Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Truth and Function

A little more on yesterday’s post on the question of art, fact and truth.

I attended a lecture at Cal Tech led by one of their history professors. (I don’t recall his name – was it Professor Rosenstone? Alas, my notes are packed away. Ignore this lapse of mine, and just be awed that I dropped the name Cal Tech.)

His discussion was on movies – specifically movies based on historical events. As one whose career was in the fact side of the equation, one expected that he would be a stickler for facts in entertainment.

He wasn’t. He did warn of the dangers in supplanting history with entertainment, but he also encouraged artistic license, expressly for the benefit of history.

His argument centered on function: the function of the history book, to record fact; and the function of art, to record essence. Only when both are available – the historical record and the art works – do we have a complete picture of a moment in history.

Let me be clear – he wasn’t advocating twisting facts to the loss of truth; that would be lying. But he was in favor of using artistic license to get at a truth that goes beyond mere knowledge.

I think I get that.

History can only record facts; yet human experience, life itself, can not be contained by facts. So we need more than a list of facts to establish a full reality.

A list of my measurable attributes – height, weight, test scores, census data – would only give you an inkling of who I am.

Start telling stories about me, and we begin to get a fuller picture.

Tell the stories well enough, and you will know me better than just by your intellect.

One may think they understand how small pox was treated in the 1780’s by reading a medical description of the procedure.

But I guarantee, look into Laura Linney’s eyes as she portrays Abigail Adams watching her daughter be sliced by a knife, the pox virus smeared into the wound… Now one begins to really understand what the process meant.

I recall when Taproot Theatre performed TERRA NOVA, the true story of Robert Scott’s tragic bid to discover the South Pole. At intermission during one performance, several patrons complained that we were running the air conditioning too high.

The a/c wasn’t on.

To study Scott’s Antarctic journey is one thing; to feel the biting cold is even more.

Just my thoughts,



Win said...


I've often wondered about the role of truth and accuracy in movies and TV.

So often the writers (and directors) "modify" the facts to (re)tell their version of "the Truth."

To itemize a list of factual errors in recent and not-too-recent films would fill several volumes.

It's easy to believe that Hollywood does this (witness the range of Anti-Iraq or pro-terrorist movies).

When Christians participate in this prospect, I am troubled.

I was deeply disappointed, for example, to see that Amazing Grace, a potentially superb film depicting the grace of God and the redemption of even the vilest man was replete with historical inaccuracies.

Not a single reviewer that I read even mentioned these errors (even in passing). A simple Wikipedia search Plug) turned them up. And the inaccuracies weren't even necessary to "pump up" the story.

Does this kind of filmmaking error impact the effect of the movie?

Does the viewer intuitively and subconsciously smell the mendacity?

Does this shape their willingness to promote it via word-of-mouth?

I know that I was asked on numerous occasions about my opinion of Amazing Grace and I was hard pressed to offer my endorsement.

"Interesting" was my most oft reply, followed by a change of subject.

Can (and will) God bless such storytelling endeavors?

As a filmmaker I too struggle with the temptation to enhance using commission as well as omission.

It's hard but Truth is a heavy burden in the face of our society and our church.

Have you struggled with this Sean?

My thoughts.


Linds said...

Nice thoughts. What you mentioned at the end about the pox scene is why I love historical films despite their necessary (and sometimes unnecessary) inaccuracies. I hated Titanic for its portrayal of people who lived in 1912, but you really got the idea of the experience of being on that ship.

My favorite historical movie is actually Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, because its anachronisms put you in Versailles and help you understand the world Marie inhabited - it's a worldview thing. Sure, it's overly forgiving of her detached neglect of her people, but I'll forgive that if it helps me get inside her head. :)

David Goulet said...

I like how Oliver Stone handled JFK. When it came out, he made it sound like it was a documentary.

Today, every time he's asked about JFK he says it was an artistic 'what-if'.

Smooth. Be flexible.

Janet said...

As Picasso said, "Art is the lie that tells us the truth."