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.

Peter Kay's Car Share. BBC
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Peter Kay's Car Share will restore your faith in human beings

 I clutch at John and Kayleigh's potential for happiness as if at straws. 

I discovered Peter Kay’s Car Share about a year ago, by accident. BBC News at Ten had finished and there we were, slumped in our seats, despondent, unable to move. It came on, by my memory, immediately afterwards, and we zombies stared at it unthinkingly at first, unaware that we were in the presence of greatness. But it didn’t take long for the penny to drop and we’ve been obsessed ever since. A year on a, I am convinced – forgive the mild pomposity – that this is one of the most inspired and culturally significant television shows of our age.

Have you seen it? Perhaps you have: the first series, which was originally broadcast in 2015, won a couple of Baftas and was the most popular “box set” ever to be released on BBC iPlayer. The second – too short – series (Tuesdays, 9pm) concludes on BBC1 on 2 May. If you haven’t seen it, you need to. For one thing, it will make you smile. It is very funny, but it is also tender; its unstated subject being kindness, it has the ability briefly to restore one’s faith in human beings.

For another, it is rooted in provincial reality in a way no other television programme is right now. Try as I might to resist using the words “metropolitan bubble”, I can’t help but feel that those columnists who persist, post-Brexit vote, in trotting out every demeaning cliché it’s possible to imagine about the north and its apparently uniform population of “ordinary people” should be force-fed it. What Kay and his co-writers understand better than they do is that no one is “ordinary”. Every life comes with its kinks and idiosyncrasies, its survival mechanisms, its share of demented dreams.

John (Kay) and Kayleigh (Sian Gibson, utterly endearing and giving the performance of a lifetime) work in a supermarket somewhere in the environs of Bolton. He’s management; she works on the shopfloor in promotions. They share a car – he drives – to and from work. In the first series, this was an arrangement they had reached reluctantly, as a result of a work-sanctioned scheme. In the second, they’re doing it by choice. In short, they love each other, though as yet this is unspoken, at least on his part. As they travel, they listen to a cheesy radio station, Forever FM, which plays old hits, mostly from the 1980s (they’re in their forties, so this suits). Meanwhile, the world goes by: traffic jams and roundabouts, out-of-town superstores and suburban cul-de-sacs. It sounds bleak, and perhaps it is, in a way. You can’t ever see the horizon. But it’s summer, and the evenings are long, and everything is suffused with a soft light. Somehow, it takes you back.

They sing, they gossip, they tease, they reminisce, they laugh at one another’s jokes, and sometimes they have small battles, miniature fallings-out. In one episode – the finest of them all so far – they go to their work party dressed as Harry Potter (him) and Hagrid (her) and return home in the company of a Smurfette, also known as Elsie from the deli counter (a comic turn of cast-iron genius by Conleth Hill, the classical actor currently playing George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in the West End of London).

Less accomplished writers than Kay, Gibson and Paul Coleman would have had the trio making gags about her blue face paint or singing the annoying Smurfs theme. But the show being truly brilliant, for the next 20 minutes no one mentions that there’s a huge, flirtatious Smurfette with a Northern Irish accent and an air that is at once vulnerable and slightly menacing in the front seat of John’s red Mini.

In this episode, loneliness – another of the themes in this series – threatens to rise up out of the drunken, early-hours darkness. But in the end they send it on its way. John and Kayleigh roll their eyes at Elsie’s vulgar antics but ultimately they’re glad of her, just as they’re glad of each other. John is a man who draws his neighbours’ curtains for them while they’re away; Kayleigh is a woman who can squeeze intense pleasure from almost anything, up to and including a two-for-one offer on tickets for a moderately rubbish safari park. I want them to be together so much. I clutch at their potential for happiness as if at straws. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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