Mar 28, 2013

The Places We Get Lost

Today I’d like to talk about mazes and the stories that contain them. It doesn’t seem like a maze would make a very interesting plot device; after all, the most complex choice a person has to make in a maze is left or right, and there’s no way for that to be an educated decision. And yet…

Perhaps the best-known maze narrative is that of the Cretan Labyrinth, constructed for King Minos by the architect Daedalus as a place to keep the Minotaur. The Minotaur, by the way, was the offspring of Queen Pasiphae and a bull, a coupling made physically possible through the use a wooden cow suit/apparatus, also built by Daedalus. So Daedalus was sort of the original Steve Jobs, creating both the product and its market.

Into the Labyrinth are thrust seven Athenian boys and seven Athenian girls, tributes in what turn out to be very literal hunger games – they are meant to be food for the Minotaur. But one of these boys, the crafty Theseus (who has volunteered as tribute to take the place of a younger boy), catches the eye of the King’s daughter, Ariadne, and she gives Theseus a ball of string and advice on how to make his way through the maze. Theseus ties one end of the string to the Labyrinth door and unspools it as he makes his way to the center, where he finds and kills the Minotaur. (In some versions he sneaks a sword into the maze with him, in others he strangles the creature with the string. I prefer the latter.) He then traces the string back out and… well, things do not go so smoothly for Theseus and Ariadne after that, but at least he is out of the maze.

Mazes also show up in Hindu, Native American, and Egyptian mythologies as entrances to the underworld. What these and other maze stories have in common with Daedalus’ Labyrinth is that they all present an obstacle that cannot be overcome physically; a hero must reason his or her way through a maze. Usually there is some trick to the maze, or the hero is bestowed with a seemingly ordinary object that somehow allows him to defeat it. (What are Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs but a starchier version of Theseus’ string?) And those of us who grew up in the 80’s probably still know the correct directional sequence to get Link through the Lost Woods.

About those woods: like mazes, forests often serve as places for heroes to get lost. This usually has more to do with their connection to the dark and otherworldly than it does with the presentation of a solvable puzzle. Forests are spirit realms, or gateways to them; they are where Sir Orfeo finds the Faerie King, Simon meets the Lord of the Flies, and Dante is hunted by his she-wolf before being rescued by Virgil. Dante’s “dark woods” are particularly interesting because they are an early example of the symbolic value that mazes took on as psychological realism crept its way into our storytelling traditions. As our heroes developed inner states, their surroundings increasingly became reflections of those states. Accordingly, Dante’s labyrinth is one of his own making.

I’d like to pause here to consider a specific maze trope, the hedge maze, which is sort of a combination of constructed labyrinth and haunted wood. Although not nearly as popular today as they were in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, hedge mazes have maintained their place as a recognizable element of fiction. A few characteristics unique to hedge mazes: 1) They are designed as social places, meaning unlike their mythological forbears, people rarely enter them alone. 2) There is often an element of pursuit, sometimes by a character previously thought to be an ally – see The Shining, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, or Coppola’s take on Dracula. 3) Hedge mazes tend to be attached to mansions and castles, which introduce issues of class.*

Mazes continue to show up in contemporary film quite a bit, usually in science fiction, because it’s difficult to find a way to work a maze into a story that isn’t at least a little speculative. Jim Henson’s 1986 film Labyrinth is about a young woman who must find her way through a muppet-filled maze in order to rescue her baby brother from Nancy Grace (as played by David Bowie). And it's perfect. The 1997 film Cube gets a lot of mileage out of a single set and the premise of a three-dimensional maze that rearranges itself even as the people trapped inside try to figure out its rules. My one problem with this film is that it keeps changing those rules while pretending not to. Lastly, Christopher Nolan’s Inception is notable for presenting the building of a maze, rather that the solving, as the heroic act. Inception is also notable for being an incoherent pile of nonsense.

