THE MARTYR WITH A THOUSAND FACES

Dead celebrities are big business. Just look at the lucrative Hollywood biopic industry. Currently in production are motion pictures based on the lives of Freddy Mercury, Tupac Shakur, Josephine Baker, Sam Cooke, Whitney Houston, Sammy Davis Jr., Hank Williams, Marvin Gaye, Miles Davis, Brian Epstein (again), Michael Jackson (again), Elvis Presley (again), Marilyn Monroe (again), John Belushi (again), and Bessie Smith, just to name too many. In the coming years, these will join the ranks of La Bamba, Selena, Ray, Walk the Line, Beyond the Sea, Control, Great Balls of Fire, The Killing of John Lennon, