Disaster tourism around Elvis, Monroe and Dahmer

We want the reality about Jeffrey Dahmer. Packed into eight manageableepisodes, with a story arc, dynamic characters and something of a catharsis atthe end.

Last Saturday, writer Sarah Meuleman coined the concept of fictional inflationin this newspaper. Now that we’ve been binging series everywhere – and to anincreased extent during the pandemic – fact and fiction have becomeinextricably tangled. Made-up stories fall short, there is a collective hungerfor real and authentic, whether it’s because reality is always crazier thanyou can imagine or because we live in a world where the weirdest concoctionsare sold for real. See the huge popularity of ‘true crime’, true crimestories.

But if you are looking for real, then you should not go to films or series, Iwould think. Not even in documentaries. Every film is an adaptation ofreality, film theorists have known for at least a century.

Also read the essay by Sarah Meuleman: What happened or not? The viewer willnever know

Meuleman talked about fictional inflation in response to the Netflix series_Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story_ , a dramatized biography of theAmerican serial killer. After its release at the end of September, it wasalmost continuously at number one in the Netflix series top 10 – it has nowbeen overtaken by The Watcher , another scary true series. Dahmer causedcontroversy. Producer Ryan Murphy would portray the Milwaukee Monster toosympathetically and anonymize his victims. Relatives of the people killed andeaten by Dahmer called Netflix to account. Without being consulted, they sawversions of themselves and their lost loved ones on the screen. They felt ‘re-traumatized’.


Similar criticism fell to director Andrew Dominik when his free Marilyn Monroebiopic blonde came out. Although the film is less fact-based than Dahmer –Dominik was inspired by Joyce Carol Oates’ 2000 fictionalized Marilynbiography of the same name – he was also accused of confusing entertainmentwith exploitation and victimizing his protagonist once again.

What freedoms can a maker of film biographies afford? How truthful should abiopic be? Is there a moral limit?

Perhaps it’s more practical: how much foreknowledge do you really need as aspectator to appreciate or understand a free or very specific interpretationof a historical figure? Or do you still have to put your nose in the booksafterwards? After seeing Laura Poitras’ Golden Lion award-winning documentaryin Venice All the Beauty and the Bloodshed , in which artist Nan Goldintakes on the big pharma group of the Sackler family that made half of Americaaddicted to the painkillers, I needed more information. My first reflex was towatch the Disney+ fiction series dopesick to watch. When I was still leftwith questions after that, I watched Alex Gibney’s HBO documentary series TheCrime of the Century. In short, I looked for the facts in the fiction. AndI’m secretly looking forward to a second season dopesick has been announced.I too am a biographical disaster tourist.

Slippery ice

You could say that every film biography is ethically on thin ice. But yes, artscratches the most beautiful curls on slippery ice. Every life you summarizein ninety minutes is a collage of choices. In case of blonde that choice wasto paint a portrait of Marilyn Monroe as the victim. Did Dominic succeed inthat? For the most part. Am I missing the other Marilyn? The charming,sensible, gifted, funny? Enormous. But that’s not this one movie. About_blonde_ you can only say whether he succeeded in his goals.

Also read: Watch the most horrific event in your life on Netflix

Yet it rubs. Because you also have to be able to question the goals of a film.I loved Baz Luhrman’s eclectic film Elvis. Where Dominik chose suffering,Luhrman chose life. So no dirty chats with President Nixon, no admitting thatElvis wasn’t the savior of black music at all, let alone watching him go downin all his faded glory from drugs, obesity, and melancholy at the end of hislife.

Manohla Dargis from The New York Times called biopics that do not pursue abalanced representation of reality ‘fictional biographies’. In film, unlike inliterature, you can call it a relatively new genre. They are what-if stories.A film that dares to go the furthest in this regard is the recent Austrian’Sisi’ film Corsage. He simply has the audacity to give the Austrian EmpressElisabeth a new life at the end. To be freed from the straitjacket in whichhistory has crammed her. Corsage is transparent in this regard. DirectorMarie Kreutzer repeatedly shows how her film offers only one perspective onreality. With cinematic means that keep us awake, emphasize that it is film:point-of-view shots, subjective camera angles. In art film, that’s verycommon. In the mainstream film less so. It just wants us to forget thatsomething is a film.

Anyway, dealing with facts in the film has become quite complicated. Andunlike Sarah Meulenman, I do not believe that it will pass, that we will soondemand a stricter separation between fact and fiction. The answer seems to merather: more media education. Filmmakers are allowed to be free, their work isnot without obligation. Images have an impact. When facts are under pressure,we need to learn to better use the tools to recognize and verify facts.Otherwise we will make a figment of our shared world. Just as we learn toread, we need to train and analyze our looking (and listening) better. Tounderstand how our stories represent reality. And why we do it that way. Andwe wonder if it can be done differently. In order to have that conversation,we must learn to speak the language of the images.