The fiction/non-fiction bullshit detector

What do ’80s comedy classic A Fish Called Wanda and the M. Night superhero film Unbreakable have in common? Not much – one is a tight, seamlessly executed situational farce, and one is a deathly serious philosophical reappraisal of the superhero myth. However, both films – fictional ones, mind you – contain the ‘where are they now’ epilogue. We learn the fates of the heroes and villains in a few short lines after the movie ends.

Why? These aren’t real people . . . we know that villainous idiot Otto from A Fish Called Wanda did not, in fact, become the Minister of Justice for apartheid South Africa. We know that Mr. Glass didn’t really end up in an insane asylum (well, he actually did . . . just in another movie). So why do we need to learn what happened to these people – people who, as soon as the screenwriter set down his pen, ceased to exist?

In the case of A Fish Called Wanda, the purpose is to fit in one more gag. Otto (Kevin Kline) can’t merely get his feet stuck in cement and helplessly watch as Ken (Michael Palin) runs him over in a steam roller. It’s a joke because the movie knows that the ‘where are they now’ epilogue is usually reserved for biopics and true-life stories. To include it in a comedy lends an added layer of silly self-importance. It pokes fun at itself.

But that is precisely the problem in the case of Unbreakable. “Elijah Price (Mr. Glass) is now in an institution for the criminally insane.” Really, M. Night? Is he?

That is not a silly comedy. It’s a very serious, dramatic look at superhero identity. It tries to make the superhero origin story believable – true to life. So much so, that it even tells us what happened to its villain. And I don’t know about you, but as soon as I saw that line pop on-screen, an alarm went off in my brain. I groaned. I called bullshit.

The problem is not merely the epilogue. As we see in these two cases, it’s the seriousness or lack thereof that allows the filmmakers to play with tropes, or unwittingly make an ass of themselves.

Movies exist on a spectrum. On the one hand, there is pure fiction: stories which in no way attempt to depict real settings, characters, situations, or even customs and social phenomena. These are stories which are often labeled as “purely escapist” and “surreal.” Star Wars would be the obvious example. The story is universal and detached from our own narratives. After all, it does take place in a galaxy far, far away. It is so removed from any individual viewer’s daily life that its themes become relatable to not just some of us – not just men, whites, Americans, Europeans, English-speakers – but all of us. That’s why it was and is a huge hit in Japan, amongst people who do not understand Northern California life the way George Lucas does. He didn’t write it for his neighbors. And the universality of Star Wars allows Lucas to take his imaginary conflict seriously, because it’s a conflict that defines us all. We all understand it on some level.

The other side of the spectrum, of course, is the bone-dry, no-nonsense true story. Documentaries are (often) found on this side of the spectrum. Movies like Icarus and Free Solo painstakingly craft compelling drama from hours and hours of footage. They chisel away the boring parts to find the human drama present in our real lives. History is full of characters, many of whom are more compelling than even the most well-written characters of our fiction. Learning about them is our other great filmic endeavor.

All movies exist somewhere in-between. They fictionalize elements of true stories, injecting drama and fluffing up situations. Or, conversely, they drag our real world into a fictionscape. We see this whenever a fantasy film is said to have an element of “social commentary,” for example. Deft hands manage this combination of the fiction and non-fiction well. Saving Private Ryan is a near-flawless depiction of combat, especially as it was on Omaha Beach. At the same time, Spielberg manages to make a compelling drama which ensures that we still have characters to care about for the rest of the movie, and we have an end goal to reach. Many viewers latch on to one or the other. Military-geared people laud the realistic combat depiction but decry the rest of the movie as propagandistic and over-simplified. More casual viewers can appreciate the story, but find the violence too intense. It’s too much to handle – it feels real in a way that Windtalkers does not (a John Woo WWII action movie – yeah, that sounds like a good idea). And Saving Private Ryan is a movie that, by all accounts, navigates the line between fiction and nonfiction pretty well. But it’s a dangerous line to try and straddle.

Think of the most ridiculous, silly, unintentionally bad moments in movies and you’ll often find that they have miscalculated where fiction and nonfiction ought to blend. The most ridiculous moment in the all-around ridiculous Independence Day is the over-serious, sentimental speech by the president. “Today . . . is our Independence Day.” Man, do I feel proud to be an American. Every Fourth of July, I can now commemorate the day Will Smith beat the ’90s CGI aliens.

Director Roland Emmerich missed the mark on that one. He missed the mark on the entire movie, in fact. Inserting a speech that might fit in a serious war drama honoring real stories of sacrifice and bravery is utterly ill-placed in a silly alien movie. It gives off an air of pretension, like the filmmakers thought their achievement was so noteworthy that it deserved the rousing patriotic finishing touches. What a mistake.

The problem goes the other way, of course. The worst parts of Bohemian Rhapsody are the parts when we can detect that the story has been altered for dramatic simplicity. Come on, did Freddie Mercury really just become the lead singer of Queen one night by asking to be in the band? Isn’t that a bit too convenient? Yes, it is. And while we can’t and shouldn’t expect our filmmakers to replicate stories with 100% fidelity, moments like that set off an alarm. We have to call bullshit.

It is perhaps too obvious why people go after biopics for distorting, condensing, altering, or all-out changing the facts. But it’s not often stated that fictional pieces which attempt to insert reality can often register the same gut-reaction. The entire genre of found-footage movies tumbles off this cliff. Thankfully, I think we finally made it through the gauntlet of Paranormal Activity movies and Blair Witch wannabes. Trying to make your fake movie feel real only can go so far. The sillier the premise, the less convincing your real-life insertions will be.

So, back to M. Night. Did he think his story was so convincing, so real, that it needed the true story, ‘where are they now’ epilogue? Apparently so. And it is way too silly. It kind of ruins an otherwise interesting but flawed conceit. That was the beginning of the end for M. Night. He lost sight of where fiction ended and the realness begins. But we knew it. We called bullshit.

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