Monday, February 9, 2015

This Article Is Inspired by Movies that Are "Based on" True Stories

I'm just going to assume that everything said in this scene is exactly what happened in reality.
"Based on a true story" can make or break a movie. For horror films, it usually makes it. (Stupid) people like to watch horror films and talk about how it really happened to get themselves even more freaked out by it. True story: at the end of Paranormal Activity, I heard an audience member react to the credits which thanked the San Diego Police Department with, "You see, that was a true story." This blew my mind. Let's assume it is actual footage and follow that line of thinking. We have video evidence of demonic possession, but it is only used as entertainment? Wouldn't the world be freaking out a bit more if Paranormal Activity was real footage. Not to mention it is also video footage of a death used for entertainment. None of that occurred to this guy. He just thought, "Wow, that's really freaky, and it really happened!" Maybe I'm overreacting and the guy was just trying to mess with whoever he was with, but there are enough people that think at least some of it is real to the point that an FAQ on the IMDb page is "Does this film feature real video footage?" This is similar to what happened with films like Cannibal Holocaust and The Blair Witch Project, but what makes it doubly infuriating now is that we have instant access to the truth. With films in the past, it was harder to confirm if a story was made up or not.

So what, right? Some idiots believe in scary movies because it adds a level of enjoyment to their experience. That's fine, but, unfortunately, that same line of thinking is applied to films that are actually based on true stories. And that is a problem because too many of these people will just accept what they see as fact and not investigate it further. Now, the FAQ at IMDb is evidence that people wanted to know for sure, and that's a good sign, but people are probably more likely to take a historical film's word for it over a horror film. We know (at least subconsciously for the dumber folks) that scary movies are trying to mess with us. The "Based on a true story" message is akin to a jump scare. It might get people at first, but a little thought will dismiss it as just another scare tactic. 

Special thanks to the San Diego PD for releasing this evidence of demonic possession and murder.
If a historical film claims to be based on a true story, we don't see that as a scare tactic; we see it as a badge of authenticity. We're about to watch a historical document. Of course, this is wrong. How could any narrative film tell a 100% true story in a standard two hour running time? A lot of people do not realize that, though. When they see American Sniper (a movie I liked, by the way), some will come away thinking there really was a rival sniper that Chris Kyle came across, and there really was a man called "The Butcher" that he and his team were tasked with stopping. While there are elements of truth to these aspects, they are largely fictionalized to make a more traditional story for the audience. Alterations like that are likely to be taken as fact by some of the audience. Changes like, say, (SPOILER) killing Hitler in Inglourious Basterds, are blatant enough that the audience knows it's fictional. 

Tarantino's films don't claim to be true stories, of course, but even if they did, the audience for a film like that knows what to expect. Audiences for "legitimate" historical films expect the truth, even though they shouldn't. There's not much that can be done for this, but I think an attempt should be made to remind the audience that a film is not the whole story. This has been attempted before. For instance, with Oliver Stone's Nixon, that film began with a disclaimed stating that the film was partially based on an "incomplete historical record." Sure, this is more of a dig at Nixon regarding the missing Watergate tapes, but it's something we should consider for all "true stories" today. Just put something at the beginning reminding people: "The following film is a slightly fictionalized account of a true part of history. For the entire story, you should do some research and reading." I'm sure there's a better way to word it, but the gist is that people shouldn't take movies as fact. With this warning, maybe people would stop overreacting to films like Selma and American Sniper
I'm sure the real Nixon would have loved 19 minutes of silence instead of the
speculation Stone created, but that would have been much less interesting.
Studios aren't very likely to add any new disclaimers, though, because admitting that changes were made makes a movie appear less substantial. When a horror movie claims to be true, it's for the scares; when a historical film claims to be true, it's for the Oscar. Who can blame the studios? Look at this year's nominees: American Sniper (Picture, Actor), Selma (Picture), The Imitation Game (Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actress), Foxcatcher (Actor, Supporting Actor, Director [but not Picture for some odd reason]), The Theory of Everything (Picture, Actor, Actress), Wild (Actress, Supporting Actress), not to mention awards-hopefuls like Unbroken and Mr. Turner that came away with a few lesser nominations. 

The Academy Awards are not really all that important aside from the fact that they add prestige to these movies. That's when people get up in arms. "You mean to tell me that the Academy means to reward Selma's inaccurate and unfair depiction of President Lyndon Johnson?!" As if being nominated for an award retroactively changed how the film was written and made. When a movie is presented as awards-worthy, people like to assign responsibility to it. Films start getting labelled as "reckless" and "dangerous." It's all hyperbole, of course (as if it is truly dangerous for a junior high student to come away from Selma with a slightly negative opinion of LBJ), but it's something to consider. There is a middle-ground to this debate. Films should not purport to be based on true stories if they plan on making intentional changes. Filmgoers, likewise, need to realize that movies are not 100% true. The main point needs to be that these films should be judged on their merits as films and not necessarily on accuracy. It's time for us to put some responsibility on the viewer, which is why my proposed disclaimer encourages the viewer to do some research. Odds are a lot of people would not take that advice. Researching is boring, tedious work. I suggest that for those audience members unwilling to take the time to look up factual information we come to this conclusion: screw 'em. 

Honestly, who cares what an ignorant person thinks? If someone comes away from American Sniper believing that the Iraq War was a direct response to 9/11, then it is likely that that person was stupid before they watched the film, not after. Why worry about people who don't care enough about something to look into it for themselves, especially when there are websites that do all the work for them? Well, maybe we should worry about an uninformed public, but Hollywood and the Academy Awards is not the place to start. Not to get too political or anything, but if we're worried about the knowledge of our citizens shouldn't we be focusing on our education system instead of Hollywood? It seems like any outrage over historical accuracy in film is meant more to distract us from real issues than it is to deal with any so-called problems created by the films.

If anything, I think movies sometimes adhere too closely to the true story. It's far more interesting when a film like Walker (the criminally underseen Alex Cox film) inserts cars and other anachronistic elements into a film set in the 1850s, especially when it's done to service the theme connecting it to (then) modern issues. Or take JFK, a film that should be seen more as a visual essay of conspiracy theories about the assassination rather than a historical document. I watched that film as a teenager and came away wanting to do research about the subject. It inspired me to know more about it. I didn't just assume that the film was everything. The most important thing about these two examples is that I found them to be endlessly entertaining. They were, in my opinion, good movies. It's fine to fault a film for being boring, silly, poorly made, etc. But to bash it because they took liberties to create a potentially more interesting experience? That seems lazy, especially when anyone truly interested will find out the truth on their own. As for everyone else, let them be scared and amazed by that "Based on a true story" claim. As for the rest of us, we'll just enjoy the movie.

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