Biopic Hazards

11 Feb

Get on up

Lemme tell you a story.

It’s about a young boy from the backwoods of somewhere. He’s a smart kid from a broken home. Dad’s a drunkard with a temper who leaves them when the boy’s five. Mom’s a kind-hearted soul who tries her best. One day, the boy – for he is a boy – is befriended by a kindly older man who introduces him to something. That something could be a typewriter, a camera, the Constitution, or maybe a zither. It doesn’t really matter, but let’s go with the zither. The boy is a prodigy at the zither. Soon he is performing zither at hoedowns and state fairs. The boy – now a young man –  is noticed by a renowned producer from some far off land of eternal sunshine and plenty. This producer’s car broke down outside the state fair, and sipping a sweet tea, he hears the young man’s zithering and signs him to a contract (which the young man only glances at, trusting the producer completely and completely stupidly). The boy travels to the magical land of eternal sunshine and plenty. There he is introduced to many other talented people. Also drugs. Suddenly he is a drug addict. But he also meets a beautiful young ingénue, a muse for his zither. She helps him clean himself up and gets him out of the lousy deal with the producer. He has a tearful reunion with his apologetic father.  Now we have a montage of the man zithering in front of royalty, at Carnegie Hall, at the White House, winning Grammy’s, making love to the ingénue who is now his wife and mother of his children. Now he is an older man, one we all recognize not just from his face but from those times on the train with our earbuds blasting out that righteous zither music as we try to unwind from a long day at the wig factory. He performs one last concert, and as his audience applauds, so do we, the audience in the theater. For this has all been a movie. Let’s call it, The Zither Rises.

Movies – all movies – have formulas. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. One can call it Act I, Act II, and Act III, or Beginning, Middle, and End. It’s all the same. Someone wants something, they go after it, they either get it or they don’t. If they get it, it’s generally called a Comedy, if they don’t, a Tragedy (at least to Shakespeare, now we tend to call it a Drama). Take almost any movie – from The Wizard of Oz to North By Northwest to A Clockwork Orange to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – and they almost all follow the same rules. Someone wants something (to go home, to clear his name, for a little of the ol’ ultraviolence, to forget a girl), they go after it (down the yellow brick road, in a north-by-northwesterly direction, via rapin’ and stabbin’, or by means of a non-FDA approved piece of technology) and they either get it or they don’t (yes, yes, fuck yes, yes but…).

Biopics are no different from non-biopics when it comes to this structure. As seen in The Zither Rises, our hero wants to be a zither player, struggles through addiction, and comes out (thanks to a woman) strong and successful in the end. Of course, it doesn’t have to be a zither or an addiction. Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything suffers from ALS and plays not the zither but really hard math. But he still succeeds in the end, with the help of his wife (who he dumps). In 42 Jackie Robinson wants to play baseball, suffers through racism, succeeds in the end. Ghandi: a free India, British rule, success (though also death, so let’s go with half success/half failure). A Beautiful Mind: math, insanity, success. Any Jesus movie: save the world, Romans (or Jews if you’re a hater), success (also crucifixion, but with the whole “Jesus died for our sins” thing, I guess you can call that a secret success).

So am I saying that biopics suck? Not exactly. I do believe, however, that there is a certain type of biopic which suffers from an obviously formulaic structure.

There are plenty of good biopics. This past year’s The Imitation Game is a solidly made, very-well acted, and – most importantly – makes the subject’s work primary. But it’s not a great film, partially because it hammers home its theme by having it repeated on three separate occasions. (“Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine,” a conceit that could be at the center of many of the more mediocre biopics in recent history.) But mostly because it falls into the readymade traps other, lesser, biopics have succumbed to over the years.

Lawrence of Arabia is great because of its size and grandeur, its score, and its anchor of a performance by Peter O’Toole. But it works because it delves deeper than Lawrence’s surface successes as a military leader. The film depicts how the violence of war eats away at Lawrence, and how he is torn between his British upbringing and his loyalty to Arab brothers. It is as much a psychologically dark film as it is a brightly lit biopic.

