On biography

Last year’s Salinger documentary and this year’s Hannah Arendt biopic both left me cold. Distilling the essence of anyone’s life into around two hours – whether it’s a documentary or biopic – is a difficult undertaking. When the subject is someone whose body of work has contributed to shaping the way we look at the world, it’s another beast entirely.

Bored of talking head interviews and slow zooms into the handful of photographs available, and altogether disillusioned with melodrama as a tool to elucidate emotion, I sometimes wonder why I continue to go see films about writers I admire. I suppose it’s a combination of morbid curiosity and endless optimism that those who depict great minds onscreen will themselves be creative and critical individuals. And so, at this year’s TriBeCa Film Festival I sat through documentaries on another two writers I admire: Susan Sontag and Nas (Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones).

Regarding Susan Sontag (2014) treats its subject with respect and admiration – as its title suggests. Piecing together a portrait of her critical, creative and personal life, the film tries to present a balanced view of a woman whose legacy extended beyond her public persona. But, as a series of her ex-lovers gave accounts of her aloofness, I began to wonder why we’re so concerned with constructing an individual through the opinion of the people who knew them intimately. I strongly believe that no matter how candidly a lover speaks, the picture they have and thus the one they present can’t help but be estranged from the subject’s conception of self. That’s not to say that their input should be discounted altogether, but certainly the most engaging moments in this film (and this is true of others) came when it used footage of Sontag talking about herself. After all, she is the one the audience want to get to know.

Visually the film employed a number of superimpositions to evoke a sense of the density of Sontag’s life and work. It also, in its best moments, morphed her typed words into images of her face, showing us that her own processes of deconstruction could themselves be used to reconstruct a picture of the person behind the words.

That said, it wasn’t just two hours to acclaim. When the film criticised Sontag’s less successful career writing fiction, it seemed to be suggesting that critical thought can’t enter the creative domain. For me, this is a disappointing brick wall that too many makers of documentary and biopic hit. If nothing else, the film made me run out to buy a copy of I, Etcetera. Given Sontag’s admittedly not always successful foray into fiction (really a style of writing that would be better labelled ‘critical fiction’ than strictly one or the other) I’d suggest that a blending of the two modes would have made for a more successful approach in piecing together who she was. At the very least, given that she wrote On Photography, some creative engagement with her text would not only have been welcome but, I’d have thought, obvious.

In thinking about why so many films use talking head interviews – and rarely much else – to tell us about the person we want to get to know, it seems to me that as a society we are overly concerned with things that don’t really tell us anything about our subject.

The first is tradition: history has always been about storytelling and oral histories came a long time before the written stuff. We believe – or at least we want to believe – what is said by people who claim to have known an individual. We also think storytelling is less problematic if a number of sources say basically the same thing. Though it’s annoyingly repetitive, it’s also best practice when presenting secondary source material. We might also accept these interviews because it shows that the filmmaker is trying to present their subject with at least some impartiality. But we also know that what we’re seeing is edited, making impartiality impossible.

Another reason we see these accounts as valuable is because they present as document. Despite being someone’s subjective opinion they hold more weight with most people than dramatic or imagined materials. To me, this seems like a missed opportunity. In the instances where primary evidence is absent, as with pre-history, we accept reconstruction. When we watch documentaries about dinosaurs (and I acknowledge that I’m drawing a long bow here) we know that the images are reimagined and that some of the details – such as colour and sound – involve taking creative license. In the absence of Susan Sontag, our primary evidence in this instance, wouldn’t some level of reimagining be not only useful but also acceptable, and maybe even more engaging?

Perhaps we collectively think that people are the best providers of evidence when the subject is people. Or maybe we just want what Hermione Lee calls the ‘warts and all’ account that only speculation can provide. We can’t capture their soul so let’s at least get some gossip. Censorship is viewed as restrictive and so a story from her ex-girlfriend about the time she punched Sontag out of jealousy is not just anecdotal it’s supposedly an insight into Sontag’s existence.

I’m just not convinced.

But all ‘facts’ are manipulated through the act of re-telling, even if the words come directly from the source. I suppose ultimately it comes down to preference.

Time is Illmatic (2014), a documentary as much about the social and political significance of Nas’s album Illmatic as it is about its success, is definitely at its most engaging when it gives examples of the rapper’s work. Concert footage, with the lyrics subtitled onscreen, offers greater insight than anything he or his brother have to say about their childhood.

Another more adventurous and certainly more successful documentary is 20,000 Days on Earth (2014). The film follows Nick Cave around his home in Brighton, into the recording studio, performing on stage, lunching with friends, driving through the countryside with acquaintances and in ‘private’ therapy sessions. It ponders the psyche of Cave through a deconstruction of his Id, Ego and Superego. That might be a little pretentious but at least it spares us the monotony of talking heads and slow zooms into cute but tiresome childhood photographs. The thought process from filmmakers Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard seems to be: we know what his head looks like; let’s see what’s inside it.

When my screening schedule has permitted, I’ve also been reading biography. The one that has provided solace from so many mediocre films of late is Brian Kellow’s account of the most influential female film critic ever to pen her cinematic thoughts: Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark. Though Kael’s personal relationships are placed on a par with details about her childhood and final days suffering Parkinson’s disease, Kellow devotes most of his attention to the highs and lows of her career. The book’s greatest success is that instead of just telling us what she achieved and pointing out where she failed, Kellow respectfully charts her reviewing career, through her opinions on movies. Acknowledging both his inadequacy and uncertainty in depicting such a life, he admits that Kael never wrote her own memoirs or licensed an official biography. As she astutely pointed out before she died, both were unnecessary because it’s all there in the thousands of words she’d already written.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Tara Judah is a freelance film writer and radio critic, programming and content assistant at Melbourne’s Astor Theatre and a committee member of the Melbourne Cinémathèque. Tara's writing can be found at tarajudah.com and she tweets as @midnightmovies.

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