Monday, February 06, 2006

Making Films about "Real" Events

Yesterday I watched Schindler's List. It's one of those films that's essential viewing, and I hadn't seen it, so I rectified that omission in the film canon. I think it's a really good film, beautifully shot, the black and white photography is phenomenal and it's got a very strong emotional hook, particularly towards the end. However, I would hesitate to call it a great film because I think there's too much cultural baggage around it to assess it solely as a piece of art. In fact, it's almost impossible to make a film based around events that really happened.

Now, this is not a conventional viewpoint. Three of the films up for best picture this year are biopics designed to dramatize real events, and looking back in film history, many of the most respected and beloved films are based on the lives of real people. However, I don't think the vast majority of those films were truly great, successful works of art.

In the case of something like Schindler's List, the major thing that holds it back from greatness is the fact that it's more interested in making a point than being a great film. The film should have ended with the final black and white stuff, the closing sequence with the real people and the actors placing the rocks on Schindler's grave is too long, and kills the emotional high of the finale. When they send Schindler off in his car, that's the end of the movie right there, everything that was set out to be done is done, yet Spielberg sticks around, stating what you already knew. The film has already shown you that Schindler was an amazing guy, just closing on the line about how he planted a tree would have tied together the idea that there's this tree of survivors descending from him, you don't need the further explanatory titles.

Those titles and the color stone sequence don't make sense in terms of making a good film. It takes you out of the world that was created and rather than ending with the end of the story, it stops to show the reality of something we already knew. Side note, Spielberg just cannot end a film. Many of his films seem to peter out, to the point that the emotional buzz is killed. War of the Worlds is a great example of this, but Minority Report, Schindler's List, and to some extent Munich and A.I. all drag on after the emotional conclusion. A great ending can cover a lot of sins, particularly pacing issues, while a draggy ending magnifies those. So, when Schindler was driving away, I was really feeling the movie, but by the time that stone bit was going, I was starting to feel the 195 minutes.

But aside from specific issues with this movie, in general, I think it's folly to try to tell a story that really happened. The reason for this is that inevitably a real story ends up making the viewer more aware of the fictional constructions that film uses. There's a tendency to reduce real people to clear cut good and evil figures, as a way of fitting the film into a traditional narrative structure. And it's almost impossible to fit an entire life into a two hour film without sacrificing a lot of the complexities of that person. Ironically, fictional films are more likely to be like real life, because the real life stories that get turned into films are always extraordinary rather than ordinary.

The issue I have with Schindler and other Holocaust and genocide based films is that the cultural issues surrounding the subject matter make it nearly impossible to evaluate the film as an art object. I felt like Schindler was a very sadistic film, yet is calling the violence and treatment of people in the film cruel and excessive valid? It is designed to recreate actual events, but does this give the film a pass? Obviously it's condemning the violence it depicts, but why would this film receive cultural accolades while a movie like Irreversible is condemned as excessive? Both films use the graphic depiction of violence as a way of demonstrating how wrong these acts are. Why is it that Schindler's List is shown in classrooms and considered essential viewing, while Irreversible, a film that I would argue is more emotionally direct in its depiction of the destructive effects of violence, is maligned by many critics. In both cases, the depiction of violence is a fictional construction, and if you're saying that the violence in Schindler is justified because it really happened, the depiction of rape in Irreversible is certainly a lot more realistic than a menacing shadow and a cut away.

However, the answer to this conundrum is pretty obvious. Schindler's List can't really be called gratuitous because the events really happened. And therein lies the problem in evaluating the film, you can't evaluate the film as a narrative object, you can only examine how the real events are framed. So, saying I thought Schindler spending all his money to save them was implausible isn't a valid criticism because the response is: well, that's how it really happened. This makes it nearly impossible to have a legitimate discussion about the film from a narrative point of view. Certainly, you could talk about the way in which the events were framed to fit in to the movie world, but that requires a bunch of outside research that takes you further away from the film itself.

I feel that films like Schindler's List and another Spielberg, Saving Private Ryan, have a special place in the culture. They're "obligation films," you don't go because you think it's cool or will be fun, you go because you have to, it's your duty as a Jew, an American, a human, to see this film and in watching the film, give thanks to these great people who sacrificed of themselves in the past so that you can live now. This touches on one of the major problems I have with films about real life atrocities, you feel almost guilty about enjoying them. Schindler's List is a gorgeous movie, wonderfully shot, but can you really be like "That's a pimp shot" when it's of people being massacred and such? Irreversible runs into this to some extent, but there's not the cultural baggage, you can admire the look of the party without feeling like you're somehow enjoying the rape of this woman.

Yet, Holocaust films seem to function solely to put forth this "never forget" message, it's all somber, and any moments of humor or levity exist only in relation to the horror we know lies ahead. Yet, the film doesn't really earn this menace, it's using our existing cultural knowledge as a shortcut to create an emotional reaction. It's almost a genre piece, in the sense that we know the basic situation, and as a result, the filmmakers are free to dispense with traditional exposition and character creation. Bringing it back to Irreversible yet again, that's a film that is able to create a similar effect as those early moments of menace, but this time it's done through the inverted narrative structure. The film in someways draws on archetypal depictions of rape, yet at the same time skewers them, it plays around with the tenets of the revenge genre in a really interesting way. I feel like you couldn't do that with the Holocaust genre because the material is too touchy. You're not going to do a revisionist Holocaust film, designed to mess with traditional audience response, the response is predetermined, somber sadness and a respect for those who went through it.

