Friday, 6 March 2009


Writes Gerard Henderson in the Sydney Morning Herald of February 3rd, 2009 …

Anthony Beevor is one of the leading historians in the English-speaking world ... Writing in the London Sunday Times on January 18, he complained that "over the past dozen or so years television and movie-makers have managed to blur the border between fact and fiction to an unprecedented degree" while pretending "increasingly that their film is based on a true story" ...

... Beevor argues that "it should be the duty of not just every scientist and historian, but also of every writer, publisher, movie-maker, TV producer and ordinary citizen to fight all attempts to exploit the ignorance and gullibility of audiences".

Well, it should be. But, clearly, it is not.


Firstly, let's dispense with Beevor's arrogant and elitist assumption that cinema audiences are ignorant and gullible, that is, dumber than a box of hammers (unless of course you happen to think
David Spade is the 21st century equivalent of Groucho Marx, in which case, you are dumber than a box of hammers).

"Based on" on a thing does not mean it is the thing.

I know that, have always known that, and do not believe I am unique in that respect.

People go to the cinema to be entertained, not educated. For an education on a topic, that's what books are for. And universities and schools. We go to cinema to sit in the dark with strangers and involve ourselves in the lives of characters, both fictional or drawn from and based on history, and the events and experiences those characters find themselves a part of. This is called “storytelling”.

As David Mamet writes in his book of essays about the movie business
“Bambi vs. Godzilla”

“The film’s precursor is the story around the campfire. In that story we hear and we imagine; in the film we see and we imagine. The structural nature of film allows the imagination to reign. When the film turns narrative rather than dramatic, when it stands in for the viewer’s imagination, the viewer’s interest is lost. The dramatic structure relies exclusively upon the progression of incident … The rule, then, in filmmaking, as in storytelling, as in writing, is “leave out the adjectives”.”

If films based on historical incident were made according to Henderson’s preference, they would come in two parts: Part 1 would last 600 days, and Part 2 would be a 600 day forum of debate about the accuracy, or inclusiveness, of Part 1, a back-and-forth wankfest comprising tediously elitist trainspotters such as Henderson and Beevors. And possibly Robert Manne.

And no one would bother to go for fear of dying of boredom.

A filmmaker has one primary responsibility to his or her audience, and that responsibility is to evoke the desire to know, to demand to know, as Mamet has written many times, “What happens next?”.

If a filmmaker is basing his or her work on historical incident and historical characters, he or she must leave out the adjectives if it is to succeed.

The filmmaker must distill and compress all that is known about the events and people portrayed in order to present us with the essence of the thing. I could not give a flying fuck at the moon if, as Henderson writes, Richard Nixon in
“Frost/Nixon” “is presented as a binge drinker who consumed so much liquor during an evening that he had memory lapses about phone conversations the following day” and that the scene is a fiction.

As Anthony Summers revealed in his book
“The Arrogance of Power”, Nixon was a drunk and an abuser of prescription drugs. Bringing this facet of his behaviour into play in the film and the scene in question goes to establishing “character” which leads us, the gullible and the ignorant, to an understanding of the man as a “character” and becoming interested in his actions.

And if we become sufficiently interested, we may find ourselves encouraged to learn more about the man himself by reading books about him that present us with facts that are history, and not based on history.

Mamet again:

“The garbage of exposition, backstory, narrative, and characterisation spot-welds the reader into interest in what is happening now. It literally stops the show.”

I suspect that Henderson, as well as lacking a sense of humour, also lacks the imagination necessary to suspend disbelief while watching a film and simply enjoy himself.

In which case, he should stick to running his
ballroom dinners where toxic bores can deliver toxic lectures to a toxic and boring cluster of middle-aged stuffed shirts and leave the rest of us well enough alone.

Frankly, I’d rather go see a movie.

They’re fun.

From 1983, Steve Martin "The Man With Two Brains" (not based on fact)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Salman Rushdie did the same thing with Slumdog Millionaire, dissing the plotline as impossible. Well, der. It's a story, as he should well know. I think the plotline in Satanic Verses was pretty impossible as well, sprayed with fantastical religious references. What a dork.

Henderson, I understand. He's a myopic fusspot. But writers, like Rushie. Someone should slap him.