Based on a True Story

Pablo Picasso famously asserted, “We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand.”

I’ve been chewing on that quote for almost 20 years now, when I first stumbled upon it in my quest to form a working theology of the arts. (Note: See my blogpost on Suspension of Disbelief: How Art Works for an entertaining treatise on the nature of art.) So what did Picasso mean? Is he simply tossing out some cynical witticism on the state of the art world? Does he believe that artists are liars? Or is he saying something deeper?

Personally, I think that he is saying—with profoundly layered implication—that an artist’s painting of a thing is not that thing. A painting of a sky is not the sky. A song about the moon is not the moon. But that’s not all. An artwork functions as a metaphor, hopefully in a way that ascribes meaning beyond its mere appearance. So a painting of a sky is not the sky, nor is it necessarily about the sky. A song about the moon is not the moon, nor is it necessarily about the moon. The real meaning—either intended or unintended, obvious or sublime—is what gives the piece the opportunity to say something true about the universe. So Sinatra can sing, “Fly me to the moon, and let me play among the stars…”, and we are moved to feel joy or hope or love.

Consider Picasso’s lithograph, “The Bull” (1945). In this fascinating study, he attempts to render the image of a bull in ever increasing abstraction. As he moves from representation to abstraction, the bull becomes less and less clear, until it becomes mere lines on paper. Still, we are able to see the bull, or at least the essence of what it is to convey a bull. And in the totality of the artwork, perhaps there is a greater meaning than what is simply on the surface. What is Picasso saying in this piece?

According to Kitty Jackson, “The bull is a complex figure of symbolism. At once masculine, strong and sturdy—a figure of anger and aggression, but all too often also the victim, killed in a show of strength, surrendered in an act of ritual or tamed and reduced in power by man’s superior cunning.” Art critics speculated that the bull was a form of self-portrait for the Spaniard Picasso, as he often used the bull as a symbol in many of his works.

The way in which Picasso pulls that figure deeper and deeper into abstraction, while still maintaining the essence of the idea, can say much about the universe and humanity and the perspectives we create of it. Perhaps in this piece in particular, as the figures morph to lines and finally into his signature, he is saying that he is the bull.

I share this because I have been grappling with the art form of the movie screenplay. Now, in all art forms, there are conventions and techniques and written and unwritten rules. For example, I’ve previously discussed the Three-Part Structure, which can be found in many art forms, from the haiku to the sonata to jazz improvisation to the stage play. It’s in the understanding and mastering of these rules and conventions (and even in knowing how to break the rules) that great art becomes a possibility. So what I’ve been struggling with is the idea of full feature films that are “based on a true story.” We see that in many movies, from biopics to historical dramas. What is it to “base” a screenplay on something that is “true”?

What I am learning is that, in order to write a compelling story, you need to bend the truth to tell the truth. In other words, the historical dates and facts sometimes need to be rearranged in order to tell the greater truths of humanity. For example, the main protagonist in my story historically experiences decades of discrimination and injustice through his life. But in order to portray that injustice—and fit that into the 100 minute film—I have had to create a fictional character that embodies the decades of cultural bigotry and bias. This antagonist is not a historical character. But he needs to exist in the story, in order for the audience to recognize the good that overcomes evil. This character—representing a composite of perhaps a hundred real people—is a metaphor that helps to demonstrate a larger truth: that hate and racism exist, but can be ultimately overcome by determined and unwavering hope.

Here’s the thing. This fictional character interacts with historical characters in my screenplay. Am I lying? And if I am, am I justified in doing so? Frankly, I’ve struggled with this from the standpoint of integrity. How “based on a true story” can I be?

This is where I fall back on Picasso’s statement: “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.” Ultimately, the greater truth, beyond the historical fact, is that the protagonist lives a life that triumphs over the many inequalities and injustices of his life. The greater truth is that life should be lived with hope, grounded in hard work and determination and a faith in the goodness of God. This greater truth is not only historical, but has formed the greater reality of the protagonist’s life, and my own life as well.

Certainly there have been great atrocities perpetrated on film in the name of “artistic license.” Villains become heroes, sins become virtues, fiction is passed off as reality. Much has been conjured for the sake of Hollywood that points us away from true north. But I do believe in the power of the arts, and as such, I believe that we have an obligation to humanity, that the God-given arts—in all its forms—express the greater truths that give us meaning.

[Banner Photo by Ali Kazal on Unsplash.]

One thought on “Based on a True Story

  1. Deep! That’s a lot to chew on and cogitate. I think I need to read it a couple more times to get even more out of it. Thanks for doing the hard work of thinking and laying out the ideas.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s