Versimilitude and Morality and Historical Fiction

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The Force is Favreau
The risky tautology inherent in the
contemporary writing project has begun:
in order to evoke a debased language
(the debased language your character
might use), you must be willing to represent
that mangled language in your text, and
perhaps thoroughly debase your own language.

----How Fiction Works, James Wood, p. 32

Consider a problem. How to portray boredom? Do it too well and you bore the audience. Unless one has an obnoxious artistic commitment to "truth all the way down" (cleverly subverting the audience's expectation to be entertained), this is a problem.

Solutions are various. There are, for example, strategies of compression. We might watch the accelerated clock on the wall quickly passing through hours while our character is stuck. We might present a montage in which our character scratches marks on a prison wall. Alternatively, we might play it for comedy--we laugh at a character who expresses comical annoyance at the lack of stimulation. Too much truth can kill the fun. In many cases, the artist must "tell" the truth without having the audience experience it.

Consider a moral problem - "How to make a war movie that isn't subtly and implicitly pro-war?" Film makes things beautiful. We can't leave our audiences with PTSD and we want them to be engaged (thus, we don't really tell a dirty little secret of war--that it is largely boring as troops march around and wait for orders). We must make it dramatic. We must make it tragic. In so doing we make it beautiful. Beauty is enticing. If we are taken in by the film, then to some extent we are also taken in by war. This has proved a tougher nut to crack.

Consider another problem of versimilitude, the problem of the truth appearing false. There are parts of the "true story" of Hacksaw Ridge which were allegedly omitted because the audience, it was felt, would not believe the depiction (too good to be true).

A related problem is a "moral" rejection of the truth. Sometimes the whole truth is not told, because it would create a distaste for our main characters. Thus a bisexual love triangle in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) was cut from the script and John Nash's homosexual exploits were omitted from A Beautiful Mind (2001).

We had a dust-up in another thread, and I have no wish of extending it here, but it does raise some interesting questions about historical fiction (which appears to have a duty to "tell the truth" as well as "entertain").

1. If depicting what "actually happened" casts a group in an untoward essentialist light (e.g., racism), is it dirty pool to depict it as it happened?

2. If in depicting all events as they really happened, the narrative takes the appearance of melodrama (undermining the seriousness of the message with apparent "overplaying"), would it be better the scale back the depiction of the events for maximum impact (e.g., Hacksaw Ridge holding back on "unbelievable" heroic details)?

3. If spending too much time "with the enemy" makes us sympathetic to evil, should we not spend too much time with the devil? Consider the problem of people identifying with Travis Bickle, Vic Mackey, and Walter White. Should we NOT make too many films like Das Boot, lest we humanize institutional evil?

4. Should the Devil always be made to look the part of the devil, even if the historical record shows that a particular engagement involved no atrocities by the other side?





CringeFest's Avatar
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To address your conundrum as a whole, i do think that what we call "morality" is an inherent part of the "too human" problem, as people don't like to get treated in un-specific yet certain ways, and human brains will often try to systematize and generalize those sentiments. It's all emotion based, though.

Consider a moral problem - "How to make a war movie that isn't subtly and implicitly pro-war?" Film makes things beautiful. We can't leave our audiences with PTSD and we want them to be engaged (thus, we don't really tell a dirty little secret of war--that it is largely boring as troops march around and wait for orders). We must make it dramatic. We must make it tragic. In so doing we make it beautiful. Beauty is enticing. If we are taken in by the film, then to some extent we are also taken in by war. This has proved a tougher nut to crack.
For the most part you can't, a war movie will be a war movie. I think as long as people are voluntarily watching movies (without any Clockwork Orange or sketchy time-share plots involved...), then i don't think they can give someone PTSD. They can and do elicit ****ty emotions, which is part of the reason they exist.

1. If depicting what "actually happened" casts a group in an untoward essentialist light (e.g., racism), is it dirty pool to depict it as it happened?
I don't know what this means, movies CANNOT depict things as they happen, there's that epression..."you never step in the same river twice."

2. If in depicting all events as they really happened, the narrative takes the appearance of melodrama (undermining the seriousness of the message with apparent "overplaying"), would it be better the scale back the depiction of the events for maximum impact (e.g., Hacksaw Ridge holding back on "unbelievable" heroic details)?
this is the most interesting question of yours IMO.



