A couple of months ago I put up a post called ”The Lie that tells the Truth,” addressing the buzz of complaints about “The Hurt Locker” from people who objected that the film did not accurately reflect the boots-on-the-ground reality of a bomb disposal squad operating in Iraq. My point – as usual, laboriously extruded from a labyrinth of prose – was that movies or books about real-life situations need not strictly adhere to the actual, literal truth to tell a greater universal truth.
It took me something like sixteen hundred words to grind my way to that conclusion. Earlier this month, the San Francisco Chronicle’s film critic Mick LaSalle dealt with the issue in answering a reader’s question – but Mick needed only two hundred words to do the job.
Once again I’m reminded why some people get paid to write, while the rest of us do it for free on blogs...
“Even in a movie that attempts to adhere to historical fact, what makes it good or bad is not how realistic it is. It's how true it is to the reality that the movie establishes as real. To talk about something from outside the movie, some set of facts or event that the movie distorts or ignores, is usually to bring up something irrelevant. What is relevant is what is true for the film, and the important aesthetic question is whether the film is true to itself. After all, the movie isn't reality from the second Ralph Bellamy walks out pretending to be FDR.
Orson Welles once made this distinction in a discussion about James Cagney. He said there was nothing real about anything Cagney did onscreen. His classic mannerisms were exaggerations from real life or wholly invented. Yet, Welles said, there was not a single frame of a Cagney performance that wasn't completely true. Not real, but true. The Real is from the land of prose. Truth is from the land of poetry. If you don't embrace the poetry of movies, you can never understand them. You'll be watching films like a narrow grammarian, holding up art to a pointless and entirely less exalted standard.”
Nicely put, Mick. I couldn’t have said it better myself.