History Will Teach Us Nothing

My wife and I were watching an old episode of Northern Exposure on DVD recently, and two characters were talking about Mozart and his relationship with his contemporary composer Antonio Salieri. One character said that Salieri resented Mozart and wondered why God denied him the talent he had given this young brat. And the other character said, "You know, Salieri killed Mozart." And the first character agreed, as if he already knew that.

This, as you probably know, is practically a verbatim account of what happened in the film (and play) Amadeus, which any music historian knows is patently wrong. Salieri and Mozart were friends, Salieri didn't hate or resent Mozart, he didn't renounce Christianity because of Mozart, and he certainly didn't kill him or commission a piece that led to his death. Yet this misconception, which was introduced in Peter Shaffer's play and fostered by Milos Forman's movie, was reiterated on a popular TV show, which no doubt gave a far greater segment of the population this mistaken impression of the relationship between these two composers.


My question is this: In films that deal with historical figures and events, to what extent are the filmmakers obligated to be historically correct? Is there some unwritten code the producers of historical films are supposed to live by, or is it "okay" that the producers of NE got their facts wrong because they were quoting a movie which got its facts wrong? On the other hand, you could argue that art is art—Shaffer, Forman, and the NE producers all have the right to perpetuate this misinformation if it is part of their artistic vision. Another example that springs to mind is Oliver Stone's JFK, a movie I personally loved, which convinced a whole generation of people that the president was killed by a government conspiracy that may or may not have led all the way to the Vice President! (This has also been refuted by most serious historians.)

So does a historical movie lose points for getting it all wrong, or should it just be accepted as it is, for art's sake? Amadeus swept the Oscars that year, for God's sake—people still think Salieri killed Mozart!

Thanks for listening (again).

John McEwen (a.k.a. johnnyrhythm in comments)

Keith Phipps responds:

No, you're wrong. Salieri totally killed Mozart. I saw it in a movie once.

Okay, maybe not. But here's the way I see it. I haven't watched Amadeus in years. I liked it when I saw it, but I don't know how well it holds up. But for the sake of argument, let's just say it's a great movie. It loosely uses the lives of Mozart and Salieri to delve into a deeper truth about the mystery of creative genius and the nature of jealousy. Salieri has just enough musical talent to recognize that Mozart has been gifted with a divine inspiration he'll never have, even though—at least in the opening section—he's a more pious, hardworking man. The movie gets at a deeper truth while playing fast and loose with the facts. That's forgivable, right?


Maybe. It's a tough question to answer. I'm sure you're right, and there are plenty of people walking around who think Salieri did in Mozart. But ultimately, that may be more annoying than harmful, and I think it's easier to be forgiving of such lapses the further away from the present day they occur. Think, for instance, of the great heroes of the Old West. Not only did some fact-fudging help us define what an American hero looked like, it also led to an artistically fruitful backlash in the form of Sergio Leone's spaghetti Westerns, and the revisionist westerns of the '60s and '70s, made possible by Sam Peckinpah's bloody trail-blazing. You can look at hundreds of films over several decades and take the big-picture view to see it as a fascinating, often vicious dialogue.

It's harder, however, to be forgiving of historical inaccuracies when the dramas they portray are still in progress. Just look at Mississippi Burning, which attracted fierce criticism for exaggerating the FBI's role in protecting the civil-rights movement. Or, to use your example, JFK. I think the best defense of the film—and I've long lost the habit of defending Oliver Stone—sees it less as an attempt to get at the truth of the JFK assassination than as a rooting-out of various underground political and criminal currents surrounding Kennedy's murder, whether they were directly responsible for that murder or not. It's a plunge into Camelot's underworld. (A journey, for my money, better taken via Don DeLillo's novel Libra or James Ellroy's American Tabloid.) But as history, it's pretty much as bunk as Amadeus, and it's up to people like you who care about facts and truth to call bunk when they see bunk. "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend," goes a newspaper editor's famous line in John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. But it's a big enough world for facts and legends to live side by side.

How To Live A Fuller Life

I saw this on the History Channel a while back, and I can't remember the title. It's a black-and-white movie that's set during the latter part of the Korean War, when the U.S. was getting its teeth knocked out by China. A battalion (or brigade or whatever) is forced to retreat, but the generals know that the Chinese army would cut them to pieces as they're retreating. So they pick out a company to stay behind and make it look like the battalion is still there. The men were kind of hard to tell apart, but the ones I remember most are the guy who wouldn't shoot his rifle (only to light up a tank with a bazooka at the end) and the sergeant who tries to keep it all going as long as he can. The movie ends with them making a nighttime river crossing and running into an American patrol. I saw it as kind of melancholy, because these guys are still alive, but the war isn't over yet. The movie has such an air of verisimilitude that I suspect the writers and perhaps some of the actors had been in Korea themselves. Help me identify this so I can go find out if it's as good as I remember.


Ezra de Leon

Noel Murray jumps at the chance to write about one of his favorite movies by one of his favorite directors:

Ezra, you happened upon Fixed Bayonets, the second of two Korean War movies that writer-director Sam Fuller released in 1951 (while the war was still raging, it's worth noting). The general consensus is that The Steel Helmet, from earlier in the year, is one of Fuller's best films, but not as many people talk about Fixed Bayonets, which I personally prefer. Not to knock The Steel Helmet, which is also excellent, but from the specific battlefield details to the somewhat cruelly ironic plot arc of that soldier who gains the courage to shoot, Fixed Bayonets has the punchy feel of a great pulp novel, or an issue of Harvey Kurtzman's Frontline Combat comics.


