Historical FiCtion at the Movies (Profits & Catharsis)


Art reflects its own domain, but has a duty not to make things up, at least not out of whole cloth, like this idea, which seems not to be true, that “enhanced interrogation techniques” helped bag Osama bin Laden.

A spoof is one thing, something like The Producers or Blazing Saddles by Mel Brooks or anything by Quentin Tarantino, whom this blogger just happens to despise, or something just plain weird and over the top like Fellini’s Satyricon. Watching Cleopatra, who didn’t know that the movie was “really” about Liz and Richard going at it? But about this recent crop of movies, ones like Zero Dark Thirty or Argo, the ones that pretend to be journalistic, the ones that claim to be true to some historical “reality,” I have nothing to say except these except that I avoid them like the plague.

For me this aversion to historical fiction at the movies began with Life is Beautiful, a film so false to the core of its conceit that to dress it up as art would only be to aggravate the problem. I certainly don’t believe one can ever re-represent history as it really was and to do so without distortion; but it’s always worth the effort to give it a try.

While every representation is subject to distortion, the most reliable distortions are those that are self-aware an self-critical, whose aesthetic decisions are not as determined  by huge sums of money and calculated profit margins.

(That, by the way, might distinguish The Producers from Inglorious Basterds –the size of the profit margin, the surrounding market environment. A 1968 release, The Producers was so near the event it spoofed, that it cut close to the bone. The fact is that The Producers was genuinely schlocky and subversive in ways that Inglorious Basterds or Argo or Zero Dark Thirty are  preternaturally conformist to the forms of intense catharsis that drives a media landscape their creators now “know” down to a tee.)

About the convergence of history and blatant lying, see these two articles from the NYT:



The takeaway according to Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott is that, “[I]nvention remains one of the prerogatives of art and it is, after all, the job of writers, directors and actors to invent counterfeit realities. It is unfair to blame filmmakers if we sometimes confuse the real world with its representations. The truth is that we love movies partly because of their lies, beautiful and not. It’s journalists and politicians who owe us the truth.”  But a counterfeit reality is intended by its producers to take up a position in relation to reality, unlike Monopoly Money, which reflects only the rules of a game’s own invention. The more complex approach is the one taken by Jacques Rancière; it combines the spell of beautiful appearances with sordid truth (The Emancipated Spectator, pp.83-4).

It’s a question of motivations and intended effect. After Mel Brooks, my general rule is to only go to historical re-enactments that make you feel uncomfortable or rotten-bad at the end of the film, not ones that are intended to line someone’s pocket with an inordinate amount of money by making you feel better, happier, purged, or edified. It’s manipulative enough when religion makes you do this. It’s quite another at the movies. I’d rather see a movie that doesn’t ask me to feel anything.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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