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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3D cinema without the glasses: a potential new technology could change how we watch films

Early-stage research success hints at a visionary future in which an immersive glass-free 3D experience could be possible at the cinema. 

The rise of film-on-demand streaming sites such as Netflix and MUBI threatens to make visits to the cinema a redundant pastime; why head out to watch a film when you can just watch one from the comfort of your own home?

A deterrent for many has been the influx of 3D blockbuster films released in theatres. An all-too-familiar routine has developed that causes audiences to let out a big sigh at the thought of 3D films: get excited about the latest Marvel flick, travel to your local cinema, sit through previews of future releases and then as the film is about to start...stick on a pair of flimsy plastic 3D glasses.

It’s an experience that has come to feel lacklustre for people who hope to experience more from 3D technology than just a gimmick. However, recent news that researchers at MIT have developed a prototype screen which can show 3D films without glasses may be just the development needed for the medium to attract fans back to the cinema.

A team of scientists from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab paired up with the Weizmann Institute of Science from Israel to create “Cinema 3D” – a model cinema screen which could potentially allow cinema-goers to have the full, immersive 3D experience sans glasses, no matter where they are sitting in the theatre.

Detailing their research in a paper, the scientists outlined the technology used, which includes “automultiscopic displays” – a 3D enabler that presents “multiple angular images of the same scene” and doesn’t require glasses. The research has had to build upon conventional automultiscopic displays that alone aren’t sufficient for a cinema setting; they don’t accommodate for the varying angles at which people view a film in a generally widely-spaced theatre

Wojciech Matusik, an MIT professor who worked on the research said: “Existing approaches to glasses-free 3D require screens whose resolution requirements are so enormous that they are completely impractical. This is the first technical approach that allows for glasses-free 3D on a larger scale.”

Cinema 3D aims to optimise the experience by making use of the cinema setting: the fixed seat positions, the sloped rows, the width of the screen. 3D televisions work as a result of parallax barriers – essentially a set of slits in front of a screen that filter pixels to create the illusion of depth. Traditional parallax barriers tend to fail with anything larger than a television, as they don’t recreate the same image when viewed from different distances and angles.

The researchers have combated this by using multiple parallax barriers in conjunction with slanted horizontal mirrors and vertical lenslets – a small but crucial change which now allows viewers to see the same 3D images play out, whether they’re in the middle row, the back row, or far off in the periphery. According the paper, the design “only displays the narrow angular range observed within the limited width of a single seat.” This can then be replicated for every seat in the theatre.

Cinema 3D will require a lot more work if it is to become practical. As it stands, the prototype is about a pad of paper in size and needs 50 sets of mirrors and lenses. For the researchers though, there is reason to remain optimistic as the technology works in theory at a cinema-scale.

It’s important to note that 3d technology without glasses isn’t new; it has been used in a limited way with televisions. What is new with this research is its potential application to the film industry along with improvements in picture quality. Matusik has stressed that “it remains to be seen whether the approach is financially feasible enough to scale up to a full-blown theatre”, but went on to say “we are optimistic that this is an important next step in developing glasses-free 3D for large spaces like movie theatres and auditoriums.”

It could take a while for the technology to get to a stage where it can be used in multiplexes, and the market may need convincing to adopt something which is expected to cost a lot of money. It could prove to be attractive to the advertising industry who may want to use it for billboards, allowing the technology to be introduced at incrementally larger stages.

The thought of seeing James Cameron’s next Avatar instalment or the latest high-octane thriller played out in 3D without glasses could push the technology forward and get people to return in droves to the silver screen.