Fiction is truth. I just made that up and while others have wandered down the same road, only screenwriters have 60 minutes on TV or 88+ in a movie, so we gotta get there sooner than a novelist with a ream of paper and a Staples discount card.
Still, I’m not far off the mark of some major biggies:
Stephen King: Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie.
Tennessee Williams: I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.
Albert Camus: Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth. (Nobel Lit., ’57, you philistines.)
With the Oscars playing out tonight, I wanted to ramble a bit about movies, truth and recognizing the medium as more than the banal exercise displayed on the red carpet and the self-important speeches you will hear from the podium.
Every film contains essentially one line which the screenwriter slips in to tell you what the film is about; the truth of the story, around which the fiction has been wrapped, is this line. There’s an enormous amount of complexity cocooning the importance of this line and you often don’t recognize it as the essence until you’re driving home or turning off the fan in the bathroom.
Critics, reviewers, creative writing teachers, film school profs all read way more into a piece than the author had in mind. Take “City Slickers” where Curly (Jack Palance) tells Mitch (Billy Crystal) that the secret to life boils down to “Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean shit.” That’s your movie, that’s Mitch’s answer to his problems at home, that’s a truth of life, and you sat through just under two hours for the only thing the screenwriter wanted to tell you. The rest don’t mean shit! But, if you saw the movie that line stuck with you because you realized no matter how banal the premise was, the truth was hidden within it
“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” is an American coming-of-age movie, few watch without seeing something in their youth that gives them a wistful smile once the calendar has begun flipping over faster. If you’ve seen the movie, you know the line – or have had it recited to you on those occasions where you thought work might trump a three-day get-away.
“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” John Hughes (prolific screenwriter) said almost all of what he wanted in that line. When you watch the film, however, you realize that while Ferris speaks Hughes’s truth, he also wanted to make a political statement, as well.
There were infinite ways to show the rote, lock-step instruction of many high schools. He could have had a droning session in English Literature, a nerd vs. nerd no humans involved scene in trigonometry, a WTF scene in physics. Instead he chose to have Ben Stein, a well-known Republican lawyer, speechwriter for President Nixon, and prolific writer on economics, prattle on about the Smoot-Hawley Act, while the students drool themselves to sleep.
Here’s why you become a screenwriter. Irrespective of the truth you want to tell, you know there are matters in which you have a passion but no platform; and that is the context of this movie inasmuch as it was made in 1986, five years after President Reagan imposed his 1981 tariff against Japan to bolster U.S. steel companies.
The effect was fewer Japanese cars coming in, U.S. auto makers raising prices as a result of no Japanese competitive pricing, fewer U.S. cars being made to bolster the prices, and fewer workers needed to produce those fewer cars. Between 1982 and 1984, 60,000 U.S. workers lost their jobs, largely in what we now think of as the Rust Belt.
Stein’s scene accurately portrays the Smoot-Hawley tariffs as sinking the U.S. deeper into the Great Depressions, and Hughes wanted to connect the dots for a generation that had no grasp of why it took so long for America to recover, if they even gave it a thought. The scene was transitional to the overall plot, provided us with some subtext as why Ferris needed that day off, but notwithstanding its relative lack of specific relevance to the plot was nonetheless dead-bang on, truth wrapped in fiction.
We’re moving on to other movies, but I am compelled to make an observation in juxtaposition: President Trump has obviously seen the movie as he’s taking plenty of time to stop and look around: he’s 408 days into his tenure and has spent 100 of them golfing which, including rounding errors, equals 25% of his time (add 8 hours a day sleeping and your bumping 50% of his time not living up to his hat).
And while that part of “Ferris Bueller” stuck with him all these years, he seems not to have remembered the Stein lecture. At all. So I’ll offer my own version of the truth line, “Life moves pretty fast. You don’t pay attention to what’s happened in the past, it’s gonna happen again.”
All that said, President Trump obvious paid attention to Gung Ho (1986) when Michael Keaton’s character issues the prescient: “The truth? You don't want the truth. You want to hear that Americans are better than anybody else. [The Japanese] are kicking our butts, that ain't luck. There's your truth… we're strutting around telling ourselves how great we are.” The modern version of that is, “You’ve got both houses of Congress and the Executive branch and are just strutting around telling yourselves how great you are.”
When I saw Jurassic Park (1993), I knew it was all true. Somehow Spielberg had resurrected dinosaurs and filmed them on an island off Costa Rica. Even 20 years later the movie holds up – and since the great thing about conspiracy theories is that there’s never enough evidence to prove them, only rumors to sustain them – I’m going to believe Spielberg cloned them together with DNA from a mosquito, a helix or two from some frogs, and maybe the stem cells of a few agents and producers who never seem to die when you want them to.
But the truth of the movie – what Michael Creighton seems to have had as a consistent throughline to most of his stories is what Jeff Goldblum’s character says when told they have only created female velociraptors, which he believes will bred: “Life breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, but, uh… well, there it is.”
Life will find a way. Doesn’t matter if you believe in God, the Big Bang, Multiverse, that Amazon will take over if Trump doesn’t, that a pandemic or asteroid will return this to being the third rock from the sun… virtually no rational biped can disagree with that truth. It may be the single most universal truth we can all agree on. Life will find a way. Write it down.
Since we’re riding up fast on the Oscars, I’ll close with a bridge film – something from the past that is relevant to today, right now, and certainly tomorrow.
“The Candidate” was released June 29, 1972, 18 days after the Watergate break-in; the film shot in 41 days and was in post for weeks thereafter, so there is no chance there is any connection between the stories.
Redford plays a candidate picked to essentially provide token opposition to his incumbent opponent. He has no experience in politics, has absolutely no chance of winning but is promised that while his campaign will be a political suicide mission, he will at least get broad exposure to his liberal social and political ideas. He signs on and begins to campaign, though he is uncomfortable with and antagonistic to the press; his campaign begins to resonate with the margins and after he begins to compromise his message he wins in an upset victory. Any of this sound vaguely familiar (save for the liberalism)?
In the upset of the century (until recently) he wins, is thunderstruck, completely baffled, and in the last scene of the film, pulls his campaign manager into a broom closet and says, “What do we do now?” There’s the film. In that closet.
The “fiction is truth” element to The Candidate is that none of them really knew what they were doing, nor did they have any clear idea what they were going to do now presented with a victory and mandate. In short, the goal was to finish the campaign with memorable press and not a thought was given to governing.
Tomorrow -- and this is not a truth, but a fact -- there will be a twitter storm, about what I have no idea but almost certainly will include nuclear-esque responses to comments made at the Oscars, tonight. And as you read them and measure the importance of their context given all that is unfolding on the world stage, ask yourself if the truth-line of The Candidate isn’t playing out in front our very eyes, 45 years later.
When you watch a movie, look for the truth-line. You never know when it is going to jump up and bite you in the butt.