American Gangster (dir: Ridley Scott, 2007) is a dramatisation of the true story of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), a Harlem heroin kingpin in the 1970s, a time when the NYPD narcotics department was riddled with corruption. Despite the fact this is territory that Hollywood has stomped over countless times before, it's very good, albeit maybe 20 minutes too long. But the familiarity of the milieu means that it ceases to be 'about' Lucas and his nemesis, clean cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe); it's about 101 other films instead. Police corruption gives us Serpico and The Departed (and, of course, Infernal Affairs); heroin suggests The French Connection (to the extent it's explicitly namechecked); Lucas's sojourn in South-East Asia summons the ghost of The Deer Hunter and any number of other Vietnam movies. The fact that the two protagonists don't actually meet until the closing stages of the film is a clear nod - intentional or otherwise - to Michael Mann's Heat; the formation of a skunkworks outside the normal workings of the police shares aspects of The Wire (and Roberts, with his chaotic private life, is a dead ringer for Jimmy McNulty). Walk-on parts from historical characters such as Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali echo the fusion of fact and fiction that novelists such as EL Doctorow deploy; until you remember that this is meant to be fact anyway.
It shouldn't be a surprise of course. Hollywood has become more real to us than reality itself; the characters played by Hackman and Pacino and Nicholson are more three-dimensional than flesh-and-blood humans such as Lucas and Roberts. We're so dazzled by the spectacle, we lose sight of our neighbours, and by implication, ourselves.
Although some people are quite capable of creating their own dazzle, if it serves a purpose. Bars in Minnesota are being redefined as theatres, in an effort to get around restrictions on smoking. As the owner of a heavy-metal bar in Maplewood says of his customers, "They're playing themselves before 1 October - you know, before there was a smoking ban."