Actual Persons

night-trees-milky-way-stars

I’m not really a b*tch!

I am smart, funny, sweet (although I do have a naughty side), and I was really in LOVE with Mark! He’s cute and adorable in a nerdy way :)

— Erica Albright

It’s nearly 11 P.M. on a cool summer night in late August. There is just enough light to silhouette the trees against the sky, and just enough wind to set them noiselessly asway. Space weather reports have forecast a meteor shower emanating from Perseus, peaking sometime between midnight and 1 A.M. You’ve folded up two blankets: a soft and fuzzy one for swaddling, and a scratchy fleece one for the ground. A thermos of hot chocolate and caramel Bailey’s, a couple summer ales, and a flashlight complete the backpack. Light jackets on, deep breath in, and a brisk ckr ckr ckr down the pea gravel path behind your house. The path cuts through the trees and is almost completely dark, but to keep your nightsight the flashlight stays off. Footsying your way around the left, left, right of the path, you make it to the small clearing at its end. You fwhoughhfff out the fleece, plop down the backpack, and snuggle in close under the wool. Staring up at a thousand sun-sized pinpricks, you hear the frogs in the next-door nature sanctuary.

What do the frogs sound like?

If you answered “ribbit” or anything in the same phonetic postal code, you are quite probably incorrect. The scientific fact is that most frogs sound nothing like “ribbit,” instead making chirps, creaks, odd rustles, something quite like a lightsaber, and sometimes no sound at all. The only frog that makes a “ribbit” sound is the Pacific Tree Frog, which lives on the west coast of the United States and southern B.C. So why do you, who may or may not be on the west coast of the United States, or in southern B.C.,1 automatically imagine ribbiting frogs? There are a variety of influences, from picture books to cute parent-child animal sound games, but the going theory right now is that the chain of causes ultimately leads back to movies. At the height of the studio system, the theory goes, movies were usually shot in or around Hollywood, and as such the animal sounds in them reflected those animals native to that region, including frogs. Audiences heard this a few thousand times and the association stuck: frogs say ribbit. This despite every frog you’ve ever seen in real life probably sounding different.

The point of all this is simple: movies can and do impact our view of the world in concrete ways. That much shouldn’t be terribly controversial, except that whenever someone’s preferred artistic medium is criticized for the potential misperceptions it might encourage, our eternal refrain is to cry that it’s only a movie/book/game/song/joke/story/&c., and that of course we all know it isn’t real. We’re not children, for pity’s sake. But the problem with that argument is that we’re almost by definition unaware of the ways in which our fantasies inform our reality. If we knew which of our beliefs were based on a fiction, we wouldn’t believe them. It is those things we know without knowing quite where we got them—what psychologists and those impersonating psychologists categorize as semantic memory—that we’re unlikely to question. Why would we? We have no reason to associate these factlets with movies.2

I am aware, of course, that inaccurate IDs of frog mating calls are pretty low on most people’s list of concerns, but I wanted to start out with a simple and uncontroversial example first, just to show that at least the possibility of this kind of interaction exists. Because once we start talking about larger and more contentious issues like whether Jaws ultimately harmed great white shark conservation efforts or if we can credit Kieślowski’s A Short Film About Killing with ending the death penalty in Poland, we’re then working with huge, multivariate problems that have political and ethical stakes behind them, which makes isolating one specific element—how much one specific fictional piece influenced people’s beliefs—almost impossible. But if the core idea that movies can influence us is granted as at least possible (as I believe it must be granted—there are simply too many examples), we can start to think about movies in these terms: is it likely to encourage misconception; would these misconceptions be harmful; could they be worth it for the sake of a story; when making a movie about actual persons, is it even possible not to create misconceptions; what right do people have to not be misrepresented; &c.? A swirl of these questions and several others violently accosted me sometime last year, when I watched Steve Jobs and The End of the Tour in fairly quick succession. Both centre on actual historical figures, Steve Jobs and David Foster Wallace respectively, and both endured some condemnation from those close to the figures themselves. The two movies’ approaches differ greatly, both from a technical standpoint and in terms of how they feel about their subjects, but I would argue they lead to the same conclusion: it wasn’t the best idea to make them.

