I'm making a film about John Lennon's power to affect people on deep, personal levels. Most of the story is documentary fact although my own intimate section could be guilty of leaning to poetic embellishment, partly due to emotional confusion and lack of good diary notes.
In thinking about how films steer from fact, I went to see Billy Hayes this week in a one man show Riding on the Midnight Express, based on his book and experience of being a drug dealer and subsequent prisoner in a Turkish prison. When I first saw Midnight Express, I was struck by the violence and the hideous personalities of almost every Turk. Here was a red blooded American boy, maybe a Hippie, being incarcerated for a little pot selling and being treated like a world class murderer. Each scene in the film was scarier than the next, with the overriding feeling that the word justice did not exist in the Turkish language.
Later, I read online that Hayes had subsequently felt betrayed by the film's script written by Oliver Stone. Hayes had been put on the Turkish no-no list when Turkish tourism fell appreciably after the release of the film.
Hayes, now in his 60s, wiry and unrepentant tells a somewhat different story than the film depicts. One, he had already transported drugs four times before being caught and it was more about his hubris in thinking that he could continue to get away with smuggling than the highly developed tracking ability of the Turkish police system. According to Hayes, Nixon, probably trying to take the light off his own misdoings, had just made a big statement about drug traffic and Turkey was suddenly on alert.
Hayes, an occasional actor, speaks Turkish and spoke about really liking Turkey and the Turkish people. He felt very bad about his portrayal, especially a speech he makes in front of a judge when being threatened with life imprisonment. He never called the Turks pigs, he said. "That was pure Stone." What was more important to me was knowing truth of what happened inside the jail. Did Hayes actually bite out the tongue of the Egyptian guy? Was he raped by the head jailer?
All the scenes which gave Midnight Express its horrific flavor were now up for grabs. Hayes denied that those things occurred though did admit to a sexual liaison with a French prisoner, despite the fact that homosexuality was highly punishable in the prison. My friend, who will remain anonymous, had been in a Moroccan prison a few years before for hash commented that the Turkish prison in Hayes' film looked like Disneyland compared to his experience.
Mostly Billy Hayes was perturbed that his heroic escape, much more involved that the film depicts, was not used at all. Apparently, it was too costly to get a boat and shoot the runaway scenes where he ends up safely in Greece. So one idea: two different tellings.
With this in mind, I attended a lecture at NYU's La Maison Francaise. The subject was the story of stolen Jewish art from Parisian citizens and its or some of its return. I think the school felt that the film The Monuments Men needed a little truth balance.
Everyone loves wonderful George Clooney and he always seems to do things for the right heart reason, but in the case of The Monuments Men, he turns a deep part of our human history into a somewhat cartoonish adventure that feels inauthentic.
According to historians, Sarah Gensburger and Beth Karlsgodt, the Germans not only took artwork from the Jews, but mundane objects like chairs and fry pans. This was not only acquisition of the 'enemies' wealth but an opportunity to annihilate the memory of a people, to systematically erase them from the French landscape and the history books. That the film only occasionally mentions the holocaust is a real problem as it is the reason behind the theft and loss of some of the world's great art. The killing of Jews was the point; the acquiring of their possessions a benefit of war.
Rose Vallard, the art historian who helps the Mark Damon character of James Rorimer uncover lost art, played by the formidable Cate Blanchett, seems off. She is dour through most of the picture, then has a sudden shift of character when she reads some good news about the war... the shift is so great that she tries to seduce Damon. Yuck... unnecessary romantic addition to a story that doesn't require it and is according to the historians, far from the truth. Rose is as much of a hero as the civilian soldiers who physically saved the art. She was a dedicated professional from lowly beginnings who not only kept accurate records of all the stolen art, but was a spy, risking deportation or worse, a bullet.
They spoke of many inconsistencies with history and the Clooney script. True, the film is calling attention to the story, but is something lost or cheapened by the jocular romanticism imposed on the scenes? One man spoke up about how the film seemed like pure American propaganda... Americans saving the world again, accompanied by squeaky clean music.
I believe that film, even when not perfectly in line with historical truth, can still enlighten and open up thinking. Seeing The Monuments Men and being disappointed by it intrigued me enough to search out tonight's lecture. Historical veracity and philosophy without the superficial gloss that Hollywood requires.
In getting back to my film, Something about John, I too must accept the places where my truth can be misconstrued as fiction. But I must also remember that it is a story and like Midnight Express and The Monuments Men, there is much more to a story than what is seen or said. It's what is felt. How a tale lands in the heart. The historians are there for the 'corrections' and for the rest.