In the days of high dudgeon prior to a presidential election, with numbers and claims and promises flowing freely from the mouths of debaters (“Where is the debater of this age?”), it is easy to agree with the psalmist: “I said in my [electoral] trepidation, ‘Every person lies’” (Psalm 116:11). (Literally, something like “the totality of man [ha-adam] lies.”) Who has the full information to confirm or deny a given opinion or fact, to which the candidates may or may not be entitled? And with much of the media so obviously shilling for this or that candidate, it is even harder to discern what is true and what is false.
Most of the time, we want to believe people—at least initially—as long as they don’t present to us extreme or apparently exaggerated claims and we don’t have other prior reasons for doubting them. I’ve been trying to watch as many 2020 Newport Beach Film Festival movies as I can, which I would normally be doing in person. While I much prefer being able to watch and talk about movies in person, one benefit of the virtual festival is that I am not constrained by the film schedule to choose between movies that are playing opposite each other.
[SPOILERS FOR KINDRED AND THE PENNY BLACK]
Two of the films I’ve watched so far—one a documentary, and one a fictional narrative—deal explicitly with honesty, lying, and how one might possibly know the difference. The narrative is called Kindred, about a pregnant woman, Charlotte, whose husband Ben is killed, and she finds herself being “cared” for in the home of her husband’s over-protective mother, Margaret, and Margaret’s son Thomas from a different marriage.
From the beginning, she does not want to be in the house, but the mother tells her that her house was repossessed after her husband’s death. Charlotte and Ben had just told Margaret that they were planning on moving to Australia, which she opposes, but her opposition grows once she finds out that Charlotte is pregnant—knowledge she received from the doctor, which adds to Charlotte’s all-encompassing isolation. She has no one to whom she can turn, except for Jane, her co-worker.
Kindred is an extended story of gas-lighting, a much over-used word that seems now to mean lying in any form. I’m not sure why the word has become so prevalent in the last few years (except, of course, Trump!), since its source is in two movies in the 1940s about a man who slowly makes little changes to his wife’s environment in order to drive her insane.
Gas-lighting is more insidious than simply lying. It is an attempt to undermine the basis of our judgments about what is real and what is not. And the illumination of what we can see and believe (the “gas light”) grows more dim by the day. This is a personal attack, more than just the actions of a sociopathic liar. There has to be a relationship of some kind that puts the manipulation constantly in flux, and thus in doubt.
Charlotte never quite trusts either Margaret or Thomas, but everyone around her seems to assume that she has the problem, even when they appear to be helping her. It doesn’t help that her mother also had some kind of mental illness that Charlotte says was “peripartum psychosis.” Charlotte’s dreams and her difficulty differentiating between reality and fantasy push her, but she is never convinced that she truly is mentally unstable. The ending leaves open the question of what effect her own assuredness actually has on the world. Even if you know the people around you are lying, what can you do on your own?
The documentary, The Penny Black, is lighter in content, but the effect on the viewer is to wonder, are these people telling the truth? Before the NBFF virtual screening, there is a brief introduction by the filmmakers where they tell us that everyone who sees the film thinks that various parts are staged or manufactured, but they assure us that it is all true.
The Penny Black introduces us to Will Smith (“like the actor,” he says at one point), who is cooking in a small kitchen and hoping to become more financially stable, though he doesn’t know how or from where that stability is going to come. We are told, via a title card, that Will told the producers an incredible story, and “filming began the next day.” So we are, apparently, following the story in real time as it unfolds over several years, which works very well to increase the tension and expectation.
The basic idea is that a neighbor of Will’s—a Russian chain-smoker known to Will only as Roman—brought a bag of rare stamps and stamp books to Will’s apartment and asked him to hold on to them for two weeks, and then Roman would come and collect them. But Roman doesn’t show up in two weeks, or four weeks, or months. And Will is left to take the film crew through his attempts to find out more about the stamps: where did they come from? What is their value? Where is Roman? Who is Roman?
The turning point in the way the story is told by the filmmakers comes when they discover that Will did not put all of the books of stamps into the safe deposit box where he was keeping them. There is one thin, green notebook of valuable stamps missing. Will claims to have no knowledge of where it went. But he doesn’t seem very concerned. So the filmmakers start to question how truthful Will is being, which in turn influences the viewer.
Will’s repeated claims to be honest, to always tell the truth, to never deceive are related to the other major factor complicating The Penny Black, which is that Will’s father was a con-man, deported back to England after forging documents and selling stolen artwork. Are the sins of the father repeated by the son? Will has a new car and then a boat, both of which he says were paid for by, respectively, his parents and his mother. Were they? Or did Will sell the stamps in the missing book?
The filmmakers follow some dead-ends, such as an e-mail from Will’s father explaining himself, which Will refuses to read. If there is something in that e-mail that has something to do with the story, we never find out what it is. And we never find out what happened to the missing book. And though Will asks him, we never find out why Roman left the stamps with Will (since he claims to have a lot more in storage), and why he never came back to get them in a timely manner.
So we’re left with the question with which we started: who’s lying? We want to believe Will, but his nonchalance and seeming apathy and perceived hesitation at moments contributes to us asking, along with the filmmakers, “Have you been honest with us?” His answer, “I think so,” doesn’t really inspire confidence.
I don’t have any deep thoughts on lying by public figures, let alone by the subjects of documentaries, except that lying about small things not only leads to lying about big things, it also erodes confidence about the status of the truth altogether. Is that lack of confidence correlated with how firmly people believe that there is any such thing as a Truth to which all other truths relate in some way?
I don’t know where the distrust of public statements will end. Will it reach a bottom floor at some point, and people will rebel against falsehood with truth? Who will believe any truth claims, especially if it comes from someone with whom we politically disagree? Or will we continue to devolve into suspicion and anecdotal, emotivistic evidence for our individual positions?
Let God be true and every man a liar. And let your “yes” be yes, and your “no” be no. No need to swear if you always tell the truth.