There are a slew of biopics this season (Foxcatcher, Unbroken, The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, Selma, Mr. Turner, American Sniper). Why this fascination? What makes a biopic worth watching, or, what do we want to see in a biopic? Or, a question for my next post, is the biopic a genre (I’ll answer in the negative)? This week I watched Kinsey (Bill Condon, 2004) and Lovelace (Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, 2013). I’ve concluded that narrative film is perhaps the worst medium for transmitting or informing an audience about a person’s biography. These films did not tell me anything I did not already know. A quick glace at a wiki page would have been equally enlightening. There is also the debate, particularly about this season’s films, about historical accuracy. I think the question is misguided given the narration/fictionalizing of a person’s life. I don’t believe we care about historical accuracy (cinema is always false, all films are fiction films, etc.); we’re probably more concerned about the quality of entertainment when we go to the cinema. However, the aesthetic choices – the form – of these biopics and their narrative trajectory suggests or hints that there is an intention behind the work (additionally: “based on a true story…” concluding a film with a note on the person’s death…). In different words, the way that a film is presented allows the spectator to incorrectly beg the question as to its accuracy. The form of the film perhaps means we miss the film.
This is true, I think, because biopics seem to misjudge their scope or aim. Many biopics waver between narrating a life and focusing upon the work, and bolstering the story with a tale of love (and here we see why the biopic genre may not exist, or at least exist as a secondary concern: biographical love story, for example). By refusing to turn full attention to either, we neither gain an understanding of the person in question, nor learn enough about the work (e.g., Kinsey’s life seems shallow and empty in the film, and the narrative taught us little about his research; Lovelace did not represent the possible contradictions in Linda Marchiano’s published account of her early life, and neither did it provide a sufficient story of the film, Deep Throat , or Marchiano’s anti-pornography work). The reviews about The Theory of Everything (James Marsh, 2014) suggest that its success is its certainly about the aim, i.e., the life and love – in all its complexities and ambiguities – of Stephen Hawking. The man, perhaps, is not reduced to a caricature nor does the narrative revolve around the production of a work. The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum, 2014), what I’ve read about it, seems to do the opposite: what is shown about Alan Turing warrants or justifies his genius – we learn about a man only insofar as it says something about the work, thus neither man nor work is fully explored (we learn nothing of either).
This leads me to contend that biopics are not about information-transfer. What are biopics for, or, what can we get out of them? Is there such a thing as a successful biopic? If a successful biopic is not to be judged in terms of its historical accuracy or its successful transfer of information, how do we evaluate them, and further, how does one make a biopic? A film like Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh, 2014), on the other hand, seems to say less about the man and ultimately very little about the work (besides a few monumental events in the production of a painting). What we have is a man at work and trying to find a place within the world for that work. I read the film as having minimal cause and effect narrative logic. A man paints, sometimes his works are in a gallery, he meets a widow, he paints, he dies. No event seems more significant than the other. There is no historical accuracy, aside from the trivia, because nothing extraordinary has happened. Paintings, landscapes, Timothy Spall’s grunting and spittle, death. Narrative is unimportant, historical accuracy irrelevant, the paintings are all nearly equally historically important regardless of when the artist painted them (or by what method or means or context – except for The Opening of Waterloo Bridge ). Mr. Turner relies, perhaps, on affect or tone. For the most part, according to my reading, I’m not transferred facts about the painter’s life or work. The life of Turner, as presented by Mike Leigh and his crew, is marked by joy and misery, small and great successes, minor events and strange encounters, not unlike unremarkable men (and women).