The Movie Club

Selma, American Sniper, Foxcatcher: 2014’s movies based on true stories may not be all true.

Entry 15: Complaining about the accuracy of a historical film is a sure sign you don’t know how to watch movies.

The dust-ups over the accuracy of these movies are just the latest incarnation of a misunderstanding that has plagued the movies since the early days of the medium.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Warner Bros, Sony Pictures Classics, Paramount.

The Movie Club is a weeklong conversation about the year in film. Read all the entries here.

Allow me to join Amy in a furious round of self-flagellation for not being more pronounced about my undying love for The Grand Budapest Hotel. I made sure to mention in my first dispatch that Wes Anderson’s latest (and possibly greatest) was the best film of 2014, and I guess I simply assumed that we all tacitly accepted that as fact. My Budapest reaction was the most fun I had writing a review all year, and Amy’s take so perfectly speaks to the manifold glories of Gustave H. and his forgotten world that I almost feel like we can safely put the topic to rest. But I’ll let the late Chris Marker have the final word, if only because Budapest often feels like a feature-length adaptation of the marquee quote from Sans Soleil

Who said that time heals all wounds? It would be better to say that time heals everything—except wounds. With time, the hurt of separation loses its real limits. With time, the desired body will soon disappear, and if the desiring body has already ceased to exist for the other, then what remains is a wound, disembodied.

To come full circle with my final Movie Club post (pause for weeping from readers), the annual swift-boat actions that accompany heavyweight awards bait is one of the biggest reasons why I’m always so sick of talking about the Oscar field come January. On the one hand, and not to take anything away from Selma (but definitely to take a little bit away from American Sniper and The Imitation Game), maybe this wouldn’t be such a big problem if we didn’t default to biopics as the subjects for all of our prestige pictures. Just saying, I don’t see anyone calling BS on the historical accuracy of Birdman. Of course, the more problematic and dispiriting thing about these attacks, less pointedly vitriolic examples of which are often reflected in reviews and public opinion, is how they remind me that most people have no idea how to watch movies. Without diminishing the value of perspective or the power of raw spectacle, there’s truth to the idea that watching movies is a skill, even if—as Oscar season always makes clear—those who are bad at it seem willfully so.

I don’t want to bore you with film-school theorizing, but the dust-ups over the accuracy of these movies are just the latest incarnation of a misunderstanding that has plagued the movies since the early days of the medium. Sure, the attacks on Selma and Foxcatcher are transparently fueled by racism and personal insecurity, but they’re driven by a fundamental failure to grasp that facts and truth are two very different things. Ironically, the cinema has shown itself uniquely capable of exploring the grey zone between the two, and some of its greatest thinkers (Andre Bazin, Abbas Kiarostami) and boldest pioneers (Werner Herzog, Jean-Luc Godard) have made careers of mapping that space for the rest of us.

The notion that objectivity is impossible and documentary reality is a lie shouldn’t be an advanced concept, but every time a pundit comes out of the woodwork to attack a movie for using history as an ingredient rather than a blueprint, I want to strap them to a chair like in A Clockwork Orange and force them to watch Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters until they’ve been forcibly re-educated.

Which is not to say that I give filmmakers carte blanche to flagrantly misrepresent whatever they want. The moral guidelines are different for every project. I couldn’t agree more with Amy’s conclusion that Foxcatcher is less of a sore spot for its means than its ends. When it comes to films that purportedly dramatize the past, I assume that all of them have taken liberties with what Herzog calls “the accountant’s truth.” For me, all that really matters (within reason) is what those films accomplish by doing so. I wasn’t at Foxcatcher with Mark Schultz and John du Pont (and thank God for that), so I couldn’t tell you if the relationship between the two men was choked with the ridiculously thick air of homoeroticism that makes the film about them feel like the longest wet dream Rainer Werner Fassbinder never had.

On the other hand, seeing the movie is all the evidence I need to determine that it doesn’t provide a meaningful new lens through which to understand these men as people or these characters as representations, and that it feels exploitative as a result (also, boring as hell). But the most important thing to stress is that Foxcatcher isn’t exploitative because it takes liberties with the facts—it’s exploitative because it doesn’t go anywhere with them. At least American Sniper had the decency to be so dumb that it didn’t even matter. And don’t even get me started on the people attacking Selma—if you come out of that movie focusing on the white people, you’re not worried about the past, you’re stuck in it.

I hate to wrap up my time in the Movie Club on such a cranky note, especially as I’ve had so much fun talking with you fine folks. (At the risk of giving the commenters even more ammunition at my expense, I have to admit that doing this with you three has been like fantasy camp for me.) Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go watch Don Hertzfeldt’s new short for the 32nd time (in a row).

Farewell from the World of Tomorrow!