October 25, 2009

Tokyo International Film Festival, Day Six: "Based on a True Story"

Mary and MaxFive Minutes of HeavenWe all know that movies aren't real. But tack on the words, "based on a true story" on a movie poster, and we suddenly operate differently. Events of the film are open to closer scrutiny, and conversely, we're more willing to swallow the outlandish, thinking it must have truly happened. Two films screened on the sixth day of the Tokyo International Film Festival, Oliver Hirschbeigel's Five Minutes of Heaven and Adam Elliot's Mary and Max, were "based on a true story". But what does that mean, anyway?

Joe (James Nesbitt) still lives in Lurgan, working for a factory that makes egg cartons. A television program has offered to stage Joe and Alistair's first-ever meeting and film it. They're thinking reconciliation, but Joe is only thinking revenge. The five minutes of heaven is the murder of Alistair that Joe has been planning in his mind.

Hirschbiegel sets up the scenes leading to James' murder in careful detail
, utilizing cinematic conventions to nice effect as he segues into their staged reconciliation. Neeson's elegantly mournful Alistair contrasts cleanly with Nesbitt's angry, jittery Joe. A TV playing in the background in the 1975 scenes gives grave news of the Troubles, while in the present day scenes, we hear results of a football match from a car radio, indicating the change in the political and social climate. A neat trick with sound effects links the past with the present. When James is shot, the sound of Joe breathing is amplified as he stands frozen in fear. 30 years later, as Joe descends the stairs to meet Alistair for the first time, we hear once again the child's frantic breathing echoing in his head. 
Five Minutes in Heaven explores a real-life tragedy that occurred in Lurgan, Northern Ireland in 1975. 16-year-old Alistair Little, a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force and a Protestant, goes to the house of James Griffin, a Catholic, and shoots him three times in the head. The murder is witnessed by Joe, James's 11-year-old little brother, who is playing outside the house. 30 years later, Alistair (Liam Neeson) has served his years and now travels around the world, speaking out against the closed societal mindset that can become a breeding ground for violence.

A disclaimer at the beginning states the film is a fictional account based on true events. We're not told where fact ends and fiction begins, which creates a confusing situation for the viewer. In reality, when afforded a chance to meet, Joe refused to see Alistair. Screenwriter Guy Hibbert interviewed the two men separately, and working closely with them, wrote an imagined account of their exchange. Learning this after watching the film greatly changes the viewer's interpretation of events. What are we to make of a bruising fight between Alistair and Joe? Shot like Hirschbiegel's audition tape to direct the next Bourne Identity film, an initially cathartic moment becomes nothing more than wish fulfillment. It's all well for Alistair and Joe of the film, but what about their real-life counterparts? A complicated reality suddenly weighs heavily against the hopeful ending of the film.

Like Five Minutes of Heaven, Australian director Adam Elliot's Mary and Max is based on a true story. A stop-motion claymation film about a pen pal friendship between an 8-year-old Australian girl and a 44-year-old New Yorker, it sounds harmless. But anyone walking into the film expecting Wallace and Gromit hijinks needs to be warned: this bold but curious mix of quirky and dark is not for kids. Not unless you want to do a lot of explaining.

Mary is the little Australian girl, Max is the Jewish New Yorker. Mary's mother is a sherry-swilling shoplifter, her father is largely absent. Max attends Overeaters Anonymous and has stays at the mental hospital. Both desperately lonely, the two establish a snail mail relationship, beginning in 1076 and spanning two decades. (Max is voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman, the grown Mary by Toni Collete.) As they face personal ups and downs that test their friendship, alcoholism, Asperger's syndrome, unhappy marriages, and a suicide attempt work their way into the story.

(Mary's world in Mount Waverley, Australia, rendered in brown tones.)

Given the dark material, perhaps it should come as no surprise that the visual world of Mary and Max is such a downer. Elliot has created a highly distinctive world and his characters are one-of-a-kind. Working with a severely restricted color palette, he renders dried up, miserable Mount Waverley, Australia in tones of burnished brown. New York City, with its graffiti, grime, and gunshots, is constructed in shades of grey. The result is an almost willfully ugly film.

(Max's world in New York City, depicted in shades of grey.)

Elliot attempts to lighten up the proceedings by throwing in quirky details. At the beginning of the film, Mary is described (by Barry Humphries, the narrator) as having a birthmark on her forehead "the color of poo", and the clever-clever observations snowball from there. Max has a succession of pet goldfish, each named Henry and each dying in horrible ways. (Henry 8th! Henry 9th!) Slapped onto the bare bones of every scene, some are funny, most are exhausting.

But how much of this illustrious story is true? Turns out, Max, a Jewish New Yorker who has Asperger's and attends Overeaters Anonymous, has been the director's pen pal of 20 years. The two have never met. Mary is fictional. The film doesn't become insignificant upon this discovery, but the fairly tenuous link to reality leads one to wonder if a disclaimer was needed at all. Given that the characters' friendship is almost destroyed when Mary innocently exploits Max's disorder as a case study in university, one hopes that the real Max adores the film and life doesn't imitate art.

"Based on a true story" should always be taken with a grain of salt, but watching a film with the bullshit detector turned high won't make for a satisfying experience. Nor would a film be half as significant if we ignored its real-life roots. In the end, finding out the truth gives an added dimension to the films. Joe and Alistair's non-meeting exposes the difficulties of reconciling the tragedies of the Troubles, difficulties that can't be solved through a cease-fire or ideological weakening. And as for Mary and Max, it's nice to know that the fate Max meets in the film is not what befell him in real life.

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