The most ambitious (and I would argue most successful) modern maze narrative has to be Mark Danielewski’s novel House of Leaves, which traps its characters inside a suburban home with a continually expanding interior. Rooms and hallways and staircases appear at random (as do references to Minotaurs) and as the characters become more and more separated from each other, more hopelessly lost inside the maze of their own home, the text itself becomes a labyrinth:

What keeps this from being a gimmick, though, is that as the layout begins to tangle, the story becomes a meditation on constructing stories, and book itself turns into a critique of narrative structure and the place of the novel in modern literature. It brings to mind the introduction of Lost in the Funhouse, where John Barth instructs the reader to cut out and tape together a Mobius strip as a way to understand the act of storytelling. Danielewski gives us a different metaphorical task; he drops us the Labyrinth without so much as a ball of string.

And to me, this makes perfect sense. Because anyone who has ever tried to write a story will tell you, you spend most of your time trying to find the way out.

 *From Vlad Tepes to Elizabeth Bathory to the Marquis de Sade, we love stories about rich people taking sexual pleasure in torturing the poor, especially if it happens in a castle. America has its own such story, complete with a maze, in Dr. H. H. Holmes, who built a “murder castle” in Chicago in 1893, which featured “over 100 windowless rooms with doorways opening to brick walls, oddly-angled hallways, stairways to nowhere, doors openable only from the outside, and a host of other strange and labyrinthine constructions” for the purpose of trapping, torturing, and murdering women. Holmes is the subject of Erik Larson’s 2003 book, The Devil in the White City.

Mar 24, 2013

Thoughts, Oz the Great and Powerful

Oz the Great and Powerful has been out for two weeks now, and the mediocre reviews have been rolling in that whole time, so I’m not going to pile on. I would, however, like to talk about the sexism in this film, because boy oh boy is this a sexist, mediocre retelling (pre-telling?) of a beloved children’s classic.

The main human characters in Oz fall into one of two categories: witches and wizards, the determining characteristic being what they’ve got going on in their bikini areas. Women are witches, men are wizards, and that’s about all you need to know. (And the helpful flying monkeys come with bellhop uniforms because, as we've already discussed, people with jobs are not people at all.)   

Witches are further divided into two categories: good and wicked. Wicked witches are physically unattractive (except when they’re tricking you into thinking they’re not) sexually aggressive, and manipulative as hell. They show their cleavage, put their hair up, and sometimes wear pants. Oh, and even though they are shown to be capable of running an entire country, they will destroy said country if they can’t get a man to marry them.*

Good witches, on the other hand, are pretty and chaste. They do not wear pants or show cleavage, and their (blonde) hair is always tumbling down around their (fully covered) shoulders. They, too, are capable of running entire nations, but they dream of the day when they can hand such responsibilities over to a man.

And that is the plot of Oz the Great and Powerful. Three very powerful women, who have presumably all been trained since birth to run the land of Oz (they are the daughters of the original wizard) and have actually been doing so for quite some time, sit around waiting for a man to come take things over.

And let’s talk about that man. He has a penis and is therefore a wizard, even though his only magic is his ability to deceive people. But where that same trait has put Rachel Weisz squarely in the ‘wicked’ category, it makes James Franco loveable and conflicted. There is even a scene where he must pass through a magic barrier that filters out the impure of heart. There is some wobbling, even a moment when we think he won’t make it, but ultimately he slips through because, like most people, he has both goodness and wickedness in him.

Most male people, I mean. Women have to pick a side.

