Friday, October 1, 2010

What part of "Based On" don't you understand?

The story of the haunting of the Long Island Lutzes gets the big screen treatment again in “The Amityville Horror” 26 years after the version starring James Brolin and Margot Kidder. Both movies exploit an angle that’s kept screenwriters from going dry for decades: “Based on a True Story" (or BOATS, as it'll be known herein).

From biopics ala "Ray" to historical dramas like "Gangs of New York" to supposedly true tales of the supernatural such as "Amityville," movies have always adapted real life. Now, let's take a second to remind ourselves of the definition of the word "adapted." Emmanuel Lewis says that "adapt" means "to adjust or become adjusted to a specific situation." Now, we need to look at the definition of "adjust:" "to alter to match or fit." In other words, the story is CHANGED to be turned into a movie.

"Sin City" aside, nothing translated from one media into film is ever done so literally. This includes adapting reality. Few real lives, no matter how impressive, contain the kind of three act arc that is the structure of almost all motion pictures. And so liberties are taken, apocryphal tales are used, and complete fiction is interwoven with fact to create an entirely new story.

An there's nothing wrong with that. A BOATS movie is not a documentary; We SHOULD be smart enough to take everything we see in it with a big ol' grain of popcorn salt. The problem seems to be that the audience often overlooks the words “based on." It's not Hollywood's fault that, amazingly, many people just don't question what's presented in a movie that's BOATS. They don't stop to think that it's impossible to know exactly what happened on the doomed fishing boat the Andrea Gale in "The Perfect Storm." But filmgoing is a passive activity and we tend to believe what we're told, especially if it's told to us with great production values by a superstar like Julia "Erin Brockovich" Roberts or Charlize "Monster" Theron.

It’s one of the reasons why historical revisionists such as Oliver Stone and Spike Lee get raked over the coals for films like “JFK” and “Malcolm X.” They’re accused of furthering a political agenda by taking a framework of undisputed facts and filling in the structure with innuendo and supposition to create a work that feels like fact but is much more fiction. And it's entirely their right. Debates as to whether it's "right" or not will rage forever, but it's not the filmmaker's responsibility to hold the viewer's hand. It's their job to tell a good story.

The extent to which BOATS is treated as gospel was made evident by the wee controversy that "Fargo" caused when it came out in 1996. Joel and Ethan Coen's black comedy / thriller about extortion, murder and absolute ineptitude is prefaced with a super that reads, "This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred."

The Coens lied. "Fargo" is complete fiction. When the deception was revealed, some accused the filmmakers of cheating their audience. Even star William H. Macy, upon discovering that the film he was making wasn't fact-based, told the Coens "You can't do that!" to which the visionary writer-director team responded, "Why not?"

Joel Cohen told Time Out "if an audience believes that something's based on a real event, it gives you permission to do things they might otherwise not accept." The fake BOATS tag first gives "Fargo" an added air of bleakness (it's even printed on the back of the DVD)... but the discovery of its inauthenticity takes nothing away from the film. Perhaps the STORY loses a bit of its weight, but the MOVIE takes on an added artistic heft. It's messing with the audience in a brilliant, subtle manner.

So what happens when someone takes a movie like "Ed Wood" as the unvarnished truth? Maybe they just become the source of unenlightened entertainment as they discuss the ironic impact of the worst director of all time's meeting with Orson Welles (a scene in Tim Burton's 1994 biopic that didn't actually happen). Or they get a "D" on a term paper that's transparently based on a Netflix rental rather than actual multifaceted research. The best outcome could be that the person is intrigued by the story they just saw dramatized onscreen and decide to do some delving on their own. Perhaps a movie's dramatic license forces a healthy skepticism of authority and maybe a thirst for knowledge? After all, the best art motivates us, moves us to expand our horizons a bit. Even if it full of big honkin' lies.

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