Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Making it up at the movies

Nicey raised an interesting point in a comment on Sunday's post, which was about, among other things, the relevency to Angelina Jolie's looks to the part she is playing and the story being told in the movie she's making about Mariane Pearl and the murder of her husband, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

Nicey wrote:

I really liked the section of this essay dealing with our ability, or more often, our inability to separate what is real from hype. Marianne Pearl's "story" has nothing to do with the real tragedy which transformed her life. We can, I hope, empathize with her grief and shock, but we will always be outside looking in. It is a self-absorbed delusion for any of us to think we know anything about her "story" or that we have a right to say how that "story" is to be told.

From what I've read, it appears that up to this point in production, Mariane Pearl has had a good deal of say in how her story is going to be told in the movie. The movie's being based on her memoir, A Mighty Heart, so the screenwriters, one of whom, unfortunately, isn't the actor playing Daniel Pearl, Dan Futterman, who wrote the script for Capote, know how Mariane Pearl has told her story and will probably do their best to respect that.

But telling a story in a book and telling a story in a movie are very different arts with very different artistic demands. The old writing teacher's first lesson is Show don't tell. This isn't always the best advice to give writers.

There are times when you have to tell.

Those times are called exposition.

And the art of the telling is why we pay attention to stories.

Readers of hack work, the potboilers and romances and thrillers that make multi-millionaires out of their authors, will when recommending their favorite say, "It's got a great story." They mean it's got a great plot with lots of chills and spills and thrills and action and sex and mush to keep you excited while you read.

They don't mean a true story. They don't want a story. Stories have to be told and they can only be told with words. Readers of hack work don't want to open a book and see a lot of words---although they like to see a lot of pages, which is different.

Lots of pages means there will be lots of chills and spills and the book and the fun will last for a while.

Lots of words means that you have to pay attention.

The best of the writers of popular fiction appear not to use many words. Actually, they use as few words as possible. Writers like Elmore Leonard, and, granted, there are few like Elmore Leonard, and Ross Thomas and John D. MacDonald work in a way that has more in common with poets than with their fellow fiction writers, they are that careful and that economic about choosing their words.

The fewest and best possible words in the best possible order, is how old Prof Mannion used to define poetry to his students.

This turns out to be a pretty apt definition of good prose too.

Once you start picking and choosing your words, once you start caring how you tell a story, you have started being artistic, which is another way of saying artificial.

Your story is an artifact. You are an artisan. You are making something. What you are making is it up.

If they're any good at it, all storytellers make it up. They pick and choose their words carefully. They pick and choose what facts and details they are going to include and in what order. It doesn't matter that the story they set out to tell "really happened," that it is "based on a true story." By they time they are done with it the best you can say about it is that their story is not truthful but truth-full.

Some stories are more true to life than others. Some stories that are complete fantasies can tell us more truth about what it is to be human and stuck in this universe than some stories that purport to be real. Good fiction is often more true to life than the best journalism just because journalism is limited to facts, leaving journalists less material to work with.

This is a long way around ot saying that when she set out to tell her own story Mariane Pearl made it up.

She picked and she chose, she was careful. Because she could not include every fact, she used this fact but not that fact. There are things about her own story she doesn't know. She wasn't there to witness everything that affected her story, shaped it, and decided its ultimate, tragic ending. She had to rely on the testimony of others, which required her to pick and choose again.

She had to make it up.

I'm sure she told her story in the most truth-full way she could. But I'm not sure that just because she is the one who told it she told it in the best and most truth-full way that story could be told.

And because she couldn't have told the whole story---the whole truth---and because she very well might not have told it as well as it could be told, there is in fact a limit to how much respect the screenwriters have to show to her story. I mean the story she told, not the real story of Mariane and Daniel Pearl.

Again, from what I've read, it sounds as though she knows this. She understands the difference between writing a book and living a life and she understands the difference between telling a story on a page and telling it on film.

Show don't tell, young writers remind themselves, but they are always telling. Young filmmakers need to remind themselves the same thing and admit they are always telling too. When they pick and choose between camera angles, when they pick and choose where to put their lights, what colors they will let dominate their pallettes, when they decide to cut this scene or expand that one, drop that line but keep this one and follow it up with a new line improvised on the spot. When they decide Angelina Jolie should play their lead character instead of Jennifer Aniston.

They have to tell by showing, but they are telling. They are storytellers. They are making it up.

