Stretching the Truth

I couldn’t sleep this morning, so I watched Resurrecting the Champ about a reporter who composes an article about a former boxer who fell on hard times and became homeless. While I enjoyed the film, something just felt “off” as I watched. I decided to look up the true story upon which the film is based and felt disappointment upon discovering that a major plot point of the film is false.

Spoiler Alert!

The reporter in the film, Eric Kernan, Jr., writes about a boxer whom he believes is named Satterfield when in fact that man has assumed Satterfield’s identity. The Homeless man, known primarily as “Champ,” was a boxer but one named Kincaid. Kernan’s article brings him fame and potential fortune until the truth is revealed, and he loses his reputation and must then compose a second article redacting the first, which also becomes a piece about truth and love.

However, the real author of the pieces (upon whom the film is based) actually began writing the article about Champ, but he discovered the deception prior to completing the piece and changed it into a story about how he was deceived.

This may not seem like such a big deal, but it reminded me of a post I wrote a few days ago about how teaching is distorted on-screen. The protagonist of Resurrecting the Champ appears somewhat morally corrupt and makes journalism appear sullied. As Dana Parsons says in her commentary on the film:

“…we get a movie that beats up the newspaper business for being so hot for a story that it doesn’t bother to check things out. The reporter is reduced to a bum in his own right who, even after learning the truth, is reluctant to publicly acknowledge it. He’s not only lazy; he’s unethical.”

Dana Parsons is a journalist for The Los Angeles Times, who personally knew the original author, who further states that:

“Rather than running with the story, as would be the temptation, Moehringer put so much time into it that he eventually learned — to his great distress — that the guy posing as former contender Bob Satterfield really wasn’t him.

I remember us talking in the office when he learned the truth. He acted as though the world had come to an end. All that time spent on the story, he lamented, for naught…All the things the movie says the reporter didn’t do — ask the boxing experts, check the archives, talk to Satterfield’s relatives, be skeptical — the real-life Moehringer did.”

Journalism is shown in such a poor light in this film that I couldn’t ignore the similar way teaching is skewed on film and on TV. The realities are ignored in favor of what the producers and directors believe the public wants. As Champ says in Resurrecting the Champ, “I gave you the man you want[ed].” And so we got the story the film industry thought we wanted.

Instead of presenting what people truly feel and do as teachers (and in this case journalists), we are given a tale, a fabrication of the truth. Maybe truth can be stretched for a purpose as in a film like Big Fish, but I would prefer the truth.

Of course, this led me to think about the classroom as well. Students often tell me that some of the most interesting things they learn about the writers and historical figures in my classes are the imperfections; they tire of myth and want truth.

The students enjoyed hearing about how Henry David Thoreau wrote Walden alone in the woods, but he allowed himself reprieves from the absolute isolation and independence of the famous pond when he would visit his buddy Ralph Waldo Emerson from time to time. The students’ question “how could he do that for so long” is duly answered.

Ken Kesey became an interesting figure when the students learned of his drug use and flight from justice. Abraham Lincoln’s shifting views of slavery interested the students as did Benjamin Franklin’s dalliances with women, and Thomas Jefferson’s relations with his slaves, and the Colossus of Rhodes’ true appearance, and Thomas Edison’s ruthlessness, and Marie Antoinette’s attributed words about peasants eating cake (which she never said), and Napoleon’s true height, and how George Washington could be considered the 15th President of the United States.

They say the same things about the characters in the texts, too. Every year the students find Lucie Manette in A Tale of Two Cities “boring” because she is not three-dimensional; she has no real imperfection. Lucie is perfect in every way and betters everyone around her. How dull! How predictable! But these same students love Sydney Carton’s boorish and drunken figure as he transforms himself from “a disappointed drudge” into a “far, far better” man.

When we reveal truth we may actually increase interest and appreciation.

8 thoughts on “Stretching the Truth

  1. John Spencer

    I’m a big fan of the notion that “the medium is the message” and the medium of a Hollywood movie comes with its own method. It’s a condensed novel, which is why Spanish tv isn’t too far off in calling it a “novela.” The Hollywood prototype distorts all narratives, whether fiction or non-fiction. Sometimes, the distortion is good (on a fictional level, Shawshank Redemption is a great example of mediocrity turned into quality) but I’m always skeptical about anything that’s “based upon a true story.”

  2. Nuss

    Kids are aware that world around them is not perfect. Go figure!

    Now, if someone could make the majority of the adults in charge of their education aware of this fact, we might be onto something.

  3. drpezz Post author

    Well, at the high school level I think we should view the students as young adults rather than older children. This way we would add a layer of real-world respect in how we treat them. Plus, self-reliance and personal accountability might have more meaning.

    These guys basically know right from wrong and understand the differences between reality and illusion. I think we teach them too much illusion and not enough reality at times (at least in English and History).

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