Monday, October 14, 2013

Movie Monday: The Authenticity Police Strike Again

There is a lot of talk about "Gravity", the new science-fiction film starring Ssndra Bullock and George Clooney that is tearing up the box office and getting some pretty darn good reviews.

Some of the talk, however, is coming in the form of the authenticity police - people who have criticized some aspects of the film for not being factually accurate enough. On the other hand, some people are firing back with comments about how "Gravity" is a movie, made for entertainment's sake, and not a documentary that needs to be completely accurate on all counts.

This is an argument that has been had before, and it will come up again...and again...and again.

It is an argument that I kind of hate, mostly because I come down squarely in the middle of discussions that are usually very polarizing. Most people either say, "Damn it, if they're going to make a film, they need to get it right." Or they say, "Oh, come on. It's a movie, it's entertainment, and mostly nobody knows what is completely accurate and what isn't, anyway, so don't sweat the details."

As far as I'm concerned, both are sort of right and both are sort of wrong.

First, the authenticity police. Yes, I know. You have an area of expertise, and you want to see something you can believe up on the screen without having to completely turn off all your critical facilities as an astronomer, or as an historian,, or as a doctor, or whatever. And I understand that. I'm enough of a history geek that I hate it when an historical movie gets its history completely wrong. Even when it's trivial history. I yelled out loud at the screen when I saw "Jurassic Park" and the statement is made about when Disneyland first opened, "in 1956". Before I could help myself, "It was 1955, you idiots," or something very close to that came out of my mouth. Loudly. In a full theater. It was a first-day-of-release, first showing of the day, and lots of people had been waiting to see the film.

I'm not proud of myself for yelling in the theater like that. But, you know, it was an easy fact to check, and it would really have been nice if Spielberg and company had gotten it right. In fact, it seemed to me like it was even worse because it was Spielberg who had gotten it wrong. There really is no good reason for getting that fact wrong, other than laziness and sloppiness.

This is how serious some people are about finding errors of all kinds in movies, a clip I found on YouTube listing something like 36 errors of various kinds in "Jurassic Park". It's amusing, but I'd like to see whoever did this make a movie of their own rather than just criticizing those who do actually make movies. Also, all this picking of nits, and they didn't even catch the Disneyland detail:

And the truth is, most people won't know the difference most of the time. I could well have been the only person in the theater that day who knew, offhand, what year Disneyland opened. I probably only know because I'm a big fan of the Happiest Place on Earth and I've got a brain that collects trivia like picture frames collect dust.

On the other hand...there are some movies that could do with a little more authenticity and fact-checking. I'm talking here mostly about historical films, those that aren't documentaries but are going to be taken by people who see them casually as more or leas the real thing. Let's pick on Spielberg again, this time regarding his 2012 film "Lincoln", which was widely although not universally praised by critics and was a box-office success. It was also nominated for a long list of awards, and won a few of them. But historians argued at length about the film and it's historical accuracy, with some saying it did better than most Hollywood productions in getting it right, while others called it wildly off the mark, historically speaking. Some of them said that they mistakes were mostly small ones, while others claimed that it got some of the big things wrong.

My feeling is that while films generally should be viewed as the artistic pieces that they are, films like "Lincoln" that claim to be or are perceived to be "telling it like it was", so to speak, need to be held to a higher standard, simply because most people don't know the difference and are going to take what they see on the screen at face value and think that the depictions are mostly historically accurate. being a bit of a history geek, it sort of bugs me when people recite facts and then cite as their sources things like films and historical novels that are really art and not history.

This can get a bit sticky when it comes to films like Oliver Stone's "JFK", which is full of speculation. However, the speculation is historical in nature in that the charges it depicts were really made, in the 1960s and later, by the real version of Jim Garrison (portrayed in the film by Kevin Costner). So, yes, the film is mostly accurate in that way. On the other hand, nobody but some (and by some, I mean certainly not nearly all) conspiracy theorists. Stone was widely criticized for making "JFK" and sort of planting ideas that most people, certainly most historians, think are a bunch of garbage.

I guess sometimes you have to judge a film like "JFK" on its fidelity to the story it is telling more on its fidelity to consensus history. And the thing is, "JFK" can be interpreted in two different ways. One of those ways is that it was Oliver Stone's version of what really happened to John F. Kennedy. And that might have been what he was doing. But, the film could also be seen as telling the story of Jim Garrison's single-minded, and possibly wrong-headed, search for an answer to the question of what really happened to John F. Kennedy. either way, I think it is a good illustration of the problems and pitfalls of making a film based on historical events. Because of the nature of history, you are never going to please everyone. People interpret facts, and in making a film based on historical incidents the filmmaker will inevitably step on the toes who don't interpret the historical facts in the same way the filmmaker does. That was where Oliver Stone ran afoul of many critics and not a few politicians and political pundits. That is also where Spielberg ran into some trouble with the historians who didn't like his choices in "Lincoln".

As for a film like "Gravity", which is not based on anything that ever really happened (is not history, in other words) and is meant to be a good science fiction yarn, I think the critics need to just take a breath and calm down. This is especially true of the ones who reportedly got upset that Sandra Bullock's hair in the film did not float like it would in real zero-gravity. The reality is that short of using the Vomit Comet (as Ron Howard did when he directed "Apollo 13") to film scenes meant to take place in zero-gravity, there is probably no good way to recreate a detail like that authentically.

Here's the trailer for "Gravity". From the looks of it, the filmmakers did a more than adequate job:


Gloria said...

The movie "The Cutting Edge" made me crazy, because they had the competition scenes all under follow spotlights, which are NOT used in Olympic competition. The lights are used for ice shows.

On the other hand, I loved "Secretariat" and cry every time I watch it.

Davin said...

If all the things people pointed out were as funny as the Jurassic Park one, then I'd be ok with it :) Usually people use it to make themselves look smarter than the movie (and to me, more annoying than the movie too!).