Art and Literature

special sunday edition — 03/03/13 — is realism real(ly any good)?

Dear friends — two different posts by two brilliant, but very different writers got me thinking about this question today. One friend posted that she thought ARGO was an ok movie, but says it would have been better if had been real. Another writer who is an acquaintance posted a thoughtful, highly-critical analysis of ZERO DARK THIRTY and its representation of gender and torture.

Right now I am reading Sayed Kashua’s critically acclaimed novel Second Person Singular. It’s a realist novel about an Arab Israeli lawyer who is reading Tolstoy. Kashua is an Israeli Arab writer writing in Hebrew. It’s interesting to me that he is writing fiction and not memoir, because I’m guessing that at least some of what he’s writing about is indeed autobiographical.

What gets freed up when writers  (and film makers) say “It’s fiction!”?

Is that liberating or dangerous? Both? How?

I’m wondering about the fact that all of the texts that all three of us think about when we think about “real” are connected to the Middle East (I’m stretching the geography slightly).

By “we” I mean 3 US writers who are white and not Muslim. 2 women and 1 man.

I haven’t seen either ARGO or ZERO, but I’m curious about the reality/realism problem in depicting the way “things are.”

What do you think? What would ZERO DARK THIRTY be like if it had been a manga? What about ARGO? What about if these films had been “documentaries?” Would that have made a difference?

Continuing to ponder this problem . . .

To read Matt Cornell’s essay on ZERO DARK THIRTY click here.

2 replies »

  1. Thanks for this post. What bothered me about Argo was that the facts were manipulated to serve a genre and a set of expectations about what a story is supposed to deliver–a certain type of dramatic tension and character depictions that an audience has been groomed to demand, even if they’re false elements. Maybe because they’re false, people find them more comfortable than reality, which isn’t as easily pigeonholed and is, in fact, more threatening?

    I could tell by the way the story was evolving that it wasn’t factually true—some things were obvious, such as the collapsible time zones (it’s not so easy to time a phone call from Iran to LA while both parties are in the middle of a workday) and others just felt too convenient. For me, the artifice sacrificed a complex story that would have been more satisfying even if it didn’t make the heart race. After it was over, I was irritated enough to do a cursory research of the story behind the movie. What I found was a more compelling, albeit messy, narrative. Could it have been told in a way that was less genre/generic and still held the audience attention? I’m not talking about a documentary, but a fact-based fiction (rather than a fact-inspired fiction, like Argo). In the right hands, I think it could have worked. It wouldn’t have been a formulaic action-packed drama, but it would have been meatier and unsteady in the way that life really is. Of course, I tend to think a good story should keep us up at night, not put us to bed.

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