Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

For the record

As of this writing, the No. 1 movie in America is The Perfect Storm, which is about real people who went through a real storm in 1991. And that gives us the perfect excuse to discuss the question: why are so many movies “based on actual events” and how should we regard them?

A couple of months ago I enumerated several ways that movie studios try to lure you into the theater by making their films seem familiar to you even before you’ve seen them. One of the main ways is to adapt a book that is already popular and has a built-in audience. But a lot of times, studios buy up the rights to books just because people who write books usually have ideas and people who run studios often don’t. And, in some cases, like that of the current George Clooney hit, buying rights to a book is an efficient way to make a movie about a true event, which, in turn, is yet another way to lure people in with the sense of familiarity: make a movie about some occurrence or person that people may already be familiar with.

Normally, this sort of thing is more the province of made-for-television movies, which last season chronicled the life of everyone from John Denver to the kids on The Brady Bunch. But Hollywood seems to be on a kick lately of doing major feature film biographies as well. This past year it seemed about every other movie in the cinema was about some real person. The list includes such fare as The Straight Story about a guy in Iowa who rides his lawn mower to Wisconsin, Music of the Heart about New York music teacher Roberta Guaspari, Boys Don’t Cry about the tragically gender-confused Teena Brandon, The Insider about tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand, Man on the Moon about actor/comedian Andy Kaufman, Angela’s Ashes about Frank McCourt who is famous for writing Angela’s Ashes, The Hurricane about falsely imprisoned boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, and Erin Brockovich about Julia Roberts in short, tight skirts.

And that list doesn’t even include historical biographies like Luc Besson’s The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc or imaginative films about New York City that weave real people into their plots, like Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam or Tim Robbins’s Cradle Will Rock. And on the art house/film festival circuit we’ve recently had the French Marcel Proust psycho-autobiography adaptation Time Regained. It’s enough to make you wonder if scriptwriters can actually make anything up anymore.

So, I think it’s safe to say that people certainly like to make movies about real people, and that may or may not be because people like to see movies about real people. Indeed, one gambit is even to trick audiences into thinking that what they are watching is something that really happened to real people, hence the The Blair Witch Project phenomenon.

Presumably, these biographies and “true” stories have some entertainment value. But how should we see them in terms of contributing to the historical record? Do they just muddle our understanding of history and current events? Should we watch only documentaries to ensure that our collective social memories aren’t polluted with Hollywood embellishments? Or, better yet, just read books?

More about that (you guessed it) next time.

-S.L., 6 July 2000

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