There are a few non-witchy women in the film. One is made of porcelain and cries in every scene. The others sew and have no lines other than, “we can sew.” For real, every other woman in the land of Oz is either –very literally – a fragile doll, or is shown seated at a sewing machine. There is a class of peasants known as Tinkers, the people who build the steampunk contraptions that give the wizard his powers, but the Tinkers are men, every last one of them. Because if a woman were to look at a set of blueprints, she’d just see a confusing mess of jumbled lines and dancing numbers.
What makes this adaptation even stranger is the fact that L. Frank Baum was a vocal supporter of women’s suffrage, and his work is filled with feminist themes. (He was also a vocal supporter of the wholesale extermination of the Native Americans, but nobody’s perfect.) There are discussions in the Oz books of gender equality, episodes about the unfairness of considering household chores to be “women’s work,” capable female leaders who are not witches, and a central female protagonist who goes around saving her male friends. It’s one thing for the latent misogyny of fairytales to persist in modern tellings; it’s another thing entirely to shoehorn those ideas into an adaptation a feminist (for its day) text.

To be fair to the filmmakers here, most of Baum’s pro-equality themes did not make it into to the 1939 film adaptation, which many might consider the true source material. But The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has been in the public domain for more than half a century, and it has been reimagined and transformed by its share of storytellers. I don’t think you can argue that, in the same year that Wicked will celebrate  its 10th anniversary on Broadway, the makers of Oz the Great and Powerful had to be particularly beholden to Judy Garland.

*Wickedness is also, apparently, a side effect of eating cursed apples. About which, let me just say: ugh. Yes, we are a culture whose most prominent creation myth involves a sentient phallic symbol tricking a woman into committing the sin of learning. That does not mean we have to keep putting lazy references to that myth in all of our movies.

Mar 22, 2013

My Harp Will Go On (Sorry)

There were several stories in the news this week about the auctioning of a violin reported to be the one band leader Wallace Hartley played on the deck of the sinking Titanic. I’m not that interested in whether or not the instrument turns out to be Hartley’s, but I am a bit curious as to why I know the man’s story at all. And why you do too, probably, and a whole bunch of other people as well. Even before he was portrayed in James Cameron’s film, Titanic, Hartley was probably the second or third most famous person aboard that ship, though maybe not by name. There was the Captain, the Unsinkable Molly Brown, and the violinist who continued to play as everyone boarded the lifeboats. Then a bunch of other jerks.

But why? Why do we know the violinist and not the Boatswain, who likely also did things we would approve of in those final moments– in other words, what turns someone's story into a “good story," and how is it working here?

A “good story” resonates with us on a cultural level. It somehow reflects our values or beliefs, or it portrays the world as we think it should be. It makes sense to us on a primal level. Because true stories are no different than myths and fables; they have to push the right set of narrative and archetypal buttons if they want to stay alive.

Mr. Hartley is not the first musician to persevere in the face of a watery death. When the Maenads threw rocks at Orpheus to punish him for spurning Dionysus, his music was said to be so beautiful that the rocks refused to strike him. Angered, the Maenads tore him to pieces and threw his body parts in the Hebrus, where his head continued to sing and his lyre continued to play. Similarly, English folklore features a number of “singing bone” stories, such as “Binnorie,” about a princess who is drowned by her jealous sister. The princess’s body floats downstream to a dam, where an enterprising (and one assumes not particularly squeamish) miller makes a harp from her hair and sternum. The harp then begins to play of its own accord, singing out the details of the princess’s murder for all to hear. This image of the self-playing (or wind-played) harp was a favorite of the Romantic poets as well, and it comes from the idea of music as the voice of nature, or the divine. It is the medium of truth, and it will always win out over our plots and jealousies*. For a modern take, I recommend reading “The Fluted Girl,” from Paolo Bacigalupi’s short story collection, Pump Six.

There is something of this type of story in the death of Wallace Hartley. He continued to play as the ship sank, providing succor for the doomed men and women around him, because as the conduit of the divine voice, that was his duty. But there are also elements of class in this story, and troubling implications about how it determines the value of a life.