Goodfellas adopts one of the most overused devices in biopics – and in films in general – to great effect: the montage. In some ways the entire movie is a montage, following Henry Hill’s rise and fall in the mob. Goodfellas works because it depicts Hill – an amoral scumbag – and his lifestyle in a romantic light. It’s not the filmmaker’s view that we are seeing, but the main character’s. It leaves to the audience any necessary moralizing.

Citizen Kane is not a true biopic as it’s about a fictional character. But in some ways it’s the truest as it is only a thinly veiled biography of real life newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Much like T.E. Lawrence or Henry Hill, while we see much of this guy’s life, we never truly understand him. And when we find out what Rosebud is, we may actually understand him even less.

Milk is not just a biography of Harvey Milk, but the biography of a Movement with a capital M, a Movement that is embodied by Harvey Milk, and which by the end of the film can be seen as a metaphor for any civil rights movement. By the end of I’m Not There, Bob Dylan is even more of a cypher than he was in the beginning. Lincoln is not about Lincoln, but about a few months in Lincoln’s life. The Last Temptation of Christ is better than all other Jesus movies because it delves not into the perfection of Christ’s supposed divinity, but into his deeply flawed humanity.

So what makes these movies great but something like Walk the Line only mediocre? I said above that there is a certain type of biopic which suffers from a too obvious formula. Almost all of the great biopics will have ingredients from this formula. But truly unremarkable, mediocre biopics usually contain all of them.

Obviously, the most crucial element to a biopic is fame. Johnny Cash, Jackie Robinson, Ray Charles, Stephen Hawking, James Brown, Jesus, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King. Ironically, the best biographies tend to be the ones about the least known people. The title character of Mr. Turner (a fantastic movie) is much less known than the James Brown portrayed in Get On Up (arguably the most generic biopic in years). The less we know about someone, the more likely we will be surprised by what happens to them.

Second, many biopics take place over years or decades in the characters’ lives. This serves only to dilute dramatic storytelling. In The Theory of Everything, the second half of the movie is one long montage of scenes that don’t really connect with one another. In some ways what we are seeing is a greatest hits reel rather than an actual story.

Third, and most crucially, is a lack of psychological depth. This of course is a problem with many non-biographical films as well. But with many biopics, the filmmakers seem to intentionally shy away from anything beyond a cursory surface examination of the subject. Lawrence of Arabia succeeds because it’s not a war film, or even an epic. It’s a psychological character study of someone fighting a war, stuck in an epic.

An interesting final element to biopics is the helpmeet. Not modern helpmate, but the outdated helpmeet. Specifically, it’s a woman (it’s almost always a woman) who serves as a muse or spirit lifter, but who is otherwise a one-dimensional character. Even a solid biopic like The Imitation Game utilizes a helpmeet, though in this case it’s quite ironic.

Interestingly, the primary problem with biopics may be the audience. We go in to see a movie with above-average knowledge of the hero. We are not necessarily there to understand this person any more than we already do. We want to hear the music of that dude we love, listen to an actor pretend to be that guy who gave that great speech, be inspired by fictional depictions of something we may have actually witnessed live. We’re told that even through all the hardships, failure is not an option (mainly because a beautiful woman will be there to clean up his alco-Demerol induced vomit), that Zither Boy’s acclaim was foreordained, and that we were right all along in liking his music/politics/overall genius.

Biopics – along with cheesy romantic comedies and no-brainer action films – are the comfort food of cinema. We know what we’re getting, we know it’s not particularly good for us, but at least we don’t have to think too much. And that’s on us.

And now for some actual zither music. Remember, if you don’t listen to your zither, you can’t have any rock!


See, that wasn’t so bad. Now go watch The Third Man like you know you should.

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