Posted by Ken Burke On August - 23 - 2013 0 Comment

We know that film has had an ambiguous relationship with reality from its beginning because its foundation in photography continually leaves the impression that what we see on screen is what appeared before the camera despite all the pre-production complications of set construction and lighting that led up to the scene being made ready to shoot—although contemporary CGI technology further confounds that ambiguity by generating images that may have little or no basis in actual photography. Even documentaries rarely note the artificiality that they bring to their construction because even though they may be grounded in unstaged events shot in actual locations in real time, what you don’t get in the final product is what went on just beyond the limits of the camera frame, what led up to and followed what you do see in the final edit, and what might be missing from a fuller picture of the depicted situation if there were additional scenes of coverage that don’t exist because of missing opportunities to shoot more, legal complications, rebuttal refusal from other sides in the situation, or just a plain old persuasive agenda so that we’re shown what the filmmakers want us to believe, however slanted the perception may be.

The Butler

Where this connects with some recent films is the exploration of a variation on the famous John Milton line “They also serve who only stand and wait” (from the On His Blindness sonnet, c. 1655) about “background” presences that offer much more to various aspects of the world at large than such “support role” status might imply. In Lee Daniels’ The Butler we explore a fictionalized account of Eugene Allen, an African-American man who was on the service staff in Washington, D.C.’s Presidential residence, the White House, from the Truman through the Reagan administrations; in Daniels’ historical re-enactment the man is now called Cecil Gaines, a non-existent son is added to link to traditionalist Dad’s confusion over the strategies of the Civil Rights movement, and the implication is left that Cecil had some influence over various Heads of State, even in his unassuming manner. Likewise, history is presented and reconstructed purposefully in Morgan Neville’s riveting documentary, 20 Feet from Stardom, about often-unrecognized background singers such as Darlene Love (worked for Phil Spector) and Lisa Fischer (on tour with the Rolling Stones since 1989). For all of the admiration we easily have for these women’s tremendous talent we have to acknowledge that what ends up on screen is the result of judicious editing, with no counter-testimony from the Spector-types who run the business that these women seemingly deserve a better deal from. Also, consider the considerably more fictional In a World … (written by, directed, starring Lake Bell) about the hardly-acknowledged world of voiceover talent, a fanciful romp with intimations of insider-Hollywood commentary but inspiration from an actual master of the vocal pipes, the now-departed Don LaFontaine. Once again, what we get isn’t a certified slice of reality, but it points to a very tangible part of the entertainment industry that’s so rarely on display that we have little evidence to judge the extent of fictionalization which Bell provides. Once again, what appears on screen could easily be based on a lot of careful actuality observation, but through the manipulation of the final production process, all we know is what we get to see, which then takes on a sense of “reality” even with less connection to such than the other two films noted here.

You can get more details on each of these three recent releases in my review posted at http://filmreviewsfromtwoguysinthedark.blogspot.com/2013/08/lee-daniels-butler-20-feet-from-stardom.html as further fodder for consideration about how viable is the history, reality, or some approximation of either that appear on screen in the various contexts that attract our movie-going attention. Please feel free to pursue this dialogue further and let’s see what we can come up with.

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