With the ultra-success of Rajkumar Hirani's Sanju, a look at biopics that were off the mainstream
With Sanju proving to be a monster crowd-pleaser, I thought I’d write about more eccentric biopics this week. Biography in cinema isn’t easy. A biographical book, like Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy, chronicling the life of Michelangelo, lets us know how the protagonist really feels about his work, his art. “He had removed the outer shell [of the stone]. Now he dug into the mass, entered in the biblical sense. In this act of creation there was needed the thrust, the penetration, the beating and pulsating upward to a mighty climax, the total possession. It was not merely an act of love, it was the act of love: the mating of his own inner patterns to the inherent forms of the marble; an insemination in which he planted seed, created the living work of art.”
Despite the overwrought prose (or perhaps because of it), we grasp the interiority of a creator’s mindscape. The author’s words tell us what Michelangelo doesn’t, that sculpting is like lovemaking. This is tougher to do in the movies, which are a more exterior medium. Sure, there could be a voiceover, or the actor’s gestures might convey something – or, as in Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), we could be invited to stare at close-ups. Roger Ebert wrote, “You cannot know the history of silent film unless you know the face of [the heroine] Renee Maria Falconetti... to see [her] is to look into eyes that will never leave you.” Indeed. Regard the clip below. Joan’s face appears disembodied, and those eyes seem to be lit by an inner kind of crazy – and we understand. What marble was to Michelangelo, God was to Joan.
Bruno Dumont’s 2017 take on this story, titled Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc, is drastically different – not just because it isn’t a silent film, but also because it employs maximalistic techniques to depict its protagonist (as opposed to Dreyer’s ascetic minimalism). Even as a girl, Joan’s conversations with her friend are about the “distress in the depths of her soul,” and this torment becomes the basis for a head-banging musical, with dancing nuns and angels floating beside trees! Is Dumont “reimagining” an old story with fresh trappings, or mocking the senselessness of faith by mixing and matching anachronistic elements that make little “conventional sense”? Whatever! The job gets done. The psychedelic rock brings us eye-level with Joan’s acid-trip visions. This is what religious ecstasy must look like.
Sometimes, it’s easier to enter a biopic if you know nothing about the subject. Every frame of Sanju, I was comparing the on-screen story to what I know from off-screen reports – but take Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974). This is the Room-meets-Tarzan story of a man who claimed to have spent the first seventeen years of his life in a tiny cellar, with no human contact other than his captor. What happens when he’s unleashed on civilisation? In the famous scene below, he not only demonstrates empathy for fallen apples (“Let the applies lie, they’re tired and want to sleep”), but also proves they possess intelligence. The crux of this man – the enigma of the title, the unknowability – comes through in the closing scenes, when, Kaspar narrates a story about a caravan and the desert, even though he knows “only the beginning.” There’s always a missing piece – in this story, in this man, in any biopic.
With some biopics, the story off-screen can be equally fascinating. Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible (1944), about the bloodthirsty sixteenth-century tsar, was commissioned by Stalin, making this possibly the only film about a dictator to be greenlit by one. Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1966) – about Russia’s greatest icon painter, who predated Tsar Ivan by a century – is a more intimate epic. The pageantry never gets in the way of getting into the protagonist’s psyche – and yet, this is not a conventional, cause-and-effect biography. Tarkovsky wrote, “In cinema it is necessary not to explain, but to act upon the viewer’s feelings, and the emotion which is awoken is what provokes thought.” And few stretches in cinema are more emotional than what’s in the following clip, for which Tarkovsky used a horse procured from a slaughterhouse, with this logic: It is going to die anyway, so why not kill it on screen? Behind every great fortune lies a crime, said Balzac. Behind every great movie, too?
The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is an outrageous real-life story, brimming with event – but let’s look at something like Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007). You’d think a narrative like this is the very antithesis of whatever a filmmaker looks for in a biopic. The protagonist suffers a stroke, and spends the rest of the film in bed or in a wheelchair, paralysed except for one mobile eyelid. But his impish spirit animates the film. Instead of sad violins, we get sass: “When I came to that late-January morning, the hospital ophthalmologist was leaning over me and sewing my right eyelid shut with a needle and thread, just as if he were darning a sock.” It’s the voiceover technique, alright, but what makes this instance different is the dissonance between the constrained body and the soaring mind. It’s one of the most beautiful biopics ever made.
What’s so non-mainstream about Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall, which looked at the last few days of Hitler? A historical subject, a wartime setting, a close look at a complicated man – none of this is new. But few biopics have permeated into pop culture like Downfall. This account of the architect of the twentieth-century’s greatest tragedy has somehow resulted in much comedy. In the UK, ads for the film showed a picture of Hilter with this caption: “It’s a happy ending. He dies.” And thanks to an Internet obsessed with pop-culture, Downfall parodies are legion (see the clip below, one of the funniest). Hirschbiegel didn’t mind. “The point of the film was to kick these terrible people off the throne that made them demons,” he said. What could be more fitting than turning them into clowns?
Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).
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Updated Date: Jul 04, 2018 16:52:33 IST