Will's Coffee House

John Dryden, Dramatist, Critic, Poet Laureate, and my ancestor, frequented a coffee house called Will's almost daily, where he would hold forth on sundry subjects with great wit and aplomb. Same deal here, only without the wit or aplomb.

Location: Large Midwestern City, Midwestern State, United States

I am a stranger in a sane land...

Thursday, April 14, 2005

The Biopic Dilemma

I remember a fragment of a review I read of The Big Chill--I think it was in The New Yorker--that said something to the effect that it was "the cinematic equivalent of a wonderful Chinese dinner--absolutely delightful when you're in the theater, forgotten less than twenty minutes after you leave." I just saw Ray, and I had a similar experience. I really enjoyed the movie--cried at all the right places, really got into the music--the music is the reason to see the movie, frankly, but that's because it's a movie about--duh-huh!--a musician--if the music hadn't been the reason to see the movie, there wouldn't have been a movie. And of course I was curious to see the performance by Jamie Foxx that caused brilliant work by Paul Giamatti (Sideways) and Liam Neeson (Kinsey) to get passed over by the academy (hell, those guys weren't even nominated!) And I've got to say, what the hell is with Jamie Foxx? When did this guy get so damn good? I mean, am I the only one who still instinctively thinks of him as 'one of those guys from In Living Color'? As a stand-up? And yet here he goes with this really frighteningly good performance--I'm not saying he should have won all the awards, since much of the role demanded imitation rather than creative work, but still--damn. Damn. And this in the same year he did Collateral. What happened? Did he go to the same crossroads where Tommy Johnson sold his soul to the devil and make a similar deal? Damn.

But having said Damn, I have to say that the film has faded in the light of day. And not because I can find any particular flaw therein--strong, unpretentious direction--a really fine supporting cast (no-one is miscast, a rare and remarkable thing)--and of course, the music, my God, the music. But I don't feel I know much more about Ray Charles than I did going in (apart from the fact that he quit heroin the very first time he tried to, to which I have to say again: Damn.) But apart from gleefully watching Foxx launching into song after song in the recording studio and in front of those crowds on 'the Chitlin Circuit,' few moments from the film linger--broad strokes of the death of his brother, his nightmarish withdrawal pains, but not too much else. One would think that I'd just blame the screenwriter and be done with it. But it occurs to me that the fault of film lies in the fact that biopics--films that attempt to 'sum up' the life of a great person, must inevitably fail. (N.B.: I am not referring to films that tell the stories of historical events--Erin Brockovich works because it's the story of a legal case, fueled by the character of its unlikely lead investigator--Topsy-Turvy [a stunningly brilliant film] works because it's the story of the first production of The Mikado, and how the lives of the artists involved went into its creation. Such films do not attempt to 'tell all' about their historically extant characters--they simply show enough of those characters to fuel the larger plot. A subtle difference, but a key one, as we'll see.)

Why? Well, it's what I'm sure someone else before now has referred to as 'The Rosebud Principle'--at the end of Citizen Kane, the reporter Thompson abandons his quest to discover the meaning of 'Rosebud,' not out of failure, but out of a conviction that his experiences have led him to: "I don't think a man's life can be summed up in a single word." And you know what? That is the moment we should carry away from the film--the fact that Rosebud is something as trivial as a sled--something that poor film critics have invested with so much meaning and symbolic significane--is precisely the point: it's just a f***ing sled, folks. Sure, it means a lot--but it doesn't mean everything. I mean, think about it: who doesn't long for the innocence of childhood? We all do--so the supposed 'revelation' of Rosebud is no revelation at all. There are plenty of 'moments' in the film that are more illuminative about Kane's character: his decision to finish Leland's scathing review of his wife's opera, his firm insistence to his anti-Semitic first wife that Mr. Bernstein will be allowed to visit the nursery and that his employee's gift will be visible when he does, his voiced desire to become everything Thatcher hates, his tearing up of the list of principles that Leland sends him in the ultimate 'f*** you' gesture--these moments show us a hell of a lot more of who Kane is than that damn sled. And yet it's the sled people focus on. Because we've only got two hours to 'explain' a man, and the sled is simple, digestible. It's also a complete lie. (We also might offer the corrolary of "The Psycho Principle," since the movie concludes with that lengthy, dry, and--I'm convinced, intentionally 'neat' and 'tidy' and 'safely comprehensible'--lecture as to why Norman went completely bats**t--then we cut to Norman as 'Mother' and realize that the explanation is completely irrelevant in the face of the monstrous thing this man has become.)

So the makers of biopics are forced to choose--do we give the audience a Rosebud, or not? If they do, you get things like Kinsey--man has a sexually repressive father whom he hates, man goes out to unrepress the world. Yeah, I'm sure that had something to do with it, Alfred, but come on, that's not all. Or Cobb: man's father is murdered by wife/wife's lover, man becomes hideous human being and greatest baseball player who ever lived. Or worse, you get things like A Beautiful Mind, which sucked on so many levels I can't begin to discuss it, except to say that yes, in the words of my ancestor, "Great wits to madness are near allied," but they're not the same.

On the other hand, if we don't have a Rosebud, we get things like Ray, which, yes, tells us about Ray's heroin addiction, but never gives us a strong sense as to why he started it--apart from odd and really inadequate suggestions that it was guilt over the death of his brother. Maybe, but the movie also shows that the guys who introduce him to heroin are rude jerks who treat him quite poorly, so why would he want to be one of their club, especially when the film focuses on his stubborn, go-it-alone streak? Or Nixon, which never really explains the man beyond vague allusions to his Quaker upbringing--which doesn't, if you think about it, explain at all why he became a son-of-a-b*tch. And while some lives are interesting enough to watch without an explanation (Citizen Cohn is a good example), such biopics become little more than a checklist of 'high points' from the life, without the connecting thread of the artistically interpreted character of the biographical subject. Great acting often disguises this flaw--it certainly does in Ray, and Kinsey, and The Aviator--to name but three recent biopics, all of which I really enjoyed, but didn't come away with any reaction other than, maybe, a desire to read the biographies of the men portrayed so I could get a real notion of who they were. Film is ultimately a poor medium for portraying a life--character can be conveyed, but not enough to explain the decades of existance that contribute to the great achievements of that life. Biopics must, I think, always be unfulfilling--enjoyable for the bravura performances that they elicit (speaking of A Beautiful Mind...)--but they can't contain enough to explain--to portray in an intellectually as well as an emotionally appreciable way--the lives they're attempting to capture. One word can't sum up a man's life. Neither can a film.

This concludes today's lecture. Quiz on Monday, so study up.


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