Thursday, June 19, 2008

Five Cases:

(a) My wife and I watched Indiscreet (Stanley Donen, 1958) the other night. She mentioned afterwards that, though she liked the movie, she was unable to completely get into it because Ingrid Bergman's Swedish accent sticks out because Phyllis Calvert, who plays her sister, has an upper-class-ish British accent, and the discrepancy doesn't seem to have been explained (i.e., a line in the script telling us that Bergman was adopted or something else along those lines). But she said this wasn't nearly as bad as Dangerous Liasons (Stephen Frears, 1988) - a movie she was unable to take seriously at all because of the American actors, playing French characters, all speaking with different "affected" accents.

(b) During a discussion about standards of realism on an RPG blog's comment thread, Meg Baker brought up the case of an electrician friend of hers who watched Capote (Bennett Miller, 2005) and was bothered by the fact that "a phone that figures prominently has a wire jack" which would have been "utterly impossible for the era."

(c) A film critic friend (and former teacher) of mine was unable to get into The Limey (Steven Soderbergh, 1999) because he couldn't buy Terrence Stamp as a guy who just got out of jail. "He looked more like he just got back from a Caribbean vacation."

(d) The first time I watched In the Name of the Father (Jim Sheridan, 1993), I had no trouble responding to/engaging with the movie on its own terms. However, I saw it again after having read more about the historical case and the liberties Sheridan and Terry George takes with Gerry Conlon's story, and the movie no longer "worked" for me. While I was still sympathetic to its politics and its overall p.o.v., the fact that the central event - Conlon being imprisoned with his father - had been almost completely fabricated seemed like a betrayal of the audience's trust.

Now: though I think I'm justified, in case (d), I can't help feeling that the people in (a), (b), and (c) are not quite playing fair with the movie. I mean, even though this is subjective, a dislike for incongruous accents, props, or suntans seems, to a certain extent, like something to get over. At least/especially if the movie is coherent in some way: that is, if there are organizing principles at work.

But I can even play devil's advocate against myself, too. Here's another case:

(e) On a message board discussion about how the makers of The King of Kong had not only kept things out of their movie that would complicate the story they were trying to tell but actually manipulated events to get the story they wanted, Luke Crane wrote that these simplifications, omissions, and manipulations did not matter because of the movie's overall truth:

I thought it was great. I was poignantly aware of the artifice of it as I watched, but I couldn't get past the characterizations. Why? Because I know those people! Not personally, but I meet people like that every day in my gamer life. And those on screen portraits were incredibly accurate to what I experience in my day to day.
I'm bringing all this up not to say that anyone was actually right or wrong, but rather to suggest that there is a gray area between approaching a movie as a "generous viewer" - one who engages with it on its own terms - and "discerning viewer" - one who measures the movie against his or her own values/sensibility etc.

Sometimes I get the feeling that unsympathetic viewers will bring in a concept like "historical accuracy" to make their argument against a movie stronger: it gives the impression that they are holding the movie up to an objective standard. This is a suspect maneuver, IMO, because most viewers (general audience members, film critics, and film buffs alike) are not at all consistent in terms of which movies they hold to that standard. "Historical accuracy" is like a club they pick up when they feel the need to beat on movies they don't like. On the other hand, there's something about the way that movies like In the Name of the Father or The King of Kong play around with the facts that definitely bugs me. So, like I said, a gray area.


Brennan Taylor said...

The phone jack comment is interesting, because it echoes something another film critic mentioned about Moulin Rouge, where the contract broke his suspension of disbelief because it used a font that had not yet been invented at the turn of the 20th century. This, of course, in a movie that uses late 20th century pop tunes throughout. I think little details that pop you out of the story are a bit unpredictable, and like the font or phone jack issue, often have to do with your own area of expertise, and are not necessarily related to uncharitable viewing.

Jon Hastings said...

Hi Brennan -

Yes - that's a very good point. And I definitely think that there's a difference between being momentarily thrown out of a movie because of an anachronistic phone jack and dismissing a movie entirely because of an anachronistic phone jack.

What's also interesting, though, is that it's kind of arbitrary: no one is an expert in everything, so, to a certain extent, it seems like an unfair basis with which to make a judgment.

Slate used to (and might still) run articles by "experts" debunking "true story" movies (getting someone who had just read a Joe McCarthy biography to write about the inaccuracies of Good Night and Good Luck, for instance). That can be interesting and provide a useful service, but I'm skeptical about taking any approach that equates "inaccurate" with "bad". If we're willing to forgive inaccuracies in, say, Shakespeare's Richard III, why not in Good Night and Good Luck? Is it only because Shakespeare is so much greater than George Clooney? Maybe! But I suspect, also, that it has to do with Richard III dealing with events that are much farther removed from us than those dealt with by Good Night. Which is also kind of arbitrary, but (almost?) all of our judgments about art are contingent on lots of things like this.

And I keep coming back to the question: what is the difference between the wrongness phone jack in Capote and the wrongness of the central conceit in In the Name of the Father? Is it just a difference of scale or are they two different kinds of inaccuracies?

Anonymous said...

Me liking the Ingrid Bergman movie but being distracted by the implausibility of her accent is not too different from you having a problem with the silliness of names in The Lady in The Water. It doesn't ruin the movie, but it takes away from the "complete escape" experience that movies provide because it makes you focus on stuff besides the story --it's distracting.

Jon Hastings said...

Anon. -

I agree - and in both cases I think it is something for us to "get over". That is, the burden is on us to deal with the movie on its terms, not on the ones we'd like it to have (i.e. consistent, realistic accent work; low-key, unobtrusive fantasy names).