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Film and Video Self-Biographies

From: Biography
Volume 23, Number 1, Winter 2000
pp. 176-192 | 10.1353/bio.1999.0015

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Biography 23.1 (2000) 176-192

Biography is a multimedia genre; it exists in oral, written, and audiovisual forms. Since the late 1960s, a sizable corpus of biographical films and videos has steadily grown, spurred by the popularity of television documentaries about celebrity subjects. The most familiar example of cinematic biography, what I term "traditional," typically celebrates the accomplishments of the subject in a chronological structure using photographic stills, film footage, and accounts of contemporaries or experts, with a narrator providing voice-over bridging commentary. Increasingly, directors are inserting sequences of dramatic reconstructions as well. Subgenres of cinematic biography include the biographical sketch, a brief account of a subject's life, focusing on factors that contributed to the subject's present state; self-biographies, hybrid forms combining traits of biography and autobiography; investigative biographies, works that examine the guilt or innocence of the subject, or attempt to get at the truth of some inquiry; biographical concert performances, a specialized form that captures a star's experiences during a concert tour; ethnographic films and videos, works that seek to document the culture of a specific geographic or cultural region; mixed or hybrid forms, newly evolving formats that combine the characteristics of two or more genres or subgenres, such as autobiography, investigative biography, and self-biography; biographical docudrama, biopics that use performers and recreations to simulate actual people and events; and moc docs, which are "documentary parodies, fake documentaries, and invented biographies and autobiographies" (Muhammad 36).

This essay defines the concept of a performing identity, and examines how a subject deploys this public identity in the subgenre of self-biography. I will evaluate the effect of the subject's performance and sense of celebrity on the director and on the final product of the cinematic self-biography. The director's control of the complexity of the biographical treatment will also be examined. My purpose in scrutinizing both an early example of this subgenre and recent developments in the form is to clarify important features and to call attention to the subgenre's potential to produce very contrived life stories.

I have chosen to focus on this subgenre because it raises performance and ethical issues that distinguish cinematic biography from written biography. Written and cinematic biographers confront different challenges, and work by somewhat different standards, because of the nature of the media they employ. Cinematic biographies, for example, are collaborative works, making the question "Whose text is this?" a debatable issue. Moreover, the time limitations of a visual medium preempt the depth of analysis found in a literary biography. Directors of cinematic biographies, therefore, need to resist the temptation to simplify the narrative by resorting to stereotyping for economy of presentation and mass audience appeal. Further, because of the technological naiveté of many non-celebrity subjects, directors may be tempted to objectify the subject, or to violate in other ways the ethical parameters of the genre, to be more competitive in the market place.

The Performing Identity

If, as Linda Wagner-Martin suggests, written biography can in a certain sense be described as "the enactment of cultural performance" (8), cinematic biography relies on performance to an even greater extent. The presence of a camera in a documentary production sets up a frame, keying a performance. Although cinematic biographies of necessity achieve less in-depth coverage of a subject's life course than is achieved by biographers in written works, this limitation is often offset by the actual participation of the subject. Moreover, in cinematic biography the documentarist often contextualizes the subject -- through interviews with family, friends, colleagues, and critics, and through collaborative vérité sequences, such as group discussions. These interviewees are also performing; thus the subject's performance is situated within a web of other performances.

In written biography, "the biographer must accept or reject a subject's self-definition" (Wagner-Martin 8). In cinematic biography where the live subject participates in the documentary, his or her self-definition, conveyed through performance, is a key aspect of the documentary. The director evaluates and comments on the subject's self-definition indirectly through directorial choices such as editing, framing, selection of interviewees, and so forth.

Complicating the subject's participation in the biographical...