Friday, December 10, 2010

Based on a True Story: Why I don't Care!

A while back, some friends and I were arguing the merits of a particular movie.  I believe it was Rudy.  I like the movie, but not to a degree that was adequate for them.  One of the things they had brought up was the fact that it was based on a true story.  The mere fact that something is based on a true story makes it good, or at the very least better.  This is a gimmick often used to sell movies and probably the most common movie tag line there is.  Does it make a movie better?  What about the merits of the product at hand?  How much does the world outside of the movie affect its value?  Is based on a true story even honest and does it matter if its honest?

There are a number of problems with movies that are based on true stories and their worth.  The first is that the qualities that make up an event, or the importance surrounding it, do not automatically transfer to its representations.  In recent years, a number of Oscar nominations and wins have arguably gone to movies based solely on the importance of the subject matter and not the quality of the execution.  Anyone can make any artwork about anything, so it would be extremely ignorant to assume that all art built around an important subject is inherently good.  Just because I am a Christian doesn't mean I have to like all artwork that deals with Christ.  A movie must be good on its own merits.

Another problem is that the movie is not the event; it is a movie about the event.  An event can be spectacular or moving, but a movie, just being a representation of that event, does not engage us in that way to the same extent and the feelings are more superficial.  Perhaps I'm cynical and go into the movie theater distancing the two things in my mind instead of allowing myself to get lost in the experience.  When I see a sports movie, I think "Oh, somewhere, at some point in time, a team won a game that they weren't favored to win and a man whose job it is to seek out these stories found out about it.  So what?"  The original event is special because it is real and it is happening before our eyes.  It is also unpredictable.  The real miracle on ice surprised the world.  The movie Miracle surprised no one.  Great moments like that are spontaneous.  They can't be put into prepackaged spontaneity.

Another problem with based on a true story is that the interpretations are very loose.  The movies are more interested in being movies, fulfilling genre expectations and audience expectations, than they are in capturing the event.  The event is just another prototype sports story or other type of story waiting to be crammed into conventional Hollywood narrative forms.  The traditional Hollywood narrative style is not compatible with all types of stories.  It is suited towards action-driven, often less complex stories.  It is especially suited to classical storytelling and moral tales.  These types of stories can have something to offer us, both in entertainment and in other areas, but lack the complexity of real life.  A dynamic story loses something and the way we relate to it loses something if we mistakenly view these movies as definitive.  Does it really matter as long as the movie is good?  Perhaps not, but then what is the value of based on a true story, if we are so much closer to narrative cliches than the actual event.  I may as well watch Rocky instead.  Or I could watch a documentary about the event or read newspaper archives or talk to someone who went through it.  All options are likely superior.  If you are truly interested in the event, you might actually skip the movie.  Based on a true story becomes a meaningless gimmick when it really means based on the story prototype used in last year's popular movie.  Secretariat should be this year's Secretariat, not this year's Blind Side.

One of the problems in today's world is that nothing amazes us any more.  The amazing has been tamed and turned into mundane entertainment.  If you search impressive on Youtube, you will find 191,000 results.  Many important internet pages such as Yahoo! and Verizon's homepages are filled with random stories of amazing things.  TV news is a nonstop look at extremes, whether it be an extreme rescue, or an extreme murder or  even the tiniest little thing out of the ordinary.  No one can do anything remotely impressive, especially within the world of sports, and not at least have fifteen minutes of fame.  When a forty year-old man was playing Division I football a few years back, he was approached about making a movie about it before his first season was even over.  Nothing is special anymore.  Everything is just a future movie subject or Youtube video.  It's hard to put the gravity of anything in order.  If events no longer awe us, then why would their confining, cliched representations awe us.  Especially when these representations are thrown at us constantly.  We become desensitized to the awe of events.

I think for myself, if not for others, we can certainly still appreciate the amazing in our own lives.  Personal things strike us more and we have a lower standard.  If I win the lottery, I'm amazed.  If someone I don't know wins the lottery, I don't think "Oh my goodness!  What are the odds?!"  I think, "Well, somebody had to win it."  Public events take so much more to grab us.  If we were constantly amazed by everything as much as we would be by personal things, we would constantly be crippled in amazement.

After all these complaints, it seems to become questionable whether any movie should ever be based on a true story.  Should we turn our backs on the world around us, only to follow escapes and fictions?  No!  A movie must stand on its own merits, though.  Something special is gained when you finish a good movie and then tell the person next to you that it was based on a true story.  It should be the icing on the cake, not a gimmick that is supposed to carry the entire thing.  Can a movie embellish and still be good?  The more a movie embellishes, the more the "based on a true story" label loses its meaning and importance and the less people should point to it.  The movie can still be great, in many cases, but it is great as sheer cinema and not a representation of the event.  In some cases, it is a manipulation of the event.  This way of doing things is okay with some stories, but with other, more heavy, serious, or recent stories, it may be inappropriate or irreverent.  In other cases we move closer and closer to "Why not just make it an original, fictional story?"  We should remember that fiction need not mean fantasy.  Two last things that really help are taking a new angle on something tired or to completely avoid stories that are already quite public and that we are already saturated with.  Filmmakers need to move away from indulging audience expectations and move towards just making great movies and respecting the inherent dramatic value that is in most of their stories and doesn't need dressed up by Hollywood trappings.

No comments:

Post a Comment