Bad Biopics: Authenticity and Accuracy are Historical, Not Dramaturgical, Concepts

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No shock here.  The virtually unbroken string of bad biopics apparently continues with Amelia. I will see it out of almost unqualified admiration for director Mira Nair, but nothing in the many reviews I have seen suggests that the film transcends  standard, tired biopic conventions.

Gus Van Sant’s “Milk” probably came the closest to reviving the whole genre. In fact, Van Sant may have fully succeeded (your call). But there are, I think,  some good reasons that biopic screenplays usually stink up the house:

– including every obligatory “sacred”  historic moment,  regardless of  how well they fit  into a coherent story or how true they might be

– the over-investment in making sure the actors look and sound like the people they are playing. I have always felt that  physical resemblance only works when the effort put into makeup, however precise,  is exceeded by the even greater  performance of a brilliant actor.  It makes perfect sense that the two best “look-alike” performances I have ever seen were by actors who are consensus members of the pantheon — Bruno Ganz in Der Untergang and Sean Penn in Milk. )

– the unavoidable hagiography

– the drive to be so exhaustively complete  that the story sinks from the weight of its self-conscious authority

– a director or actor so obsessed with an historical personality that he or she confuses the character in the film and the actual person being depicted.  (Kevin Spacey and Bobby Darin?) Rare but spooky.

The baffling thing here is that a great filmmaker like Mira Nair took on Amelia.

Mira Nair. The Mira Nair who made Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake. The brilliant, luminous Mira Nair.

We need to remember that authenticity and accuracy are historical, not dramaturgical, concepts.

The very best films about lives don’t take on the heavy and weighted obligation of completeness. They pick an episode in a life and, through the unfolding of events and character during that episode, reveal aspects of a complex life. Capote, Henry and June, and Downfall (Der Untergang) are three good, random examples. These films also succeed by embedding the main character in a world of comparably interesting ,  and maybe even more  interesting,  characters.

I’ll leave you with one admittedly unconventional recommendation and one worry.

Recommendation: My favorite biopic really isn’t a biopic at all.  But with its crazy sensibility, hilarity, cast of grotesque characters, and overwhelming quirkiness, Tim Burton’s Ed Wood is my favorite “life-story” of them all.

Worry: Spielberg, as you may know, is doing Lincoln. I believe Liam Neeson got the part. My fear is that Lincoln’s  complex, even anguished , life could be buried beneath “Private Ryan” schmaltz,  expensive costumes, overwrought John Williams music,  the flood of signature close-ups of Lincoln’s face, and the quest for accuracy.  None of these equal compelling drama and conflict.  In fact, all this nonsense often hides a lack of compelling narrative.

We’ll see.

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Chris Cooper. Narrator? Yup, And a Great One Too!

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My default position on narration in documentary film is almost always negative, especially when it is used as an amateurish substitute for skilled cinematic storytelling. But I don’t have a hard and fast rule, and sometimes a few strategically placed, eloquent words fit seamlessly into a narrative. For the most part, though, I am a fan of wordless ”narration” that tells a story with meticulous and rhythmic editing.

Of course, all bets are off in first-person documentaries. When these films are done well, (far too seldom) the narration is precisely the point. I think of the films of Alan Berliner, Doug Blank,  Ross McElwee, and Elizabeth Barret.

In  Elizabeth Barret’s Stranger with a Camera,  narration rises to the level of sublimely beautiful poetry.  Barret — one of my favorite filmmakers — uses her own voice and creates a truly haunting meditation on life, loss, memory, and the ethics of the visual image.  I confess that I deeply admired her film for almost two years before I noticed that much of the narration had been written by Fenton Johnson, an accomplished  Kentucky novelist.   I hope you can see this great film and hear Elizabeth speaking Johnson’s remarkable prose and what I am sure were many of her own words.

Tonight I had a surprise. I was watching an episode of PBS’s American Experience about the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. I didn’t immediately recognize the voice of the narrator, but it was so understated and mournful that I knew I was not listening to your average voiceover artist.  It was almost a new genre,  something you might call historical oral theatre.

Then I realized that it was Chris Cooper, one of the finest actors working today. You may have seen him in Adaptation or Capote. Like any brilliant actor, he knows instinctively that less is almost always more.  But please listen to his narration if you have a chance. This was stunningly beautiful work and  showed how a great actor like Chris Cooper can turn  prose into poetry.

Finally, if you want to hear another remarkable example of the use of a narrative voice in film,  listen to Tommy Lee Jones speaking Cormac McCarthy’s poetic prose in Ethan and Joel Coen’s “No Country for Old Men.”

The list of Chris Cooper’s accomplishments, already long and packed with one masterful performance after another, has to include this little recognized use of his voice.  Check out Barak Goodman’s  The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln.