Saturday, November 27, 2010

My Family's Favorite Biopics


Here's my son Doral's picture. 
He says his favorite Biopic is Hoffa (Danny DeVito, 1992).  He loves the scenes in the restaurant with Hoffa, waiting to meet with the mob. 

My neice, Lurene Bates, says she has two favorites:
1. Temple Grandin (Mick Jackson, 2010) A biopic of Temple Grandin, an autistic woman who has become one of the top scientists in the humane livestock handling industry.
2. And All That Jazz (Bob Fosse, 1979)-- a story based loosely on the life of Bob Fosse.
Kelvin Johnson Sr adds:
I like Ghandi (Richard Attenborough, 1982) especially the scene where Ghandi is so committed to his purpose that he is willing to toss his wife out of the house and then reconsiders for it is against what he really believes in.
Catherine Jarvis’s picks:
I really enjoyed the movie The Blind Side (John Lee Hancock, 2009). It is the true and inspiring story of a young black man adopted by a southern white family.

A Beautiful Mind (Ron Howard, 2001), a story of the mental illness of a brilliant mathematician, John Nash, was also very interesting.
Steve Carter says:
I have a French pick: 37.5 in the morning (Jean-Jacques Beineix, France,1986.) which is called Betty Blue in English. The protagonist may not have been a real person but the pizza place that was featured in the film was real and I went there.
Mary Johnson can’t stop at one movie:
I have seen Amadeus (1984), The Last Emperor (1987), A Beautiful Mind (2001), and Malcolm X .While I liked them all, I must admit that in retrospect they are all about men. I don’t think I have seen any about women. Well, except Erin Brokovitch, but I didn’t love that movie because I don’t like Julia Roberts much.

Here’s a list I found on-line of biopic about women.
Janet Pilling writes:
Schindlers List – Liam Neeson plays Oscar Schindler -all about humanity and hope – this was one of Laynies first movies that meant something to her – I think Grade 9
Our family favourite has to be Braveheart – I think all of my children own it. William Wallace. When we all went to Scotland it was specifically for a visit to his monument in Sterling. Love and Freedom
Books are better but some movies do them justice like the two above.
Rebecca Johnson adds:
What about Iron Jawed Angels. It is an HBO movie, though.....does that count? It might have been a TV one, but it is such a great counterpoint to the images of suffragettes that we get in Mary Poppins (see the link to the sing-along version of Sister Suffragette on youtube)

It totally captures the violence and passion for justice of those women from the 1900s. If the biopic is a myth to inspire, then this one does that....
Wyona Bates writes from London:
I can’t give you true biopics, but one of the shows I remember so well is Manufacturing Consent...Chomsky. I watched it with Charise because she needed to watch it for a course she was taking.
Another favourite theatre show is Billy Elliot about a person, even if mythogical. The show is full of dancing, happiness, tears, love, endurance, anger, despair and hope. It represents the London West End Theatre and a little of Scottish History.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Watching Biopics

Today Deidre Martin wrote the following phrase on the chalkboard: Biopics are the social myths that inspire the everyman. I signed up for this course, being able to name only one biopic off the top of my head: Gypsy.

Over the past few months I have been watching biographies in class, reading Dennis Bingham's, Whose Lives are They Anyway? and looking at movies that fit into this category. I am developing a list of biopics that I have seen in the past and adding to those, the ones that we see in class.

Happy to say, I can now list a number of biographies I have watched:
Al Capone (1959)
Amadeus (1984)
Angel at My Table (Jane Campion, Australia, 1990) [Janet Frame, poet]
Becket (1964)
Citizen Kane (Orson Wells, USA, 1941)
Ed Wood (Tim Burton, USA, 1994)
Erin Brockovich (Stephen Soderbergh, USA, 2000)
Ghandi (UK, 1982)
Glen Miller Story (1954)
Gypsy (Mervyn Leroy, 1962)
Hilary and Jackie (Arnand Tucker, 1998)
Hunger (Steve McQueen, Ireland, 2008)
I Shot Andy Warhold (Mary Harron, 1996) [Valerie Solanos]
Jolson Story (1946)
Karen Carpenter Story (Tod Haynes, 1987)
Kinsey (Bill Condon, 2004)
Kundun (1997) [Dali Lama]
Lawrence of Arabia (Spike Lee, 1992)
Milk (Gus Van Sant, USA, 2008)
Nasser 56 (Mohamed Fadel, Egypt, 1996)
Nixon (Oliver Stone, USA, 1995)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dryer 1928)
Rembrandt (Alexander Corda, 1936)
The Last Emperor (Bernardo Bertalucci, 1987)
The Miracle Worker (1962)
The Notorious Bettie Page (Mary Harron, USA, 2005)
Thirty-Two Short Films about Glen Gould (Francois Gerard, Canada, 1993)

