Several years ago, I read a very touching story of an English couple who had gone to an assisted-suicide clinic in Switzerland to end their lives together. The wife, in her seventies, was a television producer, choreographer, and former ballerina. She had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Her ailing, eighty-five year old husband, was a former BBC conductor and Verdi specialist.
Sir Edward Downes and his wife, Joan, both agreed to terminate their lives at the Dignitas clinic outside of Zurich. Members of their family were at the bedside of the couple and watched the elderly couple eventually die.
A biopic, a non-documentary film that dramatizes the life of a real, historical person, presents a challenge not only to film-makers but to audiences as well. Accuracy issues are always at stake when a director decides to do a dramatic narrative about a famous person, particularly about someone who carries a lot of mythological baggage.
If movie audiences have even a faint knowledge of the historical character, they will come armed with predisposed beliefs about how a character should be portrayed. Hagiographers and groupies are going to be particularly difficult to convince if a film’s portrayal violates their own notions of their heroes.
Over the many years that I have been in alcohol recovery, I still remain grateful that alcohol rehabs were available when I first chose to stop drinking. During the first year of my sobriety, I continued to go to an out-patient counselor whose professional experience proved to be invaluable.
However, around the last month of my first year as an out-patient, I began to sense a need for closure. My counselor also seemed to have run out of material, and I had sensed that his usefulness was beginning to become more frayed. It wasn’t that he had suddenly become an incompetent counselor; it was just that recovery issues for him were limited to the more immediate, day-to-day behaviors and relationships during that first year. He was not trained to deal with deeper, more chronic psychological/psychiatric issues.
Vittoria de Sica’s classic 1947 film, The Bicycle Thief, has probably been written about more than any other film in history. At one time, film audiences considered it to be the best film ever made; unfortunately, it has slipped off the charts in recent times.
I have longed maintained that films consistently use visual and auditory images as stories in and of themselves. They often become complementary social plots replete with cultural values and world-view perceptions. The central story line in many classic films becomes more than just ornamented with these visual and auditory images, it often becomes a kind of call-and-response complement to the less evident images of a film.
Insanity as a literary theme has always had an audience—those ardent peeping-Toms who love to wallow around in somebody else’s mania. And there is something about the draw of a house fire or a mangled car on the Interstate that seeps into our indifference with the power of a jackhammer.
In a recent Harper’s Magazine essay, “Go Forth and Falsify,” William Gass made the comment that a “storyteller’s assignment…was to glorify the past and its daring, protect the family tree, justify male ownership of land…” among other obligations.
It appeared at first glance that Gass had no aesthetic sympathy with the classic role of the “bard” telling what Gass calls “the first stories.” Nor did he seem to support the classic “storyteller’s assignment” in his laundry list of the teller’s obligations. In this sense, he was merely the messenger telling us what the old bard’s role and obligations used to be.