The big news du jour — after the colorful and convoluted transgressions of celebrity athletes — is the imminent Academy Awards. The three top contenders for Best Picture are Argo, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty. These three have at least one thing in common: They all stand accused of playing fast and loose with the historical truth of matters.
But what is “objective” about history or, for that matter, about reporting? History is always written by the victors, etc. What we “know,” or believe, about our respective pasts (and presents) always involves reconstructions on the basis of only partial information, observed from particular POVs, always interpreted by people with linguistic, cultural, political and idiosyncratic personal biases. I’ll suggest that 10 different movies about the killing of Bin Laden by 10 different studios would paint 10 different realities, no matter how respectful of the truth they thought they were being. Each would only be “true” to some degree, and from some perspectives. What does Al Qaeda make of Zero Dark Thirty?
Ben Affleck, Argo’s director, has justified in terms of the pursuit of art his taking liberties with certain facts of the Iranian hostage-taking of the US Embassy staff. “It’s that struggle between … the bookkeeper’s reality,” he suggests, “and … the poet’s reality.” He believes that this movie has done justice to the essential events and issues, while winning them a wide audience through an artful and entertaining presentation. (NPR interview, “Affleck On ‘Argo’ and the 1979 Hostage Crisis”)
I’ve just seen the film, which I think was excellent, and I don’t care if Affleck tidied up some details in the interests of managing a dramatic storyline (e.g. having all of the escaped embassy staff holed up in the Canadian Ambassador’s residence, rather than both there and in his deputy’s house). It was a ripping good yarn, and it was inspiring to know it was based on “real events.” And I have no problem keeping my entertainment and my sources of more factual accounts separate.
Breaking news: Bill the Mathematician has informed me that Affleck & Co. seriously short-changed the Canadian input to the hostage rescue, awarding nearly all the brownie points to the CIA. So I’ve just changed my mind about everything I said earlier, eh?
Whatever. Many people like to expound on the difference between “real life” and fiction, fiction being merely made-up stories or, worse, a pack of lies. Real life, on the other hand, is real. By God, eh? Implicit in this proposition: They know what reality is and what it is not.
Well, here’s some news from someone (me) who really knows what is really real and what is really not. Our individual personalities are narratives, under continuous personal and collective construction and maintenance, as are our cultures and even our entire universes. Modern science is able to tell compelling stories supported by rigorous method and criteria of “objectivity” that make it unusually possible to agree across cultures and ideologies and so on about what is real and what isn’t. But these accounts remain narratives, and as such are subject to revision and even radical reinterpretation in the context of new information.
Are we living in a sim?
Militant custodians of the real realities (except for me) tend to hide a real horror of having their beliefs questioned, an unacknowledged fear that doubt or even too much imaginative play will bring the whole house of cards down around their ears.
The thing is, we live stories of our own personal and collective telling. In fact the difference between a good novel and what, in any given context, we term “reality” is in no way clear cut. Fiction and conventional realities are both narratives. Furthermore they inform and shape one another.
Enough for now. More later on narratives, selves, cultures, realities and the truth about why I got home so late last night.
So, Sara: Are you ready to listen now?