Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A true story.

In the 1920's, the Los Angeles Police Department was violent and corrupt at a level that is hard to believe. They bragged of their "gun squads", that had open battles in the streets. Some people brought into police custody were killed in private only to have the bodies dumped in the streets by night. While they needed a warrant to arrest someone, there was no such legal nicety about the cops throwing some citizen in a psychiatric ward. It may not have been on the same scale, but the L.A.P.D. of that era committed the same acts that were seen in Central America under the death squads or in Stalinist regimes in the Soviet Union, East Germany and Romania.

The situation was so bad that the Reverend Gustav Briegleb, a Presbyterian minister who had a local radio show, would often spend his broadcast not praising the Lord or trying to increase his flock, but railing against the unending stream of injustices perpetrated by the police.

Imagining a radio or TV program like that now seems nearly impossible, especially from a person of standing in the established community.

If this weren't dystopic enough, 1928 saw an increase in the number of disappearances of young boys. Through a lucky lead and not solid police work, a series of crimes were unearthed that became known collectively as the Wineville chicken coop murders. Wineville, about an hour east of downtown Los Angeles near Riverside, was so overwhelmed with negative publicity that the city fathers changed the name to Mira Loma in 1930.

These facts are in the public record. Earlier this decade the L.A.P.D. were about to destroy the original records. J. Michael Straczynski, best known for the sci-fi TV show Babylon 5 and known to his fans as JMS, was informed by a friend that these records were about to be lost, so JMS scoured the documents and made them the basis for his script for the movie Changeling.

JMS worked with the lawyers from Universal Studios to fact-check the final cut of the movie so that they could say the movie was "a true story" instead of "based on a true story". To get all the elements of the story into the movie, it was decided the protagonist of the movie would be Christine Collins, a mother of one of the missing boys assumed to have been at the Wineville chicken coop, though that was never proved. Her story allows the movie to explore the callous disregard of the L.A.P.D. in ways that would have been impossible if the focus had been on the murderer, Gordon Stewart Northcott.

My philosophical sticking point is with the very idea of "a true story". The truth is a messy set of things that happened. A story needs a plot, a beginning, middle and end, a main character and challenges for that character to overcome. A story can be triumphal or tragic or even a little of both, but eventually a story must end. The truth just keeps on going.

People who have done the research have only a few quibbles with the facts JMS presents. Some of the central characters in the actual events were left out of the film, most notably Northcott's mother, who acted as his accomplice. One confession was chronologically out of place for dramatic effect.

The big flaw in "a true story" comes from when we decide to say the story is over. In JMS's script, Christine Collins and the forces of justice are shown to prevail in an important aspect of a civil proceeding. Doing some research online, that moment of victory was undercut later by the punishment handed down to the wicked being overturned.

Story and history do come from the same root word. It is a natural thing for humans to want to make a narrative for the events they see unfold around them. But we should always be careful when composing a story from the facts of real life, because we may never know when, if ever, the story actually ends.


Anne said...

Fascinating. Horrible and fascinating. Cinema and "true story" have a troubled relationship. They probably live on different planets. So many people seem to take film as gospel that it threatens to have the capacity to rewrite history. (Whatever that is. We Brits have plenty of arguments with Hollywood.) It's tempting to suggest that film-makers have some sort of responsibility to the truth. (Whatever truth is - and it's like a rainbow: everyone has a personal version.) But I don't think they do. Society and its more thoughtful members have a responsibility to be critical and to encourage critical thinking. Thank you for this contribution.

(Gosh that sounds pompous.) Great post. What you say about the film - and your insight about the fiction of a story being "over" - could apply to any other narrative artwork, as well as history books.

See? This is why I come here. One moment it's football, or math, or giant women, then this.

Matty Boy said...

Thanks for the kind words, Anne. The Brits do a nice job with historical drama, but the greater attention to detail doesn't change the philosophical argument. HBO had the mini-series Rome that had a lot of Brits in the production, and likewise a great movie about the Wannsee Conference called Conspiracy, starring Kenneth Brannagh and Colin Firth, with Stanley Tucci being the only Yank in the cast.

They are both great stories, and in some ways I hope they are close to the truth, but I know that is just wishful thinking.

Anne said...

The Brits' argument with Hollywood isn't over who wears the purtiest costumes, but outright inaccuracies from anyone's point of view. There's this persistent belief in the UK that US films can succeed only if an American or Celt is a hero. Astonishing as it may seem, this goes against our self-belief. If only Hollywood would have a few UK and other European heroes - oh, and a few middle eastern - the US could prolly conquer the whole world.

sfmike said...

My favorite phrase which I first heard from my friend Joshua Contreras, is "this story is based on a true idea." Really does cover all the bases. Probably the "truest" movie I've ever seen was "The Battle of Algiers" where they had the actual inhabitants recreating the events about five years after they had actually happened, including one of the leaders of the revolution in a major role playing himself. Still, the major dramatic moments were all "made up."