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February 16, 1995 - Image 13

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 1995-02-16

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The Michigan Daily - Weekend etc. - Thursday, February 16, 1995 - 3

Better Nate Than Never

Docu-dramas: entertainment valued over truth?

Fried green
As spring break begins this after-
noon for many lucky University stu-
dents (and tomorrow for the rest of
us) a good number of Wolverines are
likely preparing to cross the border to
warm, sunny skies.
What better cure for those mid-
winter blues than frolicking out and
about, McDonald's pizza in hand,
riding to the top of a snow-filled CN
Tower? There are also some students
who plan to cross the United States'
southern border.
The Canadian exchange rate is 32
cents on the dollar. The Mexican ex-
change rate is 32 pesos on the cent. If
Mexico were a store, it would be Wal-
Mart. Although buying Mexican
goods is reminiscent of spinning the
hot fudge sundae wheel in the Kmart
cafeteria to determine the price.
I am basing this cultural and eco-
nomic analysis on an extensive (three-
hour) economic case study (shopping
trip) in a representativg Mexican area
(northern Tijuana). My associates
(family members) and I were escorted
to the business district (downtown
flea market) by aknowledgeable guide
(taxi driver) who spoke fluent En-
glish ("shopping" and "five dollars").
We soon began buying woven
blankets, maracas, dolls and jewelry.
We didn't need any of these things,
but who could resist at such good
prices? And the prices kept going
down, too.
If you happen to decide you don't
want to purchase an item, whether it
costs too much or you just realized
you already have eight sombreros,
the sales associates will not give up.
Oheir prices fall faster than those of
Joan Rivers' cubic zirconia on QVC.
But being the economically astute
shoppers we were, it soon cae time
to leave the flea market and look for
deals, on things we'd act4l1ly use.
After dodging taxis and taco carts
for a few blocks, we found ourselves
in front of a shoe store and my sister
saw a pair of tennis shoes in the win-
ow that she wanted to buy with a
pee tag of 1.577.332.651.334.000
peos, or $8.41. The only problem
ws in relaying her intent to the sales-
woman, whom I'll call Juanita.
Juanita: " Quiere conprar unos
wdMy mom: "We'd like to buy some
,,,Juanita: " Zapatos?"
-NY mom: "These in the window.
Th olive-colored ones. Probably in a
10,1/2 or 1 1."
Juanita: "e Que
yT he communication barrier was
overcome, somewhat, after we all
wnlked outside and pointed to the
shres in the window and then to some-
thiwg green. The size was a little
ha rder. After my momn said "1 1" and
Juanita gave a puzzled expression,
*my sister andnI tried to use our "Sesame
Steet" as a foreign language, but they
only counted up to 10 on the show.
-4A middle-aged patron sitting in
the corner soon camne to the rescue,
however, and translated the size re-
But shoe sizes apparently don't
translate into Spanish because Juanita

brought out one too small and one too
large, using the Goldilocks and the
Z,:e Bears method to shoe selling.
Finally she just looked at my sister's
feet and brought out a pair that was
just right.
{The transaction ended with Juanita
pulling out her pocket calculator and
flashing a price in U.S. dollars, which
she gladly accepted.
We didn't venture too far outside
of ihe rug and maraca district after
But the brief encounters were eye-
opening. Merchants peddling their-
hand-made goods to sunburned
American tourists. Mexican men
spending their day haggling overprice,

By Michael Zilbennan
For the Daily
"Quiz Show" and "Ed Wood" are
two of the most acclaimed Holly-
wood films of 1994. Both feature great
performances, very effective direc-
tion and an amazing sense of style.
Both, oddly enough, take place in
1959. Both are based on true stories.
And both, upon their release, were
severely criticized for distorting the
"Ed Wood" crammed several years
of that unfortunate director's life into
one year. "Quiz Show," worse yet,
over-exaggerated the role of the in-
vestigator (Rob Morrow) in bringing
down the rigged "21." Half the re-
viewers, after stating that the film was
terrific, waxed snide about the fact
that a film depicting one of the great-
est lies ever told to America, ironi-
cally, took some liberties itself.
The only problem is that "Quiz
Show" is not a documentary. It is in
no way intended to be an accurate
account of the events. "Ed Wood" is
a brilliant comic parable, an ode to
bright-eyed losers of all times. It has
nothing or very little to do with the
real Ed Wood, who was an extremely
unsympathetic person. Charles Van
Doren, the main character in "Quiz
Show," didn't look much like Ralph
Fiennes, the actor who played him
either. Yet, this makes for a better
Both movies are dramas. Which
means, for those of us in the back of
the class, that "good story" is the only
appropriate criteria to judge them by.
Good cinematography. Believable
acting. Nice composition. Set design,
costumes, haircuts, whatever-as long
as it stays within the limits of the
movie's inner reality, the world it
created for itself.
Still, something strange is hap-
pening to us. We're acting like kids
who are not satisfied to hear a tale; we
need constant reassurance that every-
thing happened exactly the way it was

described. We don't want to compli-
cate our lives by considering any op-
tions. It's so much more comfortable
to think that Watergate looked like
"All the President's Men".
Given this, it's easy to see why so
many hacks (and some decent film-
makers) try to score extra points by
choosing scripts "based on a true
story." The recent "Murder in the
First" runs the evil disclaimer right
after the studio's logo, before the title,
before the director's name. Granted,
it doubles the impact - to see Kevin
Bacon slowly going blind and crazy
in a solitary cell and to know that even
if he's only acting, some guy some
years ago wasn't. But artistically, it's
a cheat, a nice and easy way to stir our
emotions without trying too hard.
"Murder" is not the most gruesome
case, however. 1993's "Fire in the
Sky" is an indisputable apotheosis of
the trend - it's a "reality-based"
alien-abduction drama. Then again,
"Plan 9 From Outer Space" was based
on a sworn testimony, if I can remem-
ber correctly.
Directors that willingly reduce
their movies to "Hard Copy"-style
dramatizations do immense harm to

both viewers and their own artistic
credibility. After all, for pure facts
we'd rather watch normal documen-
taries. Oops. Documentary cinema
strikes back, borrowing art-film gim-
micks and further blurring the line
between reality and fiction. "The
Times Of Harvey Milk" used a "Citi-
zen Kane"-like flashback structure,
beginning with the death of the pro-
tagonist, then piecing together his life
from a dozen accounts. "The Thin
Blue Line", another award-winning
documentary, employed cheesy slo-
mo sequences to underscore its point.
Michael Moore made a fact-based
farce with his "Roger and Me."
By 1991, the line blurred com-
pletely. The term "docu-drama" was
coined and the person who brought
everything to the point of absurd was,
of course, Oliver Stone. "JFK", an
attitude-laced pile of facts, theories,
guesses and paranoia, complete with
pointless dramatizations (why recre-
ate Zapruder's film if there's the real
one?), still boggles the minds of crit-

ics unable to answer the simple ques-
tion - is the movie good or bad? -
because they have no idea what crite-
ria apply to it.
I'm writing this in the days when
a documentary ("Hoop Dreams") has
a shot at a Best Picture Oscar nomina-
tion, and the country is busy follow-
ing the trial of a marginal celebrity
while big-screen courtroom dramas
flop one after another.

Maybe it's the dawn of a new era,
I dunno. Perhaps, through this mas-
sive injection of reality, Hollywood
will get its feet back on the ground.
Still, until the complete balance is
reached, I want to be able to use two
simple measures for everything I
watch. For documentaries - "true/
false". And for fiction - "good/bad".
And never shall the two be confused
with one another. Amen.

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