If there’s one word I wouldn’t mind seeing banned from use for the next, hmm, fifty years, it’s this one: authenticity. Yup, that’s the one, the word I’ve come to dislike as much as its closeish relative, the phrase “Based on a true story!” What’s my beef with it? It’s either phony, self-aggrandising or both. A certain doddering old father once told his son, “To thine own self be true,” and as a motto it sounds quite nice, except – I think this notion of an “own self” to which you should be true is silly. Do something because you want to do it, because you think it’s right to do it – but talking about an authentic self that you should honour? That’s fine, as long as your “own self” is one of the good guys – but what if you consider your authentic self to be that of a xenophobic bastard who hates those bloody foreigners? Does the notion of authenticity* ennoble your arseyness? People’s identities, their characteristics, are fluid, and pretending that there’s a ‘real you’ inside you that’s a yardstick for all your actions is romanticised claptrap at best, disingenuous bullshit at worst.
If you’re still reading after this rant, you’re probably wondering: why does a geek blogger who usually writes about movies, games, books and comics post a diatribe against the word “authenticity”? Doesn’t he have first-person shooters to play and pretentious wankery to write about them afterwards? Bear with me, gentle reader – relevance (of some sort) is just around the corner. It’s basically this: the overuse of the A word extends to art critics and the culture pages of newspapers and magazines. “Authenticity” is used as a word of praise for movies, when usually writers use it as a way of making their “it’s, like, for real, man!” comments sound sophisticated. Let’s be frank: authenticity in art – including any art form that’s primarily about narrative fiction – is an effect. It’s an artifice. It’s like a Photoshop filter: turn up the authenticity to 10, eh? It’s the fashionable, and often trite and superficial, name given to works that used to be described as being in the style of realism or naturalism. It’s an author’s conscious choice on how to present their material. It’s a style, an artifice, pretending not to be one.
So, what’s brought on this tirade? Probably the fact that I recently re-watched Drive, a film I greatly enjoyed the first time and downright loved the second time. How does it tie into this extended waffle on authenticity? Pretty much by eschewing the Authenticity Effect altogether. Nicholas Winding Refn uses a decidedly theatrical style – perhaps not as much as in his earlier film, Bronson, but Drive is still markedly focused on its own artifice, in its visuals, its central performance, its choice of music. The director’s hand is visible throughout. Refn is clearly not interested in the pretense of reality – yet his film, for all its artifice, resonates with me. While I’m watching it, the Driver feels real to me – not in spite of the artifice but because of Refn’s immense skill at using artifice as one of the colours on his palette.
Art, at its best, doesn’t try to replicate the look of reality in a facile way. It embraces its own stylisedness, using whatever style is most suited to achieving a certain effect – and yes, that effect can be realism or naturalism… but neither of those automatically makes a film more authentic, unless our understanding of authenticity is hopelessly naive. “Based on a true story” doesn’t make that story more real, documentary visuals don’t render the subject more authentic. After all, what we’re looking at here is art, and the moment art denies its own artifice, it becomes schizophrenic or shallow. If art wants to be true to its own self, then it is most authentic when it accepts its own dependence on skilled, intelligent, passionate artifice.
*I seem to dislike the word so much I keep spelling it as “authenticify”… To mine own self spell true, eh?
P.S.: Having grown up in the ’80s, the aesthetics of Drive may very well feel more ‘real’ to me, because that’s what my childhood, filtered through TV, looked and sounded like.