One Shrug Too Many

Yes, truth does matter, but it can be a hard slog sometimes convincing people of that. An American studies teacher offers some illustrations.

O’Brien violates old novelistic standards; his book is both fictional and autobiographical, with the lines between the two left deliberately blurred. My students adored the book and looked at me as if they had just seen a Model-T Ford when I mentioned that a few critics felt that the book was dishonest because it did not distinguish fact from imagination. “It says right on the cover ‘a work of fiction’” noted one student. When I countered that we ourselves we using it to discuss the actual Vietnam War, several students immediately defended the superiority of metaphorical truth because it “makes you think more.” I then asked students who had seen the film The Deer Hunter whether the famed Russian roulette scene was troubling, given that there was no recorded incident of such events taking place in Vietnam. None of them were bothered by this.

Well I’m bothered by the fact that none of them were bothered. I’m not surprised, but I’m bothered. It’s funny, too, because we’re always being told how ‘media-savvy’ the current generation is (we’ve been being told that for several generations now, I think), and how good they are at seeing through the ploys of hidden persuaders. I’ve never believed a word of it, and Weir’s account hints at why. I’ve talked to too many people who are serenely unbothered by falsehoods in historical movies, who say cheerily that movies are movies, they’re not supposed to tell the truth, that’s not their job, their job is to entertain, if a rewriting of history makes the movie more entertaining, then that’s what the moviemakers have to do. Everybody knows it’s just a movie, is usually the clincher. But that’s bullshit, of course. Just because everybody ‘knows it’s just a movie’ doesn’t mean everybody doesn’t also ingest some (or all) of the falisfications and believe them ever after.

If all these tv generations are so media savvy, why have they apparently never heard of propaganda? The Triumph of the Will is just a movie too; so what? People tell lies during wars and the lead-up to wars; lies about what the North Vietnamese did or did not do mattered a great deal in the real world; Weir’s students should have been bothered.

I mentioned John Sayles’ use of composite characters in the film Matewan. They had no problem with that, though none could tell me what actually happened during the bloody coal strikes that convulsed West Virginia in the early 1920s. When I probed whether writers or film makers have any responsibility to tell the truth, not a single student felt they did.

Matewan is a good example. There’s a very good book about this whole subject, called Past Imperfect, in which a number of historians and other scholars (Steve Gould for instance) discuss the veracity or lack of it in a number of movies. John Sayles and Eric Foner talk about Matewan – and much as I like Sayles, I think he’s wrong about this and Foner is right. I think movie makers do have a responsibility to tell the truth – partly because movies are so very powerful, and have such searching and longlasting effects on our mental furniture.

My O’Brien class came through when I taught the concept of simulacra, showed them a clip from the film Wag the Dog and then asked them to contemplate why some see disguised fiction as dangerous. (Some made connections to the current war in Iraq, but that’s another story!)

Anybody who doesn’t see disguised fiction as dangerous is mad as a hatter, if you ask me.

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