Every time I decide that I’m going to put forth an effort to unseat myself from my high horse of movie snobbery, something occurs to propel me right back up there. Most recently, it was the inclusion of the inspirational football flick The Blind Side on the Academy Awards’ 2009 Best Picture ballot.
Now, I can’t really speak too high and mighty about this one, as I haven’t yet seen it. The trailers and talk surrounding it communicated quite clearly that it was all sorts of not-my-thing. It instantly seemed to me like it took the wrong—and borderline demeaning—route in telling its story by putting the rich white lady in the foreground, and the black kid—more the center of the story—in the background. I could be wrong, but I have my doubts.
I’ve been supposed to see it with my dad (and isn’t it such a “dad movie?”) for awhile now, but I’ve been dodging it left and right. Had I known it was actually going to be an Oscar contender, I probably would have gotten it out of the way sooner.
To me, it looks like a movie built specifically for people like my dad—people that don’t really care about movies, but just want a nice, pleasant story to uplift them while they pass a couple hours. And I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with that—among all of the things that film is capable of, the powerful emotions that they can produce, to uplift and inspire should without question be one of them. Although I might contend that some people are just a bit too easily inspired.
The Blind Side is the kind of movie that people who don’t care about movies walk out of saying “that was a great movie.” And somehow, I take it personally, as if they’re treading on my territory with their uninformed opinions on what makes a movie great.
Because it’s my passion, I make it my business to defend my stance on what I deem a great movie or a terrible movie by writing articles like this that few probably even read (I mean, honestly, did anyone actually read all 2500 words of my bitter Avatar review?). I like to analyze technique, style, story, character, and all that other crap that most people normally don’t care much about.
However, when I ask most people what it is that’s great about a movie like The Blind Side—or any number of “inspirational” stories, mostly sports-related—I always get the same response: “It’s a true story,” they say. Every time; it never fails.
“It’s a true story” is the brain-eating amoeba that’s sucking away at my life force. To this claim, I always say “Just because it’s a true story doesn’t mean that it was well told or even worth telling.” Snobby, yes, but I can’t help it; it really bugs me.
First off, at this point, it should go without saying that any family-aimed movie about sports is going to be based on a true story—throw a rock in this country and you’ll hit a true-life inspirational sports story. It’s just a fact.
Hell, even the ones aren’t so inspirational, like Friday Night Lights, are even based on true stories.
And sometimes it can work in reverse! Where it gets really scary is when a movie like The Mighty Ducks—pure Disney fiction—is released and then a year later, life imitates art and there actually is an NHL team called The Mighty Ducks!
Some aren’t, though, and that’s usually a good sign by my standards. For my money, the best sports movie of last year—probably longer—was Drew Barrymore’s Whip It. That was a movie that got a lot done with its characters in a fun and original way, and overcame the threat of predictability by staying fresh, small-scale, and touchingly personal. You don’t get that from any of these “true story” movies.
But aside from the fact that nearly all sports movies have a basis in non-fiction, it should also go without saying that any movie that sells itself on the tagline of “Based on a True Story,” is taking many, many liberties with its source material. In fact, I’d say that once horror movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Haunting in Connecticut started sporting that slogan on their advertising materials, the whole thing officially became a gimmick.
Watch out, though, because there are two ways that they try to get you. One is the aforementioned “Based on a True Story,” and then there’s always “Inspired by a True Story.”
To give you an idea of which films merit which taglines, the producers of Texas Chainsaw knew there wasn’t any way that a claim like “Based” could hold any water, so they chose the least controversial means possible by saying “Inspired”—which could really mean anything. And really, since Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Silence of the Lambs, and Psycho, were all inspired by the same serial killer, Ed Gein, it’s a wonder it wasn’t used sooner. There was actually a low-budget little-see biopic of the man, appropriately titled Ed Gein, which sold itself as being based on the killer that inspired those films.
At the end of the day, however, the average American moviegoer isn’t going to be too terribly discerning between “based” vs. “inspired” when “true story” is in the equation. Hell, it’s such a killer sell that it was even part of the title of the 2005 Kurt Russell-Dakota Fanning horse movie Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story, which is probably the most annoying title this side of Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ By Sapphire.
