Reel Fiction

Nigel Watson

Talking Pictures alias






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The extent film reflects reality, or fails to reflect reality, in an adequate fashion is often brought into question. Films that have been based on real people and events range from JFK, Chaplin, Malcolm X, Titanic, to Pearl Harbor. Their creators use 'facts' but re-work them into an entertaining cinematic whole that doesn't have to be entirely truthful. 

This tactic allows filmmakers to manipulate facts in a manner that is most pleasing to them and lets them get away with gigantic leaps of imagination. Straightforward documentary, besides being rare in the cinema, cannot be so brazen with the facts. 

As viewers we are meant to consider the facts (which are often revisionist), but if we argue that they are incorrectly presented or purely invented (for the sake of dramatic licence) we are told that it is 'only entertainment'. In other words the filmmakers can enjoy power without responsibility. 

Hollywood, mainstream films are a means of promoting debate about all types of subjects but as a form of recording and presenting facts they are woefully inadequate. What we are really given is 'cinematic reality' that lives-out and dramatises the bare facts. 

Other media, such as TV, radio or newspapers pour out a constant stream of facts and figures but they don't ask us to react or respond to them (the exception being powerful images of starvation, destruction and death but even these become relatively acceptable unless they directly effect us). Cinema is the most potent means of showing what these things can do to people on an individual level, and can put them into different forms of context. Cinema can make us feel about things. 

This takes us to the literal interpretation of films and the debate about their responsibility for all types of sociological and psychological evils. As a consequence films, and TV, are regarded as cess pits of violence and pornography that pollute the minds of our children. 

Clean-up the mass media and the world will be put to rights seems to be a popular answer. The interaction between the media and the audience is far more complex than that. 

In the imaginary debate between the UFO believer and the UFO sceptic in Martin Kottmeyer's An Impossible Picture, we can see the literal belief that film images are totally truthful representations of reality is silly. On the other hand, the years and years of films representing UFOs and aliens has had an impact on 'real' sightings of such things. Rather than reflect reality 'out there' feature films help give shape to our inner-most fantasies, fears and desires. 

Given the current concern about violence and pornography on our screens - a moral panic virtually the same as that engendered by 'video nasties' of the 1980s - we can say that those with literal minds, who find it difficult to distinguish fact from fiction, are most in danger. 

Even if you are not unduly worried by the out-pourings of the mass media you can support censorship because you want to protect those with more vulnerable minds. A case in point is provided by Michael Medved in his book Hollywood vs America who when looking at 'my own sleeping children, hugging each other in the bed they share with the blankets tangled around their feet, I experience a terrible sense of powerlessness...' Yes, a cinema projector could be lurking out there in the darkness, and who can imagine what images it will graft onto those poor defenceless minds? 

Rather than being a source of real knowledge the media makes us scared of terrible things, people and events that might be out there, or even worse, within ourselves. 

Cinema's myth-making 'bark' is far louder that its 'bite' on reality, but if we believe in the former it might as well be the latter.
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Material Copyright © 2001 Nigel Watson