Friday, October 04, 2019

The Thin Line

I'm working on a book about American gangster movies. All my writing career I've moved back and forth between "real life" or "true crime" or "nonfiction" (pick your term). In fact, when I decided to write a mystery novel, I gave my first protagonist, Lizzie Stuart, a profession that would provide both a focus for her sleuthing and a systematic way of going about it. Like me, Lizzie is a criminal justice professor who specializes in crime in American history and culture. To be precise, she focuses on Southern crime and culture, and she teaches at a fictional university in a city that bears some resemble to my hometown.  

This book about gangster movies require me to deal with the thin line between fact and fiction. It is in a series that my academic publisher is doing about history and movie. As have the other genre authors, I've selected the 8-10 important films and I've provided the backstory. One aspect of my assignment is to discuss the historical era and the cultural forces that were at work when each movie was released. The other -- much more challenging -- is to distinguish fact from fiction. 

As any fan of the genre knows, gangster movies came of age during the era of Prohibition and the
Great Depression. Real-life gangsters (such as Al Capone), and the "G-men" who pursued them,
participated in the "social construction" of the "public enemy." During the same era as the urban "gangster" or "mobster," the "rural outlaws" such as Bonnie and Clyde and John Dillinger were also being pursued by lawmen. This era of myth-making coincided with the era when "talkies" were drawing even cash-strapped Depression-era audiences into theaters.

In the aftermath of Prohibition, real-life gangsters expanded their activities and so did movie gangsters. Eventually, the focus was on urban gangs and organized criminals who were involved in trafficking drugs, sex trafficking, and other activities that were depicted in much more graphic detail than the movies of the 1920s-40s. But the references to those earlier movies were still there. The rise and fall of the gangster was still the most common plot trajectory even though the Production Code had been replaced by a movie rating system. 

And all of this makes it particularly challenging to separate fact from fiction. As with movies about the American west (westerns), I am dealing with decades of movie storytelling that has drawn on and contributed to real-life mythology. Real-life gangsters have inspired movie-makers; movies have influenced the style of real-life gangsters. Early films that produced their own mythology that influenced later movies. Writers and directors has sometimes attributed what was done or said by one gangster to another. Fiction hasn't required that they be accurate.

At the same time, the real-life people have told their stories. In interviews and memoirs each has offered his or her own perspective on events. This is like any eyewitness testimony. What a witness sees and remembers -- and is willing to share -- depends all any number of factors. Witnesses disagree.

My challenge is not to go down the rabbit hole with each movie and spend the same amount of time that I would on an book trying to disentangle fact from fiction. I could spend months following each gangster from birth to death. I am not going to do that. I am going to stay focused, finish this, and get back to my historical thriller -- and go back down that rabbit hole.

Did I mention I love research. But I am going to get this book done and gone. 


David Root said...
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