mom is a better story, so I guess in Neil's world that's what really happened."

OH SNAP! :)

"300 is not based on anything recent and Dirty Dancing not based on anything relevant"

I do not know why exactly, but this construction made me laugh.

Anonymous said...

if you're talking about the parker meridian: those really are excellent burgers. i don't even hit the flesh anymore and i remember that. and that's sort of my point- if the burger is really great it's fine to build mythos around it. if the burgers were iffy then people would feel they'd been manipulated. did you like a beautiful mind? then you're fine with it being sorta hooey. Do you find Russell Crowe to be an ugly blowhard with one deep thought facial expression, and you respect mathematicians? well.

hcduvall said...

Oh my lord, that's a wordy pull quote.

Hey Neil, I think we might be in disagreement, though whether it's definition issue or something else I can't say. I will say that I bandied "truth" fast for a couple of reasons. One: I'm actually normally inclined to go semantic first, but I'm also really bad at it and would've spent the better part of the day setting up a comment that would never have appeared at all, let alone been interesting. And I end up qualifying everything, which, eh, obviously unnecessary since it's all my opinion, and boring. Two: I know when I bandy that stuff about, something more interesting happens.

So, while I would say "facts" are indeed reachable (we might disagree here, as I am normally even disinclined to use quotes around it)--let's say, Farnsworth won his suit--their value beyond source material, inspiration is up for debate...maybe...ha, there I go. I did interpret Geoff's original use of the word truth for a story as the say, the worth beyond entertainment...that's troublesome phrasing again. I think I'm stepping in something trying to isolate the appeal of a story in a lab like a dead cat in a box...ok, Jet Li movies a lot. I can tell you that craftwise there isn't much between Once Upon a Time in China and his last period movie Fearless. I don't mean to diminish "entertainment" above, and it's one of my things to do to cut the worth, the "truth of a story" into entertainment and something else. If I say I'm pretty well sated by kicking and punching between the two movies, so their "entertainment" is about the same, me liking one more than the other has something to do with more than entertainment value (in the limited sense) but it's "truth" in the nebulous source of appeal of the story way.

I think I'm more muddled than before. Alright, forget the crappy debatable part above for now. Regarding Farnsworth specifically, I did see the play and I do think Sorkin was explicitly trying to use it's factual basis as a emphasis on the "truth appeal" of the story. And distortion of facts is not only something he was aware of, it's something he made the audience aware of. Sorkin had a brief speech (which I thought kinda lumpy and incongruous) that appealed directly to his bicoastal, liberal, core audience. He then wiped it away (I thought kinda cheaply) with a character saying "That didn't happen, but I wish it did." Now this sets off the rest as happening, given good faith from the audience. I suppose with two competing narrators, you shouldn't necessarily trust one so much, but the audience has been sitting on a didactic, if entertainingly so, play, and we're thinking the rest was true then. I don't need a summation per se, but it follows that the audience, set to trust the playwright, thinking of it as artifice because the characters pointed it out, and then he still cheats? I dunno, may'be a Midsummer's Night's Eve ending isn't the best option, but it's not a bad one. Have your story's truth without borrowing weight that an audience values the truth (as in facts of) Farnsworth's life.

While Scene is certainly right that 300 should not be your goto source for info on the battle of Thermoplyae, some people obviously did, and they aren't necessarily wrong. People can have mixed expectations, not merely because we all probably like different things for different reasons, but because activities aren't necessarily demarcated to just entertainment, or just education, or refueling or the like.

And here I'm going to describe me and a portion of audience taste, maybe. Stories are worth something to me for entertainment value. Stories with "truth", something resonating are worth more. Stories with "truth" and based on facts? That's something more to me, though for others it might just be a factoid or trivia, that this story is actually "true"--but it doesn't take anything away, does it?

I don't know, it may be that I like stories a lot, but like a lot of folks if one is bad, I always think there's another. Even "real stories". Infinite, as much as I can soak in a lifetime is on hand. The craft in making them good that's finite, and nonfiction, good compelling nonfiction, might just be a bit more finite because of that. Or take a bit more craft because here are a few things you couldn't make up, or people knew John Nash, so hey, why are you borrowing my friend's/enemy's/dad's life and not telling the truth? Make something up instead, ya bastard.

