In light of two films that opened last weekend, I’m pondering exactly what a biopic is. Cesar Chavez, a respectful salute to the Chicano labor organizer, earned tepid reviews and modest returns at the box office. And then there was Noah, which over the weekend collected a cool $44 million domestically, plus another $95 million overseas. This despite protests from those concerned that Darren Aronofsky’s Bible epic misrepresents the word of God.
Cesar Chavez was very much a living figure when I was growing up. I well remember sitting down with fellow grad students for a picnic lunch. Suddenly we were all staring at the one newcomer to California who had innocently unpacked a bunch of grapes. It was the era of the grape boycott in support of farm workers, and none of us had eaten grapes in years. Chavez and his movement did a lot of good for those at the bottom of the social ladder. Still, Chavez was—like most great leaders—a sometimes problematic human being. An important new biography by Miriam Pawel, who like me is a member of Biographers International Organization, is catching flak from Chavez admirers because it dares to point out the great man’s flaws. This film apparently goes the other route; critics are griping that it makes Chavez seem little lower than the angels.
Which of course is a complaint that’s been leveled at many biopics, like Richard Attenborough’s reverent 1982 film, Gandhi. Hollywood, especially in its early days, liked nothing better than to present an historical figure as a hero: hence admiring (though heavily fictionalized) films about such high achievers as Emile Zola and Louis Pasteur. Today we tend to be fascinated by the reality behind the legend. For me one of the triumphs of Spielberg’s Lincoln was that it presented an admirable man, but not a flawless one.
A biopic can never be accepted as true biography because it involves actors taking on roles, and because there’s necessarily a compressing and a rearranging of incidents in order to tell a coherent story in a few hours’ time. Biographers, on the other hand, pride themselves on the lengths they will go to know everything about their subject. They conduct countless interviews, search through dusty archives, and chase down every possible lead. (No wonder biographies tend to be so very long.) A filmmaker might do some of the same research, but in the service of a relatively concise work of art, which means making major choices about what to condense and what to leave out.
I’m boggled by the fact that some religious folk are ready to condemn Noah, sight unseen, because they suspect it distorts the truths they find in the Bible. But a filmmaker working with the Bible is hardly overwhelmed by usable details. In the Book of Noah, we learn a fair amount about the size of the ark and the height of the waves, but virtually nothing about the key personalities involved. Like: how does Mrs. Noah feel about all this? And why exactly does Noah get drunk and get naked in his post-flood vineyard? And, if the children of Noah’s sons are expected to repopulate the earth, where exactly are they going to find mates who aren’t their first cousins? All of this is, needless to say, subject to interpretation. There are no eyewitnesses to interview, no old letters to study, so the filmmaker can only try to approach the text seriously and with good intentions. Aronofsky’s take on the Noah story may be a bit bonkers, but it’s hard to say it’s wrong.
Fans of biography may want to join me at this year’s conference of BIO, also known as the Biographers International Organization. It all happens on the University of Massachusetts’ Boston campus on Saturday, May 17. The public is most welcome.