A Damn Fine Cup of Culture Podcast #56: Summer of Directors – Jane Campion

Never mind that May is still firmly spring in most people’s minds: we are launching the Summer of Directors, a series of podcasts, each of which is dedicated to one particular director, and we’re doing so with an episode dedicated to two-time Academy Award winner Jane Campion, who first took the little statuette home for her original screenplay for The Piano (1993) and, more recently, as the director of The Power of the Dog (2021). We’ll be looking at those two films in particular, focusing on the ways in which Campion portrays and questions gender roles. How does Holly Hunter’s Ada McGrath make her way in 19th century New Zealand as a woman displaced in many ways? How does Campion portray male and female modes of communication? And how do we read that marvellously ambiguous ending? Moving on to The Power of the Dog, we look at different kinds of masculinity – and how Campion’s film may have unusual, fascinating things to say about what kind of masculinity is finally more resilient. Join Matt, Julie and Sam as they explore all the black and white keys on Jane Campion’s keyboard and all the kinds of music she elicits from them!

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A Damn Fine Cup of Culture Podcast #55: Based on a true story

What is your reaction when you read those words? Is a story better if it actually, really happened? Or are all stories partly fiction, partly true? Where does truth lie in fiction, and where does a story begin to turn into a pack of lies? Join Julie, Sam and Matt as they discuss these questions on Oliver Stone’s conspiracy epic JFK (1991), the four-part true crime/black dramedy hybrid Landscapers (2021) and Sam Mendes’ 1917 (2019). What are the ethics of telling stories based on actual events? Can fiction get at deeper truths? What are the lines each of us draws when it comes to tales based on true stories?

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You can’t handle the truth!

Remember what I wrote yesterday? Well, watching some of the making-of features on the Zodiac 2-disk edition, I started to wonder whether I shouldn’t reconsider. On the one hand, my disdain for all of those inspirational “Based on a true story” flicks that especially Disney seems to love so much is still very much there… but then you get a film such as David Fincher’s Zodiac, one of my favourite movies of 2007, and you wonder.

Of course there is the obvious difference: Zodiac is helmed by an immensely talented (and apparently quite obsessive) director. It’s  amazingly well crafted. But the fact that it is based on facts does have an impact. When you watch a young couple get stabbed brutally by the hooded Zodiac killer, knowing that this happened changes what you’re watching. The scene would be effective but probably sadistic if this was simply made up. The mere fact that what we’re watching did take place, that the guy survived and is still alive to talk about it, while the woman succumbed to her horrific injuries – it does change the tone, the dynamic of what happens as you watch the scene.

Perhaps the difference lies in this: the vast majority of “Based on…”movies seems to believe that this, its often tenuous link to something that actually happened, is enough to justify making the film. It’s this laziness coupled with an attitude towards truth/fiction that is naive at best, cynical at worst. A good film based on real events will not pretend that it tells the complete story; it will stress its own gaps (for instance the unclear identity of the Zodiac killer), it will emphasise that it only gives one aspect or perspective of the story. It will be an interpretation, but it won’t assign some clear-cut meaning to events.

Bad, hokey and especially inspirational “Based on…” films will try to provide a complete and exhaustive version of events, and it will often provide some simplistic meaning that can be summarised in a simple phrase: One man loses his family and finds himself. The true story of the brave scientists who found a cure for halitosis. Eight dogs fighting the elements, as the man who loves them mounts a daring rescue. They’re facile celebrations of the heroic individual or tear-jerking explorations of the individual fighting against his or her fate. In the end, they’re facile and fake and cynically engineered to appeal to people who would ask: “What’s the point of a story that isn’t even true?”

Anyway, that’s the end to my rant about truth, fictionality and halitosis. Hope I haven’t just made you reach for the “Unsubscribe” button. More fun tomorrow… and pictures!

This blog is based on a true story

Yesterday evening we watched Kinky Boots, a film that tries too hard to be in the vein of recentish British comedies such as The Full Monty, Waking Ned or Saving Grace. It wasn’t exactly a bad film, it was simply deeply mediocre, which may be even worse… Even Chiwetel Ejiofor, playing the transvestite Lola, couldn’t save this film which clearly believed itself more charming that it actually was.

However, much worse were the trailers before the main attraction, all of them for films that proclaimed themselves to be “Based on a true story” in a deep, authoritative trailer voice. What worries me even more is that there’s obviously an audience for movies that make that claim for themselves. Are there really so many people who think that the seal of Factuality(tm) makes a movie better?

I’ve always thought that a story is elevated simply by itself, by the strength of the storytelling. A badly told, hackneyed story isn’t miraculously made less so by suggesting that it’s based on something that really happened – and let’s face it, realistically speaking there’s precious little left of the original facts by the time the film makes it to movie (or, in this case, television) screens. A great, well written and acted story, on the other hand, isn’t somehow worth less (or indeed worthless) because it is made up.

Perhaps this is just me being an arrogant ex-literary scholar, but I actively resent this attitude that there’s a clear cut division between fact and fiction. There’s truth in completely made up stories, especially emotional truth, if the storyteller knows what he’s doing; and there’s probably no genre that is as fictionalised as autobiography, which also tends to live off the claim that “This really happened, man!”

As it is, unless a film is written, directed and acted by talented people, the dreaded label “Based on a true story” is often reason enough for me to give it wide berth. If some pretend factuality is all a movie has has going for it, count me out.

But I would be a git if I just left you with this crabby, cranky monologue – so, as promised, here’s some more Tex Avery, supplemented by a Bill Plympton short. I love the malleability of the human, or lupine, body in the cartoons done by those two – and I love the absurdism and silliness. How needs stories based on real life if you can have cats in the shape of milk bottles and eyeballs literally popping out of a horny wolf’s head at some red hot riding hood?