Artists are thieves, and they don’t usually mind if people know it. Art isn’t generally created whole cloth, but instead assembled from found items, the way a magpie builds a nest out of shiny objects it has pilfered. Some art steals from autobiography — memoirs, as an example, although, lately, they have been more fanciful, using autobiography as a starting point for a series of outrageous fictions, or, in the case of James Frey, lies. Some art steals from itself, borrowing characters or themes from art that preceded it. When done well, there are all sorts of pleasant words for this sort of theft: homage, appropriation, intertextuality. When done poorly, it’s just called plagiarism, and we react to that as badly as people from the British Isles once did upon seeing a lone magpie: They repeat “I defy thee” seven times in a row.
Artists also steal from history, and, the more recent the history, the trickier a proposition this is. There are two films that do this just now, although the creators of one say they are entirely innocent of their theft. These are the makers of “30 Minutes or Less,” a comedy about a pizza delivery man who is one day accosted by strangers, who strap a bomb to him and make him rob a bank. This story has many parallels with the real case of Brian Douglas Wells, a pizza delivery man who, in 2003, had a bomb strapped to him and was forced to rob a bank, and subsequently died when the bomb exploded before it could be defused. The script writers for “30 Minutes or Less” claim they had little awareness of the Wells case when they wrote the movie, although it so closely parallels Wells’ story that Wired ran a plot-point-by-plot-point comparison. Conclusion: Either this is a statistically unlikely coincidence, or the filmmakers are the equivalent of magpies, caught with shiny rings in their mouths, who are claiming they don’t know what a ring is, have never seen one, and whatever they happen to be carrying just coincidentally looks like a ring.
Why deny it? After all, history is in the public domain, and you don’t need anybody’s permission to use it as inspiration for storytelling. If the filmmakers are prevaricating, I suspect it is because “30 Minutes or Less” is a trifle. It stars Jesse Eisenberg and Aziz Ansari as the sort of goofy man-children that these sorts of films always feature, characters who never outgrew their 16-year-old selves and treat adulthood either as a lark or a hassle. Bill Murray could make such a character charming, although, in the past decade, he has made a career out of examining how this sort of permanent adolescence can make for a wretched adulthood. Not many other actors can carry it off, although both Eisenberg and Ansari look to be so close to adolescence that they could believably be on the cusp of growing up. Their friendship is believably strained — at one point, they admit to each other that their character faults are significant enough that nobody else would have them as friends.
Eisenberg is accosted by a sleazy pair of wanna-be gangsters, played by Danny McBride and Nick Swardson as something like trashy mirror versions of Eisenberg and Ansari — they are similarly trapped in a perpetually sulking adolescence, but playact at adulthood by hanging out at strip clubs and plotting to open a tanning salon-slash-brothel. And then the movie consists almost entirely of people running around and attacking each other while the two leads bicker. How funny you find this is probably going to be affected by how old you are and what substances you consumed before you saw the movie. I was foolishly sober, and even more foolishly 43 years old, and so the movie felt strangely flat.
The film has left a lot of hurt feelings. Despite the fact that Wells died eight years ago, the incident is still one that is remembered with a lot of pain by residents of Erie, Pa., where the robbery and Wells’ subsequent death took place. (There is some evidence that Wells was a co-conspirator in the bank robbery and believed the bomb strapped to him was a fake; this has not lessened the trauma of the event.) And this is always the risk of borrowing from recent history: There will be those who witnessed and remember the event, and telling the story is likely to hurt them. But it was ever thus. Sergei Eisenstein made “Battleship Potemkin” in 1925, just two decades after the actual mutiny on the Potemkin, and nowadays news seems to appear in newspapers (or, this being 2011, on online news sources) in the morning and then a dramatized version of it shows up on “Law and Order” in the evening. This is a long tradition in the arts — French theatrical naturalists used to do the same thing on the stage, and John Waters made “The Diane Linkletter” story the day after the film’s subject died after leaping off a building.
There’s something exploitative about it, yes, but it helps to think of the popular arts as a sort of churning collective unconscious, where anything that attracts enough public attention will roil and sift for a lesser or greater amount of time and then get spat out again as entertainment. We may end up with an “Elephant,” Gus Van Sant’s Palme d’Or-winning look into a Columbine-style school shooting. Or we might wind up with “Duck! The Carbine High Massacre,” filmed by softcore horror/sex filmmakers William Hellfire and Joey Smack and released one year after the massacre that inspired it, which was, to put it gently, controversial. Ultimately, one expects, responses to this sort of thing will be based on an awesomely complex and mostly unconscious Venn diagram, made of of intersecting circles that include questions of how tasteful the film was, how much it had to say about the subject, and how distanced the audience is from the event represented. These circles will be different for everybody, but, in the end, how much tolerance we have for a film exploiting history will come down to how much we liked the movie.
There’s another circle in the Venn diagram I should mention: how accurately the film represents history. Sometimes, this isn’t very important: The movie “Dragon,” which retells the story of film star Bruce Lee, was filmed like a Bruce Lee movie. Accurate? No, not exactly, but it’s a defendable aesthetic decision and produced a really entertaining movie. But what of “The Devil’s Double,” which tells the true story of Latif Yahia, who was pressed into service as a body double for Uday Hussein, the psychotic son of Saddam Hussein? Uday was, from Latif’s account, a serial rapist and mass murderer, and one expects that the only film that could represent this accurately would also end up looking like a snuff film.
Instead, director Lee Tamahori has created something closer to a remake of “Scarface” — the 1983 version that has Al Pacino dressed in pastels, calling people “cockroaches,” and shooting them with absurdly big guns. And there is something undeniably pleasurable about this — Dominic Cooper plays both Latif and Uday, and he plays the latter as a florid, spoiled child with a passion for cigars, discotheques, gold-plated guns and screaming. The whole of it is set in an Iraqi version of Tony Montana’s Miami — the burnished gold palaces of corrupt and newly rich Iraqis. It’s a big, loud, mad film, and its promotional campaign, showing Uday, dressed in gold, firing gold machine guns, while sitting on a gold bed in a gold bedroom, perfectly captures the tacky sumptuousness — I couldn’t help but pose with the film’s standee before it came out, and couldn’t resist the film when it was released.
But it’s bad history. It takes great license with the story of Uday, and Saddam’s reign, and adds in a romantic complication that never happened in the original story, as well as shootouts and assassination attempts that make for exciting cinema, but in no way represent what actually happened. And so we end up with another diagram, in which we can chart points on a graph, and those points represent how accurate we think films about history, particularly recent history, should be. And the points on the graph include how tolerant we are of a maniac being turned into a cartoon character, however entertainingly. And the points on the graph include how patient we are with Iraq, a country whose culture is so old that it cradled civilization, being simplified down to a variation of 1980s Miami. And we will also chart how respectfully the film treats the actual assault and murder of Iraqi women, and a dictatorship that cost the lives of perhaps a million Iraqis.
That’s a lot of diagramming to do when we watch a movie, and we do it on the fly, unconsciously, and it’s constantly being revised by details like: How much do we like the main character (Cooper is an enormously charming actor, so, for many, the answer will be “a lot”); how much are we enjoying the movie; How good is the popcorn?
And so we, too, become part of this unconscious churning of history and current events. And perhaps we, too, will spit it out again one day, in a new form, and a new audience will have to decide what to make of it, and how well we have done it, and whether our version of history is art. Or is it plagiarism, and they must defy us seven times.