Saturday, September 02, 2006

All I know about history I learned at the movies

In his review of World Trade Center, New Yorker film critic David Denby tossed off a sentence that is either inexcusably callous or ridiculously tone deaf.

Disaster has been a prime subject for art at least since the Iliad, but many people would prefer that their raw memories of 9/11 were never sullied by representation.

Right off the bat, calling what happened five years ago a disaster strikes the wrong note. Putting 9/11 in the same word file as the San Francisco earthquake, Krakatoa, and the last days of Pompeii is a category error that shuts down the mental image program in my head. Disasters have natural causes. Calling 9/11 a disaster erases the terrorists from the drama and begins it with the Pentagon and the Twin Towers on fire, which, actually, is where Oliver Stone's movie begins, with the firefighters and Port Authority cops responding to what they think is a disaster.

But that's a minor mis-strike of the keyboard compared to that prissily sneering "unsullied."

I know there are some people who have made a quasi-holy day of 9/11, whose memories of that day are hallowed by sentiment, cliche, and the tritest forms of patriotism. It seems to me that those people would want movies about that day released every month in order to have a way to go worship in public. The way to sully their memories is to tell real stories about 9/11 and make them face certain facts, and I don't mean just political facts.

But there are thousands of people whose memories of that day aren't being kept clean in their heads like cloths on a shrine. They are raw, violent, tragic, and painful, because they were there or their friends and loved ones were there. They might have died. Their husbands, sons, wives, sisters, fathers, mothers, friends, and colleagues did die.

I think those people might have good reasons for not wanting see Hollywood types use what happened to sell lots of popcorn and advance careers and reputations and give self-congratulatory speeches at Oscar time about the "importance" of movies and the "good" they do reminding us of the sacrifices and courage of those that died that day---uplifting speeches that have as their goal making members of the audience who weren't there feel good about enjoying the rattling good yarn made about other people's horrible deaths.

The Times Herald Record interviewed some local people who were there that day and they all have different thoughts about whether or not the movie's going to "sully" their memories.

There are thousands and thousands and thousands of Americans who weren't directly hurt on Septemeber 11, 2001 who have been suffering from the aftermath of that day---starting with the soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan and Iraq and their families---and millions more of us who have had to deal with five years of political and social upheaval, from the inconvenient to the literally disasterous---would George Bush have been president last September when New Orleans was drowning if the hijackers had missed their flights four Septembers before?

That's not a rhetorical question, by the way.

All of us have pretty good reasons for thinking that treating the first cause of all our problems since as entertainment might not be a good idea.

Considering how many people are still confused about what happened that day, about who was responsible and how it happened, it's not a matter of keeping memories "unsullied." It's a matter of seeing that our collective memories are based on facts.

Seems to me that while we're still struggling to figure things out, it's not the best time for Oliver Stone to come along and reduce the whole mess to a little kid fallen down a well story.

And that's the main reason I'm staying away. I don't want to leave the theater feeling good that the two men were rescued. Of course I'm glad they were. But I don't want to be manipulated into feeling, even for a moment, that that day had a happy ending...or any kind of ending at all.

So maybe it is the case that I don't want my memories to be sullied.

But because I don't want to go see it, and because I question whether or not Oliver Stone should have made this movie at this time, that doesn't mean that I think he was wrong to have made it or that it's wrong for anybody else to go see it and even enjoy it.

The clumsiness (or heartlessness) of Denby's sentence aside, he's addressing a serious question.

Who owns the story?

It's a question I danced around in my posts Making it up at the movies and yesterday's Deadwood and the libel of George Hearst. It's a series of questions, actually.

Are there any events that are off limits to artists? How much fidelity does an artist owe to historical fact? How much respect do artists have to pay to the reputations and feelings of the real people whose stories they've appropriated for their art?

I'd answer none, not much but it depends, and some, even if the real people are long dead.

The best art is true to life but that doesn't mean it is or has to be true to the facts.

Frankly, I don't like it one bit that David Milch named Deadwood's ultimate villain after a real human being who wasn't a villain at all, but if Milch ever invites me out for a beer I won't spend the night haranguing him about it. I wouldn't try to tell him he was wrong.

Now if he asked me, I might, in the politiest and most respectful way I could, suggest that calling his villain George Hearst, instead of say, George Kane, was an artitstic mistake.

And a minor mistake at that.

Minor! Get it? George Hearst owned gold mines? He was a miner? Minor, miner?

Sometimes I just crack myself up.

The character---I'll just call him Hearst. I'll use George Hearst when I mean the real person---fits in to Deadwood's overall story arc beautifully.

The show's main theme, how a lawful and orderly society puts itself together in a lawless and disordered envirnonment, has been dramatized in the story of how a loose and temporary association of gold miners turns into a permanent and solid union of citizens---the story of how Deadwood transforms itself from a "camp" to a town.

Deadwood the camp exists for one purpose. Digging gold out of the ground. The camp is there so that individuals can get rich and leave for greener pastures as soon as they make their killing.

The town is there so that people can live together. The camp is a libertarian Rube Goldberg machine, clumsily and crazily designed to provide the minimum of services to people whose main intention towards one another is to stay out of each other's way. Everybody has staked out their own individual claim and sticks to it. Towns are exercises in mutual dependence. They require individuals to think about much more than their own immediate needs and desires. Everybody has a stake in the town.