In the case of Steve Jobs, the foremost reason for this relies on the argument outlined above: it’s tremendously difficult to really suss out its fact and fiction. So while you could read articles like this one that try to set the record straight, many viewers won’t. And even if you do, you can never be sure you haven’t missed any inaccuracies (it’s hard to imagine there are only five). But let’s say you happen upon a particularly rigorous, 100+ entry listicle that thoroughly fact-checks Steve Jobs and you actually bother to read the whole thing. There’s still no guarantee that the emotional associations the movie made have been righted (and given how extreme the movie’s portrayal of Jobs as basically a relentless sociopath is,3 I doubt they have). I don’t want to malign a film too much for what may just be problems of execution. Perhaps the intent of Boyle or Sorkin was a more nuanced portrayal. And anyway if Steve Jobs were considered better as a movie no one would care about its inaccuracies. But the fact remains that intentionally or unintentionally a group of people made something that, if anyone had gone to see it, encouraged viewers to perceive an actual person in a profoundly negative light, and it’s unclear exactly how Jobs’ estate would even attempt to remediate this.

The End of The Tour has, oddly, similar problems for the opposite reasons. There’s little in the film to suggest that Wallace is anything but an immense and influential talent: both Lipsky and his wife fall for Infinite Jest, as does the general public, and the framing elements on either end of the movie make it clear that Lipsky’s primary claim to fame is that he once got to hang out with Wallace—no one shows up to his readings if he talks about anything else. Wallace isn’t able to pick his own cover, sure, but he did manage to get a 1,082 page, monstrosity published, and beyond that to actually make it good. The final shot, of Wallace dancing with abandon at a Baptist church, is clearly a sort of memorial, with Lipsky’s voiceover describing all the genuine good Wallace did for his readers, all the catharsis and comfort his words brought them, as Brian Eno’s “The Big Ship” slowly fades in to drive home the sad beauty of our tragic hero. One can’t reasonably deny that this is trying to portray Wallace positively. And for my own part it works. I’m immediately reminded of how cathartic and comforting Infinite Jest, “The Depressed Person,” “Oblivion,” “Good Old Neon,” and yes even “This Is Water” have been for me. I’m reminded of how The Pale King will never be finished, and how I might never again read a 1,000 word sentence that’s as effortless as breathing. I’m reminded of how real and present Wallace could write mental anguish, and how strong it must have been at its source if it could make it all the way into my head with so much strength still left. And I remember that there is not now nor will there ever be anything I can do about Wallace’s being gone.

But, and this is a pretty big but, I never knew David Foster Wallace. I’ve read almost everything he wrote that is currently available and listened to quite a few of his interviews, and his extreme acuity of speech and writing may give me the impression I know him, but the simple fact is I don’t, didn’t, and never will. This doesn’t make my grief-lite feelings any less real, but it does cast them in stark relief when you consider that there are people who actually did know him. He had friends, family, a wife. To spend time memorializing my own distantly removed sense that I just wish my favourite artist knew how much I liked his work starts to seem a little petty in that light, especially when, again, his wife has come out explicitly against this memorializing. Even if you don’t care about grieving widows, you have to contend with the man himself. From the opening to his essay “E Unibus Pluram:” “a surprising majority of fiction writers, born watchers, tend to dislike being objects of people’s attention.” That may be an act of authorial persona, sure, but watching a few of his interviews gives a very consistent impression: the man didn’t seem to particularly enjoy being looked at. This leaves us with an odd situation. The End of the Tour goes out of its way to memorialize Wallace, to scream that he was a genius, that it supports him and what he stood for, and yet its very existence relies on ignoring the wishes of his estate and, if we’re being honest, probably himself.4

