Filled with Big Ideas, Images, and Distorted Facts: The Pastiche of Todd Haynes' I'm Not There

By Grochowski, Thomas | Post Script, Fall 2017 | Go to article overview

Filled with Big Ideas, Images, and Distorted Facts: The Pastiche of Todd Haynes' I'm Not There


Grochowski, Thomas, Post Script


THE POSTMODERN BIOPIC

The term "postmodern biopic" is the product of the twenty-first century, though the phrase has been used to describe at least one twentieth-century film, Girard's 1993 Twenty-two Short Films About Glenn Gould (Diffrient). Perhaps it is not surprising, in the context of adaptation studies and film genre studies, that the biopic would come late to the postmodern party, as a genre that is rooted in the lives of historical figures. If postmodernism, as a mode of aesthetic practice and as system of thought, has tried to erase the border between a sign and the thing being signified, or, an "original" and a "copy," the biopic has until recently remain basically rooted in, if not the truth, then at least to a notion of an actual, lived person whose story can be told, even if that story is reshaped and transformed at will (as in the case of Steve Rash's 1978 The Buddy Holly Story, which owes very little to the history of Holly's short life). Perhaps not coincidentally, adaptation studies began to question the usefulness of "fidelity" as a form of critical assessment in the very late twentieth century (Stam 75), around the time that film genre studies began to re-think its mid-twentieth-century conventional "rise and fall" narrative structure, often simplified as the genre's reaching its "nadir" when genre parodies appear. In such a narrative, for example, the rock music biopic has recently reached its ebb with Jake Kasdan's Walk Hard: the Dewey Cox Story (2007), which parodies the then-recent biopics made about the lives of Johnny Cash and Ray Charles but also mocks the generic tropes of the rock and roll biopic.

The examples I've mentioned are not random; it makes sense that biopics about musicians would be among the first to "cross" into postmodern territory, given the close relationship of music biopics to the musical, and the musical's relationship to reflexivity, a genre of self-consciousness sometimes associated with postmodernism (see Feuer). Jesse Schlotterbeck sees several mid-2000's biopics as borrowing very heavily from the musical genre, with performance numbers serving purposes akin to their classical musical counterparts. While this in and of itself does not mean that we deal with postmodernity in a film like Taylor Hackford's Ray (2004) or James Mangold's Walk the Line (2005), we can see clearly the strains of postmodernism in Beyond the Sea (2004), Kevin Spacey's quasi-biopic about the life and art of Bobby Darin. Spacey's film, ostensibly about Darin making his own biopic, starring himself, engages in its own internal conversation about the nature of storytelling, of identity and art, dividing "Bobby Darin," a stage name, into multiple iterations. These iterations include a conversation on the movie set where Spacey's Darin walks up to the boy-actor playing the young Bobby. "So you're playing me?" he asks; the boy responds, "I am you," marking the beginning of a meditation on the relationship between art and life, especially the blurring of boundaries between them. Beyond the Sea is a kind of warm-up for Todd Haynes' 2007 I'm Not There.

No recent biopic has been tagged as postmodern more than I'm Not There, whose subject, Bob Dylan, is evoked but whose identity is divided among seven different personae as performed by six different actors, one of whom plays an actor who gains fame in a biopic of one of the other personas. This essay explores the limits of postmodernism as an approach to adaptation, especially in the contexts of the representations of the life and art of a popular music performer who proved quite adept at changing and transforming his style and his public persona. Despite its formal narrative complexity, I'm Not There ultimately creates at best meditations on the biopic genre itself--and by extension, meditations on the nature of cinematic adaptation--but at worst, it tends toward "flattening" its subject/s as either postmodern narcissist or one-dimensional pastiche--and by extension, suggesting the limitations of adaptation as a mode of practice and as a distinct narratological category. …

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