Introduction to The Moving Image as Biography Symposium

Eric Schaefer, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Department of Visual and Media Arts
Emerson College
100 Beacon Street
Boston , MA 02116

I’d like to begin our proceedings with a few lines from Pierre Corneille’s play The Theatrical Illusion from 1636. Bill O’Farrell brought these lines to my attention, noting that they had a certain poetry and prescience about the intersection of biography and moving image. In the play, a father who has had no word of his estranged son for ten years, turns to a magician for information. In stanza 150 the magician, Alcandre, makes the father an offer:

I’ll relate to you

The story of his hazards and amours.

However, if you feel resolved enough,

As an illusion you could see his life

And all its happenings performed for you

By ghost-like bodies which, infused with life,

Lack neither gesture nor the power of speech.

Corneille was not looking into a crystal ball, anticipating movies, much less biographical film, by almost four hundred years. But in the magician’s offer to relate the son’s story merely with words, or with gesturing, speaking ghost-like bodies, he was presenting a desire -- a wish to see a life recreated and recounted in a most vivid fashion before one’s eyes.

During last year’s NHF Summer Film Symposium the word biography came up several times and in several different contexts. As several of us discussed the term as it relates to the moving image, it occurred to us how many different ways in which moving image and biography come together. It was concluded that an exploration of the diversity of moving image as biography would be an excellent topic for this year’s symposium.

On some level we’re all interested in the lives of others, whether it’s out of the desire for inspiration, or information, sometimes out of envy, or perhaps even a voyeuristic curiosity. This obviously includes the powerful, the talented, and the famous, but it also includes those who lead lives might be like our own. Such stories can serve to reassure us about our place in the world.

Of course biographical films are almost as old as the medium itself, even if those first films were just the smallest slice of a person’s life, such as Edison ’s 1895 The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots. Films about famous figures were made throughout the silent era, but biographical films, or biopics, really hit their stride in the 1930s, notably in a cycle of Warner Bros. films that followed a strict formula. Whether it was Emile Zola, Louis Pasteur, Knute Rockne, or George M. Cohan, the audience was presented with a protagonist who faced challenges but eventually achieved his goal. You could almost be assured that success would be accompanied by a montage of newspaper headlines, ceremonies, or theater marquees, followed by humble homilies about hard work and remaining true to ones self. Of course these films were much more than the stories of individual lives, they were life lessons for an audience demoralized by the Depression and anxious about the looming clouds of war.

Biopics continued to be an important genre in the postwar years, expanding to encompass the infamous – growing numbers of criminals and con-men – as well as the famous, and an expanding contingent of entertainers and artists. And increasingly, documentaries focused on the lives of individuals. Television, of course, became an important medium for biography, from the dramatized lives of historical figures on live dramas to programs such as This Is Your Life. The Davy Crockett serial on Disneyland caused a national sensation. If the theatrical biographical film declined somewhat in importance in the 1960s and ‘70s (despite such blockbusters as Funny Girl and Patton, to name only two), made-for-television movies picked up the slack, ranging from things like Brian’s Song and Eleanor and Franklin, to Casualties of Love: The Long Island Lolita Story. It seems as though in the 1980s and ‘90s if you were in the headlines for a week you were fodder for a network “made-for” and that your life is now in heavy rotation in a syndication package or on Lifetime.

Cable television has expanded the outlets for moving image biography almost exponentially. A&E’s flagship program, Biography, began over 15 years ago, has produced hundreds – if not thousands – of hours of moving image biography (I was unable to find an exact number) and has evolved into a cable network. PBS’s The American Experience often focuses on biography and American Masters does so exclusively. Biographies turn up on The History Channel, VH1 in the form of Behind the Music, and on E! in the form of the E! True Hollywood Story . A formula, just as rigid as those ‘30s biopics, has been developed in which music or other entertainment stars battle to reach the top, battle drugs or the bottle or depression, and then battle to regain their self-esteem and get a shot on Behind the Music.

