What hath Zero Dark wrought: We fled the Oscars not too long after Seth MacFarlane performed “We Saw Your Boobs,” which the Washington Post’s Hank Stuever has now described as the gent’s “best number.”
Plainly, the Howard Stern formula owns the culture. That formula has two parts:
First, determine the thing you “shouldn’t” say. Then, proceed to say it, knowing that the mandarin class will treat your piffle as humor.
Ah, those mandarins! We have continued to ponder Megan McArdle’s review of the current mandarin class, even as we have been rereading The Feminine Mystique, in which Betty Freidan savagely flayed the 1950s’ version of same. Even as McArdle pummels our modern order, she does make one major giant misstatement:
“As I say, the mandarins are in many senses deserving: they work very hard, and they are very smart.”
Except no—our mandarins actually aren’t “very smart.” We thought of that problem as we read (perhaps) the final few analyses of Zero Dark Thirty over the weekend.
Is our long national nightmare over? Will woolly-headed ruminations on Zero Dark Thirty finally stop? In Saturday’s New York Times, two top film critics, Dargis and Scott, combined to consider the endless debate about this particular film’s treatment of torture.
We thought their long piece was extremely light. In our view, they used their verbal skills to serve the main role of the mandarin class—to give the impression that enlightened debate is taking place within the national press.
Is there a potential problem when Films like Zero Dark Thirty or Lincoln offer dramatic portrayals of real historical figures and/or real historical events? In our view, the critics swerved off the rails early on, with this one highlighted phrase:
DARGIS/SCOTT (2/23/13): The rules of journalism seem clear enough, at least when they are violated. But where, in a work of imagination drawn from real life, are we supposed to draw the line between acceptable invention and irresponsible fabrication? Can we shrug off, say, the preposterous fancies of “Shakespeare in Love” and playful untruths in “The King’s Speech” and still object to the paranoid embroideries of “JFK”? Historians know that facts are not separate from interpretation and the same can be said of taste in movies. There is no single standard that would condemn (or excuse) both the whimsical inventions of “Marie Antoinette,” in which the Queen of France is glimpsed wearing high-top sneakers, and the wholesale revisionism of “Mississippi Burning,” which ridiculously credited white F.B.I. agents for the hard-won victories of the civil rights movement.Can Zero Dark Thirty and Lincoln be described as “works of imagination drawn from real life?” Yes, but so can classic political films like Advise and Consent and Seven Days in May. The distinction: The latter films don’t pretend to show us real historical figures in the midst of real historical events. The latter films are purely fiction, although their themes and concerns are plainly “drawn from real life.”
Inevitably, the first type of “work of imagination drawn from real life” can confuse people about real events and real facts in a way the second type cannot. But the critics avoided this distinction throughout their piece.
Predictably, they ended by saying that the mandarins to whom they fawn for a living haven’t done something problematic or wrong. Also, they flirted with the hoariest cliche of the mandarin class: The American people are pretty sharp:
DARGIS/SCOTT: Audiences are used to reading the words “based on a true story” as a hedge rather than a promise (or a threat!). And we are often in the dark about just what has been changed or omitted. Even devoted history buffs may not remember the tally of votes in Congress nearly 150 years ago. But thinking adults can tell the difference between a fiction film and a nonfiction one, despite the worried warnings from politicians and others who have recently been moonlighting as movie critics. Behind some of the most inflamed concern over works like “Lincoln” and especially “Zero Dark Thirty” is a thinly veiled distrust of the American public—that, well, moviegoers are just not smart or sophisticated or schooled enough to know the difference between fact and fiction, on-screen lies and off-screen ones.It can seem as if everyone is making stuff up all the time? At this point, everyone is making stuff up all the time, from our history professors on down, and the people cast as journalists rarely seem to notice. That said, films which pretend to be showing us historical figures and/or events have a unique ability to spread flawed or bogus information. As they mouth undifferentiated piffle like “invention remains one of the prerogatives of art,” Dargis and Scott never quite manage to confront this obvious problem.
Given some of the stories that politicians themselves have peddled to the public, including the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, such concern is understandable. It can often seem as if everyone is making stuff up all the time and in such a climate of suspicion and well-earned skepticism—punctuated by “gotcha” moments of scandal and embarrassment—movies are hardly immune.
But invention remains one of the prerogatives of art and it is, after all, the job of writers, directors and actors to invent counterfeit realities. It is unfair to blame filmmakers if we sometimes confuse the real world with its representations. The truth is that we love movies partly because of their lies, beautiful and not. It’s journalists and politicians who owe us the truth.
Is it “the job of writers, directors and actors to invent counterfeit realities?” We’re not sure, but it seems to be the job of the mandarin class to create the counterfeit impression that an intelligent watchdog class is considering important problems in our leading publications.
We don’t think Dargis and Scott did that. We don’t think their piece was smart, let alone “very smart.”
Is the mandarin class very smart? Are they confronting important problems in our leading publications? Over the weekend, we’ve been thrilled to revisit the way Friedan tore that illusion apart in the summer of 63, describing the work of the mandarin class all through the post-war period. Reading Dargis and Scott blather on to their mandated ends, you can perhaps see that a mandarin class is still employed to create that type of illusion today.
For our money, a fair amount of hubris is involved in pretending to show us what Lincoln said to his son (or to his cabinet) in the White House. When film-makers pretend to show us how bin Laden was tracked, powerful misinformation can be conveyed—and yes, that’s an actual problem.
Some people make purely fictional films to convey ideas about the real world. Others dress up actors as Lincoln—or as Maya. Their work gains speed from this potent illusion. This frees them from the need to invent a compelling story from scratch.
In the process, such slackers actually may transmit bogus ideas and notions. If they do, mandarin critics will be on hand to call them “artists.” They will tell us “it’s their job” to confuse us the rubes in such ways.