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Saturday, May 3, 2008

The Whole Truth and Nothing But (originally published 4/03)

Despite the familiar propaganda about a picture being worth a thousand words, the literary arts still have a few tricks up their sleeve that pictorial arts like the movies are hard pressed to emulate. Take the past tense, for example. Movies are stuck permanently in the present tense. The only way they can even suggest an earlier time frame is through a carefully bracketed segment called a "flashback."

Similarly, one of the neatest tricks that words can do, and one of the hardest for movies to mimic, is the subjunctive mood. Movies, after all, can only show what is. But the essence of the subjunctive is not what is, but what is not. I can easily talk or write about what I would do if I were wealthy, for example, but how can a filmmaker show a character's wealth while simultaneously asserting that the wealth doesn't really exist?

Now, knowing that past tense is difficult to convey in a movie, and that conditions contrary to fact are trickier still, just imagine how hard it must be to combine the two. In other words, how would you show a flashback illustrating a story told by an unreliable narrator? That's the problem confronted by the makers of "Basic," in which an investigator must sift through conflicting reports of a military incident to arrive at the truth.

To me, the most fascinating aspects of a film that seeks to portray unreliable testimony must surely be the implications of the false flashbacks, which, after all, fly right in the face of such reassuring truisms as "the camera never lies" and "seeing is believing." As you might have expected of such a rich and provocative premise, "Basic" is by no means the first film to have used extensive flashbacks as a way of challenging the audience to sort through multiple conflicting accounts of the same events. In fact, this same quirky combination of past and present, truth and falsehood, has been tackled by some of world cinema's most imaginative talents. Two classic films in particular come to mind, both of which are widely available on video.

"Rashomon" (1951). Japanese cinema master Akira Kurosawa takes an apparently simple story and complicates it by filtering it through the perceptions of four different witnesses. All that is known for certain is that a nobleman and his wife were passing through the forest, where they were set upon by a bandit, who subdued and bound the nobleman and raped the woman. The nobleman ends up dead, but whether by suicide or murder remains unclear. We hear - and see, in flashback - the story four times, as told by the bandit, by the nobleman's wife, by a woodcutter who witnessed the crime, and by the dead nobleman himself, speaking through a medium. In the bandit's version, he seduces the woman, wins her affection, and vanquishes her husband on her behalf in a fair fight. In the woman's version, she is raped by the bandit, then scorned by her husband. The husband, through the medium, testifies that his wife responded enthusiastically to the bandit's amorous advances. But when the woman asked the bandit to kill her bound husband for her, according to the dead man, the bandit repulsed her in disgust and released the husband, who, consumed by shame, promptly committed suicide. The woodcutter tells a much more sordid tale, in which the woman provokes the two men into fighting over her. Kurosawa leaves it to us to decide who, if anyone, is telling the truth.

"Last Year at Marienbad" (1961). French "new wave" director Alain Resnais and avant-garde novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet combined their unorthodox talents to produce this intriguing film. It consists entirely of the interactions of three characters who may or may not have met before; one thinks they have, another insists they haven't. Resnais and Robbe-Grillet are resolutely noncommittal, presenting fantasy, supposition, and falsehood equally straightforwardly, with none of the usual cues that filmmakers use to separate "reality" from "unreality." Watching it is a maddening experience, but also fascinating. Like "Rashomon," it deliberately undermines the comforting objectivity of the camera eye until we are brought face to face with the age-old question of Pontius Pilate: "What is truth?" Wrestling with that thorny conundrum is never comfortable, to be sure, but always edifying.

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