I realize I'm changing the tack, from stories can resonate more because they can be based on facts to I like stories based on facts because I think they're harder to pull off well...but I'm tired and can't split more hairs. I hope I didn't bore everyone numb and/or no one reads this.

neilshyminsky said...

Jason: If I knew how to, like, flood your inbox with porn, I would soooooo do it.

HCD and Geoff: Let me try a different approach. My problem with an insistence on truth is very much like my problem with the way that people approach critiques of adaptations. So I'll grab a couple quotes from Thomas Leitch's book on the topic that seem to express my concerns. (because I have a tutorial to teach in a couple hours and I have to prepare) Leitch probably says it better anyway. :)

"adaptation study subordinates both specific adaptations to their canonical source texts and cinema as a medium to literature as a medium it serves either faithfully or not"

"whenever we watch an adaptation as an adaptation – we treat it as an intertext designed to be looked through, like a window on the source text"

"When we focus on fidelity as the central problem of film adaptation, we overlook the problematic nature of source texts that makes them worth studying in the first place by choosing to emphasize their privileged status as literature over their capacity to engage and extend our literacy"

Jason Powell said...

Geoff, I was going to end my post with "oh snap," but I chickened out. So thanks for taking it there for me. :)

Neil, isn't there a difference between telling a story and lying? Like, that Nash guy -- in real life -- never had any "Fight Club" hallucinations, but now people who saw that movie think he did. I mean, that's not cool, right? If Ron Howard wanted to do a poor man's "Fight Club," he shouldn't have co-opted the life of a real guy in order to do it. I kind of hated Ron Howard for doing that, until he redeemed himself with "Arrested Development."

It's maybe a case-by-case thing. "Man on the Moon" distorted a lot of the life of Andy Kaufman, but that was keepin gin the spirit of the man himself, whose whol schtick was messing with people. Having the movie mess with the facts was entirely appropriate. (For the record, I dislike "Man on the Moon" but for other reasons.)

A movie that adapts a work of fiction is an entirely different deal -- I don't think it's analogous at all.

neilshyminsky said...

Jason: The point that I didn't have time to make was that resemblance to real life shouldn't be the primary criterion for evaluating stories derived from 'real life'. So your problem with 'A Beautiful Mind', I think, is with audiences who DO use that as the criterion, rather than with the movie as such. (Well, and with a movie industry that shamelessly uses 'based on...' as a marketing ploy with the expectation that people will assume it's totally faithful to the source material.)

And I agree that it's a 'case by case' thing, too. The point being, though, that I think we'd all be better served if we approached every 'real life' stories as a mediation that doesn't show perfect resemblance to its source - and we agreed that it didn't have to - rather than a window that is varying degrees of transparent with no regard for what the window itself does. (As often seems the case.)

Jason Powell said...

Neil, I am not going to continue this conversation until you figure out a way to flood my inbox with porn. Honestly, that is all I wanted out of this.

Just kidding.

I think I may have refined my take on this. Here goes: Why does someone want to adapt a true story? It seems safe to say that it must go something like this: Author learns about a fascinating sequence of true events (a life story, the tale of a historical disaster, etc.). Author looks at it and says, "Well, that is a really fascinating real illustration of [insert author's view of life, theme he wants to get across, agenda he has as an artist, etc.] I think if I were to tell a story that telescoped these events into a [two-hour movie, three-hour-play, six-hour miniseries, 200-page graphic novel, etc.], it would really express my [theme/view/agenda] powerfully."

Then the finished project, instead of just being presented with authorial interpretation layered on, distorts the true events wildly to serve authorial intent. Isn't this a failure on the part of the artist? Surely the whole point of using a "true story" to get across his theme was to show that real life conforms to that theme. But if real life -- the factual account of the events being dramatized -- if that all is massively bent or distorted to serve the author's agenda, then the author's point has not been made.

