What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Movies and the Matter of Fact: Denby v. Lane

Does dramatic development trump fidelity to fact? David Denby has addressed this issue at least twice. The first time he appears to say yes it does; the second time – no it doesn’t. In his review of David Fincher’s The Social Network, he writes,

A debate about the movie’s accuracy has already begun: Doesn’t the actual Zuckerberg have a girlfriend? Is it fair to portray him as arrogant and isolated? And so on. But Fincher and Sorkin, selecting from known facts and then freely interpreting them, have created an irresistibly entertaining work of art that’s definitely suggestive of the way personal relations are evolving – or devolving – in the Internet Age. Spiritual accuracy, not literal accuracy, is what matters, and that kind of accuracy can be created only by artists. The Zuckerberg of the movie is the Zuckerberg who matters to us because he’s become part of us. [“David Fincher and The Social Network,” Do The Movies Have a Future? (2012)]

Spiritual accuracy, not literal accuracy, is what matters – this contrasts with what Denby says, in this week’s New Yorker, about Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty:

Yet, in attempting to show, in a mainstream movie, the reprehensibility of torture, and what was done in our name, the filmmakers seem to have conflated events, and in this they have generated a sore controversy: the chairs of two Senate committees have said that the information used to find bin Laden was not uncovered through waterboarding. Do such scenes hurt the movie? Not as art; they are expertly done, without flinching from the horror of the acts and without exploitation. But they damage the movie as an alleged authentic account. Bigelow and Boal—the team behind “The Hurt Locker”—want to claim the authority of fact and the freedom of fiction at the same time, and the contradiction mars an ambitious project. [“Dead Reckoning,” The New Yorker, December 24 & 31, 2012]

Denby’s appreciation of the importance of factual accuracy appears to be evolving. He now seems to be saying that “literal accuracy” does matter where the movie is claiming “the authority of fact.” I agree. The crucial question is that of the terms on which the movie offers itself. Christopher Ricks, in his “Literature and the Matter of Fact” (Essays in Appreciation, 1996), says, “The difference between Crime and Punishment and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is not that the latter is based upon a murder which happened but that it proffers itself as a record of a murder which happened.” Zero Dark Thirty proffers itself as an account of the C.I.A.’s hunt for Osama bin Laden. By proffering factuality, it enters into an obligation to be factually accurate.

In my view, Ben Affleck’s Argo, is similarly damaged. It proffers itself as a true story of the C.I.A.’s 1980 rescue of six Americans from Tehran. Yet, as Anthony Lane points out in his review of Argo, the climactic airport scenes are fabricated:

If you visit the C.I.A. Web site, you can read Mendez’s account of events in January, 1980. “As smooth as silk,” he calls the hostages’ passage through the airport, whereas Affleck, chopping up the action and spinning it out, insures that no nails remain unchewed. This is absolutely his right as a teller of tales, and “Argo” never claims to be a documentary. [“Film Within a Film,” The New Yorker, October 15, 2012]

Lane’s view that the tale-teller has a right to distort the real-life event that he purports to represent in order to tell a good story must be considered in conjunction with Denby’s opinion, as expressed in “Dead Reckoning,” that such distortions “damage the movie as an alleged authentic account.” My own view is that historical events such as the killing of bin Laden and the rescue of the six Americans in Tehran happened one way and one way only. It’s only their meaning that’s open to interpretation.

Credit: The above artwork is by Concepción Studios; it appears in The New Yorker (December 24 & 31, 2012) as an illustration for David Denby's "Dead Reckoning." 

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