Saturday, February 14, 2015

Cinema as History

Imagine having to write your life as a movie. Most of us are too busy living it. But if set to the task or even in collaboration with a filmmaker it could be one of those now infamous, based on the compelling story of

I expect it would generate a few grumbles, aha’s and perhaps disbelief from the cast of co-stars and supporting cast with all those omissions, embellishments and the juggled time-line. At best it would be one version of the truth.

We seem to be saturated with biopics these days. Each movie has prompted articles pointing out how it really was. Sadly many moviegoers come away accepting the drama as History itself. I can recall, as a kid, relying on Hollywood's adaptation of Dickens' Tale of Two Cities for my understanding of the actual French revolution. The phrase, based on, gets lost

Is it just my imagination or are Millennials and those who preceded them our least informed generations about world history? Teacher friends tell me that some of their students think Aristotle was contemporaneous with Lincoln and Churchill with Julius Caesar. Anything that happened before they were born falls into the same trash bin. Maybe this is a corollary to the wireless world in which History is scant and deemed so very Yesterday. It’s as if today’s population invented the universe and all else is irrelevant.

Great poetry requires great audiences, wrote Walt Whitman. The same might be said about any art form. A certain sophistication is needed to delineate the art of cinema from the document of historical fact. Liberties are taken for dramatic effect; a certain concision and scrambling of the chronicle may be part of the process. If done to serve the aesthetic I accept it.

However when an actual event is depicted falsely as in LBJ’s role in the Voting Rights Act or the erasure of rabbis in the front line locking hands with MLK in the film, Selma, the choice seems less in the service of the art than in advancing a political agenda. More’s the pity. Cherry-picking the events severely diminishes the credibility of the narrative and leaves the audience with a false account of those times.

I suppose the creator might argue that she is reaching for a greater truth than the actual. I respect that. Certainly the several marches from Selma to Montgomery are a defining moment in American history. Sacrifices might be in order to drive home the force of the drama. However getting it right only strengthens the point. Getting it wrong is either laziness or deliberately misleading. Jewish activism in the Civil Rights movement and the subsequent Black / Jewish divide is a story in itself.

There are factual errors in The Imitation Game as well. The accomplishments of the code-breakers at Bletchley Park were not made public until the early 1970’s, 20 years after Alan Turing’s death. There is a strong case to be made that his death was accidental rather than a suicide. Again the distortions are troubling.

Such a nuisance when reality doesn’t conform to the emotional thrust of the story. There you are on the big screen and they got it not quite wrong but not altogether right either.


  1. Millennials Have a shift in thinking as do every generation. What I find most sad is lack of accountability. The digital distractions lend themselves to impersonal indifference that damages relationships or fails at depth in exchange for volume. People don't show after an RSVP, don't reach out when they see a crisis or less but significant trauma. People's text and Facebook eats up all spare minutes and in a moment of breakdown only one of six answered their cell phone but several texted in return only a few minutes later. People matter and without the investment they too will be alone in the end.

  2. Yes, it's ironic how we are both more connected and less so at the same time. Noisy chatter is no substitute for intimacy.