In the years I have been a critic, it has been common to suggest that we are in a Golden Age of Television, or a remarkable rise of action franchises, or a critical moment for the development of new distribution models for independent movies. And because we are in an exceptionally interesting moment in popular culture, we are also living through a time when it seems like everyone wants to have their say on the subject. Recently, the rise of pieces dissecting and fact-checking mass culture — often running outside style and entertainment sections, and written from a perspective of expertise on the subject matter rather than on culture itself–reached such a pitch that IndieWire’s Criticwire editor Sam Adams felt the need to weigh in with a piece titled “Please Kill the Expert Review: A Modest Proposal.”
“By its nature, the Expert Review evaluates what the director Werner Herzog calls ‘the truth of accountants, the extent to which a work of fiction dots its i’s and crosses its t’s,” Adams wrote. “At best, it guards against the devolution of drama into sloppy generalities. At worst, which it most often is, the Expert Review is a half-step up from the goof-squad niggling of cinematic and televisual trainspotters who derive a puny sense of superiority by pointing out that a license plate has the wrong prefix or that particular style of telephone wasn’t available until the following year.”
As a critic whose work is mostly concerned with examining the relationship between fictional worlds and the real one, where the former diverts from the latter, and what those departures mean, I was intrigued, and not a little worried, by Adams’ piece. Did he mean to argue that there ought to be a wall between art and life, between what we understand as creative communication and political speech? Given the number of directors who talk openly about asking political questions in their work, and the research that suggests mass culture influences real-world behavior, such sharp division would seem to preclude important discussions. So what should pop culture try to get right? And what is really happening when fiction that claims a relationship to reality and history veers away from the facts?
“It’s the scolding nature of the ‘What X Gets Wrong About Y’ formulation that rankles,” Adams wrote in an email to me when I reached out to ask some of these questions. “The problem is the assumption that getting things ‘wrong’ automatically indicates a flaw in a work of fiction, rather than an at least potentially valid artistic choice.”
Those choices, he suggested, is where our attention should lie. “If directors and show-runners make claims to authenticity, it’s absolutely fair to evaluate them. I just wish they wouldn’t. It demeans the nature and the purpose of fiction to suggest that its highest calling is to present a color Xerox of the real world,” Adams told me. “It’s different where real history is concerned: It matters enormously, for example, that the real-life version of Matthew McConaughey’s character in ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ was probably an unconflicted bisexual rather than a homophobic straight man.”
To take that line of thinking further, what is the appeal of focusing on a supposed straight man, rather than on the activists in New York who founded Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York, and who will get some of their due in an HBO adaptation of “The Normal Heart,” coming soon from Ryan Murphy? In a contemporary context of skepticism about the medical establishment, what does it mean for “Dallas Buyers Club” to demonstrate such skepticism of drug-based regimens to treat HIV? Checking facts can be the beginning of fruitful conversations about pop culture, but they are rarely an interesting end point.
Matt Zoller Seitz, the editor of RogerEbert.com and the television critic for New York, told me that he believes there is plenty of room to ask questions about those sorts of decisions, but that fact-checkers should recognize the difference between a faithful recreation of events, and metaphors that are meant to communicate larger truths.
“When you talk about the gap between what a movie purports to do and what it actually does, that’s criticism. If it fudges factual accuracy because it’s lazy, it should be taken into account, especially if — and this is important! — the alteration that the script makes does not result in a more dramatic or more interesting film,” he wrote in an e-mail. “This is why I don’t have much patience with people who argue that, in Oliver Stone’s ‘Nixon,’ it was wrong of the film to show Nixon meeting with a cabal of Texas businessmen…Those aren’t actual businessmen, they stand for a certain strain of American capitalist, and for corporate America’s stranglehold on the presidency. The accuracy cops often don’t understand what metaphors are. That’s a problem.”
Adams suggested that such quibbling could actually push movies further away from substantive engagement with big ideas. “I’d say that accuracy is the poor man’s authenticity,” he wrote. “You can’t authentically recreate the spirit or feel of a time without paying attention to detail, but simply getting the details isn’t right, and it can get in the way.” And while it would be nice if facts always carried the same persuasive power as good characters, strong cinematography, stirring music and an artfully-constructed plot, they do not.
One expert I spoke to agrees. Amy Kramer, the senior director of entertainment media for the National Campaign To Prevent Teen And Unplanned Pregnancy, said she and her organization regularly walk Hollywood productions through the fine points reproductive law, including parental consent laws for the abortion storyline in “Friday Night Lights,” or the state-level regulations of adoptions. But while what Kramer calls the “nitty-gritty” is important, the tone of overall character arcs matters too, she said.
“It’s not helpful to anyone when Hollywood portrays, let’s say, an unplanned pregnancy as always leading to love, and marriage, and happily ever after. That’s the kind of stuff, certainly that does happen in real life, but the vast majority of these situations, that’s not the outcome,” she said. “You can’t tell creative storytellers how to tell stories, and I would never pretend that I could. But even [when] pop culture, or these kinds of things, are not 100 percent precise in how they do these things, that doesn’t mean that they’re not helpful.”
Kramer pointed out that sometimes, laws and practices change faster than the pop culture production cycle can keep up with. The Campaign worked with the ABC Family show “The Fosters,” on an emergency contraception storyline, but after the episode was written, the rules about how minors could obtain it changed. For Kramer, the story still worked because of the way it explored the characters’ emotions about having had unprotected sex and their relationships with their parents.
And she argued that it is important to understand that while pop culture can be a powerful influence on viewers — audiences, even young ones, have critical relationships to movies and television.
“Young people, for us, that’s our target audience, they are such savvy consumers of media,” she said. “They don’t just sit in their living rooms and watch a sitcom and consider it gospel. That’s from another time.”
In other words, those of us flocking to movie theaters and gathering around televisions and tablets do not need to be protected from our own credulity. But if we are going to keep an eye out for the exits pop culture takes from reality, maybe we should pay more attention to why film and television are choosing those particular byways, rather than just suggesting they are unaware that they veered off from the established map. We regularly hear the canard that the journey matters more than the destination. But we will learn a lot more about both pop culture and our own politics if we focus our conversations on the merits and problems with many different routes, rather than insisting there is only one path to the same conclusion.