One of the most memorable lessons in school was when I defended Richard III. I won my case easily – in my mind owing to the smooth, confident delivery of my rhetoric – but actually, most likely, because the man was innocent. In all likelihood, he did not murder the Princes in the Tower. Another monarch – Henry VII – had the means, motive and opportunity – but history has blamed Richard III because Henry’s granddaughter was on the throne at the time of Shakespeare and it just wasn’t prudent to piss her off. Thus Shakespeare branded the king a child-killer and everyone believed him.
I always felt rather angry about the whole thing: that a fictional depiction of a real person could be so cruelly wrong and yet become the accepted truth.
As the BBC reports in its article on Facebook biopic The Social Network, “Hollywood and film-makers in general when they are doing biopics have a duty to the truth,” says Dennis Bingham, author of Whose Lives Are They Anyway?: The Biopic as Contemporary Film Genre. “There are films that go over the line and distort the truth.”
I haven’t seen Fincher’s movie yet, though I’m sure I will, but it saddens me if the arrogant sociopath the film apparently depicts is really the good-natured guy his associates claim him to be. He hasn’t – and to some extent couldn’t – make a public statement saying, “Hey, I’m a nice person!”, which puts Mark Zuckerberg in an awful position. How do you defend yourself against being branded an asshole?
It’s a responsibility borne by everyone trying to represent another person. A biography or biopic, portrait or interview – if you misrepresent the subject of your study, you’re doing them (and everyone else) a great disservice.
Of course, there’s a great deal of projection involved. One of the things I enjoy about portrait photography is how different photographers bring out different aspects of the subject’s personality. Looking at the snaps of my favourite musician on MySpace, one person’s photos portray him as sweet, mischievous and youthful – whereas another’s depict him as aloof, austere and intimidating. Much as they reveal the subject, what they mostly describe is the photographer. I felt that tension when interviewing him: I wanted to tell a neat “Hollywood” story that conflicted with the complexity of a living person.
With some irony, he admitted in another interview to enjoying biographies that paint the subjects “as monsters”. Since I like almost everyone I meet, I feel unsatisfied watching a film or reading a book about someone unlikeable. They don’t have to be Mary Sues – flawed is fine – but I want to root for them. I guess my own writing reflects that: I don’t have much interest in anyone I don’t like.
Since interviewers rarely know their subjects very well, to some extent they create their own myth. It’s like guests on a reality show playing up to the cameras: in the absence of any particular agenda on the part of the producer, how the subject behaves dictates how they are portrayed, and since the outcome is captured for posterity, that portrayal is set in stone. Normally the expectations are reinforced that way – you expect someone to be a certain way, and they are. It’s only when they’re not that it becomes problematic. The same is true of biographies.
Knowing that Zuckerberg is so unflatteringly – and perhaps unfairly – described in The Social Network, will I watch it? I’m not sure. The Beeb article thinks the filmmaker holds the entire internet in contempt, which doesn’t sell it to me, and Fincher’s filmmaking is variable, to say the least. He did Fight Club, which was brilliant, but he also did the overrated Panic Room.
Most of all, do I want to buy into a myth that maligns a living person, smearing them with inaccurate gossip? Would it make much of a difference if that portrayal was true? For the moment, I’m not sure. I’m told it’s a fine film, and doubt I’ll go a lifetime without seeing it.
Still, it throws up an interesting dilemma, which ought to leave us thinking long after the film has ended.