There are more than two ways to look at falseness.
One of my favorite documentary films is The Cruise made in 1998 by Bennett Miller, who went on in 2005 to make Capote.
The Cruise is made perpetually watchable by its perpetually listenable subject: Timothy ‘Speed’ Levitch, who guides Grey Line Bus Tours of Manhattan with a rapidity and a nuance for detail that has to be heard (and seen, of course) to be believed.
It’s maybe not his finest moment, but it’s what YouTube’s giving me to work with. While I can’t prove to you (nor does the film, either, try to) that Levitch’s cruising monologues are improvised, they come out with a loose improvisatory feel, and this I think is the film’s power. You’re in the hands of some kind of maestro, and somehow early on you submit yourself to these hands and go wherever they conduct you.
There’s a brief scene of Levitch in the cubicular room he shares with an acquaintance where he’s typing on an original Macintosh (the cubicular nature of which nicely echoes the closeness of this room Levtich seems to spend as little time in as possible), and later in the documentary we hear him speaking apostrophically to various people who never read his scripts. We think back on these shots of Levtich staring at a tiny screen. We make the connection: he must be a playwright. (That none of this biographical matter ever comes to us through intertitles or voiceover narration is one of the film’s achievements.)
But we can never actually see the screen. What if he’s writing the scripts to his one-man show on the bus? What if it’s an act?
Well, the other half of the film that shows Levitch walking around Manhattan spilling out his ideas matches his tour delivery style closely enough to let us understand: this is just, magically, how he is. Is he always on, we ask? Yes, says the film.
Okay, let’s promote this devil’s advocate. What if it’s all an act? What if the movie were scripted, tip to toe, every scenario carefully crafted to look like it happened “in real life”?
To me, it seems there would be two ways to look at this falseness, each with a kind of corollary effect:
- I could call “Fraud!” on Miller and feel personally betrayed, or even just lied to, and then
- I could feel as though some profound element has been taken from humanity, which is maybe just a melodramatic way of saying that I’d be sad that the world as I’d come to understand it—one that includes therein a man like Timothy Levitch—does not and maybe cannot exist.
- I could adjust my thinking on why I like The Cruise and start to investigate what cinematic and narrative techniques went into its beautiful imagery, pacing, and structure, and maybe more importantly
- I could feel happy that maybe no “real person” as Levitch exists in this world, but that people in this world exist who can invent such a person as Levitch, and isn’t that an exciting world to live in, too?
This involves more than just half-full/-empty glass spectation. It involves how we think about the making of art and the selling of it. Miller’s film, from what I can recall, doesn’t have the word “documentary” anywhere on or in it. Nor does it tell us—as does the Coen’s fictional Fargo—that it’s based on a real-life character. We accept it as a documentary because of certain generic elements it conforms to, and it excels as a documentary due to certain other elements.
What those are may have a lot to do with everything we see being real, but for some reason I distrust that this is the case. As a maker of art things that connect to the real, I want to figure out how and when real-y things succeed as works of art. Maybe what I mean is that The Cruise is a great film not because it’s real, but despite it. Take away its truthiness, and it’s still a great movie. How?
One thought on “Two Ways of Looking at Falseness: A Series of Blog Posts in Defense of a Position”
I’ve been doing a fair amount of thinking about these issues since teaching a course on Memoir and scandal last year. The students were, mostly, not in the least phased by the falsity or fabrication in Frey’s Million Little Pieces. They found the book readable, which was a high virtue for them, and entertaining. What was interesting is that they found Lauren Slater’s Lying (in which she uses epilepsy as a metaphor for her life, though she doesn’t really have epilepsy, or does she–it’s confusing) to be indulgent and “so what?” And fair enough, it’s not my favorite memoir, but it got me thinking about these issues you are writing about.
What the students did agree on was that In Cold Blood is a masterpiece. Now, I know it isn’t exactly a memoir (he called it a “nonfiction novel” and claimed to have been the originator of this genre) but it did cause a certain degree of scandal given the duplicitous, or let’s just say self-interested, ways in which Capote had to behave and operate in order to get the story, and given the novelistic narrative techniques he used in order to tell the story.
When I look at the way my students regarded these three books (Million Little Pieces, Lying and In Cold Blood), I must conclude, as Anthony Burgess once did, that there are two kinds of writing, good and bad. Capote’s book is clearly the most virtuosic of the three. It’s possible to forget that this is nonfiction because he so thoroughly imagines for us the world of these killers and the world of small-town USA, mid-century. So even though Capote is a gay man from New York City, by way of New Orleans, there are few moments where you have cause to doubt Capote’s account of this place and these people because his prose is so captivating and, well, beautiful.
To your conclusions: I am troubled by outright deception in nonfiction. I am saddened by plagiarism allegations and writers who think plagiarizing is no different than DJing. Ultimately, though, I feel that what is important in nonfiction is the same as in fiction–you have to tell a good story, and good stories bring us closer to the truth. When I say truth I mean something like, “the human condition” and “the complexity of reality.” Good story telling puts us in situations where we must come to terms with ourselves, our beliefs, perspectives, and perceptions of the world.
Bennet’s Cruise, which I haven’t seen, sounds like it’s doing that. The modern human condition (I’m done with po-mo or po-po-mo–we’re moderns) causes us to seek authenticity, and so we go around feeling fucked up and ranting about unreality, fabrication, simulacra, fabrication, truthiness, etc. etc. This isn’t to discount what you’re saying, Dave, but it is to say that the disappointment that we often feel when confronted with the possibility of falsity and deception is linked to our great desire for something good, clean, pure, untrammeled, and un-cynical.
Thanks for your post. I didn’t intend to write this much. I think I’ll go over to my blog and continue thinking more about these things. Maybe we could tag-team back and forth.