The town of Deadwood is a work in progress. The camp and it exist on top of each other and are so tied up together that the characters themselves aren't sure which they're living in...or which they want to live in.

It's always then a question: Do you want the gold or do you want civilization?

As things have gone through the first two seasons, most of the characters who bother to worry about it seem to think they can have both.

In the third season, along comes this dragon called Hearst who makes them have to choose.

Do you want the gold or do you want the town?

The monster of greed and avarice, pride and the will to dominate that Milch has created in his Hearst is apparently an artistic triumph.

But when it's my round and Milch is drinking the beer I paid for I might, might, try to make the case that calling his character George Hearst he brought confused the issue, mixing up art and history to the worse for both.

Also, I might suggest, it was intellectually dishonest.

Deadwood is not a historical drama. Milch uses history the way he uses language, to distract viewers from the basically allegorical nature of his storytelling.

This is problematic because many people watching don't know that's what he's doing. They think he's trying to be historically accurate.

The fact that he very often is adds to the confusion.

Milch must know this happens. And I think he should be careful because of it. He knew as he was creating the character of Hearst that a lot of viewers would think that George Hearst was as like the TV character as Milch's Wild Bill Hickock was like the real James Butler Hickock, which, by the way, it was---I mean his Wild Bill was very much like the real Wild Bill.

His Hearst is not very much like the real George Hearst, and since that was deliberate, it means that Milch didn't care about the confusion. He didn't care about the real George Hearst's reputation or about his viewers' understanding of history.

That's his prerogative as an artist.

But I'd buy a second round for the right to argue with him that being as careless with George Hearst's reputation as he was with other characters' real life counterparts has political implications which make what he did intellectually dishonest.

The politics aren't imposed either. They're his. His allegory is in a large part a political one.

There are three political arguments that can be made from the doings of his character, Hearst.

One is that capitalism is itself monstrous, a dragon that comes along and squats on the gold and devours anyone who tries to take it back from him. I happen to see the point of this one. It's debatable, but it his merits.

The second is that whether or not they are dragons themselves just by being part of the system all capitalists are as guilty as if they were dragons. This is even more debatable and I'm less inclined to see the point.

And the third is that it doesn't matter what the individual capitalist appears to have been like, in reality he was a dragon, and this one I think is just plain wrong.

Milch's Hearst seems to me to conflate all three into one argument and that's not just politically wrong to me, it's...I hate to say morally wrong...but it's disrespectful of human beings and their right to their own selves.

How's it go? When the facts don't fit the legend, print the legend?


When the facts don't fit the legend, don't bother with the facts. Factuality is not necessarily the same as the truth, not in art, at least. Journalists and historians have to confine themselves to the facts. But artists do not. If the truth doesn't require certain facts, artists can jettison the long as it's understood between them and their audience that that's what they're doing.

There was no artistic reason Milch had to call his Hearst George Hearst. He didn't just simply neglect to get rid of a fact he didn't need. He added it and insisted upon it.

And by doing that he turned a fiction into a "fact" and inserted a lie into his artistic truth.

Matt Zoller Seitz linked to my post on Hearst in his comment section and very kindly included a long quote to which one of his commenters left this reply:

The Hearst family are hardly a buncha virgins themselves, so excuse me while I weep no tears for Milch's "slander."

Ok, I called it "libel," but nevermind. I don't think the sins of the sons should be visited upon the father any more than the sins of the father should be visited upon the sons.

More than this, though, I don't think that just because a person's dead, we don't owe his memory some respect. We're all here a short time and most of us leave nothing more to mark our passing than a few memories in the minds of our families and friends.

Even those who manage to make a lasting name for themselves can't hope for that name to last more than a few generations after they're dead. The evil that men do may live after them while the good is oft interred with their bones, but that evil doesn't live that much longer after them.

The blonde was surprised to learn that Milch's Hearst was that George Hearst. She didn't make the connection to his more famous son and the son's empire. It won't be long before a TV miniseries can have a character called William Randolph Hearst that even well-educated viewers will mistake for a fictional character.

The fact that viewers like the blonde can think Milch's Hearst is a fiction doesn't excuse Milch though. Viewers like the blonde will sooner or later run into know it alls like me to clue them in.

The problem is that a lot of know it alls like me only think they know it all. The history lesson most blondes of the world will get from their know it all acquainances will stop with the fact that the real George Hearst came to Deadwood and bought out the Manuel Brothers, which means that they will "learn" that the real George Hearst was a monster.

The real George Hearst was surely no saint. But we know enough about him to be able to say pretty much exactly what evil he did and what good and I think we owe it to him, and each other, to remember both as exactly as we can for as long as we can.

When we are gone all that is left of us is the memory of us. The memory is us, and it deserves almost as much respect as if it was us there in the room with whoever is doing the remembering.

To remember someone inexactly, to alter the memory even with the best of intentions, to sentimentalize, is as good as forgetting, and once we're forgotten we're gone.

If it's wrong to forget a dead person in this way, how much more wrong is it to do it to a live one?

What happens when a book or a play or a TV show or an Oliver Stone movie comes along and replaces a person with a lie?

(This post isn't going where I want it to go as fast as I want it to. Time to shut it down. I'll try again tomorrow to get back to the point.)


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