William Skidelsky in The Observer recently went off on a rant that has the definite whiff of Emily Litella about it. (For those unfamiliar with Gilda Radner’s classic Saturday Night Live character, she was a champion ranter who was a little deaf, and would therefore go off on why it’s bad to “bust” schoolchildren or how there’s just too much “violins” on TV or why the “deaf” penalty is a terrible thing.) “It’s time to stop this obsession with works of art based on real events,” insists his headline. For some reason that makes me believe he must be misunderstanding some other problem, he worries:
The leading Oscar contenders, The King’s Speech and The Social Network, both offer fictionalised portraits of familiar but enigmatic public figures – a monarch and a monumentally successful entrepreneur. But it’s also true of other hotly tipped releases such as The Fighter (about boxer Micky Ward) and 127 Hours (about rock climber Aron Ralston), as well as films still to hit our screens such as The Conquest (about the early life of President Sarkozy) or next year’s Freddie Mercury movie starring Sacha Baron Cohen.
He must really be cheesed now that The King’s Speech has won the Oscar for Best Picture.
Is this glut of fact-based films a coincidence, or is something fundamental going on? Artists basing work on real people and events is hardly a new phenomenon. Shakespeare was very good at it, as Henry IV and Richard III attest. In Paradise Lost, Milton fictionalised the lives of two figures then regarded as historical: Adam and Eve. One of the greatest of all films, Citizen Kane, was inspired by the life of William Randolph Hearst. Even so, there has been a shift in recent years away from works of pure imagination towards ones that combine fact and fiction. This has been the case in every story-based medium.
Any why is this a problem?
For one thing, if interest in a work of art is triggered by a desire to learn about real events, that represents a radical shift in our understanding of art’s purpose. Throughout history, people have turned to art for various reasons, but two consistent ones have been a desire to be entertained or transported and a desire to learn more about what might be called (for want of a better term) the human condition. Yet in a world of docudramas and biopics, another factor enters the picture. Storytelling becomes a kind of lightweight pedagogical aid – almost a branch of investigative journalism. The risk here is that, by being placed at the service of factual knowledge, creativity loses its justification and becomes devalued as a result.
If the rise of fact-based fiction creates confusion about the point of art, the same applies to our criteria for judging it. A work that re-imagines events becomes subtly different from one that makes up a story. As we saw last week with the “Nazi whitewashing” accusations thrown at The King’s Speech, purely aesthetic judgments compete with other questions: how skilfully the storyteller re-creates the past; what version of history is being presented. The inevitable result is that attention is transferred from the work to the skill of the film-maker or writer. There’s a necessarily self-conscious quality to films such as The King’s Speech and The Social Network and this limits their ability to transport us.
I wonder how Skidelsky looked at, say, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films and refrained from marveling at the skill of the filmmaker in transferring this utterly fantastical world to the big screen.
Must we stop this obsession with movies based on reality? If not, what could Skidelsky’s Emily Litella-ism be? Perhaps he would like us to stop making so many chase sequences, which are, clearly, based on wheel events?
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