Mariane Pearl seems prepared for the inevitable, that when the movie is finished it's going to tell a different a story from the one she told in her book.

She seems confident that the story the movie tells will be like the one she told in that it will be true to life.

And she has a good reason to be confident. Hollywood has a good track record of late when it comes to telling stories that are "based on a true story."

Like I said, it's too bad Dan Futterman will only be acting in A Mighty Heart and not writing it too. In his script for Capote, Futterman did an excellent job of picking and choosing among facts to tell a story that was truth-full. Finally, though, Capote's truth-full-ness depended on the picking and choosing done by the director, Benett Miller, and by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the lead role.

Storytelling in the movies is complicated by the fact that a movie is the work of many storytellers who, besides the screenwriter and director, include the actors, the cinematographer, and the designers. It's the director's job to get everybody telling stories that fit with the story he's trying to tell.

Capote is a very truth-full story, but it is a story, more story-like than a lot of movies, and still made up.

We had a very good discussion here at the Mannion Film Fest about Good Night, and Good Luck and just how good and how truth-full it was, and Mannion Family Movie Night this summer has featured showings of two movies "based on a true story" were very truth-full. They were both sports stories, Glory Road and The Greatest Game Ever Played.

Glory Road is a good movie and one that was very carefully made to be as true to life as possible. If you rent the DVD make sure you watch the interviews with the men who played on that basketball team. You'll be impressed by how how true to life the movie was.

If you want to be a good post-modernist about it you can argue later that the players' memories of their glory year have probably been reshaped by their experience with the making of the movie and then by watching it. The stories they tell about that year are now different stories than the ones they used to tell.

But before the movie was even made, another story probably got in the way of their memories---I'm assuming that some of them or all of them read their coach Don Haskins' memoir.

The Greatest Game Ever Played is an even better movie, and this is coming from someone who loves basketball but just does not get golf, no way, no how---although having watched The Greatest Game Ever Played I think I have a better appreciation for the game.

The movie is good, so good that while I was watching it I thought, This is too good to be true.

But when I read Mark Frost's book, conveneintly also titled The Greatest Game Ever Played, I was happily shocked by how much that I thought was too good to be true was true. Things I thought couldn't have happened did happen. Scenes I thought were there for symbolic reasons were there for symbolic reasons but I forgot that much of what happens to us in real life is symbolic.

Of course because something happened in real life doesn't mean it happened exactly as it happens in the movie, even when the moviemakers are trying as hard as they can to duplicate the real event.

Just putting the camera here instead of there changes things, makes them artificial. The scene may be factual, but that doesn't make it truth-full.

Glory Road the movie and Glory Road the book, the movie The Greatest Game Ever Played and Mark Frost's book The Greatest Game Ever Played are all truth-full and true to life. And they are all stories told. They are made up.

Capote was made up just as Truman Capote made up In Cold Blood.

Mariane Pearl made up A Mighty Heart and the movie based on it will be made up.

They are all truth-full, but none of them are the truth. Not the whole truth. There will always be more truth to be found. There will always be something left out that deserves attention. There will always be more story to tell.

Which is why, as good as Capote was, another movie about the same events isn't necessarily redundant and why I'm looking forward to seeing Infamous.

Mariane Pearl owns her story, the one she told in her book. But she doesn't own the story. There's too much of the story for any one person to claim, let alone tell by herself.

The job is still open to other storytellers.

And as it happens, other storytellers are already at work. There's another movie about Daniel Pearl's murder on the way.

Your turn again.

What's your favorite movie "based on a true story"?

Capote may be mine. I have to watch it again. Before I saw it, though, my answer would have been All The President's Men in a shot.

Missing's another good one.


The other movie about Daniel Pearl will be based on Bernard-Henri Levy's Who Killed Daniel Pearl? Levy's pretty up front about making it up in order to tell a truth-full story.

Nancy Nall has a post about a high school student who watched All The President's Men and wasn't impressed by its truth-full-ness as she was shocked to hear newspaper reporters and editors cussing.

The student wrote a letter to the Washington Post's editors about it and the Post's ombudsman, Deborah Howell, replied in a totally condescending and fatuous way. Read Nance's post, Pottymouths.

And in the New Republic, Noam Scheiber wrote about some of the truth-full-ness that he feels was left out of Glory Road. Read Sheiber's essay Basektball Diaries.


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