Film Critique Assignment - Kinsey

"Let's talk about sex"
(Slogan from the movie Kinsey)

The code for the early scientific biopic is that its hero should be “the Idol of Production, ... the man who made things great for society...[the] visionaries who made the world better.... This figure came back ... as part of the neoclassical biopic revival of the 2000s, but with a warts-and-all or Citizen Kane-like investigatory tinge.” (Bingham 6) A warts-and-all hero is what we have in the movie, Kinsey (2004), a neoclassical scientific biopic. The early classical biographical subjects represented reform that was beyond debate: Louis Pasteur’s development of a vaccine, and Florence Nightingale’s social compassion. In contrast, Alfred Kinsey’s (Liam Neesom) scientific investigation represents reform that was debated on every level. The reason for the debate is that the subject of his work was human sexuality and society’s right to know and explore it.

The film begins in media res, an interview in black and white format. What is odd is that when the interviewee (whom we later know is Kinsey) begins to talk about his childhood, the presentation of that sequence of film switches to colour. The question could be asked, why is the present being filmed in black and white and the past in colour? The answer to that question comes, when we see that the opening sequence of the film starts in the middle of one of the scenes of Kinsey’s adult life, and that opening sequence sends us backward in time to look at his childhood. We shall return again to colour when we move forward in his life.

The opening coloured sequence shows how, as a child, Kinsey learns to study nature sitting on a log under a tree, observing a squirrel, then sketching the squirrel, then studying his notes. Two more shots of the squirrel in different positions flash by the screen and then an extreme close-up of the boy’s eyes, observing.

This is also the shape of three more segments: Kinsey observing and collecting data in a book; Kinsey watching and then sketching a female bird feeding her young; Kinsey watching and sketching a woodpecker. What makes this sequence illuminating is that the voice-over is Kinsey telling his interviewer that he was a sickly child, but that when he could get out of bed he escaped to nature, “My place of worship. My cathedral.”

In the aseptic black and white interview of Kinsey as an adult, we learn he was a sickly child (pneumonia, diphtheria) so it is easy to take the image of the childhood bed as a sick bed. But the childhood sickness also alludes to family sexual myths – the zipper that is a tool of the devil, and the telephone that allows a boy to hear the voice of a girl as he lays on his pillow. And in the childhood segment we have heard child Kinsey talk about the sickness that comes over him at night, and ask his scout master, how he can prevent nocturnal emissions which he believes will eventually cause him loss of blood and death. The opening scene sets up two important ideas about our protagonist: a child steeped in data collection and focused on questions of sexuality.

Director Bill Condon gets right to the heart of this provocative subject in the first frame of the opening sequence of Kinsey. The screen is black, a metaphor for the darkness that surrounds the subject of sexuality when Kinsey began to study it. Early twentieth century America was trapped in a repressed Victorian sensibility and there was no way that the darkness was to be lifted, that is until Kinsey took out his pen and paper and began to gather scientific information for a scientific treatise on the subject. The seemingly dry treatise turned into a best seller. Public forces seemed to gathered to ignore the book. Even the New York Times did not review it. That is, until it hit its 6th printing and people could see it was going to be a run-away hot commodity. At the time of its printing, I was a nine year old Alberta born prairie girl and only vaguely aware of its existence.

I am going to examine the opening segment that backgrounds the titles for the movie being presented. “One Man’s History” is the title the DVD gives this segment. But the title could as easily have been Everyman’s History, because according to Kinsey, there is infinite variety in the sexual practises of human beings: looking at one male variation is like looking at all.
When we begin, the voice-over on the black screen is coaching the interviewer as to how to collect scientific data about sexuality. “Don’t sit so far away ... creat[ing] a distance should be avoided.” Immediately, the audience is learning that we are going to get close to the subject at hand, really taking a look at it.

The interviewer begins practising his interviewing techniques again, holding a clipboard to show a grid of 287 squares to his to client, Alfred Kinsey, and explaining that data is coded so that privacy will be maintained.

In the Special Features section of the DVD, Bill Condon, the director, explains that he uses the multiple squares of the graph-paper grid of the interview sheet for a visual motif in the movie. Squares will reappear in room dividers, lamps, drawers of specimen cabinets, and in headstones in a graveyard. The squares stand in for the multiple boxes into which Kinsey can capture information about human sexuality. Sexuality, represented in the first shot, as a black screen about which we know nothing, now becomes a grid into which data can be collected and studied – at least 287 squares per person. This square motif is useful until the collection of data gets to such an overwhelming magnitude that Kinsey begins to lose control of his whole project, the loss of which is shown in a governmental hearing, a circle on the floor, Kinsey standing in the middle, straight lines shooting out from him into infinity, and he collapsing into its vortex.

