That old chestnut “truth is stranger than fiction” has always bothered me. For one thing, I’ve never agreed with the sentiment behind it. The real world is weird, sure, but weirder than alien robots disguised as big-rigs? Weirder than magic rings that turn you invisible but corrupt your soul, than the ability to choke someone to death with your mind, than the entire world being a computer simulation? Weirder than just about any moment in a David Lynch or Terry Gilliam film?
Fiction is pretty ridiculous, guys and gals, and thank god for it, because the real world is kind of monotonous and boring most of the time. And even when it gets interesting and bizarre and crazy cool, there’s just one problem with Truth: we’ll never really know how it went down.
“Truth is stranger than fiction,” is really a kind of koan, or a paradoxical statement that exposes the shortcomings of conventional logic, in that it neglects one crucial detail: “Truth” is entirely subjective.
What actually happened, whether it was ten minutes ago and nothing more interesting than you buying some bread at the grocery store or five centuries ago on a battlefield in feudal Japan, is a matter of guesses, lies, conjecture and perspective. We delineate between the real world, in which we ostensibly understand what is going on thanks to our attention to the daily news, and the unreal world of escapism and fiction, where we retreat when we need a break from reality.
But we are all pretty much in the dark all the time. And our so-called reality is as much a fantasy as the latest ep of Game of Thrones.
Sometimes, we can all agree on what we think happened; many times, we can’t even do that. Regardless, a communal agreement on a series of events is still an adaptation of reality, at best a mostly accurate account of major details.
For example, if we take a real-life incident like the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Towers, what we all know, what we can all agree on, is that two planes hit the Towers, both buildings fell, and a lot of people died; another plane hit the Pentagon; the final plane crashed in Pennsylvania. What we can’t know for certain is just about everything else. How do we know for certain it was an operation carried out by al-Qaeda? How do we know for certain it was a conspiracy masterminded by our government to start a war in the Middle East? We either trust the official story the government provided and that the media fact-checked, or we believe there’s a nefarious conspiracy because there’s some evidence for that, too, or we believe that we’ll never know exactly what happened. We’re comfortable with an adaptation of the truth, a “more-or-less this is what happened account” with a lot of gray area and hazy bits.
I’m not advocating conspiracy theories necessarily, but merely pointing out that the existence of conspiracy theories, the fact that people offer alternate histories that contradict the status quo account, proves that there is no absolute truth that we can know when it comes to the real world. The truth that we accept, that we believe in is, in ways both major and minor, a fiction as well, whether it’s a major event like 9/11, Sandy Hook, or the missing Malaysian Airline flight, or something far more mundane, like differing accounts on what happened in your local bar last Wednesday between two of the regulars.
I bring all this up, because recently I’ve been consuming a lot of “non-fiction” stories, and doing so fairly unintentionally. It was only after a recent viewing of 1963’s The Great Escape that it struck me how much “Based on a True Story,” “This is a True Story,” and my favorite variation, “Some of This Actually Happened” I’ve been seeing prefacing my entertainment options these past couple of months. In addition to Great Escape, I’ve also watched Captain Phillips, Rush, Pain & Gain, Lawrence of Arabia, Escape from Alcatraz, The French Connection, American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street, the documentaries Tabloid and Prohibition, and have just finished reading Finn J.D. John’s book, Wicked Portland, an historical account of Portland’s lawless, corrupt and scandalous existence in the late 19th century.
What strikes me as interesting is how perceived fact or historical accuracy lends a certain, strange legitimacy to a piece of art. Obviously, a film about a real event occurring like, say, the incredible escape from a Nazi POW Camp portrayed in The Great Escape must take liberties with facts. Someone invented the dialogue; there was no one with a tape recorder getting every word down as it was spoken. The exact series of events, the order of those events, the ways in which real people interacted with one another in ways both large and small, is all, to a certain extent, a fiction. And the film confesses right at its beginning that it has manipulated the timeline to fit within the narrative demands of a three hour film.
All of these are obvious changes that must be performed in the service of storytelling, but in the case of making a film, there are less obvious, but potentially more egregious distortions of fact. A filmmaker brings a certain bias into any project with him; he can’t help it. Film as an art form is about manipulating an audience’s emotions through visual and audio trickery. So in telling a “true” story, the position of the camera, the cuts of the editing, the soundtrack, all communicate the filmmaker’s intention.