Now, there are exceptions to the idea that you can't make a good film based on real events. The Insider is one of my favorite movies, and it's drawn directly from reality. I would say that this is the film Good Night and Good Luck wanted to be. Read interviews about Good Night and you'll hear about how it's designed to comment on today's political situation, and be an incendiary statement. However, watching the movie you get basically an emotionless dramatization of events, that again, is dependent on the viewer's dislike of McCarthy for any emotional impact that it does have. The characters are basically just people you see on screen, they're not particularly developed. And also the events of the film are so well known that you don't have strong dramatic tension while watching it.

What The Insider does is tell a story that is incendiary and does make an explicit comment on both journalism and corporate American in contemporary society. Good Night and Good Luck has the same problem that the Democrats had when going against Bush, it's all this winking criticism. It's preaching to the converted rather than explicitly addressing the issues at hand. The Insider converts you through its narrative arc, which is also riveting on its own terms. Was it ficitionalized? I don't know, but it's a movie, once you turn the camera on, it's all pretend. So, why not make a great movie first, a political statement second, and a true account third.

If Clooney wanted to make a statement about contemporary journalism, why would you go back fifty years? Why not tell the story of a reporter thrown in jail for refusing to reveal a source, or make something up, a worst case scenario of what The Patriot Act could do. That's more likely to change opinions than a couple of winking lines in a period film.

This isn't to say that films about the past can't comment on contemporary society. It's just that if that's your primary objective, to make a message movie about today's world, why not make the film about today's world. Jarhead is a film that's such a nothing object, precisely because it chose to do some winking commentary, but generally speaking stayed firmly in a first Gulf War mindset, when the second is far more interesting and contemporary. It's like if Casablanca was set in World War I, it wouldn't be as immediate and powerful a film. If you are going to use the past, don't do in a couple of alluding lines away. Assuming you read Brokeback Mountain as a call for increased Gay rights, that's a great example of hooking the audience emotionally rather than making an explicit point. Rather than say, gays should be able to marry, the film says, look how ridiculous it is that society forces these two people to live a sham rather than the life they want to. Look how much destruction that causes.

Now, I would draw the line between dramatizing a specific set of real events and setting a film in the past. Apocalypse Now is inextricably tied to its Vietnam setting, but it's not about the horrors of Vietnam, it's about the destruction of one man's psyche. Usually, a really strong emotional arc is more powerful than trying to make a bold message. You understand that war is awful because you've seen what it does to our main character, that's the message right there. In Schindler, the issues with the film arise from the fact that it loses focus on the character hooks and has all these random scenes of violence. That's because the film is trying to show the horrors of the holocaust in broad view, rather than just showing it to us through the experience of well developed characters. Other than Stern and Schindler, the people aren't defined enough to make us care for them outside of the historical context.

Ultimately, it's the same issue with adapting movies from a book. Why would you try to cram a pre-existing story into the restricting confines of a feature film? The best films are always the ones that are either specifically designed for the medium, like Magnolia, or films where the source material is completely claimed by the director to suit the needs of the film, as in the case of Blade Runner or Star 80. Star 80 is a good example of something that's essentially a biopic, but eschews the traditional rise and fall structure and instead dwells on the issues behind the rise and fall, a more personal focus for Fosse. Another great example of this is Fosse's All That Jazz, a film that is technically a biopic, but chooses the depict the person's mind rather than the events he lived. It makes you live as Fosse rather than show you who he was.

So, the basic point is, it's much better to do a thinly veiled interpretation of a person than a strict biopic, because that'll give you the opportunity to do whatever you want, without worrying about historical accuracy. If I was going to make a film about the Holocaust, I would not set it in Germany of the 1940s, but in an America ten years into the future, where conservative reactionaries manufactured a terrorist threat that led to the imprisonment of all Arabs. It would be drawing on the same basic emotions, but in a way that's more about drawing out contemporary prejudices than lamenting the losses of the past. Rather than "never forget" it would be "never again." And freed of the baggage of a strict depiction of reality, it'd be easier to develop themes and message as integral pieces of the narrative rather than as side pieces that contribute little to the film's main arc.

But, this whole argument is coming from a film perspective. I'm watching Schindler's List as a piece of fiction, whereas most viewers are probably more interested in seeing history depicted, and that's certainly Spielberg's main point with the film. I may have cracked on it a bit, but I did really enjoy the film. Liam Neeson is great, and the ending is very powerful on an emotional level. It just brought up a lot of issues I've got with the film world right now, and one of the primary ones is the idea that a work set in the past is somehow more valid than a comment on the present. If Gladiator was set in the present, it'd be a Charles Bronson movie, but set it in Rome and it's a best picture.

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