Melodramas for Middlebrows

If we lived in a socialist country and I had the good fortune to be named Minister of Culture with North Korean type powers to dictate what gets made, the first thing I would do is consign the biopic genre to the ashbin of history. That is my reaction to “The Theory of Everything”, “The Imitation Game”, and “Get on Up”, three DVD’s that were part of the 99 films I received from publicists in advance of the 2014 New York Film Critics Online awards meeting on Sunday. The first two are worshipful treatments of Stephen Hawking and Alan Turing and the third is just the opposite, a look down one’s nose at James Brown.

Such films are made to order for the middlebrow tastes of most critics who regard them as “serious” works, as if they could ever match up to the written biography they are often based on. For the most part, they are the equivalent of the comic book versions of the classics I used to read in sixth grade until I was able to finally work my way through “Ivanhoe” or “Last of the Mohicans”.

It is not too hard to figure out the basic flaw of the biopic. Unless you have never heard of James Brown, you have a pretty good idea of how the movie starts, begins and ends. Of course, Alan Turing is a much more obscure figure but you can bet that the audience for “The Imitation Game” will not be made up of 15-year-olds who chose it over the latest Hobbit movie after finally making up their minds: “Hmmm. What’s more fun? Colossal battles between elves and fire-breathing dragons or eccentric homosexuals trying to crack Nazi cryptography?”

For Aristotle, literature (what he calls poetics) involves suspense. He writes: “Two parts, then, of the Plot—Reversal of the Situation and Recognition—turn upon surprises.” So, in a film like “Chinatown”, we gasp when we hear Faye Dunaway say, “She’s my sister and she’s my daughter” almost the same way that Greek audiences gasped during “Oedipus Rex”. On the other hand, there’s no suspense when we watch a biopic about Stephen Hawking. We know the plot from a thousand and one human-interest stories on venues like “60 Minutes”. All that is left for us is to nudge our date and say, “What an amazing impersonation of Stephen Hawking Eddie Redmayne does”.

“The Theory of Everything” starts with Hawking studying physics at Cambridge University where he meets a woman at a dance named Jane Wilde who is studying literature. In the course of their conversation, he professes his atheism to her, which disappoints her—she is a serious Christian. For someone studying cosmology, he explains, God only gets in the way.

Notwithstanding their differences and his lack of social graces, they begin to fall in love. One day as he is walking across the campus, he falls on his face and is injured badly enough to be taken to the hospital where he learns that he has a neurological disorder that will cause his death within two years. (We know of course that he beats the odds.)

His first reaction is to send Jane Wilde on her way since they have no future. She insists, however, that she loves him and wants to share a life with him even if it is for a brief period. They then get married and bring three children into the world while he becomes a world-class scientist whose disabilities do not stand in the way.

What the film entirely lacks is an engagement with the theories that made him so respected. This is presumably a function of the written material it is based on, namely Jane Wilde Hawking’s memoir about their marriage. (They eventually divorced but remained friends over the years.) This is an inspirational love story about a commitment a woman makes to a man with a terrible disability but if you are at all interested in how Hawking combined quantum mechanics and relativity theory to explain how the universe began, that’s outside the framework of the film except mentioned two or three times in passing.

It that is the sort of thing that would make you care about Stephen Hawking, you’re better off watching “Particle Fever” on Netflix, the documentary about the search for the Higgs boson in the CERN Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. There is more awe and wonder in five minutes of that film, which got my nomination for best documentary of 2014, than in all of “The Theory of Everything”.

The film that “The Theory of Everything” has most in common with is “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”, a 1997 French film about a quadriplegic who dictates a book using his left eyelid. Some critics found it inspirational. I found it limited as film, even though I can imagine that the book it was based on—the very one produced by his left eyelid—was a great read. There will always be a need for literature, the source of all wonder going back to Aristotle’s day.

The same problems exist with “The Imitation Game”. This is another film about a British scientist dealing with obstacles put in his path, in Alan Turing’s case his secret life as a gay man.

Starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing, the film opens with his character showing up for what amounts to a job interview at Bletchley, Britain’s code-breaking headquarters. Turing is there to join a cadre of scientists trying to decipher Nazi military cables sent through the Enigma machine, the encryption gold standard of its day.

