February 5, 2015

History vs Art, and other concerns

Posted in Interfaith, Judaism at 12:32 am by chavalah

Still from the movie, "Selma," starring David Oyelowo

Still from the movie, “Selma,” starring David Oyelowo

As a disclaimer, I have yet to watch “Selma” which is up for Best Picture in the Academy Awards this year. But some of the “factual” criticisms levied against them remind me of being a fan (or sometimes not so much of a fan) of novel adaptations for TV or film. For example, one of my biggest disappointments with “Mockingjay, Part 1” was that they excised a conversation between Katniss and Haymitch working through their anger and guilt over failing to protect Peeta–as if this were an actual historical event. (In my defense, it would have made the story stronger. :p)

With “Selma,” some of this criticism comes from historians, claiming that the movie painted President Johnson in too negative a light. Director Ava DuVernay responded that she didn’t want to make a film about “a white savior,” aka she wanted to focus on some of the African Americans, namely Martin Luther King, Jr., I assume, who were at the center of the Civil Rights movement. I might add that, be the source material a novel or actual history, a movie is too contained to give much dimension to non-main characters. But another argument is–this isn’t a documentary, it’s art. DuVernay–or Francis Lawrence of the final three “Hunger Games” films–aren’t contractually bound to stay true to “the source material.”

The natural follow-up question might be–does that make the movie less “true”? This might be where my fiction-oriented/spiritual brain trumps whatever I have of a facts and figures science brain. :p. I think the truth contained in novels and other fictional media are that they can go deep into characters, and explore the complex questions of identity, history, politics, relationships, etc, etc, etc from a uniquely emotionally resonant perspective. The “truth” about life is more than a ledger book of physical actions. “The truth” is about several different narratives and experiences, but who has the time to watch a movie as long as life? :p

But to be hypocritical (another component of the complexity of “truth,”) I feel disappointed that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was omitted from the movie, even as he marched to Selma amongst other white clergymen who were depicted, so I’ve read. When a group one identifies with is part of the larger narrative (particularly a positive narrative like joining together with diverse communities to stand for civil rights,) I suppose it’s natural to want to see that validation. And again, perhaps a short scene of Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel shaking hands might’ve made for a stronger story. But either way, this is one small component of a work that belongs to art, not history. I’d rather judge DuVernay’s movie on what’s there rather than what’s not.

Just because there is a commercial component to some art doesn’t mean that we, as consumers, require a say. This transaction isn’t about buying a pair of pants, after all; it’s about exploring the world in new ways. Part of that, in fact, requires us to give up personal control. No movie, or book, or etc is perfect, but I hope that people leave their personal biases at the door, insofar as is possible; and that they also take into account what the creator was trying to accomplish (and how well he or she succeeded at that) before offering critique.

Tangentially, I’m always on the lookout for films that portray a variety of Jewish characters and experiences in the driver’s seat (currently I’m having trouble narrowing down my selections for the 2015 Washington Jewish Film Fest). But that feeds into my empathy for the perceived goal of the movie, “Selma”–to depict African Americans as the center of their story rather than as the supporting cast. It’s a perspective we don’t often get to see in Hollywood, though with recent successes like “12 Years a Slave,” hopefully it will become more normalized.

Sticking to judgement, though, I don’t really care how the Academy considers something to be a good or bad movie; they have their own issues to work out. But since we are still relatively close to the beginning of the year, allow me to offer my best and worst novel reads from 2014. :p

Best Reads
1) “The Lowland” by Jhumpa Lahiri….GUH, where to begin? The way that she seamlessly integrates politics, history, family, academic pursuits and individual desires into a novel I hoped would never end? The way that she wrote Guari, who was so horribly flawed and so utterly relatable? The way I wish I could sneak into her apartment in Rome? Wait…scratch that last one. *innocent whistling*
2) “The Fault in our Stars” by John Green–moving, and more life-affirming than many books without so bleak a subject matter. And, speaking as someone who regards Anne Frank as a personal hero, I don’t think I’ve come across any work, outside of her diary, that understands her so much as a real person.
3) “Olive Kitteridge” by Elizabeth Strout–wonderful stories all around, but I’m especially appreciative of the nuance and care that she put into her crotchety, controversial and post-menopausal female protagonist.

Worst Reads
And now, for the year’s loser…would be easy–and accurate–to go with “Fifty Shades of Grey” (unbelievable plot, unbelievable characters, horrible writing style,) but I think I’ll focus on “Portnoy’s Complaint” instead. UGH. Technically, if it was Philip Roth’s intention to show us a flaming prick, then he succeeded. But to plod through nearly 300 pages of him dealing with archetypal ethnic personalities while never truly changing as a character was pretty unbearable. The only “reader revelation” I had was that someone should build an impenetrable radius around his person so as to save hapless women from misery.


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