Marlene: Modernity, Mortality, and the Biopic
Fischer, Lucy, Biography
THE SENSE OF AN ENDING
Cinema, once heralded as the art of the 20th century, seems now, as the century closes ... to he a decadent art. Perhaps it is not cinema that has ended hut only cinephilia--the name of the very specific kind of love that cinema inspired ... born of the conviction that cinema was an art unlike any other: quintessentially modern.
In a New York Times article written on the heels of centenary celebrations for the cinema, Susan Sontag sounded the death knell for the medium, and for the fanatic love that it once inspired. Drawing upon human/corporeal metaphors, she entitled her piece "The Decay of Cinema," and in an anthropomorphic gesture, she likened the history of the art form to an individual biography. "Cinema's 100 years seem to have the shape of a life cycle," she mused, "an inevitable birth, the steady accumulation of glories and the onset in the last decade of an ignominious, irreversible decline." But if one reads her article carefully, it is clear that Sontag is not so much bemoaning the death of all cinema as the end of a particular filmic mode beloved to her: namely, modernism. She speaks glowingly of the serials of Louis Feuillade (championed by the Surrealists), the work of Dziga Vertov (influenced by Futurism and Constructivism), and the dramas of F. W. Murnau (tied to Expressionism). Furthermore, her essay is illustrated with stills from such modernist "masterpieces" as Napoleon (1927), The 400 Blows (1959), and Persona (1967). Sontag is more disparaging of the "ignominious" contemporary cinema--which she sees not only as relentlessly commercial but as "bloated," "manipulative," and "derivative"--a "brazen combinatory or recombinatory art."
It is not difficult to read here, in her choice of language, allusions to postmodernism--with its highly touted strategies of excess, contrivance, and pastiche. But Sontag regrets not only the passing of modernist cinema, but the loss of respect for the passion it once generated. As she notes, "Cinephilia itself has come under attack, as something quaint, outmoded, snobbish." Again, the implied voices with which she argues are those of the postmodern critics, who challenge art cinema's alleged elitism, and instead valorize culture's connections to the popular. Clearly, Sontag's move here is a regressive one--as she sees the love of cinema inherently tied to its origins and history. Hence, Sontag speaks of the cinephile's "vast appetite for seeing and reseeing as much as possible of cinema's glorious past." For her, tradition is, by definition, superior: a remake of Godard's Breathless cannot possibly be as good as its source. Extending the trope of cinema as individual life, Sontag decries the recent shift t o video by remarking how "No amount of mourning will revive the vanished rituals ... of the darkened theater." "If cinema can be resurrected," she concludes, "it will only be through the birth of a new kind of cine-love."
These themes of individual and film history, of birth and death, of love and hate, of mourning and melancholia, circulate in a text that references issues of cinema and modernism--Marlene (1983), Maximilian Schell's experimental "biopic" about the famous movie star Marlene Dietrich. If Sontag sees a trajectory of success and decline in the lineage of the medium, that chronicle is doubled in the record of Dietrich's life, which begins at the turn of the century, precisely when the movies and the modernist aesthetic are in ascendancy, and ends in the 1990s, the heyday of Sontag's maligned postmodernism.
Truth value is a distinctive feature of the biopic.
--George Custen (60)
In the same New York Times elegy, Sontag mentions the thrill audiences experienced in 1895 "when the train pulled into the station." She is, of course, paying homage to the Lumiere Brothers' The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station--an early work which she chooses to illustrate in her text, thus granting it particular importance. In so doing, Sontag references the documentary form--the mode that Marlene simultaneously invokes and deconstructs. In truth, it is a genre not always linked to cinematic modernism. Though Sontag cites Dziga Vertov, an artist associated with the nonfiction form, the majority of her references are to dramatic filmmakers: Renoir, Truffaut, Bertolucci. Significantly, along with recording the arrival of trains (or exotic locales and everyday scenes), in a biographical impulse, the early documentary captured the lives of "stars": politicians like William McKinley "at home"; actors like Mary Irwin, John Rice, and Sarah Bernhardt in performance; or industrialists like M. Lumiere at breakfast with his family. In this respect, the documentary forged an early link between cinema and celebrity, one that the biopic later translated into fiction/dramatic form, and one which later still Schell would translate to Dietrich.
Clearly, what documentary film promised the spectator was a sense of a luminary's presence--a chance not only to see the dignitary, but to experience him or her at a closer range than quotidian circumstances would ever allow. It is precisely this aspiration that Schell's film perversely frustrates, for it is a star biography without a star. Though Dietrich contracted Schell to make the movie, ultimately she refused to appear on-camera in it.
What does Dietrich's defiance signify? What might it tell us about the cinema, the "biopic," film modernism, and the female star?
Soon, very soon maybe, Marlene Dietrich will slink across the screen again.... No, this isn't Buddhist reincarnation come to the entertainment world.... It's new computer technology that soon should be good enough to resurrect the dead.
Pursuing Sontag's call for a return to cinema's roots, I will reexamine the work of a classical film theorist in order to investigate these questions. In "The Ontology of the Photographic Image," Andre Bazin (1918-1958) seeks to comprehend the "essence" of cinema. Assuming a highly modern stance (and again, treating the medium like a human life), he concludes that if cinema were "put under psychoanalysis, the practice of embalming the dead might turn out to be a fundamental factor in [its] creation" (9). While on some level, all biography might be thought to "embalm the dead," or to be "aimed against death," as Bazin imagines, for him the cinematic image has a special capacity to capture an individual's existence, since it seems to assure the "continued existence of the corporeal body" (9). In her essay "Film and Theater," Sontag herself makes a similar point: "Movies resurrect …
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Publication information: Article title: Marlene: Modernity, Mortality, and the Biopic. Contributors: Fischer, Lucy - Author. Journal title: Biography. Volume: 23. Issue: 1 Publication date: Winter 2000. Page number: 193. © 2008 University of Hawaii Press. COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group.
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