Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The Best Movie About Something That Really Happened.

Can you make a nonfiction movie? Can anything really be nonfiction?

I don't think so. I don't think that "nonfiction" can be made, because all art is, by definition, fiction.

What's sad is that we care so much, and that the emphasis, at times, on what is "true" or "fiction" can detract from the point of art in the first place.

I just finished reading David Sedaris' new book, When You Are Engulfed In Flame. People who like David Sedaris' writing (like me) will know that he's been the subject of controversy because his stories maybe aren't the gospel truth about everything. He's admitted, more or less, that the stories are not all true.

That's where I am every bit as bad as everybody else. As I read his latest book, after learning about the controversy, I found myself constantly wondering is this exaggerated? Is this? While the book was every bit as good as I expected, the question of what was true and what was not bothered me, and detracted from my enjoyment.

Why? Because some things are only good if they are true, it seems. Or true-ish, because, as I said, nothing is true, no entertainment or art being presented to you is "true." Nothing is true, not even our memories.

Whatever method you use to tell a true story -- whether you're telling your friends over dinner, or putting it on a blog, or in a book, or filming it, you are recreating something that happened in the past, and you are editing it; like it or not, you are editing it.

"Recreating" and "editing" are the tools of fiction.

For example, when I tell stories about my vacation, I am not giving a minute-by-minute recounting of the entire vacation from the moment I got up to load the car until we pulled back in to my driveway exhausted and sandcovered. I leave lots of stuff out of my stories; I didn't mention a lot of the meals, I didn't tell about any disagreements we had, I didn't point out that for over an hour at the ocean my brother and I talked about our jobs. When reading my stories about my vacation, it seems that meals were either not eaten or went smoothly, that all conversation was funny (and there was very little talk, period) and that we never stopped for gas, bought lottery tickets, scratched them off, then went and cashed them in right away. In fact, though, meals were frequently eaten, they were eaten under great stress because of the Babies!, there were lottery purchases, etc. etc. etc. I just left those parts out because they didn't fit into the story I was trying to tell and weren't entertaining. So while everything I told you is true, the story itself is not true because the omission of details creates a false impression.

If you want a clearer example, picture this: A man goes bowling, and just before leaving, hits on the waitress and they sneak off to his car and make out for an hour. He goes home and his wife says "Where were you?" "Bowling," he says. Did the man tell the truth? Sure... but his story is not true; the impression it creates is not true.

The focus on truth, on what actually happened versus what did not is one of the reasons why I don't like nonfiction as an art form or entertainment option (another reason being that nonfiction is 'true life,' and my life already is true life, so where's the escape in reliving life?) The idea that something is "based on a true story" or "actually happened" distracts me from following the story as I wonder what's "real" and what's "invented" and what's "exaggerated" and what actually happened, and because of those reasons, I avoid nonfiction/true life/based on actual events like I'll avoid M. Night Shymalan movies in the future.

(The focus on what's true or not, and the distraction it creates, extends beyond books and movies. Liz Phair fans were, I guess, disappointed that the stories in the songs on Exile In Guyville [there's an overrated album] were not true. Photoshop and computers are making it impossible to tell whether a person created something or not, whether an event actually happened, resulting in consumers of almost all art forms -- except, I guess, opera-- spending at least part of their time debating what is true or not.)

On the other hand, most of the time if nonfiction isn't exaggerated or alterered or jazzed up, then it's boring. The closest we come to actual nonfiction is old history books, and who wants to read those?

Those are all good reasons to abolish "nonfiction" as an art form, to just declare that from here on out, it's all fiction unless it's being taught to you in 6th grade from a book labeled "Adventures In Civics" and featuring a collage of pictures of William Howard Taft and George Washington Carver and the intercontinental railroad on the cover.

But there's an equally valid reason why nonfiction should be kept around, and why this debate will linger on, and that reason is: some things are only good if they are true.

When I read David Sedaris' book, his stories of making his sister lie in the road to get hit by a car is only funny if it really happened. Some songs are more meaningful because of the truth they are based on; when you listen to Eric Clapton's "Tears In Heaven," it's a heart-wrenching song if you know the story behind it. Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight" would be a chilling song if the rumors about it were true. (They're not.)

The same goes for movies and books. People felt ripped off by James Frey's A Million LIttle Pieces, because they thought it was true. And in movies, likewise, some things are not good unless they're true.