One of the peculiarities of sinking ship scenarios is that, unlike other dangerous situations (say, a burning building) there are a fixed number of lifeboats on a ship, so there is a quantifiable amount of salvation to go around, and it gets doled out in discrete, seat-shaped pieces. The result is that the order in which people board the lifeboat reflects the value we place on their lives. Wealthy women and children first, followed by the wealthy men, then the not-so-wealthy women and children, and lastly the not-so-wealthy men. The hired help have to stay behind and continue to work until they die of socioeconomic disadvantage. (Except for the waiters on the Titanic, who could not work because they were locked in their quarters to prevent them from even trying to board the lifeboats. Ever.) Death, it seems, is not the great leveler he’s made out to be.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the story of Wallace Hartley took root in the public imagination of socially stratified Edwardian England, or that it has since bloomed in the country of Paul Ryan. Nor is it unique in modern folklore; the next time you’re looking for something to do on a Saturday night, go take a ghost tour of your hometown. For every weepy shade of a mayor’s daughter who gets to spend eternity pining for a rich fiancé, you will find a legion of ghostly bellhops, lighthouse keepers, and blacksmiths doomed to an afterlife of menial labor, as if no one who works for a living could have a truly meaningful life off the clock.

I don’t know about you, but I am sure not coming back to haunt my job. And if it ever hits an iceberg, those women and children can expect some elbows.

*Unlike harps, we tend to associate fiddles and violins with the diabolical, which makes Hartley’s story something of an anomaly. Think Nero playing the fiddle as Rome burns, Adrian Leverkühn infecting himself with syphilis to perfect his violin playing, or The Charlie Daniels Band’s Devil going down to Georgia.

Mar 18, 2013

(The Limitations of) Happy Beginnings

Because the writers at Pixar are very good at telling stories, people often solicit their advice on telling stories, and given the nature of the internet, that advice gets copied, pasted, tweeted, re-tweeted, and codified into a set of rules that people love to quote on their writing blogs. One such nugget of wisdom I have seen in numerous places is the following formula for starting a story:

 Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

In other words, the first act, what sometimes gets called the exposition and other times the ground situation, should show your protagonist enacting (or mired in) a routine. This routine is then disrupted by the arrival of the dramatic vehicle or first crisis, something that destabilizes the routine and forces the hero into action.

I am not here to rant about this formula because 1) I think it was intended as a description of a certain type of narrative rather than a mold for all narratives, 2) there are certainly examples of Pixar movies that break from this formula, and 3) there is nothing wrong with a good formula. What I would like to offer is an observation on beginnings: as story relies on a sense of balance, the stability of the ending is equal to or greater than the stability of the beginning. The same generally goes for happiness.

Since we’ve already brought up Pixar, let’s use their flagship, Toy Story, as an example. We begin with Woody, the most beloved toy, who has a happy, stable life until the arrival of rival toy Buzz Lightyear, at which point instability is introduced and the narrative moves on. We end, of course, with that tension totally diffused; Buzz and Woody are best friends and co-favorite toys. Balance. Now, the routine doesn’t always have to be so happy. In a movie like The Incredibles, the routine is imbued with a certain amount of tension to begin with (the ennui of retired superheros, for example) that perhaps makes it less happy, but no less stable. But again, we need a similarly stable (and more happy) ending for the story to feel complete.

Now, let’s consider two narratives with much less stable ground situations, and the endings this allows them.

The first is a story I have probably referenced before because it is so damn good, Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” (A title that itself establishes a sense of symmetrical instability.) The story opens with Connie in the throes of pubescent individuation, a divided and unstable character whose only routine activity is rejecting the routine activities of her mother and sister (and, symbolically, domesticity). The ending is famously inconclusive: she drives off with a man who is possibly the devil, but maybe just a serial rapist. And yet, despite our not knowing what happens or exactly how bad we should feel about it, there is still the sense of an ending that has everything to do with the balance of the story as a whole. We started in weird, unhappy place, so we’re fine with an equally weird, unhappy ending. As much as we might like to imagine such a movie, this ending would not have worked for Buzz Lightyear.

