The Guardian has an interesting article today on the rise of “comic-book biographies”. It notes an important antecedent – Art Spiegelman’s Maus – which I read and enjoyed for a unit I was tutoring last year. That was the story of the author imagining his father’s unimaginable Holocaust story; it had elements of autobiography as well as biography. This is different – comic-book treatment of key scenes in the lives of famous figures like Einstein. It sounds like a good thing, but more the equivalent of historical fiction than biography-proper. To the extent that the creators have moved beyond the historical evidence to imagine the scene more fully, they are fictionalising. It reminds me of my surprise / irritation that great biographies are often adapted as “biopics” rather than documentaries. I like biopics, but the filmic equivalent of a biography is surely the documentary, with its weaving together of sources rather than the fictionalised illusion of a fully-realised world offered by a feature film.
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.
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.
On Saturday, I finished DeLillo’s Libra and the Kennedy assassination was going through my mind so much, I was desperate to finally watch JFK. But Nicole had already seen it, so I also got out Death of a President as well, a mock documentary made in 2006 about the assassination of George W. Bush. Death of a President was so weak, Nicole went to bed after half an hour and I turned it off to start watching JFK. I stayed up late, but still only got halfway through. I woke up early and put it on at 7am to watch the second half, the earliest I’ve ever seen a film. I think I was dreaming about it all.
Libra and JFK make for interesting comparison. DeLillo uses the contradictions and paradoxes of the assassination and of what we know of Lee Oswald to create a complex situation and a paradoxical character, represented by the scales of Libra – a man weighing contradictory things at the same time, ready to tip one way or the other. The paradoxes make for a postmodern novel, a postmodern character, a postmodern world like DeLillo always evokes.
In JFK, Stone takes the same contradictions and paradoxes and irons them out with a much more elaborate conspiracy theory. A surface reading makes it much more convincing than DeLillo’s vision, but that is exactly because it is so neat, so unwilling to accept that the truth of JFK’s assassination might be impossible to get to.
So, for example, what are we to make of Oswald setting up a pro-Castro organisation in the same building as Guy Bannister, a far-right private detective working against Castro? For DeLillo, it is about Oswald’s own contradictions, wanting attention and taking it wherever he can get it, giving some information to FBI agents, applying for work with a man like Guy Bannister – anything to get noticed. For DeLillo, pro- and anti- Castro forces in this context are not opposing forces, but two sides of the scales, the same type of men, disenchanted, extreme men. In Libra, Oswald doesn’t know what he actually wants, beyond being listened to, glory, vindication of his genius, of his confused view of the world. And this, in its own way, is utterly convincing.
Stone’s interpretation of the same event? Jim Garrison, the DA heading the New Orleans investigation, sees it as clear proof that Oswald is not a communist at all, but an undercover agent for a nefarious coalition of the Office of Naval Intelligence, the FBI, the CIA, all three with offices within a block of the building. Which, in the context of a conspiracy thriller is, in its own way, utterly convincing.
While Libra is a brilliant novel and JFK is an excellent film, Death of a President is a competent waste of time. It has the exact feel of what a decent, uninspired documentary might be like if George W. Bush had been assassinated in 2007. As I watched, I imagined how fooled a class of sixteen year olds would be in a few years if I was an English teacher showing it to them. It has all the tedious overnarration and overexplanation of certain documentaries, intercutting each action scene with interviews with key players. Utterly convincing; but because we know none of it happened, rather boring.
It needed an edge to it. Think Woody Allen’s Zelig, the fake documentary of a man with chameleon abilities who manages to make it into every significant event of the early twentieth century. It was worthwhile because it was funny, the fake documentary had a purpose.
But they didn’t have to make this one funny. They could have made it hallucinatory and surreal, using the plausibility of the documentary style to lead the viewer not just over a tedious fake assassination but one with outrageous elements. Or it could have been political, with some interesting point about either Bush or the anti-Bush protestors, about what it meant for a country to live under his rule for eight years. But it studiously avoided doing this. It did exactly what it was trying to do and gets marks for that, but what it was trying to do was so unremarkable.