Whether or not either case is really unfair in some way may be up for debate. Public figures aren’t immune from criticism, positive or negative, any more than the rest of us. But of course that’s very easy to say as a non-public figure: no one is likely to make a movie about either of us.5 It’s a little odd to pull the argument that we should all play by the same rules, when the rules in question would only ever really apply to someone else. Not to mention that no one’s being immune from criticism doesn’t imply that all criticism is justified or helpful. This may or may not be a film-crit point, but to the degree that filmmakers are in control of the messaging of their films, and to the extent that they are morally responsible for the content of these messages, isn’t there some moral duty of respect for other people? Isn’t the universal ability to criticize accompanied by a universal imperative to do so sparingly and with as much kindness as possible? Does our fascination re: someone’s legacy really mean we can ignore his widow’s complaints? Advocates of free, fair, and democratic societies are likely frustrated by my seeming lack of concern for the protection of free speech, so to be clear: I’m not saying Danny Boyle, Aaron Sorkin, James Ponsoldt or Donald Marguiles should be stopped from making movies like Steve Jobs and The End of the Tour; they most definitely should not. But it’s not the expressive rights of the filmmakers here that are in question. The question is whether, having granted free speech rights, this one particular use of those rights is beneficial or not. I believe it wasn’t.

But let’s say you’re a Hitchcock-throwing-birds, anything-for-the-movie type, and you lack sympathy for these piddling little potential injuries to people whose net worth could produce Steve Jobs ten times over just to burn it. I think your position is extreme, but setting that aside I’m not sure you could defend Sorkin/Boyle’s approach even then. Much of Steve Jobs seems to assume we already know the man, his company, and some of his story, and to rely on that assumed knowledge for his characterization. Its ending, wherein Jobs magically reconciles with his daughter, invents the iPod, and walks out to demo the iMac to thunderous applause, doesn’t feel out of the blue just because it’s too wink-nudge-nudge about the technological revolution we all know is coming, but because there is almost nothing before this to suggest this sort of ending is even a possibility. Aside from another absurdly wink-nudge-nudge scene where Jobs invents the Internet, his technical or sociological genius isn’t demonstrated, nor are his parental skills. His intuitions about his future, his company’s, and the fate of his pet projects are wrong time and time again. All that we do see is a quick-wittedness that, this being a Sorkin screenplay, almost every other character shares; a merciless disposition toward his daughter and her mother; and an obsession for minuscule details that are never shown to be important at all. Boyle’s Jobs is, from just the evidence of the movie, a peculiarly one-note and uninteresting asshole who ends up either undeservedly lucky (if the iMac succeeds) or else deluded to the end (if it fails like everything else he’s done). The only reason the ending feels like redemption is because of the historical knowledge audiences bring to the theatre.6 Or, more succinctly, Boyle/Sorkin’s assumption that everybody already knows about Steve Jobs led them to skip over many characterization beats that would be glaringly indispensable in a non-historical film, on the assumption that audiences would fill these beats in themselves. I would question the assumption—everyone most certainly does not know about Steve Jobs, and his cultural memory is receding every day—but even if it were true I don’t think relying on a bunch of remembered facts for characterization is anywhere near as powerful as building one’s character within the work itself.

Possibly owing to Wallace’s relative obscurity in relation to Jobs, The End of the Tour doesn’t assume much knowledge of either his work or his eventual death, so in that sense it avoids the issue. Most of the information audiences need—his talent, his influence, his personality—are conveyed within the movie itself. This leaves a much more effective movie than Steve Jobs, but not one entirely unscathed by its real-world connections. In particular, Wallace’s eventual suicide hangs over more or less every frame of the movie. Probably as a best-of-bad-options choice, it is announced up front. This is fine: Wallace did commit suicide, and that was the impetus for the Lipsky book on which this movie is based, so there’s little way to leave it out. And at the very least it wasn’t saved for a morbid twist ending. But its influence is pretty drastic and to my eyes unfortunate. Would-be throwaway lines like Wallace’s “you don’t want to be me” suddenly become nods to the audience, hints to remember at all times that this man will eventually use his own body weight to crush his windpipe. Which is a strangely glib way to deal with Wallace’s death, but also a symptom of a pervasive assumptions about both depression and suicide that may not hold true. It’s possible that a depressed person might struggle constantly, slowly getting worse until the point that they take their own life, yes. But it’s also possible that depression comes and goes in irregular, irrational fashion, that there is no narrative arc to it, and that suicide is less the end point of some teleological pattern but rather a blip—a month, a day, a single second that seems unbearable—with few implications as to a person’s general character. Or, more simply, to act as if this one action, taken on one day, can or should retroactively define all 46 years of someone’s prior life is weird and fatalistic and it reduces a real person into a parable.

