The Biopic – Pros and (mostly) Cons Thereof

Mundanity beseeches itself

I have had a problem with the film genre of “biopic” (the biographical moving picture, for those not in the know) for quite some time now, and have slowly attempted to understand this myself and elucidate and rationalize it enough to write it. In the following essay, I will attempt to explain the biopic in all of its flaws and positives, and will give advice as to how to do them properly.

The biopic stands as one of the most frequently created film type. The reasons behind this are understandable – the stories of human beings are perhaps the most fascinating stories in general, be it fictional or not. Real stories are often far more remarkable as well, as the old cliché “Reality is stranger than fiction” often stands true: the events which occur in real life are often far more incredible, terrible, deep, or complicated than the depths of the imagination could possibly contrive.

Yet the biopic has, in general, one major flaw: it attempts to summarize the totality of a human life in an hour and a half visual narrative plot, often in an attempt to create a dramatic story.

In this sense, it is nothing less than demeaning to the value of human life. First of all, to truly experience another’s life, one cannot watch that person from the third person; one must try to understand that person for all he/she is. Now, it is true that we always watch others’ lives from the outside; therefore, as an informational giving device, the biopic is quite useful. But to use a real person’s life as a tool to create a dramatic story – this is belittling to the person’s story, and by proxy belittling to everyone’s story. For our stories and lives are not simply methods of portraying drama. Explain how you will the purpose of life, it is not as a tool to view a dramatic story from the outside. We will never really connect with anyone else by this method. The fact, too, that often the facts of someone’s life are altered to tell a better story can only be considered insulting and disgusting.

Consider this Tenderloin mascot a metaphor

Second of all, and foremost, the idea of explaining a full life in an hour and a half is simply absurd. Summarizing eighty years into an hour and a half, or even two hours? 4 hours? This necessarily haphazardly chops away vast amounts of the mundanity, the minor qualms and struggles, the simple physical/emotional pains, in an attempt to summarize a life. By doing so, much that makes this life whole is thrown away, and the life is explained through very simply definite, large events. But our lives are not defined by the large events which occur – they are through the daily events, the hourly and minutely sensations, smells, tastes, scattered thoughts, hopes, fears, satisfactions, self-doubt.

Among the best biopics, then:

I would stack Lawrence of Arabia as high up there. This film captures about 4 years of a man’s life in almost four hours; as such, we get a complicated psychological picture of him as he was in this time, as well as a vast portrait of Arabia and the politics concerning it. Of late, The King’s Speech was quite good – in that it dealt with a man, but almost entirely in the context of his speech. And who can forget such a film as Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, which deals only with her trial and death, and is based entirely on documents from the time? Or Andrei Rublev, Andrei Tarkovsky’s sophomore work and an amazing portrait of Medieval Russia, concerning the most famous icon painter as he seeks the perfection of his art from village to village.

I name Frida as an example of a biopic which failed – it did unique stylistic things and had very good acting, but felt like it simplified this amazing and complicated woman to an enormous degree that I left feeling almost sickened. The Doors too commits almost every flaw that a biopic may allow – the characters are altered (Robby Krieger is the whiniest, most pathetic person to have been born, according to this film) or overly simplified (Jim Morrison was a loon and not much more), and the “plot” is simplified to fit a dramatic feel. A Beautiful Mind also tries to go too much through this man’s life, but its exploration of his hallucinations and the way he views the world is quite apt.

If you have a desire to create a biopic, my exhortation is as follows: Truly read about and try to become the person that you are creating a film about. Try to understand him/her as he/she understood him/herself. Be honest – brutally so. If you are doing a narrative piece, i.e. one with a standard plot, do it about a focused time so you can really explore this person. If you are doing a narrative piece with a non-standard plot, good for you. Really explore this person’s psyche.

For there is a lot of material when concerning real people – an infinite number of things happen in just one hour, not to mention one day. How can you possibly create a full, deep film from an entire life?


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Categories: Theory

3 Comments on “The Biopic – Pros and (mostly) Cons Thereof”

  1. Nick Petrick
    January 27, 2012 at 1:29 am #

    I completely agree with you. For me the best biopics are ones that focus on a short period in a persons life. Biopics that try to tell someones complete story can be fun but they usually fail at being a meaningful film and at giving an accurate portrayal of the individual.

  2. January 31, 2012 at 7:57 pm #

    Definitely, The Pianist is another film that comprises a short period of a person’s life, but gives you a good sense of what he went through and at least a little of he was.

  3. Adam Cuttler
    February 1, 2012 at 4:11 pm #

    The best Bio-pic I ever saw was from 1974 called General Idi Amin Dada. Oh wait, that was a documentary.

    Seriously though, my favorite bio-pic is not about a person at all. Paul Greengrass’ 2006 minute-by-minute account of 9/11 “United 93”.

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