Sunday, January 4, 2015

Truthiness at the Movies

On the basis of what I have read over the last couple of week, it seems to me that two movies currently being regarded as major contenders for awards, The Imitation Game and Foxcatcher, involve significant distortions of the historical record while purporting to tell as story that is "based on" a factual account. The weasel phrase, of course, is "based on." Just because the historical record provides a point of departure, "based on" essential allows the writer to depart from it. Foxcatcher is the more interesting, since the one protagonist from the historical account who lived to tell the tale is the one planning to take action against the film's director.

Nevertheless, I find The Imitation Game more irritating for a variety of reasons. Most importantly, Hugh Whitemore wrote a brilliant play based on Alan Hodges' biography of Alan Turing called Breaking the Code. It was good enough to be adapted for television in the United Kingdom, and that version showed up here on PBS. What I liked about Whitemore was that he was willing to pay as much attention to the complexity of Turing's work as he did to the complexities (particularly the sexual ones) of the man's life. Thus, rather than trying to create a Turing-against-the-world picture of the lone genius who was right whenever everyone else was wrong, Whitemore actually had Turing explain the origins of the "Turing machine" in a scene which was basically his job interview. I later learned that audiences enjoyed this scene so much that they wanted the play to have similar extended speeches for Turing. When Derek Jacobi, who was playing Turing, was interviewed on the radio about this, the announcer asked when the new speech will be performed. Jacobi replied, "As soon as I can understand it!"

It is hard to imagine very many (any?) members of the Motion Picture Academy expecting this sort of thing from a movie script. While there are the occasional exceptions, awards tend to go to scripts that have been dumbed down to the lowest common denominator of audience comprehension. (Mind you, that is a level that does not understand the concept "lowest common denominator!") Once the decision had been made to cast someone of Cumberbatch's "star quality" as Turing, it was clear that having a box office smash hit was better than having a good film.

I suppose what we have in both of these films is a better understanding of the nature of what Stephen Colbert has called "truthiness." I have tended to associate Colbert's term with the old Italian saying that a good story is better than a true one. On our side of the bond, however, whether or not a story is good is probably not the deciding issue. All that matters is whether the story is marketable when it gets packaged as a movie or a book, since, like it or not, the final judgement will be made on the basis of revenue stream, actual or anticipated according to some model which may, in itself, be no more than a good story. Mr. Colbert, did you, by any chance, come up with that term "truthiness" after reading what Max Weber had to say about loss of meaning in a market-based society?

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