The second example is one that I know I have referenced before (because I teach it fairly often), Hamlet. We begin with the young prince of Denmark visiting home for a funeral/wedding combo. There is nothing routine or happy here. Everyone is still trying to figure out how to make sense of their unstable situation, and yet when the ghostly dramatic vehicle comes in, it is able to plunge us into further disruption. In the end, of course, everyone dies. It doesn’t really get much more stable than that (we’re pretty sure no one is going to do anything that might surprise us at this point) and yet it also doesn’t get much less happy than that. But again, we started in a place that was so fraught to begin with that it still feels like the right ending.

Mar 13, 2013

Dirty Words

Some of my favorite stories are actually the etymologies of words, especially those that display the oddly associative nature of human thinking.

The word “muscle,” for example, comes from the Latin word musculus, which means, “little mouse.” Quick, flex your bicep. Looks a bit like a scurrying mouse, no? This is also the origin of the Sanskrit word for testicle (muska) from which we get “musk.” Because a musk gland resembles a scrotum, which itself resembles a mouse.

Speaking of balls, the word “avocado” famously derives from the Nahuatl ahuakatl, meaning “testicle,” while the actual word “testicle” is thought to come from either the Latin testi, meaning “witness” (from which we get both “testify” and “testimony”) or testa, meaning “pot” or “shell,” (from which we get both “test” and “tortoise.”)

On a more romantic note, the word “engagement” comes from the French gage, meaning something thrown down by knight as a pledge of protection, often a glove.  (This is also where we get the word “mortgage,” which somewhat less romantically means “dead pledge.”) All that romance might lead to fornication, which comes from the Latin fornix, meaning, “arch.” Prostitutes, apparently, liked to hang out under domed structures. 

There is also an arch-shaped structure in the brain called the fornix, at the ends of which lie two round bundles of neurons called the mammillary bodies. Five bucks if you can guess what the scientist who named those thought they looked like. 

Mar 10, 2013

A Rambling and In No Way Exhaustive Account of the Past, Present, and Future

The other day I was having a conversation with a friend about stories that have endured not just in the Western Canon, but in popular culture as well.  Romeo and Juliet, for example, are still instantly recognizable characters to most people, but I don’t think you could say the same of Heathcliff and Catherine, even though Wuthering Heights will continue to be read and appreciated long after I am dead. Similarly, most people might be able to give you a Cliff’s Notes version of the Iliad and Odyssey, though probably not the Aeneid.

Obviously, these are ill-defined criteria. How could we ever prove what “most people” would recognize, or even define what constitutes a recognition? (Is it enough that someone knows that Romeo and Juliet are lovers? Would they also have to know that the two come from rival families, or that they die in the end?) But this is a blog post about a conversation that took place over a couple of beers at an outdoor chili cook off, so I will play fast and loose where I damn well please.

The point of the conversation was not actually to make a list of what has survived, but to predict which stories in today’s popular culture will stand the test of time. (And for the sake of argument, we set that test at about 500 years).

There are a number of stories inching forward already, currently somewhere between the 100 and 200 years marks, that I think will be with us for a while longer. I would put Frankenstein, Dracula, Moby Dick, and A Christmas Carol in here, along with the collected works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells (but only because, if you were to ask someone to explain to you what happens in a story called “The Time Machine,” or “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” even someone who had never heard of those stories could probably tell you based on their titles alone.) You’ll notice my usual bias toward science fiction here, but I also honestly believe that stories with supernatural or otherworldly qualities tend to survive longer because they appeal to us on the level of mythology. Also, stories about visiting the past and bringing people back to life are fundamentally relatable. And Moby Dick because…well, it’s Moby Dick.

