Straw Man Slaughter

Straw Man Slaughter

The Blinding Sea is, among other things, a biographical film. Naturally, during the research phase, I studied many biographies, and I was struck how biographers sometimes attribute to their characters a wide range of positions they could not actually have held, not to mention underhand motivations, hidden agendas and personality flaws.

I allude in the film, for example, to the temptation for biographers to caricature Roald Amundsen, casting him either as a two-dimensional hero … or a villain. Which amounts to mythologizing … or demythologizing.

I wonder: Is biography an art form, that consists in portraying character with broad brush strokes? Is it a projection of the author’s own pride and prejudice, struggles, successes and failures? Does the author, in writing a biography, create a forum to publicly vent powerful emotions, to settle scores?

If biography were a strategy game, then I would call it Straw Man Slaughter. And this is one-way slaughter, where the author is tempted to overstate, misrepresent or exaggerate the character’s position, arguing against an inaccurate caricature. Of course, the (long dead) character has no right of reply.

Alice confronts the two-dimensional nature of characters she meets in Alice in Wonderland

How should I avoid two-dimensional caricatures? I decided to use the principle of intersubjectivity, keeping each character in his/her own context, and portraying that character not in terms of what he/she ought to have done, based on hindsight, but rather in terms of that character’s own internal logic, world view, perceptions, intentions, experience, abilities and access to knowledge.

After Robert Falcon Scott’s death was announced, some people in the English-speaking world changed Amundsen’s role from the protagonist in his own story, the one driving it forward, to the antagonist in Scott’s story, the one who thwarted and forestalled Scott. This amounts to assigning a completely new role to Amundsen, based not on what he actually experienced, but on the supposed relationship he had, after the fact, with someone else’s expedition.

If ever there was a case of Straw Man Slaughter, this is it!

I filmed this gargoyle in Oxford, using it as a metaphor in The Blinding Sea to suggest how some people argue against inaccurate caricatures. The straw man or scarecrow in the feature image at the top of this blog is from a Halloween display this week, not far from where I live, in the Lower Town of Quebec City


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