Deep Water (2006) is one of the finest documentaries I’ve seen. It narrates the story of Donald Crowhurst, the unlikely competitor in the 1968-1969 UK Sunday Times Golden Globe Race to circumnavigate the world solo and non-stop. It’s a bizarre and tragic story, told with exactly the right tone. The interviewers expertly bring out insights from many of the key players. The intercutting of these interviews with archival footage and graphics is amazing. I felt I was with Crowhurst on that vast ocean in his terrible existential predicament. It’s inspiring to see such great biographical storytelling. The film can be seen on ABC Iview for another couple of weeks.
With Who’s Been Sleeping In My House? showing on ABC and Who Do You Think You Are? on SBS, biographical quest television is having its moment, and I’m so glad. Each week on My House, presenter Adam Ford researches the past of an Australian house. This season has gone from a former hotel in country Victoria, to a flat in Sydney, to Adelaide, to north Queensland, and most recently to Mt Lawley, an inner-city suburb in Perth.
The Imitation Game adapts a 768 page biography, Andrew Hodge’s Alan Turing: The Enigma (1983). It does it very well, focusing on the years Turing spent at Bletchley Park in World War Two breaking the German Enigma code but intertwining it with a past and future strand – his doomed love for a fellow-boarder, Christopher, as a young teenager; and his arrest for indecency in the 1950s. In two hours we gain some sense of the span of his life, and the film succeeds as both a thrilling war drama and a biopic. Lytton Strachey would approve. When he set out to change biography, he believed that biography could be art by virtue of selection, the artfully arranged, representative scenes of a life. Today, “biopics” (think Iron Lady, Walk the Line) attempt this, and biographies, seeking to be comprehensive, generally do not.
Biopics have much to offer the biographer in methodological possibility. Surely there are other readers like me who want to read biography for interest, but not generally the comprehensive brick. We should look to biopics for inspiration for a form of biography which is not simply a condensed brick, but a more Stracheyean form. Perhaps a central drama in a subject’s life, intertwined with subplots from past and future points. There would be a suggestion of the whole, without the detail of the whole. It would be the length of a shortish novel, two to three hundred pages. It need not take on the biopic’s creative sins – the amalgamated characters, the invented dialogue – but rely on the best tradition of biographical storytelling without being shackled by comprehensiveness. It would not replace the comprehensive biography, which needs to be written, but it would supplement it so well, perhaps revitalise biography as a readers’ genre and as an art form.
(I say this, and yet my first comment coming out of the cinema was that there was so much to Imitation Game that really it required a long-form drama, a series of ten to twenty hours. The problem of scope and detail is a significant one in biography. Yet perhaps my point stands, because far more detail fits within a two hundred page book than a two hour film – it could be enough to tell the kind of representative story I have in mind.)
Speaking of the biopics’ “creative sins”, it’s actually a curious thing that biographies are adapted as biopics rather than documentaries. Biographies are not generally written in scenes (although this is something I want to attempt as much as possible, in a modified way), and biographers who invent dialogue are often heavily criticised. Biopics are given far more leeway – it’s usually acceptable to amalgamate characters or create them and to simplify chronology and turning points. Of course, there’s still pushback, with many viewers and critics expecting a high degree of historical accuracy; Imitation Game’s Wikipedia article currently has a lengthy section dedicated to perceived inaccuracies. A documentary would actually recreate the approach of a biography much more closely on film – a narrator takes the place of the author. Actors read portions of documents. Re-enactments have a certain tenuousness to them – it’s a mood or a setting rather than a full scene. Interviews are used. These conventions are able to convey the limits of the historical record, like biography does.
The new film about the musician Nick Cave, 20,000 Days on Earth, is an interesting experiment in biography. I would say it’s not a completely successful experiment, but I’m in the minority (it’s sitting at 94% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes), and this is despite my long passion for Cave and my interest in biography.
The film depicts a staged, somewhat surreal day in the life of Nick Cave – his 20,000th day. It’s an inspired concept, and gives an opportunity to offer a film which sits between a behind-the-scenes documentary and a ‘This-Is-Your-Life’ concept. The ‘This-Is-Your-Life’ aspect emerges in a couple of ways. Firstly, two scenes with professionals forcing him to confront his past – one with a counsellor; the other with some archivists bringing out photos and objects from his past. Secondly, several figures from his present and past appear in his car and he talks to them. I wish the surreal aspects of this were pushed further. Both are interesting ways to convey some of the story of Cave’s life amidst the somewhat banal tasks of the everyday life of a musician, tapping away at a typewriter and a piano.
There are three scenes in the film which show its potential, scenes in which the film comes fully alive. The first is the opening credits, as a counter runs through 20,000 days of life with a fascinating montage representing the different phases of Cave’s life, evoking the sense of a life flashing before our eyes. The second is about three-quarters through the film when Cave’s first meeting with his present wife, Suzie, is ‘dramatised’. The ‘dramatisation’ uses the visual prop of a reel-to-reel recording of Cave telling of his erotic awakening at seeing her; the reel-to-reel is taken over by a montage of the women Cave is talking about, all the women he’s ever lusted after. The scene has an energy much of the film lacks. The third is the finale, as the day is capped with a concert. As Cave sings about how he’s evolving, transforming, the present day footage is intercut with footage from other concerts throughout his career, and the moves, the charisma, the presence, even if it’s changing, is the same. It’s a beautiful depiction of change and constancy in the life of one person.
What then do I have to criticise? The film idles too long over rehearsal scenes and conversations which, if scripted, are particularly uninteresting. At his best, Cave is poetic and insightful, but at his worst, he is insufferably self-important – and both are in evidence in this film in the sermonising monologues and the conversations. There’s also some critical issues about biography. The film explores a few points of Cave’s life, and it couldn’t, of course, have hoped to explore all of his long and extreme life. But it tends to anecdotise, without pushing him where it needs to. Anita Lane is given three seconds in all, appearing in a photo, the woman who Cave became involved with in high-school and was his muse, on and off, for a couple of decades. Then there’s Mick Harvey, who also gets less than a minute; Harvey was Cave’s right hand man from high school until a couple of years ago. When he left the band, he said cutting things about the performances having lost all edge and no longer pushing any boundaries. Yet all we hear about in the documentary is what a genius Cave is, and how he shines on the stage.
And this is indeed the central problem: either the film-makers have allowed Cave to shape this film so much it has become autobiography, and an unself-aware one, or it is a hagiography, an ode to his genius – probably both.
In this 45 minute television documentary, actor David Suchet recounts the life of the author who created the detective (Poirot) who made him famous – Agatha Christie. It’s structured as a biographical quest, although there isn’t actually that much mystery around Christie beyond her famous disappearance in 1930, and unlike biographical quest fiction, there are no real discoveries or breakthroughs made. It is actually just an appropriate and convenient way to look at her life through the eyes of what the academic Jon Thiem might call an ‘epigone’, in the guise (undoubtedly basically true) of Suchet realising he has never really learned the life story of the woman behind his character.
There is only so much you can do in trying to convey an entire life in 45 minutes, and this documentary succeeds admirably, while showing clearly the limits of the form compared to a typical biography, which might be 800 pages long. There is little sense of competing interpretations of her life, despite the fact that Suchet moves between interviewing three different biographers of Christie for different periods of her life. It’s all very democratic, and each of them is interesting in their own way, but they surely have quite different understandings of their subject, and yet they’re stitched together as if they offer one seamless account.
In any biography, it is important to give some sense of the time and place, and documentary as a form offers the chance to use stock footage and the music of an era as a audiovisual shortcut, evoking viewers’ pre-existing understanding of the period. It’s done beautifully and skilfully in this example. It takes the place of the biographer’s challenge of giving a cultural and historical context in words, the balance between too much information and not enough; the trick of guessing just what knowledge one can assume on the reader’s part.
It seems to me the structure of the documentary is shaped a lot by who they could track down to interview about a particular time in the author’s life, and hence a strange detour of an interview with Tom Adams, who painted interesting covers for Christie’s paperbacks for years, only for him to reveal at the end of his segment that he never actually met her. It has an appropriateness, because neither did Suchet, and in a full scale biography, it might belong in some way in a chapter on the reception and presence of the subject in other artists’ lives – yet for a carefully timed documentary, it seems an unusual choice. Why not more time with her grandson, or her late daughter, or even with the archival interviews they have of Christie herself? Perhaps there’s nothing that’s visually interesting enough; every biographer is restricted by their sources, and the documentary biographer by the constraint of making something to watch and listen to.