So there you have it: the use of actual persons is fraught with moral dilemmas and quite possibly detrimental to narratives, to boot. In light of this I have no option but to suggest

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Why do you think Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook? Did he see a massive potential business niche on which he could capitalize? Or did he find his own college experience lacking in some crucial way that Facebook might fix or help? Maybe it was simply a compelling problem to solve—the kind many engineers gravitate toward almost instinctively. What I doubt you would say, if asked this question, is that his girlfriend, Erica Albright, dumped him, thus setting off a personal need to create something of outstanding impressiveness that might get the attention of the Harvard final clubs, thereby impressing Erica and either shaming her into dejected submission or winning her back or both. This despite the very good chance that, at some point between 2010 and now, you watched The Social Network. This is not to say that you are necessarily well educated on Facebook and its history; most of us aren’t. But you or someone you know have seen a movie that was massively successful both commercially and narratively, one that paints a very specific picture of the rise of Facebook, and one that is arguably more convincing as history than Steve Jobs, and yet somehow the passage of a few years has allowed most people to gradually sift the facts (Mark Zuckerberg made Facebook; there was some contention about how original an idea that was; Eduardo Saverin’s shares were diluted down to force him out of the company; the Winklevii and Saverin sued Zuckerberg separately) from the fiction (Albright’s role in Zuckerberg’s actions; Zuckerberg’s character as a whole; Armie Hammer being two people). Each individual viewer might not be able to list all the differences between The Social Network and actual history, but in aggregate I think people have gotten a decently accurate read on it.

I point to a movie from a few years ago because, while it’s easy to panic about the spread of Hollywood misinformation in the moment, the presumption this rests on—viewers should be able to sort fact from fiction immediately or else society’s delicate balance of trust, doubt, honesty, and fantasy could be upset forever—is probably a bit unrealistic. I often don’t even know if I like a movie until some time after I’ve seen it, and that’s much more intuitive than a point by point rebuttal of its historical inaccuracies. But in the slightly-longer-term, my feelings do settle, as does my understanding, for any number of reasons. I could read an article on the historical accuracy of the movie in question; I could have a conversation about it with a knowledgable friend; or I could just continue living, listening to the radio, seeing things on the Internet, watching other movies, with the sum total of these activities tending to discredit the movie’s inaccuracies. Or maybe I wouldn’t. Maybe I would slip through the cracks. But I think audiences in general will, eventually.

In the meantime it’s worth asking exactly what the stakes are here. I don’t personally know Jobs, Wallace, or Zuckerberg, or any member of their estates, and so while I wish them all the very best, it’s unlikely I could have much impact on their lives or memories even if I wanted to, and the same goes for most audience members. I suppose in some worst-case scenario audiences might use Facebook, buy Apple products, or read Infinite Jest marginally less than otherwise, but the first two have demonstrably not happened in any major way (the third is almost impossible since no one reads Infinite Jest anyway), and this sort of large scale, directed market action on account of a fictional film feels unlikely.

If we’re concerned about more intangible elements like reputation and respect, then the anti-biopic argument may have a bit more purchase, but guaranteeing these as genuine internal mental states is almost definitely impossible and of questionable moral value anyway. Everyone deserves respect as a general baseline, and if our holy books got anything right it’s that we shouldn’t use other people’s questionable actions as an excuse to act poorly ourselves, but it’s hard to argue that we should never hold a negative view of someone’s actions, nor that we should never share such views with others. Who knows why Sorkin wrote The Social Network, but it’s not impossible that he genuinely believed Zuckerberg and Facebook had a corrupt and condemnable history, and that he wanted to share his perspective with audiences.7 If so, I don’t know why, by the own lights of his conscience, he shouldn’t have done so.

One could apply to fictional media the same blanket moral imperatives that govern general gossip, but while this is well-meaning I don’t know that it entirely holds water. Gossip is harmful for many reasons, but chief among them is its pernicious tendency to pull apart people who are otherwise close—friends, coworkers, family members, &c. Our relationship to public figures is quite different. There’s no shared history or chummy shoulder slapping between me and Mark Zuckerberg.8 Our relationship is that of a consumer (me) making a quasi-rational and semi-conscious decision to use or not use a product offered, in part, by a CEO (Zuckerberg). Not only does this relationship happen at several layers’ remove, it is also qualitatively different than any in-person relationship. I have no moral duty to stick with Zuckerberg’s product through thick and thin, as I might have to stick with a friend. I have no emotional tendency to appreciate Zuckerberg’s work because of our history, as I might have with a family member. Our relationship is not one to one—over a billion other people all over the world have one exactly the same. Crucially, I can’t decide not to have a relationship with Zuckerberg; he’s just too influential. For reasons of practicality as much as logic, the moral duties I incur on account of our relationship cannot be the same as my duties to a person I know.9 Likewise the duties on artists. One could actually argue that artists have a moral imperative to comment on public figures or policy in some way: these figures are liable to shape our culture and our politics in significant ways, and while that isn’t necessarily wrong, it deserves the sort of critical consideration that mass media can, at its best, provide. That is to say that the same wide reach and cultural power that makes many condemn works like The Social Network as hit pieces is exactly what makes these works so vital.

But let’s again suppose that public policy and cultural betterment aren’t really your bag, and your primary concern is the efficacy of the art in question. Even here, the use of actual history and actual persons offers actual benefits. At the very cynical least it provides a marketing hook (“the Facebook movie,” “the Steve Jobs movie”) that, while a little unromantic, is probably effective.10 But more than that, it allows a storyteller to work with live myths of active interest to her audience. Our knowledge about where Facebook will end up lends every sentence in The Social Network a deliciously dreadful portentousness. It sets aside our questions about what will happen next re: the company, and instead diverts our attention to how Zuckerberg makes these happenings come about, which is of course the whole point of the movie. And because it makes much otherwise necessary exposition pointless, it allows for a thematic subtlety that might be lost if the size, value, and influence of Facebook had to be explained outright.11 The same benefits might have held true for Steve Jobs, in fact. It falters in its execution, sure, but our broad cultural understanding of Jobs’ resurgence in the early 2000’s allows for a narrative concision that could have been to Steve Jobs’ credit, and it seems like that was at least partly the attempt: Jobs walks onto stage having made peace with his daughter, the crowd goes wild, and we know without some bloated montage that his best years are ahead of him. Sorkin overdoes the moment with a blunt iPod shoutout, and Boyle overdoes it with obscenely inspirational music, but to fault one particular end result is not to fault every method that got us there, least of all the mere fact that an actual man was being portrayed.

So there you have it

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  1. And even if you do, the Pacific Tree Frog is far from the only frog that lives there.

  2. If you already knew about the frog thing, congrats on watching QI. But the point still stands: most people are unaware, and you probably were too, at least for a time.

  3. Except for about five minutes of its hamfisted and treacly sweet ending, but I don’t think anyone’s buying that.

  4. There are no doubt exceptions in his life—46 years of life experiences will generate a few exceptions—and one can always keep sidestepping by saying that at every step of the artistic process Wallace was merely trying to project an image of himself as shy, reserved, whatever. (The End of the Tour actually suggests this as a possibility.) But this argument eliminates any possibility of genuine author-reader communication at all, and in doing so destroys the “personal connection” the movie tries to exploit, so I would hesitate to go this route.

  5. Dear Jesus, please make this sentence ironically prophetic in the future.

  6. Knowledge that is at least partly inaccurate: the iMac’s launch in 1998 did nothing to stop Windows’ market dominance, which actually increased until 2004. Apple’s ludicrous revenues didn’t start until a few years after the iPod’s release.

  7. With artistic license, yes, but this is unavoidable.

  8. Though I wouldn’t mind it as I have it on good authority he sweats money at this point.

  9. They may overlap, but overlap doesn’t imply identity.

  10. Keep in mind that for many screenwriters, the only way their scripts will be read is if they pay someone to do so, so you can’t be too hard on people trying for an audience. This is definitely not the case with Sorkin, but if we’re looking for general artistic truisms we can’t just focus on one of the most successful screenwriters in the industry.

  11. It’s when The Social Network abandons this subtlety that it is at its weakest. Q.v. Erica Albright’s “the Internet isn’t written in pencil, Mark. It’s written in ink.”