Consider the problem of people identifying with Travis Bickle, Vic Mackey, and Walter White.
I donít identify with these men at all, but they sure do make compelling viewing.
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The Force is Favreau
I don't know what this means, movies CANNOT depict things as they happen, there's that epression about you never step in the same river twice.
Well, that's why I have the quotations marks, but as we approach (as near we can in light of known facts) even approaching the truth (as we think we know it) can result in odd problems.



The promise of the historical drama is that, in some way, this is a legitimate representation of how things went down. We even get disclaimers in many films (at the beginning or the end) telling us which aspects were fictionalized for dramatic purposes and which elements are allegedly legitimate. This sort of contract, implicit or explicit, does seem to come with additional promises to the viewer.



My attitude when it comes to the accuracy of "historical" movies is that it's not realistic to demand 100% fidelity when they're taking reality, which is such a impossibly messy and complicated thing, and lifting pieces of it to fit into relatively neat, artificially-contructed narratives, narratives that kind of need to have a satisfying arc and pay-off to be palatable to a big-enough portion of moviegoers. So, when you keep that in mind, a certain amount of alterations are to be expected to make for the best possible final product, if you ask me.

That being said, I do desire a certain amount of historical accuracy, and I'd prefer that the deviations be kept to the bare minimum, so my general rule of thumb is that, it's okay if movies change certain details, and not be faithful to the "letter" of the historical law, as long as they're still faithful to the spirit of historical events & figures. For example, even though it didn't actually happen, I think the "I could've gotten more" scene in Schindler's List is an acceptable addition to that historical tale, because any movie is just automatically better with a big, emotional climax, and Schindler did actually save the lives of 1,200 people, so it's not like he was actually a big, all-around piece of **** in real life or anything (and the film was already honest about the way he was an adulterous businessman who sought to profit off of slave labor in the beginning)... but, on the other hand, maybe The Greatest Showman whitewashing the less savory aspects of P.T. Barnum's life out of that film isn't really comparable, like the fact that he worked one of his elderly slaves to death before charging people money to watch her get autopsied live in a bar, you know?



CringeFest's Avatar
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i think overall crumbsroom had it best in my thread: it doesn't have to be very accurate if it conveys the general emotions of being in that context. However, anything that feels too alien to the viewers is going to get a negative response...whether its indignant shouting, artful critique, or silence. Good movies pretty much always get those responses anyways.

I thought "Get Out" was a pretty brilliant comedy concerning these issues, and i say this as someone who doesn't really like thinking about the black/white conundrum, and who's also pretty tired of it and is pessimistic that "further dialogue" is really going to fix "inter-race" relations. It made people so uncomfortable that they were apparently walking out of movie theatres.



Raven73's Avatar
Boldly going.
For me personally, the accuracy of the historical genre doesn't matter so much. For example, I enjoy the movie Apocalypto, a movie supposedly about the ancient Mayans. I just watched it recently. After watching, I wondered how accurate it was. So I looked it up on YouTube, and sure enough there was a video there tearing Apocalypto apart for its completely inaccurate historical depictions. But you know what? I don't care. I still enjoy Apocalypto. I like to think of it as Alternative History. It's an very good adventure too. It's fiction, which can be inspired by the real world, but doesn't itself have to reflect reality.

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For me personally, the accuracy of the historical genre doesn't matter so much. For example, I enjoy the movie Apocalypto, a movie supposedly about the ancient Mayans. I just watched it recently. After watching, I wondered how accurate it was. So I looked it up on YouTube, and sure enough there was a video there tearing Apocalypto apart for its completely inaccurate historical depictions. But you know what? I don't care. I still enjoy Apocalypto. I like to think of it as Alternative History. It's an very good adventure too. It's fiction, which can be inspired by the real world, but doesn't itself have to reflect reality.

I love this movie too, but I do care about historical accuracy - which makes it a bit disappointing (although I find the film no less engaging).

Hey, I've grown kind of used to actors & film-makers letting me down on various levels due to their behaviors, views & personal lives, while still trying to appreciate their work, so the fact that Mel failed on some areas of research or presentation in this film is just another mar on the record of a person who's films I've always enjoyed.

Thing is, I don't know much about Mesoamerican history, so I didn't know the film was inaccurate.

But it does disturb me when I see films where I do know more of the history and realize it is inaccurate (especially when the inaccuracies are intentional to fit the plot or serve other agendas). Films like The Patriot (2000) and Pearl Harbor (2001) come to mind - both action-packed & engaging, but the liberties taken with historical inaccuracies is beyond the pale.

My concern is for generations who don't know the history and view the films (along with the details contained within) as part of their historical knowledge.



