"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 17 March 1997. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Reality Bites Back


[Devil Meter]

Every few years, when our

cultural institutions have

gotten profitable and

unemployment dips to dangerous

lows, critics who would

otherwise be pumping gas or

espresso make a grab for the

limelight, claiming they have a

monopoly on what it all means.

In spite of a healthy

American pedigree of

anti-intellectualism, a favorite

stratagem is to accuse artists

of lying. The conceit, of

course, presumes that the

critics know the truth, and

they're able to catch others

with their pants down, in the

act of screwing up history. This

isn't criticism, though. It's

not even history, it's

fact-checking, and in the

toolbox of cultural analysis,

this approach has all the

subtlety of a Sawz-all.



Last month Jared Hohlt panned

Milos Forman's Larry Flynt bio

pic by tearing into the

inconsistencies between the

movie and the man. But "Reality

vs. Flynt" wasn't much more than

a laundry list of incongruities.

Obviously it would have been

quite a bit more interesting had

Hohlt actually drawn some

conclusions about director Milos

Forman's motives - or Woody and

Courtney's, for that matter - in

portraying Larry Flynt as the

First Amendment's man of steel.

Then again, maybe not. Still,

the appearance of an entire

section in Slate ("Life and

Art") chartered "to compare

movies, books, etc., with the

facts on which they ostensibly

are based" surely marks another

double-hopped microtrend on tap

in Seattle.



There's certainly no shortage of

easy targets. One of our

favorite professional fudgers is

Ken Burns, who debuted Thomas

Jefferson a couple weeks ago on

PBS. Ever since The Civil War

put him on easy street, Burns

has made a career out of

fabricating little lies to build

a bigger truth. Up until now,

we've been quietly nit-picking

that his use of stock

photography to illustrate

historical narrative created

more holes than it plugged. Now

he may have gone too far,

focusing on a period and a man

that predate photography by

several decades. With scant

pictures to tell his story,

Burns decided to set up shop at

Monticello, using Jefferson's

Virginia home as a metaphor for

the steep staircases of

Jefferson's allegedly troubled

soul. As it turns out, even this

innocuous device was not quite

credible, since Monticello was

never completed in Jefferson's

lifetime. Still, as Joseph

Ellis, one of Burns' favored

historians, wrote in The New

York Times, the alternative to

Burns' elegant and artful

reductions is a roomful of

bickering specialists. And

surely that circle of Hell is

deeper and hotter than Burns'

purgatory of white lies.



The de rigueur battle on behalf

of realism isn't limited to pop

history. Take the critical

scuffle last year over

Trainspotting: It was nothing

more than a tug-of-war between

denominations of realists. On

the one hand, antidrug

do-gooders felt the movie

glorified heroin and glossed

over the uglier aspects of

addiction and abuse (though

we're hard-pressed to see

infanticide, the film's

drug-induced nadir, as a

glorification or a gloss). On

the other hand, the moviemakers

claimed they wanted to create a

movie about the folks who

actually do heroin. Which is to

say real people with complex

motives that go somewhat beyond

an inability to Just Say No.

It's the same argument about art

versus life that's had white

folks bent out of shape over rap

music for a decade and a half.


[Love Slave]

Fact or fiction? Past or present?

Art or history? It's never a

closed subject. Just 10 years

ago, it was kosher to fly the

Confederate flag over the state

capitol in Georgia. And up until

six weeks ago, it was cool to

sing about "Old Darkey" pining

for his massah on the

plantation, in Virginia's

official state song. Ah, but now

we're getting into the

treacherous territory of

symbols. And the last thing we

want to do is get caught with

our hands down our pants,

engaging in that most notorious

form of academic self-abuse,



If the mark of great art is the

degree to which it corresponds

to "reality" - you know, art

copying life - then what's left

to distinguish the two? That, of

course, would mean you'd be a

damn fool to see movies, read

books, and listen to music,

since they'd simply mimic what

you already know from personal

experience. But the success of

artworks and historiographies

has less to do with their

correspondence to facts than

with their usefulness to

politicians and pundits in the

present. That, after all, is

what keeps institutions hiring

new generations of historians

and artists when they might have

been obsolesced some time ago by

stenographers and dictaphones.

God knows, if they're going to

be reinventing history and

creating alternative realities,

they should at least be where

they can do a minimal amount of

damage - tenured in some dusty,

drug-addled university.

courtesy of E.L. Skinner


Fish Image
The Fish

Barrel Image

The Barrel
[Predictions by Suck]

Gun Image
The Gun

Fish Teaser

net.moguls Link
Other Work By
E.L. Skinner
Fresh Fish