I'm not talking about having jets fly around and blow up a bridge while a semi avoids missiles, like what happened in Live Pretty Free Except You Can't Swear, Or Die Hard; that's fiction and we can accept that as part of the preposterous world of the movie because those things aren't presented as actually happening. I'm talking about the kinds of things that might happen in a movie that we think could happen in real life, things that are plausible, possible, but which are so out there, so remarkable or unthinkable, that unless we are assured they are true, we will never believe them. Something so outrageous that it's either true or its dumb.

Things like two guys mountain climbing, getting into trouble, and starting to make their way down, only when one guy breaks his leg the other guy cuts the rope and leaves him to die, and then they [SPOILER ALERT ABOUT REAL LIFE! IT'S MY SECOND SPOILER ALERT ON A TRUE-LIFE STORY IN RECENT MEMORY!] survive.

If you make a movie of such a story, it will flop and never be heard from again because it would strain credulity and nobody would want to see it because it's incredible but not incredible in a giant-lizards-attacking-ew York- way. Unless it's true. If such a thing were to happen happen in real life and then a movie was made about it, it would be the most incredible story imaginable.

That did happen in real life, and it was made into a movie: "Touching The Void," which is The Best Movie About Something That Really Happened.

In 1995, two climbers set out to climb a mountain in the Peruvian Andes, a mountain that had never been successfuly climbed before. They reach the summit, and start down, and one climber breaks his leg. They tie themselves together, and continue down, letting rope out a little at a time.

Then the climber with the broken leg goes over the edge of a crevasse. The other climber can't pull him up and the broken-leg climber can't climb back up the rope. They're stuck, one guy hanging off the edge of the mountain.

Then the healthy climber cuts the rope.

Did you just feel your heart skip a little? Everytime I think about it, I do.

These guys were friends, and they were relying on each other to do this climb. More importantly, they were humans.

What kind of person cuts the rope? What kind of person doesn't?

Those are the two questions that rolled through my head when I first heard this, then when I first saw it, and everytime I've thought of it since then.

Cutting the rope seems so inhumane, so intolerable, so wrong. You are dooming that person (you think) and saving yourself. That's not what humanity is about.

But not cutting the rope means you both die.

The movie itself is spectacular. It's not a documentary; there was nobody on the expedition with these guys. It' s recreation-- it's fiction-- but for that it feels more true, more like the viewer is right there, than a documentary would, because the camera intrudes less than in a documentary. It's almost painful to watch as these guys make their way up, and then down, and I felt like I'd climbed the mountain myself. Plus, the movie is stripped down to the world of these climbers: snow and ice and pain and tough choices. There's little dialogue and little storyline beyond: survive or die.

Boiling the story down to that essence, to two men and a rope and a cliff, works to cut through the fog of entertainment. In presenting any true story, we have to pick and choose what details to give the reader or viewer or listener, to shape the impression we want to create and pass along the message -- whether that message is "I had fun on my vacation," or "I quit smoking in Tokyo" or "I saved a bunch of Jewish people from Nazis." Reducing the facts, cutting the running time, showing only some images, distorts the message and lessens the impact.

In the true story presented by Touching The Void, there's only one detail to present: he cut the rope. That one fact, that one detail, encompasses everything you could want to say about this event, everything you could possibly have to say about it, and everything you could have to think about after it. Nothing is left out, and nothing is diluted.

That, and the way the story works itself into your mind, your body that makes the movie go above and beyond merely a "true story" about something remarkable. There are lots of "true" stories about remarkable people and events and ideas; for milennia humans have been doing remarkable things, both good and bad, and telling stories about them and writing them up in "Adventures in Civics." I could pick out any three documentaries not made by Michael Moore, or walk through the nonfiction section of Waldenbooks, and find a handful of remarkable stories about humans and their activities.

This story goes above and beyond those not just because it's true and remarkable, but because it's true and because of what that truth makes you think about: would I cut that rope? Would I not? Those are questions that would not be presented to you from a work of fiction. If Touching The Void were just another Sylvester Stallone movie, you would walk away from it without thinking another moment of the story or the moral issues. You'd just wonder how they liked filming on the mountain.

But this sticks with you because an actual person cut an actual rope to send another actual person to his death. (Or so he thought.) That kind of story, when true, makes you question the very foundations of civilization.

That's the reason to keep truth in entertainment and art, to continue to try to present, on occasion, a true story -- because the truth, and only the truth, can really affect you. Art exists to create an effect on the person who perceives it; the more true art is, the more of a visceral effect it can create.

Touching The Void reaches into your head and heart and tugs on them, making the viewer react and think and feel, the way only truth can. That's why it's The Best Movie About Something That Really Happened.

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