A Biopic Unexamined

February 19, 2010

In the current Newsweek Ramin Setoodeh ponders on what he claims is the death of the biopic (“Are Biopics History?“), wondering why it is that the genre seems to have died off of late. Setoodeh cites the several films from just the past year or so that have been considered financial and/or critical failures. I find his argument a bit specious on this point because many of his examples are foreign or art house type films (not traditional big money makers), but also because he refers to Julie & Julia as a recent success that thrived at the box office because the Julie half of the film panders to the narcissism of our particular cultural moment.

Yes, the film made money, but I didn’t read any reviews nor did I hear anyone claim that they were drawn in by Julie. Rather, the opposite, that the Julia Child sections were vibrant, fun, full of master acting, and that there was a noticeable downturn in audience mood when shifting away from those scenes to the present day ones.

Okay, now that I have that out of my system (Can you tell what I watched last weekend and has been on my mind? I mean, besides Ong Bak 2.) I will say that Setoodeh’s approach to his argument is specious, but he has a good point overall: Biopics are not the surefire hits we are lead to believe they are bound to be. He attributes this to present day tastes, that it used to be a popular genre but we just aren’t interested in the Famous Person story anymore, and his citation of failed films (with exceptions) is proof.

This is wrong.

Sure, for every Ray or Walk the Line there are 5, 10, 20 Amelias or Creations, but this was also the case in the past. There were Lawrence of Arabias and Pattons, but you also had your The Great Moment (sorry Preston) or your sloppy, miscast flicks like The Babe Ruth Story. These are the failed or just mediocre productions that are put out every year by studios and filmmakers. The difference is that these minor films from the past are not remembered while the flops from the past 5 years are still vague memories. Only the successes (or the mega failures) from the deeper past are recalled, giving a skewed sense of what actually happened if one doesn’t do proper research. Without that research, the half-remembered past is not a valid touchstone to base an argument on. An incomplete picture of the past creates a false interpretation of the present.

This brings to mind some topics of discussion at the talk Sam Stephenson and Chris Lacinak gave last night about the Jazz Loft Project. Sam was asked about any interesting stories from the interviews he has been doing with people connected to the Jazz Loft. His response in part was that the most interesting stories are coming from the “minor” characters involved — the mediocre or failed musicians, the peripheral non-musicians that hung out, the bartenders and shop owners in the neighborhood. He put forth that perhaps the big name musicians are not interesting interviews because they’ve been interviewed too many times, have pat answers, and have an image or story to maintain, and he feels that the deeper story of Jazz history is going to come from the bottom up. By the same token, the tapes from the Jazz Loft give a fuller picture of Thelonious Monk’s leading role in creating what have been called the Hall Overton charts for his Town Hall concert. Received wisdom has claimed that Overton produced those charts mostly on his own, but the forgotten tapes the Project has preserved tell a very different tale.

I think this approach can equally be applied to film studies and film’s relationship to cultural studies. There are stories in and from all of the people and history surrounding the creation and reception of a film. A biopic is not successful because it is a biopic, but, as with any film, because of that convergence of people, technology, and events. Lesser works are just as telling about those factors, and can also inform how we view the successful films as well as history and cultural shifts. We often argue that we have to preserve as much as possible because we don’t know what will become culturally significant in the future, but we also have to maintain the insignificant because it, too, is a piece of the picture of the past.

— Joshua Ranger

This blog post was written for the Film Preservation Blogathon in support of the National Film Preservation Foundation. The NFPF is the independent, nonprofit organization created by the U.S. Congress to help save America’s film heritage. They work directly with archives to rescue endangered films that will not survive without public support.

The NFPF will give away 4 DVD sets as thank-you gifts to blogathon donors chosen in a random drawing: Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film, 1900-1934 and Treasures IV: American Avant Garde Film, 1947-1986.

Donations to the National Film Preservation Foundation can be made here.