I have less hope for stories about class divisions and social issues because I think that those works come with a certain amount of cultural specificity that keep them from feeling universal. One could argue that there will always be class divisions and social issues, but they have different boundaries in different cultures, and the further away from them we are historically, they less sense they make to us socially.  We might recognize something of ourselves in an episode of Downton Abbey, but probably not so much in the Eumenides. Sorry, E. M. Forster and Upton Sinclair.
More importantly, you need a fairly straightforward narrative, something that can be summed up in a sentence or two, with some form of iconic imagery or character. The Wizard of Oz will never die because we would have to forget all we know about wicked witches, yellow brick roads, and the phrase “there’s no place like home.” There’s just too much there to stick in our collective memory. It’s also been adapted, referenced, and parodied enough to make knowledge of the original source material irrelevant. I think Don Quixote and Gulliver’s Travels will live a sort of half-life in this regard, owing to their abundant iconic images but picaresque structures. We will always remember the windmills and the Lilliputians, but we might loose our sense of the rambling narratives into which they fit.

What about now now? Which of today’s guilty (or even not-so-guilty) pleasures do I think will be tomorrow’s cherished classics? Well, the good thing is I can make any predictions I want, and no one I know will be around to prove me wrong in 2513. If we were to look at the pop culture juggernauts of the last 30 years, I don’t think that many of them have staying power.  I might have made a case for Star Wars if George Lucas had stopped at the original trilogy. There’s something satisfying and primal about the Luke Skywalker/Darth Vader cycle, but it is far too muddied by decades of spinoffs, Christmas Specials, and prequels to be considered a single, straightforward narrative at this point. Harry Potter might stand a chance, but again it’s not really one clear story, and I think that works against it. Seven novels is a lot of baggage to carry through the centuries. As much as it pains me to say Twilight, with its Dracula/Romeo and Juliet parentage, might fare better than either of them.

But if I had to choose one story that I thought, without a doubt, would last, I would pick Superman. I’m not even that big of a Superman fan, but I think his origin story hits a number of nails on the head. It’s otherworldly, it’s heroic in a mythological sense, it’s been adapted more times and in more ways than anyone can count, and it is translatable to any culture (the rules of what can happen on another planet are not bound to any society). Once it passes into the public domain (assuming that it does) there’s no reason for it not to be retold and retold. Superman himself is so blandly perfect and powerful a hero that he can be given whatever characteristics a particular generation needs. There may not be a definitive telling of the story, but if Faust can reside in the works of Marlowe, Goethe, and Murnau without choosing a favorite, then Clark Kent can do the same with whatever storytellers are yet to come.  In all likelihood, I am wrong. But then again, so are most people who make predictions.         

Mar 6, 2013

That Thing People Do at Parties

If you ever find yourself making small talk at a party, and you happen to mention that you are an English teacher, you will find yourself suddenly and involuntarily entered into a strange ritual I like to call the Book Game. It goes something like this:

Person One: I just finished [obscure book].
Person Two: If you like [obscure book], you should read [even more obscure book].

Sometimes this can be a fun way to meet people and simultaneously get some good reading recommendations, and other times it can devolve into a strange and uncomfortable social competition wherein points are scored by shaming your opponent into admitting they haven’t a read particularly well-regarded author. The game always ends with the following exchange:

Person One: I haven’t read it, but I saw the film.
Person Two: The book is so much better.

This is a nice place to end because it gives both players something to agree on: books good, movies less good (more or less). Which brings me to today’s topic: what does it mean to say that a book is better than a movie?

In general, I think what we mean (and I say “we,” because this is something that I am guilty of myself) is that we prefer the experience of reading a book - any book - to that of watching a movie. We prefer the pacing of novels, which are allowed to be exactly as long as they need to be (though they are often just a smidge longer) to that of films, which usually have to clock in at 90-120 minutes. We prefer the emotional investment that comes from several weeks (or one long, rainy day) of reading a book to the two-hour stopover at the crowded multiplex. We prefer the perfectly rendered characters and settings of our imaginations to the nagging inner voice that says Scarlet Johansen’s wig looks really terrible. We prefer the focused artistic vision of a single author to the often muddled results of multiple screenwriters, meddling producers, and focus-group happy executives.

