If you haven’t seen Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood and Yesterday and intend to, now’s the time to stop reading.
If you have seen them, did you notice that both use the same plot gimmick for similar effect?
Hollywood posits that three members of the Manson family switch targets at the last minute and have the bad luck to tangle with Leonardo di Caprio and Brad Pitt, who terminate them with extreme prejudice. The result? Sharon Tate and her friends survive.
Yesterday posits that the whole Beatle phenomenon never happened, except somehow (don’t ask why) one guy remembers all their songs and introduces them to the world as his creations. The result? John Lennon was not murdered and the leading character encounters him as a philosophically cool older guy in his seventies doing art projects to amuse himself in obscurity.
So, in the alternate worlds that these films inhabit, figures who were murdered are spared, and the audience gets fleeting moments of wish fulfillment.
Of course, films have never been exactly reliable sources of history. Mississippi Burning was predicated on the laughable idea that the FBI was friendly to the civil rights movement in the Sixties. Words and Music, the musical bio of Rodgers and Hart, featured Mickey Rooney as a heterosexual Hart who died in part because of his unrequited love for Betty Garrett. And, to the dismay of the Dewey family, the film Hoodlum was partially predicated on the lie that Thomas E. Dewey was corrupt.
Distortion of history for dramatic purposes has a long history. Shakespeare maligned Richard III and made a hero out of the genocidal Henry V because the stories worked out better that way. Also, he was writing to entertain the family that had displaced Richard.
But I think the fact that two major films of the summer are unapologetic about plastering stickers of fantasy over notorious tragedies suggests a new willingness on the part of the audience to accept blatant fabrication for temporary satisfaction. Though in both cases, they know that what they are watching is entirely untrue, the audience applauds the lies as things they would prefer to believe, at least for the moment.
This brings me to our fabricator-in-chief. On a daily basis, through his tweets and his public statements, Trump actively pushes narratives that are at war with reality. I am going to assume that he knows that he is lying much of the time, or at least passing on dubious product. What is disturbing is that, unlike the audiences attending Hollywood and Yesterday who mostly know that they’re watching fabrications meant to be appreciated as such, a substantial part of Trump’s audience either doesn’t know or (worse) doesn’t care that what they’re being handed is false.
I’m not about to suggest that artists shouldn’t use whatever narrative tool that serves them in telling stories they want to tell. But I do think public servants should hew to a different standard. And I wonder if an audience in the habit of ingesting a regular diet of fabrications from their entertainment might be more vulnerable to believing fabrications from those who betray their obligation to tell the truth.