Friday, January 29, 2010

The Origin [of Truth in Fiction]

[Reposted from Original post date: 9/20/08]

Why truth in fiction? It sounds like a bit of a contradiction in terms. Is it even possible to have truth in a story that is inherently false? I now believe it is, but the thought had never crossed my mind until recently. And even so, it was a long time in the making...

I've always been the analytical sort, passionate about determining why one film is better than other. This concept came about from three specific sources, which were connected by a principle I uncovered one day. I can't say how they came about chronologically, but one was a quote from a talk show, another a documentary, and the third, a TV Series. The principle was that in all things, we should seek to create value (that means value to others, not just ourselves), rather than seek to make money. Money is not the only thing of value, but anything of value can be traded for money.

I have tried to find the source of the quote, but cannot remember what talk show or what guest said it. I do, however, remember the gist of the conversation. I believe it was Oscar season, and the guest was talking (or perhaps complaining) about the old-school way that the Academy chooses movies to be nominated. From his point of view, he thought that the movies that made the most money should be the movies that won the awards.

I immediately felt there was something wrong with the statement, but wasn't quite sure what. For a while, I wrote it off, saying that the money was the reward for those movies, but GOOD movies needed to win awards to get noticed. Eventually, I thought it through, and came to the realization that entertaining films (such as summer blockbusters) make a lot of money by promoting an adequate film to a broad audience for one big weekend, while artistic films (i.e.: the Best Picture Oscar films) create a culturally relevant, valuable, film that makes its money over time by winning one fan at a time.

"The Lost Tomb of Jesus," was a TV documentary which sought answers to the question of whether Jesus' remains might actually have been found (contrary to scripture). Having been raised a christian, this was unsettling for me at the time. But what struck me was how irrelevant it seemed, whether Jesus actually rose from the dead. That was when I realized that the truth of the Gospel story was not necessarily in historical accuracy, but in the impact the story had on culture: it has given hope and purpose to people for 2000 years. It spread one "fan" at a time for a very long time.

The final piece came when I watched through David Chase's "The Sopranos." For those who haven't seen it, The Sopranos is unlike any organized crime story I've ever seen (though I don't profess to be an expert on the subject). It follows the life of fictitious New Jersey mobster, Tony Soprano, who, though very successful in his "trade," is having a sort of midlife crisis. He begins seeing a psychiatrist to deal with his stressful life. For those of you who are thinking of a particular movie along the same lines, bear with me.

Now, I find that most mob stories take sides. They either paint mobsters as honorable, men of respect, and law enforcement as insufficient or clueless; or they paint mobsters as thugs and murderers, destined to foolishly fall into the hands of keen detectives. From the very beginning, "The Sopranos" seemed to me to be what life in the mob would really be like. Though I've never been in the mob, or read anything about the mob, I was sold on its "accuracy." Why? Because it was truthful on a deeper level. Tony Soprano could have just as easily been a corporate manager, struggling with fairness and ethics in a legal business, or he could have been a dad struggling to keep his kids in line despite a messed up world. David Chase chose to create a mob story, and all the violence and sexual content speaks to the truth of the story. It neither glorified, nor patently criticized organized crime. And though no story is perfect, I believe "The Sopranos" presents one of the greatest examples of Truth in Fiction, and will, therefore, stand the test of time.

How does this all tie together? It goes like this: William Shakespeare took many, if not all, his stories from mythology. Those who've studied Greek and Roman myths know that the various gods and godesses fought and loved, betrayed and conspired amongst themselves. These tales portrayed interactions: those that work, those that don't, and why. Like may scriptures, including the Holy Bible, the stories always presented the consequences. The consequences of the feud between the Capulets and the Montagues was that their children, Romeo and Juliet, died tragically. "All are punished," quotes the Prince.

The point is this: we can't let short-sighted economists destroy the value of our art for the sake of making more money faster. To make money quickly, they must appeal to what most people want to hear right now, but most people are selfish right now, so the consequences of appealing to people's selfishness is that you enable them to be more selfish because you provide justification ("everybody's doing it"). Stories that portray the consequences of selfishness are inherently less popular, but because they are truthful, they remain relevant for longer AND they influence culture in a POSITIVE direction.

Fewer films made with quality will produce more value, and thus, more money than big business Hollywood over the long haul.
    "The Lost Tomb of Jesus" is recommended because it is well-made and the logic is sound. However, due to the insufficient evidence inherent to archeology and the natural tendency of people to form biased assumptions to fill in the gaps, I can't say this proves anything. The value of this documentary is in its ability to challenge your beliefs, whether you ultimately agree or not.
    "The Sopranos" is worth watching because of its reality. Viewer discretion is certainly advised.
   "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare" is one of many compilations and series of Shakespeare's work, all of which are worth reading. His works are among the Great Books of the Western World.

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