In recent years theatrical biopics have come back strong: Ed Wood, Shine, A Beautiful Mind, Pollack, Frida, De-Lovely, to name just a few. Even television celebrities have been accorded the big screen treatment: The Man in the Moon about Andy Kaufman, Auto-Focus on the life and sordid death of Bob Crane, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind on Chuck Barris. Independent films have also gravitated toward biography with I Shot Andy Warhol, Basquiat, Permanent Midnight , and many others. Biopics on Howard Hughes, Bobby Darrin, and cult pin-up model Betty Page are in production. Recent documentaries have seen figures as diverse as Charles Bukowski, the band Metallica, and architect Louis Kahn. Last year’s documentary hit Capturing the Friedmans can be seen as a family biography, pieced together with home movies and newly shot footage. In fact, I think that as we see more work done on home movies we’ll begin to recognize the collected movies and videos of any given family or extended family as a form of biography or autobiography, made in fits and starts over the years.

And it’s this idea of reconceptualizing biography, or seeing it in new ways vis-à-vis moving images, that is really interesting and that I think will be at the heart of this symposium. Despite the continuing popularity of biography and autobiography in the written form, it is probably safe to say that most people in the United States , and in fact in much of the world, now learn about the lives of others through moving images. Whether we’re talking news stories on television or segments of news magazine shows, feature-length documentaries, hour-long biographical profiles, Hollywood biopics, or any number of other moving image forms, lives are often played out, or at least secured in our memories, as a series of images. (In the just completed Democratic National Convention there was much talk of how John Kerry has to get his story, his biography out to the people. Footage of Kerry in Vietnam has played a key role in crafting that biography.)

Writing about the A&E Biography series a couple years ago, TV critic Richard Alleva asked,

But how good are the individual shows? The blunt answer: if the subject has been dead for more than a century and a half, the show is probably going to be a dud. The closer the subject's birthdate is to the mid-twentieth century and the more he or she has attracted the attention of cameras and microphones, the better the chances that this particular episode will be absorbing. Disraeli trumps Cleopatra because Disraeli was photographed; Edward VII trumps Disraeli because the king got photographed by movie cameras; Edward VIII trumps Edward VII because the later king was not only photographed but sound recorded; Churchill outdoes any king because he knew how to pose for the movie camera and shade his voice for the microphone; and Madonna trumps Winston because she knows as much about media as he did, and is sexy, too.

Alleva goes on:

But does the actual content of the life count for nothing? Biography scriptwriters churn out copy that is always simple, straightforward, and unrelievedly vanilla. A high school senior's term paper might contain more idiosyncrasy. But if, while listening to all this bland unfolding, you're also watching interesting film footage, the narration can no more sink the show than a droning tour guide can sabotage the spaciousness of the Grand Canyon.

In this equation, good footage equals good biography. Evidently a life well lived must be a life well filmed.

I’d like to suggest that as we move through the papers and presentation, we consider some overriding questions about the moving image as biography. I’m not sure that some questions are of much use – “what is real, or true, what is not true?” Those strike me as rather boring. But some of the questions we may want to entertain as we move along include:

  • What are the uses of moving image biography beyond simply recounting a life?
  • How has the moving image changed our notions of what constitutes biography?
  • What advantages or disadvantages does moving image biography hold over written accounts and vice-versa?
  • What are the inherent limitations of moving image biography, and how can they be overcome?
  • Can one make a moving image biography when there are no moving images to use? (Historical figures, people like J.D. Salinger, Thomas Pynchon.)
  • Does one formal strategy (narrative, documentary, experimental) have an advantage over others in creating moving image biographies or in conveying information?
  • Can we expand our notion of what constitutes biography – and especially moving image biography – beyond the lives of individuals to include the lives of groups or families, structures, works of art or culture?Do moving images have a biography?

These are simply things to keep in the back of your mind, questions that might stimulate discussion as we go along. I hope that you have an enjoyable and rewarding time at the symposium.