We want the reality about Jeffrey Dahmer. Packed into eight manageable episodes, with a story arc, dynamic characters and something of a catharsis at the end.
Last Saturday, writer Sarah Meuleman coined the concept of fictional inflation in this newspaper. Now that we’ve been binging series everywhere – and to an increased extent during the pandemic – fact and fiction have become inextricably tangled. Made-up stories fall short, there is a collective hunger for real and authentic, whether it’s because reality is always crazier than you can imagine or because we live in a world where the weirdest concoctions are sold for real. See the huge popularity of ‘true crime’, true crime stories.
But if you are looking for real, then you should not go to films or series, I would think. Not even in documentaries. Every film is an adaptation of reality, film theorists have known for at least a century.
Also read the essay by Sarah Meuleman: What happened or not? The viewer will never know
Meuleman talked about fictional inflation in response to the Netflix series Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, a dramatized biography of the American serial killer. After its release at the end of September, it was almost continuously at number one in the Netflix series top 10 – it has now been overtaken by The Watcher, another scary true series. Dahmer caused controversy. Producer Ryan Murphy would portray the Milwaukee Monster too sympathetically and anonymize his victims. Relatives of the people killed and eaten by Dahmer called Netflix to account. Without being consulted, they saw versions 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 Monroe biopic blonde came out. Although the film is less fact-based than Dahmer – Dominik was inspired by Joyce Carol Oates’ 2000 fictionalized Marilyn biography of the same name – he was also accused of confusing entertainment with exploitation and victimizing his protagonist once again.
What freedoms can a maker of film biographies afford? How truthful should a biopic be? Is there a moral limit?
Perhaps it’s more practical: how much foreknowledge do you really need as a spectator to appreciate or understand a free or very specific interpretation of a historical figure? Or do you still have to put your nose in the books afterwards? After seeing Laura Poitras’ Golden Lion award-winning documentary in Venice All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, in which artist Nan Goldin takes on the big pharma group of the Sackler family that made half of America addicted to the painkillers, I needed more information. My first reflex was to watch the Disney+ fiction series dopesick to watch. When I was still left with questions after that, I watched Alex Gibney’s HBO documentary series The Crime of the Century. In short, I looked for the facts in the fiction. And I’m secretly looking forward to a second season dopesick has been announced. I too am a biographical disaster tourist.
You could say that every film biography is ethically on thin ice. But yes, art scratches the most beautiful curls on slippery ice. Every life you summarize in ninety minutes is a collage of choices. In case of blonde that choice was to paint a portrait of Marilyn Monroe as the victim. Did Dominic succeed in that? 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 that Elvis wasn’t the savior of black music at all, let alone watching him go down in all his faded glory from drugs, obesity, and melancholy at the end of his life.
Manohla Dargis from The New York Times called biopics that do not pursue a balanced representation of reality ‘fictional biographies’. In film, unlike in literature, 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 Empress Elisabeth a new life at the end. To be freed from the straitjacket in which history has crammed her. Corsage is transparent in this regard. Director Marie Kreutzer repeatedly shows how her film offers only one perspective on reality. With cinematic means that keep us awake, emphasize that it is film: point-of-view shots, subjective camera angles. In art film, that’s very common. In the mainstream film less so. It just wants us to forget that something is a film.
Anyway, dealing with facts in the film has become quite complicated. And unlike Sarah Meulenman, I do not believe that it will pass, that we will soon demand a stricter separation between fact and fiction. The answer seems to me rather: more media education. Filmmakers are allowed to be free, their work is not 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 to read, we need to train and analyze our looking (and listening) better. To understand how our stories represent reality. And why we do it that way. And we wonder if it can be done differently. In order to have that conversation, we must learn to speak the language of the images.
A version of this article also appeared in the October 19, 2022 newspaper