Based on a True Story

Guestblogger Paul Spinrad is a freelance writer/editor, and is Projects Editor for MAKE magazine. He is the author of The VJ Book and The Re/Search Guide to Bodily Fluids, and was an early contributor to bOING bOING when it was an online zine. He lives in San Francisco. 

Here's my idea for a Monty Python And The Holy Grail-like opening title sequence. The following titles fade in and are crossed out one by one:

I've argued here before that storytelling, like language itself, is a compression scheme-- ideally, you leave out everything that doesn't matter or doesn't in some way contribute to the whole. If you're decompressing the story-- reading, listening to, or watching it-- the first thing you need to know is, is this true? You need to know where to put it in your head, whether to incorporate it into the model you use to navigate the real world, or whether it should go into the "not true" bin. Our survival depends on this distinction.

Meanwhile, on the storyteller's side, there are many reasons to blur true and not-true-- particularly, I think, if a story is being told for profit or to maintain of power relationships. Stories interpreted as real demand more attention and more likely to influence people's actions than fictional stories.

There was an interesting discussion here (in response to a great piece by Susannah Breslin) about the future of porn video when CGI can simulate humans realistically. Yes, there is an "uncanny valley" problem where the simulations are not quite realistic enough, but let's assume it will be overcome. My prediction is that there will still need to be living, breathing porn stars in the world, because viewers need something to build a fantasy around, no matter how remote. Recall the parade scene at the end of National Lampoon's Animal House, when a college cheerleader flies through a window and lands on the bed of a teenage boy reading a porno magazine. He says, "Thank you, God!" It's funny because it's true-- or so I am told. 

It's true that people can become obsessed with animated fictional characters, and for them the real/unreal issue doesn't matter (or works the other way). But those of us with more "stalker" type personalities want to be able to think, "I wonder what she's doing right now?" Instead of pitching our fantasy tents comfortably in the world of fiction, we anchor them to some contrived but remotely plausible chain of circumstances where we might, just might, really have a chance.


  1. You’ve just reminded me of the opening of Tropic Thunder:

    “In the Winter of 1969, an elite force of the US Army was sent on a top secret assignment in Southeast Vietnam.

    The objective: rescue Sgt. Four Leaf Tayback from a heavily guarded NVA Prison Camp. The mission was considered to be near-suicide.

    Of the ten men sent, four returned. Of those four, three wrote books about what happened. Of those three, two were published. And of those two, only one got a movie deal.

    This is the story of the men who attempted to make that movie.”

  2. I think the “based one a true story” line puts the audience in a sort of voyeur mode, the same place our brains go as we slow down and rubber-neck out of our car windows as we drive by accidents. Wanting, hoping, desiring a glimpse of a bloody body or gore spilled out on the pavement. I can’t recall any recent movies I’ve seen that used the “based on…” line but I do know, for me at least, my mind treats them differently than normal “fictional” movies.

    As for porn, I don’t think you will ever have a point in time when humans will stop taking off their cloths for money, or stop taking their cloths off in front of a camera. Despicable as he is, the guy behind girls gone wild, has proved that people are more than willing to strip in front of a camera for little or no payment (don’t know the details about whether or not he paid the girls after filming or not, so I’m just assuming his sleaze-ballness). Regardless of how shallow we make the uncanny valley, how perfect the “fake” people can be there will always be a desire for that “realness” the same way there will always be a desire for films using the “based on…” line.

    I would like to see a film made using the latest techniques in FX, CGI, and otherwise and let the viewer decide what is real and what is not. Don’t tell them who or what is fake in the film, let their own sense of fantasy and realism guide them. As it is we use FX to simulate things like cuts, bleeding, bruises, even rooms, vehicles and city-scapes. Why not go a step further and “simulate” life? I think James Cameron’s new movie Avatar is taking a step toward this realness (from what I have seen of them, the Na’vi are pretty damn close to life-like) but still we have a ways to go before we get there.

  3. Whenever I see a movie with the “Based on a true story” tag, I think of the Amityville Horror, which scared the bejesus out of many of my friends way back in the way back. I was always kinda skeptical, and later when we all found out that, yes, it was based on a true story, a fictional story that we made up when we were really really drunk on cheap red wine. I wasn’t surprised, but I was surprised when people continued to believe in it, despite all evidence. I had people telling me for weeks after it was debunked, that “Blair Witch Project” was real. It was real, real clever that is. By that measure, wansn’t “Cloverfield” real? How did I miss the destruction of New York City? And why do monsters hate the Statue of Liberty so much? But, getting back to where I started, I like your “Partially Inspired By Reality” tag. My version is “Reality-like engineered story sequence designed to make you think it’s real and take your $8.50 and go running away, laughing”

  4. Don’t forget Fargo, whihc starts with the ‘based on a true story’..

    the coen brothers just made that up. even the cast thought it was a ture story.

  5. Seeing is believing. If the audience cannot differentiate between real porn stars and what they are watching, will anybody care? Your prediction is they will. But it’s the perfect setup for conspiracy; imagine the producers scrambling to find real people who look like these animes to avoid the disgrace, i.e. erode their profits. I can image Burt Reynolds starting in the movie adaptation. And when the enlisted porn imposters are on stage (pornathon 2020) will they lip sync their moans, Milli Vanilli style? What about the Playstation 8 game that will allow users to model their own body and like me, shrink their manhood to manageable size. As long as we’re dreaming. . . .

  6. In my opinion Tim O’Brien said it best, at least about war stories.

    In “How to Tell a True War Story” he says that if you question whether a story is true or not, it’s not a “true” war story. Taking the example of the story where a soldier jumps on a hand grenade to save his buddies, he thinks this story isn’t “true” because if you found out that it didn’t happen, you’d feel cheated. However:

    “Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast, but it’s a killer grenade and everybody dies anyway. Before they die, though, one of the dead guys says, ‘The fuck you do that for?’ and the jumper says, ‘Story of my life, man,’ and the other guy starts to smile but he’s dead.
    That’s a true story that never happened.”

  7. “True Story” is a contradiction in terms.

    I’m not disagreeing with Omir The Storyteller (above). All stories *are* true. But, no story is the absolute truth.

  8. I’m not sure why people need living breathing porn stars for them to be able to build their fantasies around. Consider Japanese anime (the pornographic kind) — I’m sure the worldwide consumption of that for pornographic purposes and fantasies is huge already.

    If you’re saying that the people reading it still fantasize that the characters are real, well, sure. But all they need to construct that fantasy is the existing of living, breathing people in the world — there’s no reason for them to be porn stars.

    To put it another way, pornographic literature was around long before there were “porn stars.”

    1. Hey SamSam, the term you’re seeking is “hentai” which incidentally I do not watch.

      I personally enjoy when the walls between what is real and unreal break down, and not simply in the setting or execution of a piece of art. The movie “The Blair Witch Project” would certainly have been less successful if people had known that it was pure fiction from the get-go.

  9. We would like to thank the Lord Summerisle and the people of his island […] for this privileged insight into their religious practices and for their generous cooperation

  10. I think the argument about what level of reality is required by most is effectively over.

    Mickey Mouse is as real as Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus (because what’s the difference really?) is, and she is as unreal as he is. Much like the mouse, she’s been reduced to the minimum amount of effort to depict her – like a Barbie doll, she’s a landscape of featureless plastic for the viewer to project whatever values they have onto her.

    If you compare Miley (or Mickey) to the legions of generic porno starlets – blonde, shaven and pneumatically busty via Dow Corning – are they really that different? They’re all caricatures – they *aren’t* real people (regardless of the fact they are made out of meat).

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