Today’s Wednesday Collective is a special edition. I want to highlight an ongoing conversation that’s been taking place across a few different sites, namely between Sam Adams at IndieWire, A.E. Larsen over at An Historian Goes to the Movies, Chris Braak over at Threat Quality Press, and myself. It regards the need for historical accuracy in movies and whether that accuracy should be a quality that critics evaluate.
“Please Kill The Expert Review“
This all started when Sam Adams, editor for IndieWire, posted a rejection of the “expert review,” the kinds of articles that declare “What Noah Gets Wrong About the Bible” and “What House of Cards Gets Wrong About Money in Politics.” Half the time, these “expert reviews” fail at their own game, overlooking some pretty simple facts, or assuming some historical intent on the part of filmmakers that isn’t there. For instance, Noah isn’t based on Noah and the Flood alone, it’s based on Jewish religious stories, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Abraham and Job and Moses, and Asian flood mythologies. And House of Cards is based on Kevin Spacey eating you alive.
“Wednesday Collective – Films of Excess, Black Widow, & All Your Ark Are Belong to Us”
We highlighted Adams’s article in a “Wednesday Collective” that also featured some other great articles and a pretty broad Something Awful reference all of two people picked up on. I didn’t altogether agree with Adams that expert reviews need to be eradicated. I did agree that expert reviews have become so widespread and inaccurate that it’s inevitable many of them are written by non-experts. They might think half an hour of hitting up Wikipedia is the equivalent of doing enough research to post a 1,000-word article (hint: it’s not). After all, “expert reviews” get clicked on. They appeal to our curiosity. They appeal to our desire to have even more to discuss about the film we just saw, and our desire to impress others by doing so. They appeal to some pretty basic schadenfreude we feel when famous people do something wrong. So they persist.
“Why Historical Accuracy on Film Matters”
A.E. Larsen at An Historian Goes to the Movies wrote a rebuttal to Adams’s original article, detailing the importance that evaluating historical accuracy has. If we cut out that evaluation, Larsen argues, we avoid discussing some pretty important artistic decisions and the social, cultural, and political consequences those decisions can cause in the real world. He cites the rise of the powerful independence movement in Scotland as a reaction to Braveheart, and the effect crime procedurals like CSI have had on both the taxpayer expense and burden of evidence necessary to carry out criminal trials in The United States. It’s worth noting that Larsen also considers it important for films to sometimes forgo historical accuracy, such as in the narrative and costuming in The 13th Warrior. Accuracy isn’t always important, Larsen says, but discussing it is.
“On History, Historicity, and the Responsibility of Art”
Chris Braak at Threat Quality Press sought to separate history from historicity, further expanding on Larsen’s argument while also putting the onus of responsibility on artists themselves. The issue as an artist isn’t to always be historically accurate, Braak says, but rather to have a reason when you aren’t. Many artists use history as a backdrop to talk about modern-day issues. If that’s what you’re doing, decisions can’t just be made willy-nilly – they each carry into the messages that viewers take away. Braak uses Shakespeare, Philadelphia theatre, and Larsen’s example of Braveheart to write a fairly brilliant article.
“‘Accuracy is the Poor Man’s Authenticity’: (A Few) More Thoughts on the Expert Review”
Finally, Adams featured Larsen’s rebuttal, as well as two others, in a piece that contained far too much punctuation in its title and met him halfway. He still sticks to his guns, but he admits he just had to get “Please Kill the Expert Review” off his chest. He also says that art doesn’t have a responsibility to stick to fact. I have a tendency to agree with Braak – art does have that responsibility, except when there’s a reason to choose differently. So the conversation has paused by putting the burden of responsibility on the artist, but it did begin by calling out critics. That still needs to be addressed.
My Own Take
The value of making movies that are historically accurate should be self-evident – failure to do so can lead to the rewriting of history itself. The single, most offensive episode of TV I’ve seen all year did just this, in an ill-advised attempt to trade historical accuracy for scientific, as if you’re only allowed to allot a certain number of accuracy points between the two.
Art’s ability to turn history on its head does offer unique opportunities, however, the way The Monuments Men seeks to champion art’s value to a society that’s busy cutting arts education left, right, and center. Or the way Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained change history entirely to create power fantasies for the historically maligned. In this way, they empower and engender pride today while challenging typical ethnic portrayals and culturally training us to see hate and racism for the wholly ridiculous things they are. By making villains who literally tent their fingers and twirl their mustaches, and KKK members who whine about the imprecise tailoring of their white sheets, we begin to associate the very same positions in the real world as childish and cartoon-esque.
What’s a critic’s role in this? To evaluate the historical accuracy in Inglorious Basterds is a fool’s errand, yet in evaluating the details and nuances director Quentin Tarantino does include, we might better see the craft behind the image. In art history, you’re taught to examine every nuance – the painters whose work has lasted centuries rarely included useless details. Even brush strokes can communicate something – where the painter seeks to turn your eye, and the relationships between different characters.
And what should the requirements for the critic be? I try to review a movie’s success with some degree of isolation from it’s background. I want to know what the movie’s saying or failing to say. Under the Skin and Children of Men and A Clockwork Orange (I just came up with the most depressing triple-feature ever) say completely different things from the novels on which they’re based. Does that mean they’re failures? Absolutely not, but why they have completely different messages is important.
Likewise, Basterds, Django, Braveheart, and Monuments Men divert completely from history to make their points, and why they choose to do so is the most important component in each of these films. That requires analysis, which requires pointing out the historical details those films overlook or change.
Even so, I agree with Sam Adams on his broader notion that the proliferation of a certain type of “What X gets wrong about Y” review isn’t doing criticism any good. I don’t think he’s talking about the “expert review,” however. The expert review, such as what A.E. Larsen does at An Historian Goes to the Movies, is a crucial component to understanding movies as an art and storytelling form. I believe what Adams criticizes should be called the “inexpert review,” in which critics feel pressure to be all things to all people, and often evaluate the accuracy of topics on which they aren’t really familiar.
Critics should not pretend to know everything. It’s one reason I do “Wednesday Collective.” It’s the reason I seek out other writers to feature here, like Vanessa Tottle and Russ Schwartz. You can’t read a critic in a vacuum; you need other input. One of the most valuable things you can do as a critic is admit what you don’t know. It’s academically honest, and it will let readers know that if you do have a point to make, you’re only making it when you know what you’re talking about.
Go back and look at Roger Ebert’s archive of reviews and essays – it’s easy to select the ones he wrote from a drop-down menu up-top. Ebert was an incredibly smart writer, yet again and again, he prefaced his viewpoints with what he didn’t know, either on an academic subject or another culture’s storytelling techniques. This allows you to be aware of exactly what he does know. Being aware of his perspective and his knowledge gives you more information, gives you a better sense of how to understand his opinions.
The expert review doesn’t need to stop. The inexpert review needs to stop. Critics need to admit when they don’t know something, not pretend they know everything. We need to talk about film from our own perspective, from our own experiences and knowledge. We need to be proud of our specialties, and seek out others to complement them, to refer to when we don’t know something important. Pretending to be an expert in a field you don’t know about is a way of being ashamed at your lack of knowledge. I’d rather be proud about what I do know, and honest about what I don’t. It’s the only way criticism survives as something more than top 10 lists and Metacritic scores. The only way.