Truth vs. fiction

About a week ago, Karen sent me a link to that "Brother, if you don't mind..." story by Usman Farman. Later, Karen and others pointed out that the story was a bit too pat, that it sounded a bit too much like fiction written to make a point.

'sfunny—if something sets off my urban-legend detectors, I get very skeptical, very cynical, and go around posting notes about how people shouldn't believe everything they read on the Net. But if something is well written and gives me hope for humanity, somehow I'm inclined to believe. I guess we all believe what we want to believe...

I've seen maybe half-a-dozen we're-all-in-it-together stories in the past ten days; I don't know for sure that any of them at all are true (I always get a little bit skeptical when such an account is written by a professional writer, for example), but I want to believe them enough that I'm willing to consider them true unless/until I see clear evidence to the contrary. And I think the world in general, and the US in particular, could use more we're-all-in-it-together stories these days.

That said, I also think it's important not to present untrue stories as true. When Fred Small sings a song that he says is "based on a true story," and I later find out that he made up the central point of it, I feel a little bit betrayed.

But after thinking about this a few years back, specifically in the context of Fred Small songs, I came to the tentative conclusion (all my conclusions are tentative) that there's no such thing as objective storytelling. Anyone who tells a story filters it through their own biases and perceptions.

I'm still uncomfortable with a story being presented as "true" if it contains significant alterations of fact. But Mary Anne's been telling me about "creative nonfiction"—I'm no longer entirely sure how possible it is to draw a clear firm boundary between fiction and nonfiction. Certainly there are plenty of things that are firmly on the fiction side (though many works that are clearly fictional include bits taken from real life). But given human biases, and the fallibility of human senses and perceptions and memory, it's hard to tell just how much fiction is mixed into any given piece of "non"-fiction. (In the introduction to Delany's autobiography The Motion of Light on Water, he notes that for years he told people, "My father died of lung cancer in 1958 when I was seventeen." Eventually someone pointed out that Delany was born in 1942, so he couldn't have been 17 in 1958; a little research revealed that his father actually died in October 1960, when Delany was 18.)

This fiction/nonfiction thing is relevant to Cradle Will Rock, too. The opening titles say: "A (mostly) true story." And as far as I can determine, most of the major events in the film did indeed take place, more or less as depicted. The WPA's Federal Theatre Project was real; a man named Marc Blitzstein did write a pro-union musical called The Cradle Will Rock, and the events surrounding the opening performance of the musical appear to have happened more or less as portrayed at the end of the film. The testimony in front of the Dies Committee (a.k.a. the House Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities, a.k.a. HUAC) that's shown in the movie is taken directly from the Congressional Record, even the part where congresspeople accuse Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe and various Greek playwrights of having been Communists.

But the movie also distorts the truth in some ways. An analysis site (which contains major spoilers for the film, btw; in particular, it may spoil the very cool climax of the movie if you read that site before seeing the movie) notes that the entire Diego Rivera/Nelson Rockefeller subplot actually took place five years before The Cradle Will Rock opened. HUAC shut down the FTP in 1938, not 1937. Margherita Sarfatti, Mussolini's Jewish mistress (played by Susan Sarandon in the movie), was out of favor by the time the action of the movie begins in 1936. People who knew Orson Welles and John Houseman consider their portrayals in this movie to be near-slanderous. And so on.

And yet, I have to say: it was an excellent movie. Funny, moving, with a good cast and some superb performances. And I have to note that various reviews of the movie available online, including the site I pointed to above, seem to have missed some key lines. The movie does not, for instance, overlook Blitzstein's homosexuality; merely puts it in the background. Nor are the references to "Mussolini, Ethiopia, the Spanish Civil War, the WPA, [and] FDR" nearly as vague as that site suggests. To me, the movie gives a compelling portrait of a time and of some of the people of that time. Some of the facts and some of the characterizations are distorted, and I think it's important to be aware of that; yet I think it's also worth noting the artistry with which the film is made.

And this is not meant to be an apologia along the lines of noting that Birth of a Nation was an extremely influential film. I'm not saying "We should abhor the content of this while celebrating the skill of the filmmakers." I'm saying: It's good art, but it's not precisely accurate history.

The movie goes by fast. It's hard to keep up with at times, and in places I missed lines because everyone was yelling at once. That's okay; when it's done well, as it is here, that's good art too. I suspect that it would be well worth seeing the movie again to pick up things I missed, and/or reading the screenplay.

(On a side note, what the movie is really about is what the original musical was really about, inspired by a comment of Bertolt Brecht's: prostitution, and the ways in which people, particularly artists, prostitute themselves.)

Further confusing all of these issues is the fact that reputable news sources sometimes get things wrong, particularly in times of stress, and retractions aren't always seen by everyone who saw the original news. Apparently major news sources were saying on the morning of Sept. 11, during the first wave of panic, that the White House and/or the State Department building were on fire, possibly due to a car bomb... They later retracted those statements, but people were repeating them as fact for a while afterward. Are news broadcasts fiction or nonfiction?

Trust nothing. Trust everything. Believe what you want to believe. Always check facts and verify sources. What is Truth, anyway?

Oh, yes, and then there's the fact that the easiest way to do research these days is to use the Web, which is even less likely to contain reliable information than more traditional sources like books. The Web is a marvelous place, and I'm always impressed by how easy it is to get useful information from it. But there's always a nagging question of just how much to trust that information.

A multiplicity of views, a multiplicity of stories. Maybe in the end that's our best defense. Keep an open yet skeptical mind.

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