Ancient history

Biopics as old-fashioned as their subjects

The latest work by the Monsoon Wedding director, Mira Nair, is Amelia, a biopic exploring (but never interrogating, mind) the life of the pioneering aviatrix and flapper Amelia Earhart. It is a stunningly unambitious piece of film-making.

Indeed, from the moment it takes as its entry point Earhart's much-mythologised final flight (during which her plane disappeared somewhere in the middle of the Pacific, never to be seen again etc, etc), thus clearing the way for the main part of the film to be constructed out of an utterly linear sequence of flashbacks, it is clear that it will spend two hours attempting to tick all the good old biography boxes. A couple of brief scenes from subject's childhood (preferably doing something linked to their later life -- staring at a plane, say)? Check. A scene proving the precociousness/courage/blah of the subject, displayed in the face of initial humiliation and rejection? Check. An impressionistically ambiguous final shot with a voice-over celebrating "freedom" or something similarly abstract (and therefore implying, to quote Dylan, that death is not the end) . . . You get the idea.

If Nair's movie was an anomaly, it'd be fair enough to shrug one's shoulders and ignore its old-fashionedness. But it is not. In fact, I'd suggest that Amelia's failings are symptomatic of several, largely unacknowledged problems that have been plaguing biographical cinema for years. Viz: a lack of new ideas about how to treat "non-fiction"; an unwillingness to experiment or to innovate structurally; a belief that archaic notions about "realism" and reverence ought still to be respected; an inability to recognise that the greatest biopic ever made, Citizen Kane, embodied the exact opposite of all these traits.

Consider the reception that greeted Todd Haynes's superb Dylan biopic, I'm Not There -- everywhere, a sense of relief that somebody, finally, was willing to break the mould. Here is Toby Litt, discussing the film in the New Statesman back in 2007: "I'm Not There . . . is as fragmented as any mainstream Hollywood movie has ever been," he argued:

Like Dylan, I'm Not There shape-shifts incessantly. It is a film very much made in the editing room. Far more ambitious than [Anton Corbijn's Ian Curtis biopic] Control, it succeeds in doing what me and all the other megastar dreamers always wanted: it stands us inside Dylan's shoes . . . And viewing the film as a whole, we can at least allow ourselves the illusion that this is how Dylan remembers his life. Towards the end, Cate Blanchett -- who channels 1966 Dylan, right down to contorted hand gestures and incessant eye-rubbing -- turns to the camera and says something to the effect that it's all about hexagons. I'm Not There is an object with six sides, but it is a single object.

Yet, two years on, it seems to me that few have made much of an effort to follow Haynes's lead. Not even innovative directors constructing elegant films: say, Jane Campion's Bright Star (which takes John Keats and Fanny Brawne as co-subjects), or Diana Kurys's Sagan (on Françoise Sagan), for instance.

Litt's remarks about "the illusion that this is how Dylan remembers his life" draw attention to exactly what, one suspects, those directors would propose as a defence: the importance of integrity, accuracy, doing justice to one's subject; the verisimilitude, the true-to-life-ness necessary if one is to get any sense of this into a film. Certainly this seems to be what Nair was aiming to achieve: Amelia closes with a slide show of actual photographs of scenes that the film has attempted to re-create, as though to celebrate its own precision, its own truth.

But didn't visual art, literature, the vast bulk of cinema realise, many, many years ago, that realism is a myth? How can a two-hour film depict, with any sort of exactness, an entire life? How can a three-minute sequence showing Earhart fighting to navigate her way through a storm, and then pulling her plane out of a nosedive, and then struggling against sleepiness, come close to a true representation of the dangers that she faced during her 1932 solo flight across the Atlantic?

I'm reminded of a passage that appears early on in Jonathan Coe's magnificent biography of that 1960s one-man British literary avant-garde, B S Johnson -- the brilliantly titled Like a Fiery Elephant:

He lambasted those figures who continued to write "as though the revolution that was Ulysses had never happened", insisting that any attempt . . . to follow the practice of the great 19th-century novelists was "anachronistic, invalid, irrelevant and perverse". "Present-day reality", he argued, "is markedly different from [. . .] 19th-century reality. Then it was possible to believe in pattern and eternity, but today what characterises reality is the possibility that chaos in the most likely explanation."

Coe goes on to explain that Johnson considered the writing of conventional, linear, realistic fiction after Joyce "the literary equivalent of travelling by horse and cart when there were cars and trains available". Coe's book (like, indeed, his later novels) itself subscribes to this principle: it attempts to trace the line of its subject's life using the very methods Johnson both adopted and advocated, be that shattered narrative or an ever-present honesty with the reader that telling stories, however steeped in fact, might as well be "telling lies".

This second idea is a lesson the literary biopic learned years ago -- codified in works published in the middle of the 20th century, such as Truman Capote's "non-fiction novel" In Cold Blood and Tom Wolfe's wildly influential The New Journalism. These are works that any author attempting to pen contemporary "non-fiction" (Dave Eggers, say) has a responsibility to be aware of, respond to. So why are present-day film directors and screenwriters of non-fiction not put under similar pressure?

Why is it that when in 2000, to take one more example, Ed Harris decided to make Pollock, "a true portrait of life and art" about an abstract expressionist painter, he chose to use exactly the approach that abstract expressionism did its best to kill off once and for all? That's what I want to know.

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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood