Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Art of the Biopic

The genre of the biopic is one that we've seen perpetuated year after year, normally used as the latest Oscar-bait. This year alone, we've got films on Stephen Hawking (The Theory of Everything), Alan Turing (The Imitation Game), Martin Luther King Jr. (Selma), Chris Kyle (American Sniper), James Brown (Get on Up), Jimi Hendrix (Jimi: All is By My Side) and Louis Zamperini (Unbroken), among others. Meanwhile, biopics on the lives of Elvis Presley, Dr. Seuss, John Belushi, Marvin Gaye and Tupac are all in development (some arguably in development hell). I am at once fatigued by and intrigued by the biopic boom of the last few years. The genre has always been around, but there's been an insane spike in their prominence in the last 5 years. One part of me is excited at the prospect of seeing a film about a famous figure, but another part is aware of the rote structure these films often follow and dreads seeing that structure play out once again, playing it safe and often trying to appeal to Academy tastes.
What I'm getting at is that the biopic, despite its frequent misuse, has the capacity to do something truly fascinating with its subject. A perfect example of such a film would be one of my favorite films of all time and perhaps the most unique biopic I've ever watched: Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. Released in 1985 and directed by Paul Schrader (the writer of Taxi Driver and another biopic, Raging Bull), the film takes a controversial figure (author Yukio Mishima) and juxtaposes his novels with the events of his life, creating a complex portrait of the man in the process. It's criminally underseen, but a textbook example of the artistic heights a biopic can reach.

As the title suggests, the film is split into four segments: "Beauty", "Art", "Action" and "Harmony of Pen and Sword." In doing so, it clearly defines four significant periods in the subject's life, tracing the evolution of Mishima's thought process from the raw feelings and observations of his childhood to the deeply-set ideologies of his later life. Except for the last segment, each chapter pairs real life events with  highly cinematic recaps of 3 books and plays written by Mishima, sprinkling moments from his final day in between (moments that build to a shocking climax that becomes more foreseeable and understandable as the film progresses). 
The scenes set in Mishima's past are shot in black and white, the adaptation sequences are shot in vibrant color and the events of Mishima's final day are shot in slightly desaturated color (a fitting choice, considering that it is a culmination of the subject's real life journey and the ideas of his work: "The Harmony of Pen and Sword"). Black and white sequences are sometimes narrated by Mishima (Ken Ogata) and they are somewhat subdued in nature. Music is either absent or low in volume and open air locations are used. For the adaptations, Philip Glass's brilliant score is ever-present and everything is clearly shot in a studio, with highly-stylized production design, artificial skies, brightly-lit sets, sudden changes in lighting and expressive framing that calls attention to the scenes' artificiality.
I could go on and on with the screenshots, as one could put together an entire coffee table book based on the cinematography of this film. Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is visually stunning, but the imagery serves a purpose. Clever editing links the stories with real with action (a common theme in Mishima's work and ultimately the very thing that defined his life. As we watch Mishima's course in life take shape, so too does the conviction of his work. Quite simply, the stories begin to mirror the man. Each adaptation sequence cuts off just before their stories' conclusions, only to return in a montage accenting the subject's final act, the last images of these individual works coalescing into a single, transcendent narrative encompassing the scope of Mishima's life and idealistically capturing the meaning of his death.
The real Yukio Mishima on the day of his death
Going into the film, I knew nothing about Yukio Mishima. Since that first viewing, two years ago, I have read his biography and "Confessions of a Mask," which is perhaps his most celebrated work and one that is heavily autobiographical. Few biopics (or just films in general) cause me to become so infatuated with their real-life subject that I hunt down any literature I can find to learn more. Part of it is due to the enigmatic draw of Mishima, himself. The man was a celebrity in his home country of Japan, but is largely unknown in the U.S. No stranger to the media, he was both withdrawn and charismatic, applauded by many for his writing and reviled by others for his ideologies. He wore many masks, the most prominent being that of a straight man in a world that would not accept anything different. Wrestling with his own masculinity, Mishima hated himself for the cowardice he displayed in feigning sickness to avoid the war and trained his newfound discipline inward, embracing the idea of physical beauty and taking up bodybuilding. He came to subscribe to the samurai spirit, believing in the honor of ritual suicide and campaigning for the reinstitution of power to the emperor (a marriage of ideas that led to his own voluntary death on November 25, 1970). 
To any future directors aspiring to make biopics: watch Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters and take note! Without ever surrendering creativity and never stooping to the "greatest hits mode" that many biopics go to, summarizing a life by covering all the famous moments (I'm looking at you, Amelia), the film beautifully evokes the essence of the artist and revolutionary that was Yukio Mishima. It gets the interior and the exterior, his media presence and concept of self-image, while also developing his burgeoning nationalist identity as a narrative through line. The film's approach will not fit every subject (I can't see a film about Barack Obama, say, or Pete Rose working in the same way), but it remains that Mishima does everything a biopic should do and more: expressively inform the viewer of a subject's life (be they obscure or known by all), artistically evoke what they stand for, capturing that indescribable thing that makes them interesting in the first place, and foster further research. 

This is how you tell a life...Who knew it only took four chapters to do so?

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