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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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era