The Biopic as Classic Narrative
The biopic has always been a Hollywood staple, and has traditionally been treated as a sweeping epic: one whole life’s story. Over the years, what was once a glorification, or even blatant excuse for hero-worship, produced warts-and-all critiques. As the last decade began, we were still watching our most beloved icons struggles against the first act of adversity, followed by the second act of inevitable struggles, character faults, and brink of despair, followed by the third act of redemption. It always seemed amazing that every life’s true story – Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, Ray Charles in Ray, Beatrix Potter in Miss Potter, Muhammed Ali in Ali, Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose, to name a few – could be tailored to a cookie-cutter formula. Only a few managed to break the mould, but they had to be almost subversive to do so, from the “po-mo” brilliance of the Bob Dylan-inspired I’m Not There (you can’t really call it a biopic), to Julien Temple’s fantastic documentary, Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten.
As the decade progressed from the cradle to the grave narratives of films such as The Aviator (Howard Hughes), the term “biopic” no longer seems relevant. It’s now memoirs rather than biographies. Films from the last few years, like The Queen, W., Becoming Jane, and Milk, or even this year’s Invictus, Bright Star and Julie and Julia, have focused on specific points in the subject’s life rather than the subject’s themselves. The attention now is on the issues related to that person, rather than the portrayal. For instance, does Joaquin Phoenix’s amazing portrayal of Johnny Cash redeem an otherwise clichéd and contrived film? It seemed to earlier this decade, but something’s changed. The surprise success of The Blind Side and the untitled Susan Boyle biopic in the works have proved that over a thousand years after its first recorded appearance, the Cinderella story still turns a pretty penny.
The Documentary as Spectacle
Long gone are the days of the carefully measured balanced view; here are the days of “infotainment,” and the closest thing we have to an “authority” on anything is Wikipedia. The focus is not the facts but the feeling, not learning details but getting the big picture or getting a character study, from everything Michael Moore to Supersize Me to The Corporation to Man on Wire to The Fog of War to In Inconvenient Truth. The nature of documentary filmmaking runs parallel to ethnographies: an alien invader attempting to understand and present something concrete when there may not be an objective truth in the first place. The best attempt documentary filmmaking and television can do these days is simply try to make their point in as entertaining a fashion as possible. It’s whoever can scream the loudest wins.
In television, its merits questionable or not, the rise and persistence of reality TV has been a defining characteristic of the Noughties. A strange class of documentaries themselves (albeit engineered by the almighty hand of the producers), reality television shows like Survivor and The Amazing Race, not to mention the endless stream of programmes devoted to the domestic arts, cannot be called anything but a spectacle, whether it being the exciting ‘who will win’ tension of a game show, or the perverse desire to stare at a car wreck.
As the decade has evolved, we’ve stumbled upon a slightly different approach: showcasing the subject in all its beauty; let the images speak for themselves. The documentary Iraq in Fragments avoided an explicit filmmaker’s perspective of ‘this is wrong / this is right’ but rather let us sink into the visual and visceral reality of war-torn Iraq. While the television series Planet Earth presented its subjects in all its high-definition glory. It was qualitative over quantitative. Maybe we didn’t always learn a lot but it was a spectacle.