Jesting Pilate Goes to Hollywood

The World Service, part 2. Another thing I heard this morning, while standing around with my nose in my first cup of coffee (or perhaps it was the second) and waiting for the living room to warm up a little, was a lively and too-brief discussion of the vexed question: does it matter if movies tell enormous lies about history? The historian Anthony Beevor argued that it does, some entertainment boffin whose name I instantly forgot argued (of course) that it doesn’t. If I’ve heard the boffin’s argument once I’ve heard it a thousand times. Movies are movies, they have to entertain (what does he mean ‘have to’?), they have to tell a story; nobody cares about the truth they just want to see a good story so that they can laugh and cry and tremble and faint; real history is boring the way real life is boring, it has to be shaped and formed and moulded into something dramatic and involving with lovable characters; at least people learn something from watching them even if what they learn is complete bollocks. Beevor pointed out that movies are powerful and that the untruths they put on the screen stick in people’s minds and become what they think they know about history. The boffin was entirely unpersuaded.

There’s an interesting book called Past Imperfect on this subject – the distortions and untruths in various historical movies, starting (amusingly enough) with ‘Jurassic Park’ analyzed by Stephen Jay Gould. It was published several years ago, but needless to say, movie-makers haven’t stopped telling whoppers in their movies. Mel Gibson seems to be making a career of it. In short movie-makers are another example (or really the same example, just different people) of the issue I talked about a few days ago – the issue of people who have disproportionate power and influence, people who are listened to because they are pretty or good at acting or rich or royal, rather than because they know what they are talking about, feeling free to use that power and influence without much care. People refusing to recognize that their power has anything arbitrary or irrational about it and that therefore they really ought to be cautious about using it. People simply accepting that power cheerfully and doing what they like with it. People being irresponsible, in short. Moviemakers ought to realize, and admit, that those things they make have huge, unprecedented power to get into all our heads and never get out again. If they’re going to make movies about nonfictional subjects, they really ought to do a good job of it! And by ‘good job’ I don’t mean be as entertaining as possible – I mean do their best to tell the truth.

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