But these are not the points that people bring up when they complain about the inferiority of movies. Usually, when someone declares a film adaptation to be a failure, they immediately begin to ramble off a list of subplots and ancillary characters that didn’t make it to the screen. They left out Tom Bombadil. They left out the Avoxes. They left out Anna Karenina’s Russian accent. As if the artistic success of a film is determined by the exactitude of its translation.

The funny thing is, we’re pretty tolerant of narrative elisions when it comes to other forms of visual adaptation. No one ever criticizes a Greek urn for cutting their favorite scene between Orpheus and Eurydice, or looks at the Pietà and says “oh, but the book was better.” We recognize that, in going from the verbal to the visual, a certain amount of abridgement is required, and the resulting work will depend largely (or in the case of sculpture, almost entirely) on metonymy and the viewer’s preexisting knowledge of the story. The story is represented, not told, and we’re okay with that because we are given new, visual dimensions in which to appreciate the art. More to the point, we recognize that a direct comparison would make no sense.

So what makes film different? Well for one thing, it is the visual medium that most closely resembles literature, in ways both superficial (use of dialogue, the construction of discrete scenes) and fundamental (the imposition of a point of view, the unfolding of events in a given order and pace). Film presents us with a more clearly defined narrative arc than other visual media, so we are more sensitive to the disruptions of that arc’s shape. All of this leaves us with an icky, uncanny valley feeling when we see a book adapted to film. It's almost the story we know, but not quite. And that's a little unsettling.

This is not to say that a film adaptation can’t be successful. Look at The Godfather. Or The Shining. Or even Clueless. These are successful adaptations, but not because they were completely faithful to the source material, or completely irreverent with the source material. They are successful because they are so good at what movies are good at that we don’t compare them to the source material at all.

Mar 3, 2013

On Verisimilitude

Steven Spielberg once famously said, “Artists use historically accurate wallpaper to tell the truth.”

Okay, he never said those exact words, but he has built a career around the idea. From Schindler’s List to Amistad to Saving Private Ryan to Munich to Lincoln (all of which, I’m sure, will one day be released as a DVD boxed set called “You Didn’t Become a High School History Teacher to Do Work”) Spielberg has pioneered his own, expensive subgenre of historical fiction in which slavish devotion to period detail is presented as art.

I’m going to pause here for a moment to acknowledge a peculiarity about film: it’s a collaborative art form. Or rather, it’s a collaboration of art forms. I don’t want to take anything away from the very talented craftsmen and women of the art and sound departments on these films, who no doubt put a tremendous amount of effort into research and production and/or insisting that their spouses only address them as Mary Todd Lincoln’s duvet cover. I do, however, have some misgivings about the producer/director who decided the best use of those artists was as living photocopy machines.

Getting back to Spielberg and his oeuvre: I have two beefs with this style of filmmaking. First, what is the point? I don’t mean that rhetorically; I am legitimately unsure of the goal of you artistic endeavor. If you are using historical events as a framework for a story that is meant to communicate some fundamental human truth(s) (Argo, for example) then historical accuracy is ultimately irrelevant, and in some cases a hindrance. If, however, your goal is to be the most detailed video history book, then your movie is a hollow exercise in technique, and you should go do something else with your life.

My second, and much larger, problem with this style of movie is that it ultimately tries to have it both ways. Movies like Lincoln want to be both well-crafted human stories and perfectly accurate accounts of fact. But you can’t be both. The imposition of a narrative arc and all its trappings takes your story out of the realm of fact and into that of myth. (And we can throw movies like Zero Dark Thirty in here too.) This would be fine if you weren’t also trying to sell us on your truthfulness. Because when you gush publicly about the accuracy of something as minor as the drapes in your movie, you are making an implicit claim about the big stuff as well.