Now, I can completely sympathize when it comes to why the appeal of being told a true story is so strong. It always adds an extra level of excitement, especially for a story that is practically unbelievable. This past fall saw a couple of my recent favorite “true story” opening title cards, including Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant!, which said what it needed to say, and ended on “So there.” Also there was Grant Heslov’s The Men Who Stare at Goats, which stated “More of this is true than you would believe.” It sort of gets to the heart and soul of why movies that tell true stories are so fascinating in the first place.
But my problem with nonfiction films is that nine times out of ten they are so busy concerning themselves with all of the literal facts of the story that any potential structure of theme, substance, and an all-encompassing universal truth is completely lost.
Take almost any biographical film released in the last ten years, for instance. My go-to is always Ray, Taylor Hackford’s biopic about Ray Charles, which was nominated for several major Oscars, and won for Jamie Foxx’s performance. My opinion on Ray was that it was a complete mess of a movie, and didn’t really make me learn anything terribly interesting or insightful about the man, his life, his music, or his anything. It was in such a rush to cover as much of his life as it possibly could, that it had absolutely no focus and was just a pain and a bore to sit through. It was a “true story,” yes, but it was all story and no truth.
Conversely, there have been several movies that have successfully mined some kind of larger truth—be it about art, communities, one person, or even humanity as a whole—through stories that are not only fiction, but deliberate distortions of literal truth.
First, there’s Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There, a very outside-the-box biopic of Bob Dylan, in which the various forms of Dylan’s public persona are played in vaguely connected stories by six different actors, including a woman (Cate Blanchett) and an eleven-year-old black kid (Marcus Carl Franklin). None of the characters are named Bob Dylan, and he isn’t directly referenced once throughout the film. I’m Not There is a film that found a greater truth inside a pack of lies, and was all the more fascinating for it.
Similarly, Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg was a documentary about his hometown, the Canadian city of Winnipeg, as told through truths, lies, tall tales, and local legends, recounting them all as literal fact. In doing so, he created a sentiment that gets to the heart of the town, while playing just as poignantly with regards to anyone’s hometown.
Fargo is another great example, perhaps the greatest of all. The film begins with a title card which reads that the events that follow are all true, and only the names have been changed. Of course, this isn’t the case at all. Fargo is almost entirely fictional, loosely inspired by a few different true-life stories. To quote Ethan Coen, “We wanted to do a true story, but we didn’t know any, so we made one up.”
And with that film, the Coens proved that the claim of a true story is little more than a gimmick—an effective one, however, especially in the case of Fargo, which I remember marveling at when I saw it for the first time, thinking that it was all true.
And yet, if Fargo really were a true story, do you honestly think those characters would have been shaped as finely as they are? Do you think we would see the subplot involving Marge and her old friend, Mike Yanagita? Would we have really found the sadness and humanity of such a brutal and disturbing story if the filmmakers had merely been trying to make a true crime movie?
I guess it depends on the filmmaker, and in the case of the Coens, in all honesty, we probably would have seen those details come through in some regard, and been treated to a fascinating film nonetheless. Why, just look at David Fincher’s excellent Zodiac, probably the best and most haunting true crime movie in recent years. It can be done, but it takes care, precision, and thought (and in some cases, a 160-minute runtime). In the hands of lesser filmmakers, would the “true story” of Fargo have gotten the treatment that the story deserved?
Not likely. A literal “true story” would have easily been all bleakness, with little depth or complexity, or attention to character. The Coens—cynical though they may usually be—know that that’s not truth, and is of little value. They set out to invent a true story, and in my opinion, that’s absolutely what they did.
For now, though, I’m just going to have to face the fact that a hell of a lot of people really love The Blind Side… because it’s a true story. And who knows?—maybe I will, too. I really, really, doubt it, but I’ve been surprised before. And that’s my favorite part of Oscar season, anyway—seeing a bunch of movies I might have otherwise never seen, that turn out to be pretty damn good. Whether they’re based on a true story or not.