Saturday, October 31, 2015

Hollywood Violates History Once Again

Hollywood and its apologists continue on their merry, hubristic, and for me, at least, ultimately dispiriting quest to bend facts to their predilections. The latest lamentable lapse into factual revisionism, perhaps the least significant of a series of misrepresentations, is “Steve Jobs.” Joe Nocera, for one, has taken great offense. A financial columnist before arriving at his Oped post at the NYT, he knew Jobs personally. Nocera says that virtually nothing about the movie is actually true. Instead, the very talented Aaron Sorkin has appropriated Jobs' persona and fills him with thoughts and feelings that never existed. “Is it a biopic?” he is asked. “I'm not sure what to call it,” he answers. Nocera knows what it is: “That's easy. Fiction,” he says.

When it comes to truth and history, what a sordid history Hollywood has! I just read that before our time, in the 1930's, Louis B. Mayer changed film elements that offended the Nazis – this really happened, even before the blacklisted 10. (reference: Philipp Blom, Fracture –
Those were instances of Hollywood's bending to political pressures. In our time Hollywood bends to the “artistic sensibility” of the auteur. Oliver Stone alleges conspiracies that never were. Kathryn Bigelow glories in the fruits of torture that never existed. Ava Duverney libels one of the greatest enactor of civil rights who ever lived – the white man Lyndon Johnson – as a cynical bigot. Why?

Here is their defense: UCLA professor of Theater, Film, and Television Richard Walter writes in the NYT letters that Nocera displays the “the height of arrogance” for thinking he knows the truth about Jobs – Nocera, who knew him, vs. Sorkin, who didn't! The fatuous Professor Walter adds: “The role for the creator of dramatic narratives is not to catalog an inventory of 'facts,' but to engage, indeed to provoke, upset, discomfort and disturb audiences.” He refers to “the lie that tells the bigger truth.”

And my God, it's not only Hollywood. Lying science takes a bow in today's NYT: “Take, for example, Prof. Diederik Stapel of Tilburg University in the Netherlands, who in 2011 faked experiments to show, among other things, that eating meat made people selfish. (He later said that his work was “a quest for aesthetics, for beauty — instead of the truth”).”

OK, my own aesthetics are offended, because for some reason I like truth. But is this only an aesthetic preference, or something greater? Does truth matter, even though so many people think that there is no real discoverable truth, that everything is just stories, since even historical facts are selected to make a story out of events? Am I just old-fashioned?

Yes, I learned about the problem of selection for history in my very first semester of being a history major. And yes, I'm for provoking and challenging and making people think. Good. But so we really want to consciously lie to provoke and to seek a self-defined “higher truth?”  Go ahead, call me old-fashioned, call me stuck in the conventional mud, but I'm opting for factual truth over the calculated lie. 

What an age where one has to defend that proposition!  But here goes.  An honest inquiry into factual events needs to deal with explanations and facts that contradict an overall narrative. Doing so is one of the major disciplines of finding truth. Let me fall back on medicine, as I tend to do. In medicine, when you are looking for a diagnosis, and when treatment depends on that diagnosis, there is no “higher truth.” There is only an understanding of the disease process as it actually is, complex though it may be. And in arriving at a diagnosis, there is every chance for error. The Institute of Medicine, a really great organization (and you all know how skeptical I am, so when I praise an establishment organization, it's noteworthy) sees diagnostic error as a huge problem. At the core of diagnostic error are errors in cognition.

What are errors in cognition? There is a huge number of them – An example is confirmation bias, where you have an opinion on the diagnosis, say, and if contrary information comes in, you ignore it as a “testing error,” or “weak indicator.” Or there is the recent case error, whatever that is officially called, where you tend to see the diagnosis as the same as a case you recently saw, or heard about in a lecture. These errors happen all the time, and that's when you are trying to stick to the truth, not lying intentionally! But in medicine, you get to see the result of your error in the course of your patient. There is a final accounting.  In Hollywood, what you get is a "higher truth."  What horseshit.

So, history is harder, because there is no therapeutic test that will judge objectively. But that doesn't mean that truth isn't available and important. There are rules, like prolonged civil unrest brings out the crazies. You learn from the rules you find by searching for truth in history. You avoid undue civil unrest if you can, to avoid the crazy consequences. You try. Truth matters, and if you don't think so, start painting, but don't talk rationality.

If you want to screw around with facts, that's your right as an individual. And if we were talking about some obscure e-book, well, who would care? But movies are something else. To quote myself in “Selma,” movies “shuts you in a room, dampens any other sensory distractions, focuses your attention on colors and giant images that are as clear as can be, and envelopes you in surrounding sound. There is nothing like a movie. Movies are the most persuasive, impactful, and indelible of any media ever invented. Movies are not only powerful, they are so easily accessible; more people see movies than read books or see plays by orders of magnitude.”

Since movies are the most powerful and accessible medium we have, what people learn at the movies is most often the full amount a person will know about the subject in question. So a lie, no matter how well intentioned, is really a sin against human understanding. Unless you are so arrogant that you think you are the one with the higher truth. But guess what – nobody is that great.

What has been gained by Stone's lies about the Kennedy assassination? What about Bigelow's? What about DuVerney, who when confronted with her character assassination of Johnson replied, “Well, that's my truth.” These are the higher truths of the Hollywood geniuses?

What they have in common besides their lies is one big thing – they all made money. You never found one of these guys violating the truth for something less remunerative, did you? Or is it the thrill of aesthetics? Hmmm. I wonder.

Color me outraged.

Budd Shenkin

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