WHEN THE LIGHTS GO DOWN. Truth, authenticity and personal allegiance in fact-based film.

Talk given via Zoom, at the invitation of the Film Circle at the Melbourne Lyceum Club, August 18th, 2020.

It’s a common enough happening: you and a friend have a cinema date. Knowing your friend’s interest in maths, you suggest A Beautiful Mind, the film about the great mathematician, John Nash.

Russell Crowe is in the title role. 

Your friend is appalled. ‘Crowe looks nothing like Nash. Come to that, Crowe looks nothing like any Princeton-trained mathematician.’ 

Russell Crowe, she’s suggesting, would not be convincing as an intellectual.

Your friend knows very little about Russell Crowe, but she does know a lot about mathematicians. This should have steered you to a safer topic, one in which your friend had less of an interest, less knowledge, less personal investment, but instead you stick with mathematicians and suggest they see The Imitation Game, a biopic of Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician, father of the computer and leader of the team that broke the enigma code at Bletchley Park. Your friend is a great admirer of Turing, she would probably say that he, more than any other single person, was instrumental in the allied victory in WW2.

So, off the two of you go to The Imitation Game.

When the film begins you are immediately engrossed, but your enjoyment is short-lived, interrupted as it is by derisive explosions that issue evermore frequently from your friend seated beside you. The interruptions become so frequent and the anger of your friend so palpable, that you suggest she leave the cinema and wait for you outside.

She refuses to leave, someone has to witness this travesty, someone who has a deep admiration and a deep sympathy for Alan Turing.

The two of you have planned a drink and early dinner at Jimmy Watson’s following the film. Given your friend’s behaviour during the film, you know what’s up ahead and really wish you could leave her and just go home. But there’s no escape. She hatedthe film and she can’t wait to tell you why. The film, she said, placed far too much emphasis on Turing’s social awkwardness, it made him out to be hardly a social being at all.

‘We, today, are so fixated on the autism scale, but it didn’t exist back then. Why pathologise the man? He was a genius. Why should we expect a genius, a person exceptional – unique – when it concerned maths and puzzles and probably a whole lot more besides, to be just like the rest of us in the food-and-drink aspects of life?’

The film, she said, was indeed a travesty of the great man. It showed little sympathy for what it was to be a homosexual at a time when homosexuality was a criminal offence. And throughout the film his mathematical genius was completely over-shadowed by his personal and social deficiencies – your friend, of course, did not use the word ‘deficiencies’. There was nothing deficient in her view of the great Alan Turing. The film, she said, portrayed him as a hectoring, immature, insensitive idiot savant, who was often short on savant.

‘And,’ she added, ‘where was his mother? Apart from a couple of brief mentions, she plays no part in the film and yet she was solidly central in his life.’

Your friend is not happy. She seems personally affronted, she IS personally affronted: Turing is, after all, a figure in her pantheon of heroes, and the film has done him wrong.

But, you say, Benedict Cumberbatch was so convincing, he lent authenticity to the role – at least he did from your less-informed point of view.

Your friend grants that Cumberbatch showed himself to be a fine actor, one who would have done Turing proud if he didn’t have to keep proving throughout the film that he was on the autism scale.

You raise the issue of creative licence and film as entertainment, but she will have none of it: if you want to portray a life then you do justice to that life by presenting it accurately. A life is a life.

But, you continue, a film lasts 90 minutes, a life is several decades long, so of course there will be selections, and of course those selections will be made with the mode – film and entertainment – in mind.

Your friend is unmoved: if they have to skew the life out of all recognition in order to make good entertainment, then they should have chosen either a different topic or a different script-writer.

It’s a familiar scene, we’ve all been there. And it’s not just confined to film: novels that are based on true events and/or real people, the so-called faction form (which seems rather a contradictory term) or the new hybrid form, auto-fiction, are susceptible to the same conflicts, the same arguments. As are films based on novels.

Some viewers of fact-based films or films derived from novels say there should be 100% accuracy to the original events or the original novel, but not even a documentary can meet that standard. The fact is that all film selects its scenes from a much larger swag of material available, putting together a 90-minute cohesive narrative of a true story that might have spanned decades.

Film is not reality, it’s an art form, it is a creation, a different form than the life itself; film based on fact provides a certain translationof a life or historical event. And unlike the life or event, film, excluding purely educational and how-to films, must entertain. Even if a film were able to provide 100% accuracy, and given its time limits and the limits on perspective, it can’t, it has to engage the viewer as well, it has to sweep the viewer into a cinematic world and hold them there – separated from their usual life.

