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.

Photo: Getty
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Commons Confidential: Jeremy in Jerusalem

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster.

Theresa May didn’t know if she was coming or going even before her reckless election gamble and the Grenfell Tower disaster nudged her towards a Downing Street exit. Between the mock-Gothic old parliament and the modern Portcullis House is a subterranean passageway with two sets of glass swing doors.

From whichever direction MPs approach, the way ahead is on the left and marked “Pull”, and the set on the right displays a “No Entry” sign. My snout recalls that May, before she was Prime Minister, invariably veered right, ignoring the warning and pushing against the crowd. Happier days. Now Tanking Theresa risks spinning out of No 10’s revolving door.

May is fond of wrapping herself in the Union flag, yet it was Jeremy Corbyn who came close to singing “Jerusalem” during the election. I gather his chief spinner, Seumas Milne, proposed William Blake’s patriotic call to arms for a campaign video. Because of its English-centred lyrics and copyright issues, they ended up playing Lily Allen’s “Somewhere Only We Know” instead over footage of Jezza meeting people, in a successful mini-movie inspired by Bernie Sanders’s “America” advert.

Corbyn’s feet walking upon England’s mountains green when the Tories have considered Jerusalem theirs since ancient times would be like Mantovani May talking grime with Stormzy.

The boot is on the other foot among MPs back at Westminster. Labour’s youthful Wes Streeting is vowing to try to topple Iain Duncan Smith in Chingford and Woodford Green at the next election, after the Tory old trooper marched into Ilford North again and again at the last one. Streeting’s marginal is suddenly a 9,639-majority safe seat and IDS’s former Tory bastion a 2,438-majority marginal. This east London grudge match has potential.

The Conservatives are taking steps to reverse Labour’s youth surge. “That is the last election we go to the polls when universities are sitting,” a cabinet minister snarled. The subtext is that the next Tory manifesto won’t match Corbyn’s pledge to scrap tuition fees.

Nice touch of the Tory snarler Karl McCartney to give Strangers’ Bar staff a box of chocolates after losing Lincoln to the Labour red nurse Karen Lee. Putting on a brave face, he chose Celebrations. Politics is no Picnic and the Wispa is that McCartney didn’t wish to Fudge defeat by describing it as a Time Out.

Police hats off to the Met commissioner, Cressida Dick, who broke ranks with her predecessors by meeting the bobbies guarding parliament and not just their commanders. Coppers addressing Dick as “ma’am” were asked to call her “Cress”, a moniker she has invited MPs to use. All very John Bercow-style informality.

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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