In order to make what amounts to a totally cerebral enterprise appealing to a mass American audience afflicted with Adult Attention Deficit Disorder, the screenwriter decided to turn this into a story about Turing’s struggle against a hidebound military bureaucracy. He had to overcome huge odds to build a decoding machine that was in many ways a forerunner to the modern computer. Turing is written as a fussy, arrogant, cold, and monomaniacal Genius contending with shortsighted authoritarians more concerned with staying within budget than winning the war.

Turing is also depicted as being in constant conflict with his peers who had been working without much success to crack the Nazi code. They don’t stand in his way to the same degree as the military brass but still they are ordinary mortals. I could not help but think of another project going on at the same time headed up by a vain and prickly sort in whose hands the survival of humanity rests. I speak of course of Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project, another man with secrets—in his case Communist sympathies rather than homosexuality.

As drama, the conflict between Turing and the mere mortals, who hold him back like the Lilliputians tying down Gulliver, becomes a one-note and wearisome theme. Yes, we get it. Turing was going to save the world even though he could be a total jerk.

The problem with this, besides its tediousness, is that it had hardly anything to do with Allen Hodges’s biography of Turing, upon which the film is based. I read through a hundred pages and could find no hint of the conflict between Turing and the military or his workmates. In just one of the more telling differences between the biopic and the biography, Turing is portrayed as writing to Churchill to keep the project going whereas in fact the letter was co-signed by all the scientists he worked with.

Just as importantly, there is no indication that the Turing machine was an extension of a Polish decoder that the British inherited. Turing’s contribution was to build in probability logic that made the ultimate success possible, saving millions of lives in the process.

And, finally, as was the case with “The Theory of Everything”, there is not the slightest attention paid to the underlying science. Hodges’s book is much more about the science underlying decoding than anything else. Page after page is filled with explanations on how encryption works rather than Turing’s personality.

There is even enough reason to doubt the melodramatic claim that Turing took his life because he was forced to take a medical hormonal treatment to “cure” his sexual preference for his own sex after being arrested. Since he was using cyanide to dissolve gold in experiments in his tiny apartment, he might have accidentally inhaled the fumes. According to Wikipedia, Turing had survived the arrest and hormone treatment, which had been actually been discontinued a year earlier, “with good humour” and displayed no suicidal tendencies prior to his death. Indeed, he wrote down a list of tasks he intended to complete upon return to his office in a few days.

About the best thing you can say about “Get on Up” is that it has some great James Brown performances even though Chadwick Boseman is obviously lip-syncing and can’t dance a lick.

Otherwise, the film is a complete mess. Screenwriter Jez Butterworth, who co-wrote it with his kid brother John-Henry, counts Harold Pinter as a major influence. That might explain the art film pretensions of “Get on Up”, even though I wouldn’t blame that on the late and great playwright.

The Butterworths, a couple of white Englishmen, must have decided to break with biopic conventions and use a stylized flashback technique that subverted any attempt to put together a coherent narrative. The film jumps back and forth between different periods of James Brown’s life at such an accelerated rate that you almost feel like you are trapped in a time machine that has gone haywire.

Furthermore, each of the vignettes that make up the narrative are so disconnected from each other that you begin to fog out. The screenwriters must have decided that a straightforward approach to the James Brown story was inadequate to convey the deeper truths about a troubled and troubling man. By fragmenting his life into dozens of shards, you lose track of what made Brown such a personality, a man who antagonized his band members and loved ones to the point where he was living in total isolation even though he was a superstar known everywhere in the world.

My suggestion is to ignore this awful film, even when it becomes available on Netflix. You are better off watching Alex Gibney’s “Mr. Dynamite: the Rise of James Brown” on HBO Streaming, a documentary that gives the devil his due. You hear members of his band describe how they got cheated out of their pay, and women about his violence. But you also get a good idea of what made his music so special. Although he could not read music, Brown put together and led a band filled with some of the most gifted and innovative musicians Black America has produced since the days of Count Basie.

Just to cite on instance, Peewee Ellis, a saxophone player, wrote the tune “Cold Sweat” based on Miles Davis’s “So What”. As he tells Gibney, he was “into Miles” at the time. Miles Davis returned the favor a few years later when he recorded albums like “On the Corner”, that without James Brown’s funk could have never existed.

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.


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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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