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Reviewed by:
  • The Biopic in Contemporary Film Culture ed. by Tom Brown, Belén Vidal
  • Jean Petrolle (bio)
Tom Brown and Belén Vidal, eds. The Biopic in Contemporary Film Culture London: Routledge, 2013. 328pp. ISBN 978-0415899413, £29.99/$42.95.

The introduction to The Biopic in Contemporary Film Culture calls the biographical picture, or biopic, a “troublesome genre” (1). The trouble arises from a tendency among Hollywood biopics to utilize formulaic plot structures, deploy melodramatic clichés, and re-inscribe politically obnoxious ideological formations. These tendencies have made the biopic a target of “critical derision,” largely for its capacity to approach history and reality with irresponsible naiveté, as if the act of representation had no effect on either (2). The essays presented in this volume by co-editors Tom Brown and Belén Vidal call for critical re-assessment of the biopic, given that the genre transcends national boundaries and has, like other genres and cultural forms, evolved modernist and postmodernist forms that resist Hollywood’s cradle-to-grave formulas, emotional heavy-handedness, and oversimplicity. Vidal and Brown set out to “take the study of the genre beyond its associations with studio filmmaking and Hollywood myth-making, to look at the international life of the biopic through its hybrid forms, narratives and politics” (2). They succeed.

No anthology could provide a complete overview of a genre’s global permutations, but The Biopic in Contemporary Film Culture gestures effectively toward the varieties of cultural work performed by filmic biography across an array of national and ethnic identities. A majority of the volume’s essays support Vidal’s assertion that “life writing cannot be separated from nation writing,” with numerous essays investigating how the biopic acts as mediator, constructor, and purveyor of French, English, US, Indian (Hindi), South Korean, Russian, Jewish, and Italian national and/or ethnic identities (23). Adequate treatment of Hollywood’s contributions to biopic conventions emerges [End Page 797] from the repeated references throughout the volume’s essays to critical touch-stones provided by George Custen, Dennis Bingham, and Hayden White, but to its credit, the volume follows through on its stated commitment to exploring the genre as it is practiced outside the bounds of classical cinema.

Among the most valuable insights that arise from the anthology’s plurality of voices are its considerations of how the culture of instantaneity inaugurated by television and social media have affected the biopic. In her essay “Il Divo: The Biopic, Counter-history, and Cine/politics in the Twenty-first Century,” Marcia Landy writes “Time in its smallest circuits brings past and present into coexistence, the present being actual, the past virtual—a (historical) process in which the spectator is situated in a position of indeterminacy with regard to the Truth” (244). The essays collected in this volume make clear that all contemporary biopics are grappling with this fact of the Digital Age, with greater and lesser degrees of self-consciousness. Vidal’s, Rebecca A. Sheehan’s, and Jesse Schlotterbeck’s contributions, which explore biopics about still-living figures, naturally highlight the postmodern biopic’s awareness that “reality” and “identity” are, at this point in history, always already mediated by televisual and digital representation. The biopics investigated in this trio of essays aim not just to “picture” a living subject, but to picture how that subject pictures himself and/or how he is pictured by the barrage of media that produces celebrity. Author after author illustrates that contemporary biopics demonstrate considerable sophistication about the ontological complexities of the image. Taken together, the essays show plainly that the biopic is a genre through which a culture represents both the past and the present to itself—often intervening in political and cultural dynamics still unfolding as the biopic is released.

The contemporary biopic has evolved a repertoire of formal strategies capable of subverting the genre’s tendency to oversimplify the relationship between the film and its subject. The volume’s last section may be of particular interest to readers inclined to associate the genre with its most routine commercial manifestations. Part Three: Icons and Auteurs surveys the range of non-realist techniques deployed in the service of complicating the film/reality relationship. The...


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