We tell a lot of stories and we tell ourselves A LOT of stories. Some of them are true but most of them are not entirely true.
None of them are entirely true because there is no absolute truth other than we will all die one day.
It’s better not to obsess about absolute truth or death because, really, what will that get us? Instead, I’ve found over the years the better strategy is to accept that there are simply basic truths.
Like when you watch a group of many, many hundreds of weaponized people violently storm the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. on, say, January 6, 2021, shouting they want to hang a US Vice President before he can, in an hour or two, ratify the results of a presidential election they didn’t like, this is, by definition, an insurrection.
That is because insurrection is defined as a violent uprising against an authority or government.
It is also true because they built a gallows for the hanging, seriously injured and/or caused the death of many police officers AND destroyed many tens of thousands of dollars worth of government property in doing so.
On the other hand, there is no way to categorically proclaim Power of the Dog, a film I found beautiful to look at but vague and strangely homophobic in its vagueness, is the best movie of the year.
Now you might truthfully state it is the best REVIEWED film of the year and, by extension, a front-runner in the Oscar race for best picture and director. But you can’t prove it is overall THE best by any rational standard.
No opinion of greatness is an absolute truth. Just as no memory or memory piece is an absolute evocation of what literally happened.
The best we storytellers, which includes all of us (non-writers especially included), can do is capture a basic spirit of what happened and through character, plot and actions, show it to you.
This came to mind this week as I found myself debating the merits and debits of two films set in the decade I basically grew up in – the 1970s. These would be Licorice Pizza and The Tender Bar.
Let me state at the outset that as a bit of an expert on the seventies, since I was at my most impressionable, observant and un-jaded at the time, both of these movies told the basic truth.
This doesn’t mean they were brilliant or Oscar worthy or that YOU should love or like them. Rather it’s that they were amazingly accurate on the essentials when so many stories about a particular place and time are not but pretend to be.
Most of the 1970s, particularly the first half, were really the tail end of what we now consider the cultural revolution of the 1960s.
This was a time when everything felt adrift. If you were coming-of-age at that moment your journey strangely coincided with the country’s journey. No one knew what the new rules were in sex or sex roles; in politics and social settings; and to quote a 60s/70s expression, in love or war or the whole damned thing.
This made it a quite interesting but confusing time to grow up in. To tell stories about it is like trying to hold a hyperactive puppy in your hands. Just when you think you’ve tamed the impossible it wriggles out of your grasp and runs (or circles) in an entirely different direction.
I think this accounts for some of the disparate reaction to both films.
The very reason I appreciate and enjoyed Licorice Pizza were the very reason four of the other five people watching the movie with me (Note: Okay, yes, it was a screener and we watched it on Christmas Day at home!) lost interest.
The story of a weird, pseudo romantic relationship between a 15-year-old boy and a 25-year-old girl that unfolded in disjointed episodes where they sold waterbeds, met drug-fueled celebrities like producer Jon Peters and each grappled with their even stranger, ill-defined family lives, just wasn’t really compelling.
Yet for me, it was surrealistically accurate because that was what I saw as the story of the seventies. Everything felt disjointed, and not merely because I was an adolescent. It was a disjoined time and, in retrospect, a rather lovely one when you consider that the decade that would follow it were the Gordon Gekko-like greed is good eighties.
Sure, the seventies was also the era of Watergate but the eighties brought us Ronald Reagan.
And let’s just let that sit there for a little while.
The Tender Bar spends most of its time in the later 1970s and, as a memoir of a young boys’ coming-of-age, has a naturally gauzy quality to it. But to its credit, it also doesn’t spare us the social reckoning that Licorice Pizza cleverly avoids.
At this point, there was direct retribution and consequences for underage drinking, hitting women (note: particularly one’s wife) and the snobbism of economic class. If it feels a little pat, well, at that time, on Long Island, if you were a teenager, it was a little pat.
I only know this because I grew up in Queens (Note: Not quite Long Island, but still….) and saw it play out in real time. The years prior made it okay for kids to now call out adults in no uncertain terms. In fact, it even got you support from that group of adults that had made the choice to evolve rather than stand their ground in insurrection to society’s changing norms.
I loved The Tender Bar not because it was THE best of any film story but because it so entertainingly and boldly and emotionally told ITS story. No one thought about being too sentimental because, let’s face it, it was something of an emotional time.
This was my truth of that moment and it happily coincided with what these filmmakers chose to show us. Which is about the best you can hope to do as a storyteller of any kind.
Where we all get in trouble, especially society, is when we try to twist the basic truth into something patently and grotesquely untrue.
That’s not only unacceptable but it’s strangely un-American. To this very American art form, that is.