There is a film, in my experience that comes close to 100% accuracy, although it does not tell the whole story. That film is Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah.

Shoahis a 10-hour film about the Holocaust, shown in three parts. Made by the French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann in 1985, it consists of interviews with survivors, bystanders and perpetrators, and, as well, it enters present-day sites of pivotal locations: the former concentration camp of Treblinka, the now unkempt railway tracks that carried Jews in cattle cars towards the camps. In all the ten hours there is no archival footage: no heaped dead bodies, no skeletal survivors in striped pyjamas standing at barbed wire fences. 

The film is slow and repetitive, the experience of those who speak, as well as those who can no longer speak, is imprintedon you. It is far far more powerful, in my opinion than the holocaust museums that have popped up around the world. Lanzmann’s film slows you down, it forces you to focus on singular people, singular messages; it uses certain elements of film-making to powerful and unforgettable effect, e.g. the camera looks directly into the faces of those who are being interviewed. You see every twitch and grimace; sometimes it is as if the scenes they are describing are there on the surface of their face.

Is Lanzmann’s film accurate? As far as it goes I think it is. Is it objective? No, not particularly. Is it comprehensive? Of course not: it reveals only a fraction of the factual horrors and complicities of the murder of Europe’s Jews. However, the film is, I believe, authentic, true to the events it depicts. It is convincing. But no, it does not tell the whole truth, and while it does not lie, a different filmmaker, from a different background, although still using interviews, would produce a different 10-hour film, and provide different perspectives, with different emphases to the viewer, and this film might well be equally authentic. After all, there’s much to be said and more to be understood about genocide.

TRUTH AND AUTHENTICITY

I would suggest that films and novels, too, that are based on real events must be authentic, but this does not necessarily mean truthful. To exemplify this point, one need look no further than politics. Trump lies, his lies now run into the tens of thousands, his avid supporters know he lies, they LIKE that he lies, and that he does it in such a cavalier manner is evidence, to them, of his authenticity. For Trump followers, essential to their view of him is that he is natural – he doesn’t use the same sort of performance as real politicians. Trump can drain the swamp because he’s not part of it. Every lie reinforces his renegade status. Each lie confirms his authenticity – to his supporters.

Authentic means genuine, it can also mean reliable and trustworthy; but it does not mean good. Indeed, authenticity, does not have a moral dimension at all – although common usage has tended to give it one. Trump is authentic: he is genuine (no disguises as far as his supporters are concerned); but is he reliable and trustworthy? Trump thrives on unpredictability, I would say he is predictably unpredictable; as for trustworthy, his followers absolutely trust him, even when they know he is lying. They trust him to be their Trump.

To return then to film based on real events, and the notions of truth and authenticity, what to make of a film like The Favourite? This film is set in the time of Queen Anne and it focuses on the well-documented relationship between the queen, her chief lady-in-waiting, Sarah the first Duchess of Marlborough, and the younger woman, Abigail, who usurps Sarah as Anne’s favourite. It was a bit of a romp this film, even farcical at times; Queen Anne’s large weight was a target, everyone’s unscrupulousness was on view, only Godolphin, in charge of treasury, came off unscathed. 

As it happens my oldest friend from school days, Dr Frances Harris, is a world-renowned authority on the relationship between Anne and Sarah. Her life of Sarah, A PASSION FOR GOVERNMENT, is at the forefront of works documenting this period and the court. I thought Frances would hate The Favourite. I thought she would judge it to be a wrongful portrayal not only of the main players, but of the times themselves.

How wrong I was. I will let Frances speak for herself:

Everyone thought I’d hate The Favourite, but I loved it; actually even before I saw it, which was the first day it was released, having seen the poster, which I now have in my study: a collage of the three main characters, the queen largest, Sarah in trans riding-kit, sitting firmly on her knee and Abigail mutinously on the floor with her lip and her legs stuck out like a discarded doll.….That image, by itself, managed to contain a great deal of truth: i.e. that the queen, pitiable and old and disabled as she was, was the most powerful of the three and determined the status of the other two; could take them up and put them down as she chose, like toys. The fantastic central performance of Olivia Colman helped a lot. Though the film made no attempt at strict historical accuracy, it did get a number of revealing things right which historians don’t usually bother to mention: that Abigail Masham’s husband was actually a toy-boy several years younger than herself, for example; or Sarah saying something like: yes I’m bossy and disrespectful and impossible, but you know I’m also rather gorgeous. I think it’s best seen as a kind of extended Gillray cartoon about the gossip and misrepresentation that always surrounded the queen, that she was too much under the influence of her favourites — an important constitutional issue. Though – as an aside – the favourites didn’t find her easily influenced. 