I think it should be obvious that expecting films to be documentaries (which aren't often themselves all that rigorous, anyway) is untenable, but also that there's still some responsibility to depict real events with some level of accuracy. You can say that everyone knows a movie is just a movie, even if it's based on real events...but do they? Do they really? Because it seems to me people constantly behave as if these dramatizations are at least mostly true, and sometimes literally.

And that's without even getting into the way a well-told story can circumvent our intellectual processes anyway. Even if somebody knows X film might not have depicted Y in a perfectly accurate way, the emotional manipulation inherent in good storytelling is still going to draw people, in aggregate, towards the filmmaker's desired conclusion, and that can remain true even for people who profess to know the difference when asked.

I touched on this question in my essay James Cameron Probably Hates You, which describes the way his obvious misanthropy led him to depict the sinking of the Titanic in all sorts of ways that didn't just dramatize the reality, but in some cases inverted it completely:

But in Cameron's retelling, the ship's sinking is marked by rampant chaos. Cowardly men push and shove women out of the way, lower-class citizens are left to drown in the lower decks, and the passengers' collective behavior makes one ashamed to be counted among the same species.

Creative liberties are common in the movies, but Cameron's mutilation of history was so bad that he was forced to apologize for it. Cameron's film depicts First Officer William Murdoch (an actual person) as shooting two people in a panic, then committing suicide. But according to testimony from other survivors, Murdoch did not kill himself, and there doesn't appear to be any evidence that he shot innocent people, either. To offset the immortalization of Murdoch's fictional disgrace, both Cameron and the Vice President of Fox at the time apologized to Murdoch's family, and a £5,000 charitable donation was made in his name.
His "defense," such as it was, was that nobody could prove it didn't happen.

It's hard to draw a consistent line across all of these situations, but I think this is a pretty good example of taking dramatic license too far: slandering someone, with no real evidence, when people who knew and loved that person are still around to see it.



Subtle Slayer of Normies
taking dramatic license too far: slandering someone, with no real evidence, when people who knew and loved that person are still around to see it.
Darn it. You completely ruined my idea for a "Killer Swan" film. How about "Killer Minio" though - slandering myself and if they ask why I did that when it's not true, I can always say that it can yet become true. That'd shut them up!
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I think it should be obvious that expecting films to be documentaries (which aren't often themselves all that rigorous, anyway) is untenable, but also that there's still some responsibility to depict real events with some level of accuracy. You can say that everyone knows a movie is just a movie, even if it's based on real events...but do they? Do they really? Because it seems to me people constantly behave as if these dramatizations are at least mostly true, and sometimes literally.

And that's without even getting into the way a well-told story can circumvent our intellectual processes anyway. Even if somebody knows X film might not have depicted Y in a perfectly accurate way, the emotional manipulation inherent in good storytelling is still going to draw people, in aggregate, towards the filmmaker's desired conclusion, and that can remain true even for people who profess to know the difference when asked.

I touched on this question in my essay James Cameron Probably Hates You, which describes the way his obvious misanthropy led him to depict the sinking of the Titanic in all sorts of ways that didn't just dramatize the reality, but in some cases inverted it completely:


His "defense," such as it was, was that nobody could prove it didn't happen.

It's hard to draw a consistent line across all of these situations, but I think this is a pretty good example of taking dramatic license too far: slandering someone, with no real evidence, when people who knew and loved that person are still around to see it.
A lot of it depends on presentation (and I'd include a movie's title in that).

There are multitudes of movies that are fictional (and understood as such going in) but the setting for them is historical reality (be it during the Great Depression, the Reformation, the Renaissance, the Crusades, founding of the "New World", the innovation of electric light, or any war).

We give more leeway to fictional stories regarding historical accuracy (such as "one man's story" or "one family's story") set in a historical setting than we give to stories that are presented as giving a historical overview - not necessarily a documentary, but tell a story of what actually happened in a dramatic, movie-style fashion.

To wit: I'd expect a movie titled "Pearl Harbor" to be at least as accurate, if not more so, about the most notable event that occurred there, than a movie titled "Tora! Tora! Tora!" ... but it's not.

Regarding the officer in Titanic who commits murder & suicide... since most of the movie was fiction in a historical setting, why didn't they just use some unnamed officer rather than tarnish the name of one who actually existed?



The Force is Favreau

Ah yes, the complicated history of slavery... ...and moralizing imperative to not tell the embarrassing bits of this collective immorality.