Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Truth of Myths

[This post was written in conjunction with my post on NOAH. ]

The best movies are myths.
The best movies tell the truth.

Many people confuse "myth" with something that is not true. But that is an incomplete definition. More completely, myths are the external stories that reveal the inner truths about a culture. The external story of a myth may be true or fictional, but the internal story of a myth is true. That is, the inner moral premise of the story-myth is true and helps define the culture that passed on the story. In this way the concept of "myth" is similar to the concept of "logos" or the "logic" of a culture. 

More formally:
A MYTH is the outer or physical spine of a story that caries within its moral spine an internal and universal truth.  The truth of a myth is the moral premise of the story -- i.e. what the story is really about.
Why are many movies about real events, in an eternal sense, not very accurate?

In the realm of successful filmmaking the outer story is almost always, partly or completely fiction. The reasons are several:
  1. there is limited time to tell the whole story
  2. there is limited audience attention for the boring parts
  3. there is limited money to produce the whole story
  4. there is limited retention by the audience to comprehend all the causes that effect the story's outcome. 

Related to this is the natural law of cause and effect.  Natural Law requires that every effect is preceded by a cause. In storytelling this is a powerful and necessary concept. The best stories set up the cause before revealing the effect, we call this "foreshadowing." When a story event occurs, the audience will only accept it if the writer has already revealed the cause. When the writer does not reveal the cause and something just happens out of the blue, the audience is taken out of the story as they mentally try to figure out WHY that particular thing could have happened. Writing critics call this "writer's convenience." Readers and movie goers don't like it. Logic is too much a part of our lives; there must be a reason for everything.

Unfortunately, when you stop to think about this, the cause and effect pattern reaches back indefinitely. It is also true that some events, if not all events, have multiple causes. A car accident in an intersection isn't simply the result of one driver running a red light. That may appear to be the KISS cause, but other causes include:
  • The driver (of the car being hit) not approaching the intersection with more caution
  • The signal light being red/green, and not green/red, or yellow.
  • The "emergency" or "motivation" that caused the driver to run the red light.
  • The distraction that caused the hit driver to not be more carful.
  • The invention of the signal light.
  • The invention of the automobile
  •  etc.

For these reasons a story about real events, portrayed in a motion picture, is "adapted." Even a very long book of the real event is going to be adapted, if for no other reason than the book has to be written and read in linear time, when in fact the real events happened simultaneously. So, imagine then how a movie is an adaptation of a book that is an adaptation of real events. 

Knowing this should remove all need to get bent out of shape about why a movie doesn't get the facts right. My guess is any critic of such a movie cannot get all the facts right even if given all the time he or she needs to tell the truth. My wife and I can't remember what we just said to each other five minutes ago. So, why should we demand the impossible of authors and producers when we're going to do no better. Even sacred religious books like the Bible, do not tell you everything that happened, or what all the causes of the events were, or how physically it happened, or exactly in what order it happened.

Logic of Myths & Stories from a Moral Premise Workshop Slide
J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis had a number of discussions (documented in essays) about this, in reference to stories in the Bibles. Tolkien finally convinced Lewis that in fact the Bible contained myths. That does not mean Tolkien and Lewis believed the Bible stories were false.  It means that the Bible could not be fully complete and that the purpose of the Bible stories (whether they are literally true or symbolic) was to convey the deeper, moral truths that are universal to all time and places. Thus, as Lewis and Tolkien articulated it, the story of Jesus is a true myth. This is also the reason that some theologians refer to the stories of creation, the flood, and Jonah as myths. They may be trying to convince us that such stories are NOT true. But the best way of calling them myths is that they can't tell us all the truth of the events, but they DO convey the moral and spiritual truth that is ultimately important. 


So, a motion picture is necessarily a myth, which is the external, outward, physical, or visible spine of a story. And that story (or myth) carries within an internal, inward, psychological or invisible spine which is the universal, eternal, moral premise.

While the outward and visible on-the-screen story (the myth) must be at least partially fictionalized, the inner truth encapsulated in the myth is absolutely and universally true -- at least in the narratives that are popular with general audiences.

It is for that reason, that some movies which reference real events almost always begin with the words, "Inspired by...", "Based on...." or my favorite from AMERICAN HUSTLE, "Some of this actually happened."

Debate whether a movie about historical events is true or false is, therefore, a waste of time and a fallacious exercise. By necessity a linear told story will always be partly fictionalized. BUT the story still may be about something that is universally true.


People sometimes suggest that if truth of the real events are important a documentary should be consulted, or a historian's book. But the reality is that documentaries and books all have human authors who have agendas, opinions, and points of view. They may not pretend to be myths, but at some point they too will be fiction. (Again, because, all writing requires interpretation of real, simultaneous events with myriad of causes.)


This then, is the purpose of The Moral Premise statement -- to help us understand the central universal truth of the story  -- around which are hopefully supportive mythic elements.

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