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Life's a Blur

"JFK" starred Kevin Costner as the DA who said a conspiracy was behind the Kennedy assassination. (Warner Brothers)

For her part, "Talk to Me's" director, Kasi Lemmons, said she intentionally stayed away from reading Greene's biography, for both legal and artistic reasons. "I thought I might get distracted with too much reality," she said when the movie came out. "And I wanted a movie, not a biopic."

In defending her decision to stray from the literal facts, Lemmons reveals myriad truths about the perils of making -- and watching -- a fact-based drama, perils that are both philosophical and aesthetic. What are the ethics of portraying actual lives and historical events on screen? (And do movies, with their uniquely potent ability to burrow into the collective consciousness, have an added obligation to the factual record?)

The controversy, like all others before and after it, shines a light on what is essentially a tacit contract between filmmakers and their audience, one that allows writers and directors unfettered poetic license with the understanding that, to quote documentary maker Ken Burns, they won't slip on the "razor's edge between fraud and art."

Of course, one viewer's fraud is another's art. With biopics as popular as ever with studios, stars and filmgoers, surely it's time to agree to a few shared principles of how to make them and watch them. A set of best practices that, while not guaranteeing art, might at least prevent fraud.

For filmmakers

Tell the truth when you can. Lie if you have to. One of the best scenes in "The Queen," for which Helen Mirren won last year's Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth, is one in which newly elected Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) meets the title character for the first time, a chamber masterpiece of psychological maneuverings and whisper-subtle politics. The fact that it never happened doesn't insult British parliamentary protocol as much as it brilliantly and economically conveys the far larger, more nuanced truth of the fascinating relationship between Blair and his queen. Accuracy is the great bugaboo of biopics and historical dramas, whose standards of success lie in how well they tell a story, not how closely they adhere to the facts. Filmmakers should elide, excise, compress and invent -- in other words, lie -- only when they have to, and only to support, rather than weaken, the story's factual, historical framework. (See also: "Coal Miner's Daughter.")

Indulge in the creative anachronism. The power of film lies in its realism, its unique ability to re-create people and events with convincing verisimilitude.

The realist trap has led too many filmmakers to create cinematic waxworks, on-the-nose reenactments that are as aesthetically dead as their subjects. Far more vibrant are the films that present history as a dialogue between past and present.

Thus, Sofia Coppola's pink Chuck Taylor peeking out of a Versailles closet in "Marie Antoinette" reminds viewers that they're watching an interpretation of a life, not the life itself. It also encourages them to consider how the isolation and corruption depicted on screen may be playing out in present-day imperial politics, and adds a welcome note of playfulness to the proceedings. Similarly, Emanuele Crialese, in his visionary historical drama "Golden Door" earlier this year, infused an otherwise cliched immigrant narrative with brief, abstract scenes -- of Italian immigrants floating down a river of milk, for example -- that simultaneously enlivened the film visually and poetically communicated its themes of hope and self-deception. (See also: "Walker," "The Moderns.")

Embrace ambiguity. Of the myriad perils in depicting a life on screen, one of the most insidious is that one person's version gets to be the official story; once a filmmaker has bought into a subject's story -- often literally, by purchasing his or her biography, memoir or "life rights" -- they proceed to ignore any dissenting voices that might detract from or contradict the (usually heroic) tale they're telling. Video store remainder bins are full of filmic hagiographies, from "The Spirit of St. Louis" to "Get Rich or Die Tryin.' "

But a recent example of raising the artistic and ethical bar was Sean Penn's "Into the Wild," an adaptation of Jon Krakauer's book about erstwhile explorer Christopher McCandless. Penn used a full palette of cinematic tools to introduce several voices to the story, including on-screen text of McCandless's own writings, a voiceover narration by his sister, and finally Penn and actor Emile Hirsch's interpretation of McCandless's final two years. The result is an unusually sophisticated portrait of an often contradictory protagonist who to this day resists facile pigeonholing. (See also: "Reds.")

You can add footnotes and appendices -- it's called technology. One of the most common cop-outs for filmmakers accused of playing fast and loose with history is that they have only two hours to tell a life story, while writers have unlimited pages and countless opportunities to clarify, substantiate and otherwise defend their claims. Well, now filmmakers have unlimited pages, too, in the form of DVD extras and Web sites, where they can present interviews with original sources, include parts of the historical record that were left out in the movie and even present opposing points of view.


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