(Gillray – 1756-1815, probably the greatest caricaturists of all time.)

What Frances is saying here is that the film was authentic, although not entirely, or even mostly truthful. It was correct in terms of the TONE AND SENSIBILITY of the times, as well as GENERAL BEHAVIOURS at court, e.g. who was in and who was out, and the excellent performance by Olivia Colman as Queen Anne was crucial to the strength of the film.

FORM AND CONTENT

Back in the halcyon days of the Melbourne Writers’ Festival there was always a lavish festival dinner. One year Faye Weldon happened to be the guest speaker. Some years earlier she had published The Lives and Loves of a She-Devil. This novel was typical Weldon: witty, wicked and wise. The BBC made a marvellous mini-series of it with Miriam Margoles in the title role, perfectly cast, with Patricia Hodge also perfectly cast. Some years later, the Americans, wanting to hop on to a successful bandwagon, did as they always do, and remade the film – Americanised it – as if the American viewing public wouldn’t understood and/or appreciate the British version. It was a shocker, all the wit and wisdom was erased to be replaced by heavy-handed humour and plain bloody nonsense, and the cast – Roseanne Barr and Meryl Streep (yes, Meryl in the one bad role of her stellar career) – just didn’t convince.

At the festival dinner, Weldon gave an excellent speech then invited questions. Someone asked what she thought about the American version of The Lives and Loves of a She-Devil. Weldon paused – such an eloquent pause it was – and then with an understated wry smile, replied: a book is a book and a film is a film. (I vaguely remember she also added something about a pleasant trip to the bank.)

She is, of course correct. Novels and films are very different forms indeed. A novel can reveal the inner lives of characters; a novel can show why character X did such and such, it can shift the point of view so we can see the effects of character X’s actions on characters Y and Z. The novel excels with interior lives. 

THE POWER OF POINT OF VIEW is well-known to novelists.

In The Memory Trap, I have two characters who behave badly, even brutally – Elliot the biographer and the pianist Ramsay. I did not want them to be ‘baddies’, nor did I want them to alienate reader sympathy, so I gave both of them the point of view at various times in the novel, so a reader can understand why they behave as they do. By giving them the point of view, the reader can get under their skin. 

But point of view is not the only powerful tool in the novelist’s toolbox.

As a novelist, if I want to suggest a particular emotion in a scene, I look to certain parts of speech, certain grammatical constructions, I shorten or lengthen sentences depending on the emotion I want to convey. 

A novelist uses many techniques like these to convey certain information for certain effect, and this in turn shapes reader response.

While the novelist looks to grammar and sentence length, to metaphor and verbs, to convey emotion, the film maker has music and camera angles and close-ups – these, too, shape viewer response.

To take an example: there’s an argument happening between two characters. Quite a different effect is created if the camera takes a wide view and shoots both players in the one frame, as against the camera shifting from one face to the other, one speaker to the other. The camera angle shapes viewer response, most particularly their emotional response, and so does the background music.

At times this sort of manipulation can be infuriating: when the camera homes in on one character and you want to see what another character is doing, or how they are responding. It can be very frustrating. And similarly suddenly the music ramps up the tension, something bad is about to happen, but you’d prefer NOT to have the warning. (Basically you are saying my journey with this film is not what the director had planned for me.)

TIME AND IMAGINATIVE SPACE. 

With a novel you can read a page, and then put the book down and ponder what you’ve read. You can bring in memory and experience and other books, you can consider moral possibilities and ethical dilemmas; when you read a book, you add to it as you go along. YOU add to it. And when you read you go at your own pace – the novelist’s persuasive tools notwithstanding. 

With the various streaming services, with so much film now being consumed in the home, we could watch in the same way as we read – but we don’t. The film nearly always sets the pace, and if you don’t like it, you usually throw the film over and search for something else.