Escape certainly depicts the POW escapees as heroic, intelligent, brave, and stubborn, but is this factually accurate? If we were flies on the wall of the real-life Great Escape and could see every facet of its story, would it in any way, shape or form resemble the narrative depiction in the film? And perhaps more importantly, would our emotional response to these events unfolding in reality be the same as it is when seeing it through a filmmaker’s eye?
What does our labeling of “non-fiction” lend an actually fictional story besides that illusion of credibility, of importance, of education?
Can we call The French Connection a true story when it mythologizes its main characters to such an extent? When its best scene–Hackman’s car/subway chase–never happened in the real world version of that story? What about The Wolf of Wall Street, based on the memoir of a man who lied for a living? Can we look at that film and say this is what really happened? In fiction, we’d call that an unreliable narrator, but what do you call it in nonfiction? Even a film as dense and massive and seemingly legitimate as Lawrence of Arabia, with a running time long enough to make you feel like you’re watching it unfold in real time, gets sniped by historians, who complain that certain characters, events, and scenes are skewed, exaggerated or outright fabricated depictions of what really went down.
Of course, historians love to argue. With filmmakers, with writers, and with each other about what really happened, despite that, at the end of the day, it amounts to one guy’s educated guess over another’s. A historian’s job is to go back and look at eyewitness accounts, supposed reliable sources, and official records and try to find some semblance of continuity and agreement and then tell us a story that will convince us that they are letting us in on the straight dope, the real story behind the story. But we will never know who Jack the Ripper was, whether Jesus actually did rise from the dead, whether JFK was the victim of a government conspiracy, or whether or not the Trojan Army actually hid in a giant wooden gift horse.
Which is not to say that we shouldn’t try to understand, that we shouldn’t strive to discover and uncover the mysteries of time. But goddamn is reality frustrating. A juicy, mysterious incident comes along, but unlike a Sherlock Holmes or Columbo story, you’re not going to get all your questions answered in a reasonable amount of time. We’re going to keep consuming the newspaper, or Internet, or cable news stories every day to hear the latest installment and uncover new facts, hopeful that we might start to understand the motive of someone who would go into a school and gun down children before committing suicide, but there will be no tidy season finale. “Truth” as we will ultimately understand it is the fiction equivalent of being handed a novel with most of the first two-thirds pulled out and intermittent pages missing at the end.
The weird contradiction is that while fiction is ultimately more psychologically satisfying in our need for resolution, symmetry and motivation in the storytelling we consume, non-fiction is alluring in its ability to do the one thing that fiction most often fails to do: suspend our disbelief.
I always hate it when someone says, “Nobody would say that, nobody would do that, nobody would act that way” in relating a criticism of a particular story. The best counter to that kind of criticism is when you can say, “oh yeah, well somebody did say that, they did do that, they did act that way, because this story is TRUE. This actually happened in the real world.” That shuts them up pretty quickly.
The illusion of reality in non-fiction, that “I can’t believe this actually happened, but it did actually happen, so I do actually believe it” is the reason why history *is* really interesting when you’re not learning it from a textbook. In my recent reading of John’s Wicked Portland, the fun is in imagining how this city where you live was completely different a century ago, that the building where your dentist operates was once a gambling and opium den, that your grocery store is covering up the ground once inhabited by a notorious whorehouse, that where there is now a city park, now inhabited by laughing children and hand-holding couples, there used to be a series of flophouses for sailors that would get shanghaied into slave labor and awake from their stupor on a boat somewhere in the middle of the Pacific.
Another great benefit in any effort to explore the past is the occasional moments of enlightenment and the fitting together of pieces that you never knew were part of the same puzzle. A recent viewing of the Ken Burns documentary, Prohibition, provided me with one of my favorite historical facts and rewired my brain’s connections: as it turns out, the Anti-Saloon League, in looking to outlaw alcohol, knew that the federal government would never go along with it, as taxation of alcohol was its primary source of revenue. So what did they do? They introduced a bill in Congress for the Federal Income Tax.
While the term “non-fiction” will always be a bit of a misnomer, the word “history” seems apt: “his story,” as being subjective with shades of truth. However, despite our needing a willful suspension of disbelief in the case of fiction or a willful suspension of belief in the case of non-fiction, our approach to these two methods of storytelling should not be at such odds with one another. Consuming any story is about understanding that Truth comes not just from how something played out exactly, but in learning the larger lessons of its story, of the ideas and themes and connections it makes to our view of the world we live in.
Or to paraphrase another cliched statement to counter the first one, “the best lies have a little truth in them.”