As for Fuller's war service, he didn't do any tours in Korea, but his World War II experiences had a major impact on his life and work, and formed the basis for his later film The Big Red One, which is often considered his crowning achievement as a director. You mentioned the "verisimilitude" in Fixed Bayonets, and that's really the hallmark of Fuller's filmmaking style. His films tend to be blunt and even crude at times, but the dialogue is always punchy and the stories raw and true, especially in contrast to the more glossy approach to real life common to movies in the studio era.

Last year, Criterion's Eclipse released an inexpensive box set of Fuller's early films (including The Steel Helmet) and Fox put out a cheap disc of Fixed Bayonets. I'd recommend starting with those and then working your way through any Fuller you can find.

Yeah, But Is It Painless?

I have noticed in several rap songs the recurring lyric "suicide, it's a suicide," most recently in Xzibit's "Criminal Set." Research has only led me to more rap songs featuring this lyric, plus blog/forum posts that use the phrase as a headline (implying to me it has significance beyond the lyrics), but I can find no information on where it originated, or why it would recur. It sounds very familiar to me, but I can't place it. Any clues? Other songs that contain the lyric: Scarface's "Suicide" and Redman's "Suicide" (different songs), Fat Joe's "Get It Poppin'," Ice-T's "Ricochet," Geto Boys' (of which Scarface was a member) "Retaliation," Snoop's "Serial Killa," and Gravediggaz' "1-800-SUICIDE." What's up with that?



Nathan Rabin knows what's up:

I've noticed the recurrence of the phrase as well. At first, I assumed it originated with RBX on "Serial Killa," but after digging around online, I discovered that the oft-sampled soundbite originates with one of hip-hop's most revolutionary and influential figures: KRS-One. Jay-Z seems to be making a run at his title of most-sampled rapper of all time, but KRS-One's vintage soundbites and hip-hop quotables continue to ricochet through hip-hop, including, appropriately enough, Ice-T's title song from Ricochet, which also samples the "suicide, it's a suicide" line.


As far as I can tell, the phrase originated in the Just-Ice/KRS-One song "Moshitup" from Just-Ice's 1987 album Kool & Deadly. Amusingly enough, KRS-One originally invoked the line to warn of the dangers of eating pork. Not very gangsta, eh? Ever the good vegetarian, KRS-One wanted to warn listeners that cavalierly dining on swine was nothing short of well, suicide.

Why does the phrase reappear so extensively throughout hip-hop? The answer is simple: It sounds cool and dangerous. It also invokes warm memories of legends like KRS-One, Ice-T, RBX, Just-Ice, and Snoop Dogg. Rappers are constantly quoting or paraphrasing classic hip-hop songs as a way of paying homage to their old-school heroes. It's a supremely metatextual genre that builds relentlessly on the music of the past, including hip-hop's golden age, so don't expect this phrase to go away any time soon.


Pimpin' Ain't Easy

What does it take to get a review quoted as part of a movie trailer/commercial? The A.V. Club is a popular site, visited by me and all my coolest friends on a quasi-obsessive basis (for whatever that's worth), and I'm wondering why I never see a quote on a film commercial from Insert Name Here, The A.V. Club. You see all kinds of bullshit on these commercials, from the made-up stuff to Maxim. Why doesn't The A.V. Club get props in movie ads as a reputable storehouse of critical genius. (Is the groveling flattery too much?)

John S

Tasha Robinson accepts your groveling flattery on behalf of her little-quoted crowd:

It basically takes any of three things to get a review quoted in a film commercial, John: brevity, superlatives, and name recognition. The ideal film-commercial quote is something from Roger Ebert (the biggest name in the industry) saying something short and super-enthusiastic like "Best movie I've ever seen!" A close runner-up would be something that meets two of the criteria: Say, a longer but wholly enthusiastic New York Times rave, or a short "terrific and unmissable!" boost from a less-prestigious local-TV critic.


Much as you might like us, though, The A.V. Club doesn't have the mainstream cred of the major papers of record; I'm betting that 10 out of 10 people on the street anywhere would have some idea what the New York Times is, while our name recognition is, well, somewhat lower. That's a major shot against us. We also don't tend to gush, use exclamation points in our reviews, or even enthuse in ways that would look reasonable with exclamation points tacked on. And we don't tend to write short. Three strikes, and we're out. In all seriousness, when I first came on staff, I used to play "Find the trailer quote" with our reviews. When I look at even our most enthusiastic reviews, I see long, dense sentences, and a distinct dearth of words like "incredible" and "unmissable." We all loved No Country For Old Men, for instance, but I dare you to read Keith's review and pick out a single phrase that you could splash across a TV screen to get butts in seats.

Our reviews do actually get quoted fairly regularly in places that don't require TV-commercial levels of concision and enthusiasm, for what that's worth—in the paperback editions of books we praised in hardcover, on comics websites, in DVD liner notes. The sort of thing that's aimed at a more discerning, genre-or-medium-loyal audience, instead of the widest possible one. Which is honestly good enough for us.

Next week: Elvis vs. The Beatles in a no-holds-barred critical match-up, plus a question about nerd love. Send your questions to asktheavclub@theonion.com.