The imaginative space is different for film than for a book. Sure we can – and do – reflect on a film once it is over, but it is rarely to the same extent to the thoughts and analysis we give to a book as we are reading. There is, I am suggesting, more of a reader in a book, than a viewer in a film.

Again – this suggests that a film can never accurately replicate a book because our response is so different for the two forms. (Although if it’s replication one is wanting, exactly the same information, why bother with the film at all?)

PERSONAL ALLEGIANCE (STAKEHOLDER) AND CINEMATIC ENTERTAINMENT

Consider all those films set in ancient or medieval times: SpartacusTroyGladiator(a much better role for Russell Crowe), Joan of Arc, The Agony and the EcstasyBeloved Infidel. I am sure I’m not alone in admitting that much of my exposure to history came through film and novels. It never bothered me that these works weren’t absolutely accurate, they gave me, at the very least, the bare bones, and if I wanted to know more then I went to the library (today, people would probably go to Wikipedia).

But when a film draws on something I know about, when I have a personal allegiance to the material, a stake in it, then my response is very different. (Like my friend with the Alan Turing film.)

In 1997, an Italian film directed by and starring the comedian Roberto Benigni was released. It was called Life is Beautiful. This was a feel-good film set in Auschwitz, and I hated it. It was intended to be a film about the power of the human spirit, and it might have been, but at the same time it trashed the horrors of Auschwitz, obliterating all the inhumanities that went on there as it was trying to show one father’s humanity. Not only did it not reveal anything new or different about how Auschwitz, it actually hid the facts. Anyone seeing that film with only a little knowledge of the death camps would have come out feeling quite jolly and wondering what the Jews were complaining about.

I, on the other hand, being possessed of detailed knowledge of Auschwitz, I, having known survivors who lost all their family in Auschwitz, I, having trod, literally, that fraught ground, was appalled. I was also personally affronted. A film that had been authentic enough to some people was an affront to history and to me. This film won praise and prizes, this film clearly worked cinematically but it did not work for me – nor did it work for historical truth.

Another example of when personal allegiance affected my response to a film that was considered cinematically successful, was Iris. I started reading Iris Murdoch as a teenager, and even though she’s been dead nearly 20 years, I still read her today. Iris is one of my life’s companions. I have read several memoirs about her, and biographies too. I know Iris, and when she died, I was asked to write about her, and my long engagement with her work. (Article below, published in The Weekend Australian, April 26-27, 2003.)

I hated the books written by her husband John Bayley after her death, so when the film IRIS was produced, based on Bayley’s memoir of the same name, I should have been warned off, I should have had more sense than to see it. The best I can say about the experience is that the session my partner and I went to was largely empty. I cried hysterically through much of the film, I, a woman who prides herself on being emotionally restrained, was a blubbering mess. So much emphasis was placed on the poor old dear with dementia, while the great philosopher that Iris Murdoch was, warranted hardly a mention, similarly her novels – all 24 of them. Instead we see her lying in bed watching ‘Teletubbies’. It was dreadful, it was cruel, it was distressing.

Others liked the film, considered it a sensitive film about dementia. But it wasn’t about dementia, I wanted to shout, it was supposed to be about Iris Murdoch. They were no wiser about the great Iris Murdoch at its conclusion – I can guarantee that.

So a film can lack authenticity and truth and still be considered a successful film. Such films have a cinematic logic to them, the narrative holds together, the film is, in short, entertaining – or informative about dementia – although it clearly was not for me given my personal stake in Dame Iris Murdoch.

Truth, accuracy, authenticity. Story-telling, narrative coherence, entertainment. Values, attitudes, allegiances. All these features are relevant: before the lights go down.

2 thoughts on “WHEN THE LIGHTS GO DOWN. Truth, authenticity and personal allegiance in fact-based film.

  1. jean porter

    An interesting and informative essay . I particularly related to the reference made to the travesty of a film about the life of Iris Murdoch .

    Reply
  2. Andrea Goldsmith Post author

    Interesting you should comment on the Iris film. I am reading Martin Amis’s very engaging work of auto-fiction, called Inside Story. This morning I read a section in which he relates a viewing of a preview session of ‘Iris’. John Bayley was present, and according to Amis, Bayley’s eyes were the only dry ones in the place at the film’s conclusion. Amis knew Iris, and he clearly saw the film differently from what I did. I believe he DID think it was about Iris, and not a film about dementia. Interesting.

    Reply

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