I guess this can be viewed as an offshoot of my ‘stop trying to read the biography of the director from the film’ tirade. Which I still stand by. Anywho, this is about something a tad less controversial (I think, but then again I thought classic movies was a pretty safe bet too). So, let’s talk about artistic biopics.
Artistic biopics tend to confuse the art with the life experience of the artist. They maybe ignore the fact that the novel is a novel or the play is a play and not necessarily a thinly veiled confessional about the everyday experience of the person. I’m thinking mostly about The Rum Diary, Howl and the soon-to-be-released-and-make-me-cry-tears-of-horror-and-shame-because-fucking-Kristen-Stewart-apparently-has-a-big-part in On the Road. They’re not quite biopics but they’re not really adaptations either. Because they attempt to draw a direct relationship between the work they deal with and the person who wrote it.
I’d call this the Shakespeare in Love syndrome. As much as I enjoy that particular film, it is not – how does one say? – historically accurate. Nor, I admit, does it purport to be. There’s certainly no requirement that a fiction film about a historical character be historically accurate; that’s why it’s called fiction. But what is slightly more insidious is the fact that it takes a work of art (Romeo and Juliet, and a bit of Twelfth Night) and then explains it through a rather outlandish story about the author. The film implies that Shakespeare could not possibly have come up with something by himself; he had to live the damned story and then put it all down on paper. Right. Never mind that Romeo and Juliet is based on an old Italian folktale, or that Shakespeare, y’know, created some spectacular language to go along with it; nope, it all happened to him and so he wrote it down. That’s how creation works, right?
But Shakespeare in Love is not really the problem. Nor, for that matter, is the equally inaccurate and monumentally detestable Anonymous, although that movie did cause me gastronomical distress. Shakespeare in Love is too good and Anonymous is too dreadful to get upset about the misrepresentation of art. But both point to a problem with Hollywood’s representation of the artistic process and you’d think, being artists themselves, they’d do a better job of it. Creation becomes not a product of imagination, or genius, or talent, but of direct experience. Shakespeare could only possibly have written Shakespeare because he LIVED the experience, even down to the plot arc.
Some artists do write or paint or sculpt directly from their lives – and lord how we do love to point it out – but by no means all. Despite Johnny Cash’s experiences with alcohol, drugs and religion, are we to understand – as Walk the Line postulates – that his entire catalogue of songs is solely to be understood through those experiences? That no imagination, no poetry, came out of his brain alone? Films like Walk the Line attempt to explain the artist by way of his/her art, regardless of how accurate a story it really is.
The artistic process is not something that can be easily captured on film. Writing, painting, sculpting, even filmmaking is a boring, time consuming process, only really interesting to the people involved. Watching John Keats pour over sheets of paper as he tries to compose ‘Bright Star’ for days on end would be incredibly dull; but seeing him breathlessly roll out the words in a torrent of passion and tuberculosis in Bright Star? Yeah, that’s interesting.
I needn’t tell you, the discerning and cinematically literate reader, that you should take every biopic with a tub of salt, and not mistake cinematic license for real history or biography. But somehow every time a new film comes out, the discussion still gets going about whether or not Shakespeare was really Francis Bacon or the Earl of Pembroke, whether Vincent Van Gogh really cut off his ear for a woman, or whether Jane Austen totally lived Pride and Prejudice (the answers, BTW, are: No, Maybe, Probably Not). I suspect that in a few short months I shall have to explain that Hitchcock was not a sadistic asshole, and that Jack Kerouac might have been gay but that did not make everything he ever wrote a grapple with repressed homosexuality.
Films often reduce artists to one element of their lives – usually drugs, alcohol or sex – and sacrifice a deeper understanding of them as people or creative individuals. And while I admit that much of Hunter S. Thompson’s existence revolved around drugs and booze, they by no means summed him up as a person. Films can only reveal so much about a person, and never really touch on what makes them unique. It is the art that they created, not the life they lived, that we need to keep in our memories.
Point being, let us not judge the artists from the films based upon their lives. Let us recognize that they were people, complex people, who did complex things for complex reasons that we can never fully articulate or understand. Let’s stick with appreciating what they produced, not with who they slept with or why. There’s a good chance that their lives were at once far more interesting and far duller than Hollywood would have us believe.