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Biography 23.1 (2000) 193-211

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Marlene: Modernity, Mortality, and the Biopic

Lucy Fischer


The Sense of an Ending

Cinema, once heralded as the art of the 20th century, seems now, as the century closes . . . to be a decadent art. Perhaps it is not cinema that has ended but 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.

--Susan Sontag

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 [End Page 193] 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 to 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.

Documentary Desire

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 Lumiére 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...


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