Nowhere is this effect better personified than by a self-proclaimed eyewitness in THE THIN BLUE LINE, a self-consciously arty documentary about an extremely fishy cop killer trial in Texas. An unabashed redneck with feathered, bottle-blonde hair, this "witness," whose testimony was instrumental in convicting the wrong man of murder, explains her involvement to the filmmakers without a trace of irony or self-awareness: "When I was a kid, I used to want to be a detective all the time cause I used to watch all the detective shows on TV. I'm always looking because I never know what might come up or how I could help. I like to help in situations like that. And it's always happening to me everywhere I go. Lots of times there's killings or anything, you know? And I'm always looking or getting involved, finding out who did it or what's going on. I'm always trying to decide who's lying or who killed who before the police do, to see if I can beat 'em." Having successfully inseminated its audience with an internalized urge to police, "Cops" becomes nothing more than violent entertainment whose "authenticity" is immaterial. This result was foreshadowed by a prescient George Lucas in his THX 1138, where a TV channel of the future consists solely of Rodney King-style police beatdowns, apparently for the purpose of mindless diversion.
Ironically, the urge to "beat" the police at their own game is shared, after-the-fact, by the makers of THE THIN BLUE LINE themselves. Like the social problem documentaries of the New Deal era, but with a decidedly postmodern twist, the film seeks to redress the wrongs done to an individual by the State, to help him "beat the rap," so to speak. Employing talking head interviews with all the major participants intercut with stylized, minimalist re-enactments of the murder event itself, the film is a meditation on the unreliability of memory and the contingent nature of truth, while offering a meta-commentary on documentary filmmaking. Despite the self-conscious artifice of the re-enactments, the film positions itself as an arbiter of "truth," while paradoxically undercutting the authority of film to present "reality" as it happened. The film wants to have it both ways the "truth" is relative, events are in the eyes of the beholder, no recollections are identical, yet by revealing the unreliability of memory to reflect history by employing an aesthetic of artifice, a larger "truth" can be revealed, and thereby, an injustice can be undone. While the paradoxes of THE THIN BLUE LINE are unsettling, the film at least avoids the revisionist pitfalls of Oliver Stone, Spike Lee, Mario Van Peebles and others with its "Look, Ma! I'm manipulating the audience!" disclaimer aesthetic. For these Hollywood directors, history is merely a first-draft script, open to endless rewrites and unbridled artistic license.
Just as "truth" has become a narrative style, there is no doubt that history itself is contingent, mutable, and a matter of perspective. Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States proved this most decisively, rewriting American history from the downtrodden viewpoint of the colonized and disenfranchised to produce a photo-negative narrative barely recognizable to students of public school history teachers. Nevertheless, the dramatic re-enactments of recent history offered by such films as JFK, MALCOLM X, PANTHER, and NIXON present Historical Events through the filter of Hollywood convention while boldly claiming to represent "the real story" suppressed by the powers-that-be. All of these films freely blend actual historical footage with cinematic recreations in a manipulative manner reminiscent of propaganda, yet none contain the meta-discourse present in THE THIN BLUE LINE which becomes, and critiques, such cinematic manipulation. Thus, while thoroughly postmodern in form employing collage, mixed media, relativistic juxtapositions of real and fake these films actually belong to an earlier, modernist era of the Big Truth, which, though disguised from the general public, can be unearthed and expressed by the Great Artist.