I think I am perhaps regurgitating HCDuvall's point, in which case -- sorry, HC. But I think I definitely agree with what he's saying. Neil, it's true that Hollywood is fetishistically attached to putting "based on a true story" in their movie, but at the core of that is very reasonable notion, which HCD has mentioned. It lends a sense of weight to your theme if you can point at a sequence of real events that did happen and say, "Look at how these facts bear out what I am saying in my movie!" Like if an artist wants to say that "Truth is stranger than fiction," for example, it is not very persuasive if he had to bend the truth into fiction in order to make it strange enough. (Wow, that's an obtuse example, I'm sorry.)

And Neil, I have to say, I definitely DO have a problem with "A Beautiful Mind" as a film. I think it's a piece of hackwork, ripping off the "guy you think is real is actually not" trick that by that point had already been done in both "Sixth Sense" and "Fight Club," but then attempting to give the gimmick gravitas by bolting it onto the life of a real human being, whose real life bore a coincidental resemblance at best to the screenwriter's hacky creation.

Christian said...

Speaking of Truth V. Fiction, anyone here seen Soderbergh's Kafka?

neilshyminsky said...

Jason: I can probably respond more quickly if I just pick out a couple bits.

'But if real life -- the factual account of the events being dramatized -- if that all is massively bent or distorted to serve the author's agenda, then the author's point has not been made.'

I just can't agree. If we're watching because there's an argument in which we want to participate, then it's the logic that informs the point or theory that I'm interested in. But if our opinion hinges on fidelity to real events, then we couldn't have actually had that much invested in the argument. And I think that you must always privilege the one to the detriment of the other.

'It lends a sense of weight to your theme if you can point at a sequence of real events that did happen and say, "Look at how these facts bear out what I am saying in my movie!"'

To put it in terms of cold logic, though, it doesn't actually lend any weight at all - we're always warned that anecdotal evidence isn't proof of anything. So it's already bad argumentation. :)

And I agree with the A Beautiful Mind objections that you listed. But blaming the film for taking advantage of an audience that, by now, should really know better... it's like continuing to give my dad shit for borrowing money from his mom, allowing her to enable him by making up lies about what he needs it for. But she's entirely aware of what he uses it for, even if it's not made explicit every time.

hcduvall said...

I have to say, I appreciate everyone else's ability to be pithier than I. That's an appreciative nod from me to Jason and Neil both.

I understand, and sympathize with Neil's point, I don't want to discard good stories just because they aren't "true. But I think the "case-by-case" part is probably pretty important, since The Farnsworth Invention started this, and Beautiful Mind popped up. Both have an element of “Based upon…” in their explicit approach to the audience (Hollywood likes “Inspired by…” now), I think it would be a little harsh to dismiss the audience expectation of fidelity. The audience can watch something successfully “true” as storytelling without being factually true, but the work needs to be presented that way. Everybody loves the Wire, no? Undoubtedly based on true things, and I’m sure if I knew Baltimore I could make comparisons, but I don’t need it’s fidelity to facts. But if I get on a bus that says “Poughkeepsie” and the bus driver takes me to Ithaca because the gorges are pretty, and we covered a lot of the same ground, and we’re in New York and all--I’m still mad at the bus driver.

If there is no added weight given to a story from borrowing from the real world (though, hasn’t Marvel always won a certain amount of praise for the immediacy and appeal that it’s stories get from being in New York City instead of Gotham or Metropolis?), then why bother to keep so many names? For me it might be this, infidelity to facts may not actually affect a story’s merits, but as an audience interacting with creator through the story, it feels like a bait-n-switch. If the story is worth it, discard the elements that cause the confusion. I think as the active part in the creation, in movies and plays, it’s the maturity of creator who relies on such a predictable reaction that is in question, rather than majority of the audience who favors the story with their time.

neilshyminsky said...

hcd: I think that your bus example is a bit of a stretch. A better analogue, I think, would be to visit some historical site as a tourist, only to learn later that the their presentation of the 'historic fort of 1813' failed to mention that the original had been burned to the ground and this one was recreation. We probably should fault the people who neglected to mention that detail, but I don't think it's unreasonable to ask that we maintain some cynicism.

Which is all to say that I think this is still more of an audience thing. :)

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