Sunday, November 28, 2010

Artistic license.

The last post was about World War 2, so let's continue this discussion in a new medium: film. I've picked World War 2 for both this post and the last because it is simultaneously a very familiar setting, and at times an alien one, as well. We are aware of World War 2 as it has been presented, but there are some established, time-worn changes between "movie" World War 2 and "real" World War 2 that make them distinctly separate entities. Most of these changes fall under the general veil of artistic license, but they do have an effect when it comes to connecting to the real event. These changes fall under two main categories:

Changes In Depiction
In modern depiction, WW2 is almost synonymous with desaturation. Many films that use this technique in the modern era may be following the success of its use in "Saving Private Ryan", where it was used to replicate or imitate black-and-white newsreel footage. Artistically speaking, this is a perfectly sensible reason to use that particular technique, and it certainly seems to have hit home with many imitators. In this way, the crew of Saving Private Ryan (and others) attempt to draw the audience into the events by connecting them to real, actual footage from that time period.

However, what this doesn't take into account is the fact that, due to the proliferation of this technique, it's almost impossible to find an "accurate" depiction of World War 2 (that is, without desaturation). While it's certainly very evocative and connective, it also makes the work less "real". The world of Movie WW2 does not exist in our reality, despite all the measures taken by filmmakers to try to make things realistic.

So which is better? While I certainly feel desaturation served its purposes, I also think that it would help to have an identifiable movie without it. This is necessary to establish an accurate picture of what the war is actually like, in the same way that accurately depicting wounds and so on is. It's a fallacy to assume that people can just assume what it's like on their own; if this wasn't the case, we wouldn't need movies in the first place. Real life reenactors can help to bridge the gaps by making it far more "real" without any cameras to get in the way, but the extent of their reproduction is limited; they don't have the benefit of being able to depict things like artillery, gunfire (apart from blanks), or injury. Therefore, there should be at least some films that show the war as accurately as possible.

Another concern of "depiction" is the difference between an actor and a character. In cases where the actor isn't famous, it's easy to consider the character their own independent entity. However, if the actor is recognizable, it's going to create dissonance between the actor and the character. To keep up our theme of WW2 movies, the character "Captain Miller" in Saving Private Ryan essentially exists to be Tom Hanks (or, at least, Tom Hanks acting like an army ranger). If he wasn't well-known, it might have been easier to consider the character their own entity; most of the other characters (with the potential exception of Vin Diesel) are more recognizable as characters than actors. Even Nathan Fillion (making a short appearance as James Frederick Ryan) is almost indistinguishable from his later appearances. To make the universe convincing, the characters must exist as their own individuals, because otherwise it's just "x actor as a y".

This is not limited to regular acting, either; recognizable voice actors suffer a similar problem. Of course, it can be averted in both cases if the actor is good at actually portraying different characters, changing their voice and appearance, and so on. However, many actors make a living off of being themselves, Tom Hanks included. Hence, all their roles basically seem like them trying out a new job or quirk, which detracts from immersion (but may be funny in its own right).

Fabrication And Plausibility
This is an issue related to any historical fiction (or fiction set in reality), no matter when it's set. The difference between Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan is this: BoB is attempting to portray a real set of events with real people and real places as accurately as is feasible given the necessary, unavoidable gaps in knowledge and differing events. SPR, on the other hand, is a made-up story that takes artistic license on a lot of details. While it's accurate in some ways, the fact that it has to make a story up means that it's inaccurate in at least one major way. As it happens, Saving Private Ryan is also wrong in a bunch of other, smaller ways as well. Like the desaturation effect, it's plausible that many of these errors or changes were made for artistic reasons.

One example is the haircuts of the German soldiers in the film. In real life, the standard German haircut of this period was slightly longer, but in the movie they're buzz-cuts. This is, perhaps, designed to connect these soldiers to the modern conception of a "skinhead", or Neo-Nazi. According to the living history group portraying the Germans (, the haircut was actually forced upon them - being reenactors, their hair would naturally have been at the correct length, and many of them suspect (as I do) that there is a political reason behind it. In this case, it would literally have been easier to be accurate, and Spielberg had to go out of his way to change this particular detail.

This is not the only example of inaccuracy in the film; things ranging from characterization to tactics are depicted incorrectly. The problem arises because of how many people saw Saving Private Ryan, and what a credible source it can be considered in other fields. For example, the Omaha Beach scene is almost permanently connected to the real D-Day landings, even though there are numerous inaccuracies. Additionally, "Omaha" was not the only beach targeted in the Normandy Invasion, but the other beaches (Sword, Juno, Gold, and Utah) are far less well-known because they don't have bombastic action sequences associated with them. Of course, movies can't cover every part of the entire war, and many of these errors are forgivable as part of the moviemaking process, but the fact is that SPR's status as a "believable" movie makes its errors all the more problematic. With a ridiculous movie, people can accept the idea that liberties have been taken and so on. With a movie like SPR, it takes a trained eye to actually pick out what's wrong, and the untrained eye thinks that it's accurate - and is "learning" something that's made up.

In essence, I feel that some inaccuracies are more forgivable than others. I can accept the depiction of Omaha Beach, because it's necessary to make a very tight, distinct action sequence that conveys the emotions and feelings behind the event rather than only conveying its history. However, many of the inaccuracies that were left in to make the Americans seem like big, silver-screen heroes and the Germans seem like simplistic bad guys are less understandable. It can be argued that this sort of thing was necessary to convince both executives and audiences that the movie had merit, and such a statement is certainly plausible with regards to Hollywood, but its ill effects cannot be ignored either.

1 comment:

  1. "So which is better? While I certainly feel desaturation served its purposes, I also think that it would help to have an identifiable movie without it."

    might i suggest "The Thin Red Line". it came out around the time as "Saving Private Ryan" and in my opinion, it was the film SPR tried to be. think of it as the art film to SPR's summer blockbuster.