Sunday, December 7, 2003

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When is it important to fact-check fiction?

Last year, Gregg Easterbrook mocked the New York Times for publishing a correction saying that it had made a few errors in recounting a plot point from the HBO series The Sopranos. Easterbrook noted:

Here the straight-laced, precision-obsessed, oh-so-conscientious New York Times runs a detailed "correction" regarding events that are totally made-up.

OK, we know the media have ever-increasing difficulty distinguishing between actual events and things that are made-up. Worse, many news outlets show increasing lack of interest in this distinction. But how can you "correct" a statement about something that does not exist? The Times box is like running a correction that says, "James Bond drinks vodka martinis, not gin as was stated in yesterday's editions. The New York Times apologizes to Mr. Bond."

Now, I take Easterbrook's point that this sort of corrections policy can border on the absurd, but consider, as a counterexample, Alex Kuczynski's essay in today's NYT on religious interpretations of the movie Groundhog Day. Here's Kuczynski's plot summary of the movie:

In the movie, which enjoys its own seemingly endless cycle of rebirth on cable television, the character played by Mr. [Bill] Murray is in Punxsutawney, Pa., covering Groundhog Day, Feb. 2, for the fourth year in a row. Frustrated because his career is stalled and by the fact that he can't seduce his producer, played by Andie MacDowell, he sees his assignment — waiting for a groundhog (or a rat, as Mr. Murray's character calls it) to see if there will be six more weeks of winter — as the final indignity.

But it isn't quite. The next day he awakens in the same bed in the same bed-and-breakfast, to the sound of the same tinny clock radio with Sonny and Cher singing "I Got You Babe" and the babblings of the frighteningly cheerful local D.J., to discover that it is Feb. 2 again.

At first, he uses the repetition to his advantage — he learns French poetry, for example, as part of his scheme to seduce the producer. Then he realizes that he is doomed to spend eternity locked in the same place, seeing the same people do the same things every day. It is not until he accepts his fate and sets about helping people (saving a homeless man from freezing to death, for example) that he is released from the eternal cycle of repetition.

Of course, this being an American film, he not only attains spiritual release but also gets the producer into bed.

There are two errors in this plot summary. First, Bill Murray's character Phil Connors does not save the homeless man from freezing to death -- indeed, this section of the film shows that as the day repeats itself, the homeless man dies no matter how much Phil attempts to save him. Second, although it appears that Connors has successfully seduced the producer at the end of the film, the dialogue suggests that Phil restrained from any hanky-panky, acting like a perfect gentleman.

Nitpicky details? Perhaps, but in an article on how "the film has become a curious favorite of religious leaders of many faiths, who all see in Groundhog Day a reflection of their own spiritual messages," these facts are actually pretty crucial. One corrected, the movie suggests:

1) The limit's of man's power over life and death;
2) The merits of abstinence as a means of attaining spiritual enlightenment.

[You, who never misses an opportunity to ogle Salma Hayek, are preaching abstinence?--ed. No, but surely some of the religions discussed in the essay do proffer such advice. And there's a big difference between admiration from afar and acting on such admiration, buddy!]

It would be absurd for the Times to issue an apology to anyone for these errors. However, this is an example of how getting the facts wrong about fiction do alter the tenor of a particular argument.

posted by Dan on 12.07.03 at 03:19 PM


I can pick you nit.

The line about saving the homeless man can make sense if one reads "saving" as a grammatical parallel to "sets about helping," in the sense that the paranthetical would read "(sets about saving...)." Such a sentence does not necessarily mean that he actually saved the homeless man, but it would be true to say that he did set about saving him.

Second point: he does get Andy MacDowell into bed. And more to the point, wins her heart. I never got the sense from the movie that abstinence was key to anything. Being a gentleman and not a cad certainly was. But gentlemen still get to have sex, even if it takes places tastefully off-screen.

posted by: Norman on 12.07.03 at 03:19 PM [permalink]

I like the word 'oogle'.

posted by: sym on 12.07.03 at 03:19 PM [permalink]

Does "oogle" mean something different from "ogle?" Or is it an alternate spelling? I've certainly seen it a few times before.

posted by: John Thacker on 12.07.03 at 03:19 PM [permalink]

Alas, "oogle" was just a typo. Fixed now.

posted by: Dan Drezner on 12.07.03 at 03:19 PM [permalink]

It's been ...ten months since I've seen it, but I did get the impression that Conners did manage to keep the guy alive, at least for that day.

And that's Commander Bond.

posted by: Bill Woods on 12.07.03 at 03:19 PM [permalink]

You might also want to challenge Easterbrook on "straight-laced," cf. "strait-laced."

posted by: Bucd on 12.07.03 at 03:19 PM [permalink]

Easterbrook's correction on Bond is also flawed on the type of martini. Granted, in the movies it is a Vodka martini (due to Smirnoff product placement forty-some years ago), but in the books, it's half-gin, half-vodka.

posted by: Doc on 12.07.03 at 03:19 PM [permalink]

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