Posted by: jeannineatkins | March 3, 2015

Semi-Real Lives in Selma, The Imitation Game, and Mr. Turner

I’ve recently seen movies based on the lives of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., mathematician Alan Turning, and painter J. M. W. Turner. All have stirred discussion about the ways fact merges or clashes with fiction. In Selma, director Ava DuVernay and writer Paul Webb moved beyond some of Dr. King’s most famous actions and speeches to show a vision of part of a city and how many people came together to create change. We sometimes get heart-breaking intimacy, such as the glimpse of girls talking about hair and hats just before becoming victims of a church bombing. Sometimes the camera makes a large sweep over crowds to suggest the scale of the movement. Conversations between Dr. King and President Johnson have been criticized for not giving the president his due. In terms of story, a foil was needed, and I personally don’t think the president came off as villainous. Some facts may have been tipped, but what led up to a famous march from Selma to Birmingham gave me what felt like a true enough sense of history.

 

I also liked The Imitation Game, which was based on the life of Alan Tuning, someone I’d never heard of before. A core idea is that it took someone with secrets to uncover secrets. In the movie Alan Turing hides from most that he is gay. He nearly single-handedly shortens World War II by building a complicated machine that decoded German messages. An important young friend tells him, “Sometimes it’s the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.” Alan Turing repeats this to a woman he hires to help, and just when he needs to hear this again, she offers it for a third time. A bit hokey, but terribly moving, the way good movies can be.

 

How much of this was true? I read Christian Caryl’s article in the New York Review of Books that draws from two biographies to document how Turing wasn’t as geeky, unpopular, closeted, or alone as depicted. Of course the decoding was far more complicated than is shown. The manner of Turing’s death may not have happened as shown. I was interested to learn these things, but I was glad that some Hollywood turns and Benedict Cumberbatch pulled me into the story. The article ended with the suggestion that we might go to the biographies, but that those who wanted to see a rich depiction of another great British man should see Mr. Turner. I didn’t need urging, as I loved the trailer I’d seen in December.

 

But the movie? No. I liked the scenes of Turner painting landscapes, but nothing else. I wasn’t expecting much plot, but was writer and director Mike Leigh trying so hard to stick to life that he took few risks to get under the artist’s skin? I lost patience with the way people came and went and were never seen again. Little was offered to connect us to scientist Mary Somerville, critic John Ruskin, painter John Constable, or Turner. I could put up with some grunting taking place of conversation, but expected more coherent words between. The movie took almost two and a half hours to get to Turner’s death and my favorite line, “The sun is God,” which I remembered being reported to have been his last words. We can glimpse spirituality in his paintings, but not the man in the movie. The final scenes showed Mrs. Booth, a woman who shared her house with him for years until his death, forcing a wobbly smile as she scrubbed the windows. Then we see Turner’s maid, whom he treated abysmally, looking lost as she tidied up paints. Were these forms of grief true to life I wondered as the credits began to roll. With little to grip me, and much to repulse, I’d been wondering all the way through.

Some people may leave a movie based on real people and events feeling betrayed if what they see seems too far from history. But we can also feel betrayed by a lack of story, an engaging beginning, middle and end. We expect the people we meet on the screen to matter to the whole, rather than wander through as some may do in life. We expect a vision that might even go beyond what the person at the center of the story could see. I’d rather have a few cords pulled behind the curtains to rearrange time, a wide brush that colors shades of good and bad, with some subtlety. Truth, yes, but feel free to mix with imagination. Please give me a movie that makes me care.

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