I want to talk specifically about the square motif in another way. Let us examine the segment called “Dirty Stuff”. The movie opens with practise interview sessions, new interviewers learning their technique by practising on Kinsey. But in “Dirty Stuff” Kinsey is the interviewer, interviewing one of his most complicated subjects: Mr Brown, a man who has had relationships with multiple members of his extended family and with many children. Nonjudgemental. That was one of the key criteria Kinsey demanded of people doing the interviewing. Kinsey wanted scientific collection of data, interviews not coloured by the skittish reaction of interviewers when they heard something out of the norm. However, Kinsey’s close associate walks out, when what he is hearing is too much for him. Kinsey as well, cannot be neutral, for when he is baited by Mr. Brown he reiterates his own position that sexual acts between people have to be by mutual consent – a criteria that cannot be set, if Kinsey is truly only gathering data. “I didn’t think you were so square,” replies the interviewee which criticism is valid in the context of collecting data to which no moral judgements have been attached. Here is a box in the 287 square motif that is problematic.

Hollywood biopics pit the biographical subject against rigid bureaucracies, greedy self-interests, warped value systems and unimaginatively opposed families. (Bingham 6) This is true in the case of this neoclassical biopic, and we get to see the warts-and-all approach added. One of the rigid bureaucracies Kinsey fights is the university administration who do not want to change their method of teaching sexuality: holding classes for married students, only. Kinsey breaks some of the rules, and hectors the administration as he advocates for more freedom of sexual information for students. Later in the film, the university administration is characterized as one of the greedy self-interests, Kinsey must fight. When they are asked to provide more research funding for Kinsey, (money that has been brought to the university through his research), they deny him the funds. Third, the warped value system against which Kinsey must fight is made visible when he publishes his second book, this time about women’s sexuality. The furor created contains society’s masked fear that if women know about their own sexuality, the whole family systems will collapse.

Fighting against an unimaginative family is the fourth obstacle he must overcome and that quarrel is a life-time one. It begins in Kinsey’s youth when he comes of age, and breaks away from his father’s influence to study what is interesting to him. But the warts-and-all side of Kinsey seen when his own son asks Kinsey to be more discreet in his conversation, since his own friends are no longer allowed to visit the Kinsey home. Kinsey cannot turn the tables and imaginatively think of a way to create a space for his own son’s happiness in this regard.

Unimaginative family relationships are a problem that cuts two ways. The interview of Kinsey’s father which finally occurs at the end of the old man’s life seems to fail to make connections when yet another conflict arises between them. But it is the father who softens, agreeing to tell all; and it is the son from whose eyes the veil must fall this time. “I’m so sorry,” is all Kinsey can say ... and perhaps all that can be said.

The Kinsey biopic uses an interviewing technique that is Citizen Kanesque in origin: knowing the subject by interviewing those who knew him, thus gathering multiple sets of data and points of view. This technique appears with a variation in Kinsey. For example, while multiple points of view were gathered about one person, in Citizen Kane, in Kinsey, we have the protagonist, himself, gathering multiple points of view, about American sexuality. While we see Kinsey training his interviewers at the beginning of the film, it is not until later that we observe him doing the interviewing. First there is a fascinating montage where hundreds of talking heads are gathered and placed on a map that criss-crosses the nation, roads seemingly connecting the interviewees, the montage representing the hundreds and thousands of “interviews” Kinsey and his team collected.

Kinsey’s data collection is problematic. His critics say, too many homosexuals, too many prostitutes, too many middle class whites, too many of his personal friends. And when I read the list of those who offered to be interviewed, I had my own questions. Why does the list only contain famous males coming forward, offering to be interviewed. Wasn’t Kinsey alerted somehow to the bias that was being exposed, just in that all-male list?
Neutrality is a tough call. In the Chicago sequence when Kinsey and Clyde Martin (Peter Sargaard) first begin interviewing gays, Condon has not investigated what was one of Kinsey’s forays into an area where data on sexuality had not been categorized before. The fact is, Kinsey became interested in collecting data on public sex, homosexual behaviour in the parks and bathrooms of Chicago. A good reason for drawing attention to this part of his investigation is that for the first time, the private becomes public, by virtue of the space where it is acted out. . I can only speculate about the film not making this visible. There are always hard choices to make, and some of them are about the film director’s guess as to what public reaction will be.

As far as creating a family image, Kinsey courted respectability. His public persona was that of a family man: a charming wife, three lovely children, a professorial appointment and funding from the Rockefeller Foundation. Everything was clean and clinical. Condon’s directorial expertise shows us there was another side to Kinsey who experimented sexually with his colleagues, encouraged his wife and staff to do experiment, and mutilated his own body in the name of investigation. It was his interest in images of sex, both in collecting sexual paraphernalia, and in filming sexual arousal that got him in trouble with the Customs Office and with his funding benefactors.
One of the characteristics of the neoclassical biopic is that the protagonist remakes himself. In this film, after Kinsey comes of age, he is constantly remaking himself. He studies biology and becomes a biology professor. Then he remakes himself into an expert, collecting and publishing information on human sexuality. He wages “a lifelong war against society’s prohibition against premarital sex”. (Grundman 8) He takes on the role of social advocate. Every decade or so, Kinsey remakes himself.

Would Kinsey think he had the mystical quality of destiny that God bestows on certain people that makes them famous. (Bingham 37) I think he would be horrified with such an unscientific assumption. He called himself a scientist, interested in the variations of the gall fly. That interest taught him that “if everything differs from everything else, diversity becomes life’s one irreducible fact. Only variations are real.” Kinsey was an anomaly, his own man, willing to scientifically look at American sexual practices and attitudes, a worthy topic for a twenty-first century neo-classical biopic. Sixty-one years after I first hear about Kinsey’s book, I am glad to have reviewed a movie about his life.

Assignment II: Thematic Analysis

Feminist Revisions on Madness

The theme of madness is represented differently in Steven Soderbergh’s, Erin Brockovich (USA, 2000) than it is in Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table (Australia, 1990). Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts) is fighting corporate madness; Janet Frame (Kerry Fox, Alexia Keogh and Karen Fergusson) is at war with systemic madness. The one minute sequence where she travels from the ward of her local psychiatric hospital to the infirmary at Seacliff demonstrates Janet Frame’s systemic horror: the terror of her childhood is captured by the large barred window at one end of the room. The nurse who puts her arm around her says, “A holiday at home, you will be as good as new.” But Janet cannot go back to the brutality of her childhood nor to the humiliation of her adolescence. She leaps back under the covers shouting at her mother, “Go away. Go away.”

“She used to be such a happy thing,” her mother says as she leaves. Janet is transported to a worse place than her childhood home. The next shot is an extreme long-shot, a small car travelling down a tree-lined road, and we watch the car move right across the screen. Aurally we are aware of the ominous rocking rhythm of the music, the melody repeating three notes over and over, foretelling the repetitive sounds and rocking motions she will be surrounded by at Seacliff.

As well, Janet is pinned in the car between two other women who are exchanging a mindless call-and-response to each other, perhaps from their Grade I reader: “I had a little dog and his name was Spot.” One of them looks ahead vacantly. The other twists her hair around and her finger. There are no connections, no social conversation in the car, nor will there be in her life for the next 8 years. A sign, Seacliff flashes by the side window. The outside world retreats behind Janet in the oval back window. She is silent, stationary, framed by two bodies, trapped inside a car and soon buried deep in an opprresive mental health system.

The next shot frames Janet’s face outside of the mental asylum day room, looking in. She has escaped her oppressive upbringing only to become imprisoned in madness for most of the next eight years.

Brockovich, on the other hand, is a free spirit fighting corporate madness, as is demonstrated in the sequence when Erin and Mr. Masry (Albert Finney) first meet David Foil (T.J. Thyne), an underling in the employ of PG & E. David’s last name tips us off. His job will be to obscure and confuse a trail so as to evade pursuers. He is in the waiting room, no more than a mail clerk wearing a new suit and tie, slouched so low that his head is barely above the back of the chair he sits on. His hands rest on the brief case that rests on his knees.. With PG & E’s billions of dollars they barely need more than a mail clerk to deliver the corporation’s message to Brockovich and Masry. The madness is the corporation’s offer to the Jensens: not enough money to take care of the family’s medical bills. There is further corporate madness in Mr Foil’s blaming those who are sick. “Poor diet”, he claims; but we have seen a 2-second shot of healthy sandwiches, fruit drinks and fresh cherries at the Jensen home. “Irresponsible lifestyle”, he intones; but beside the healthy food we saw the pile of papers that Brockovich has collected about the toxicity of the Jensen’s environment. Erin’s eye glasses rested on top of her research papers, a clue for us to see what is in them. Through the window we see the Jensen children playing in the contaminated pool water. “Bad genes, ... and bad luck,” he says, but the health problems they experience (cysts, uterine cancer, Hodgkin’s disease, immune deficiencies, asthma, and chronic nosebleeds) are reactions to hexavalent chromium.

Mr. Foil is authorized to offer the Jensens $250,000, highlighting the madness of a corporation that poisons the environment, dictates the amount of money they will offer to their victims and feels so secure that they only send a “mail clerk” to make the settlement offer. David Foil gives us clear body language: his hand touches first his tie, and then his mouth, the tie reminding us that the victims are about to be strangled, and the touch on the mouth, a signal that no truthful words will be spoken by him.

While reminding Mr. Masry of the corporate power he represents, Mr. Foil stands in front of abstract art: circles and squares that overlap each other in the upper quadrant of the picture, a reminder of the levels of power of the corporation and the impossibility of attacking it from the outside.. At the bottom right hand corner of the picture is an amorphous appearing receptacle, sack-like out of which have fallen a few stones, the pittance that is being offered to the Jensens in damages.

Female biopics sometimes paint women as mad. In these two instances, both women use pen and paper to fight madness that is outside of a woman’s body. In the case of Erin Brockovich, the madness is cloaked in corporate respectability. In the case of Janet Frame, systemic madness is the villain. It is touching to hear Janet say, “It is little wonder that I value writing as a way of life when it actually saved my life.” If Erin Brockovich were to speak those words she might say, “I value my research. It saved many lives.”

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Journal Entry #6: Genre Revision - Malcolm X and Erin Brokovich

1. Identify, compare and contrast key elements of genre revisionism in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992) and Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brokovich (2000).

What is similar in both films is that they deal with historically marginalized figures whose names might disappear from the public consciousness without these films having been made about them. Malcolm X’s murder does not have the same historical importance as say, the murder of J.F. Kennedy. And giving identity to “black as beautiful” has been a long, slow and arduous struggle as many political activists, poets and writers can attest. The name of Erin Brokovich would not be a household word, without having this film made about her. Historically, biopics were made about people who were already famous. In the case of these two figures, their achievements became points of national and international discussion and have been embedded into national consciousness because films were made about them
2. How do the films measure up when it comes to striking a balance between Hollywood assimilation and genre appropriation?

The balance struck between Hollywood assimilation and genre appropriation is striking in the case of Brokovich. He old Hollywood has a female stock character who wears stiletto heels, who has a potty mouth and whose breasts tumble out of her dress: the whore. We get that figure in Brokovich and expect to see the story line of a rise and fall, or at least of a rise, fall and rehabilitation into the arms of a strong man. The appropriation of this whore figure into a Madonna/social activist who gets justice for 600 people who have been drinking poison water. But the genre has been appropriated. Her figure has no fall, and while her love interest comes back into the picture, he does not get the credit for her activism, but is only a figure who looks on to see his part in her investment of energy.

Malcolm X is similarily assimilated into the Hollywood script: the activist who is martyred. The genre appropriation in this instance because the figure is a lesser known one, and because he is an activist railing against the mainstream beliefs and codes that Hollywood has used for 80 years of film making.

3. Which is the more ‘subversive’ biopic of a marginalized historical subject? Why?

Malcolm X is about the politics of race and calls for American blacks to remember that their people have lived with 400 years of racism. Malcolm X is a call to identify that racism and to turn it around. This is done overtly in Malcolm X: the call to be a Muslim that he hears in prison; the preaching he does to convert others to the cause; the greater calling after his Hadjj experience; the voice over of Martin Luther King, extolling his life. All of these segments are overtly political, challenging the audience to hear and act on the same message that changed Malcolm X’s outlook.

The Erin Brokovich subversion is about the politics of gender and more subtle than the overt proselytizing heard in Malcolm X. The historical subject that has been marginalized is women and Brokovich stands as an alternative path available for women to take as opposed to their more traditional role (in her case of being a single mom with three kids, no job and massive debit), but her case is only a marker of one woman who refused to “take it anymore”. There is no overt message that other women en masse should follow her example.

And the message about raising children is somewhat confused in this instance. When Erin loses her baby sisters and George begins to tend the children, he stands in for her “place”. Now he is seen as having no job (she taunts him about that); he is waiting for compliments on taking care of the kids (the earrings as a thank-you from him, never get given to her); he has the joy of hearing a child’s first words (she feels some sadness at having missed this, but the chance is make social change about poisoned water takes precedence for her).

Erin is a message for more people – one half of the world. But I think the Malcolm X film is more effective. Erin Brokovich leaves one with a sweet, warm feeling. Malcolm X leaves the audience thinking, there is something wrong here, and I might be part of it.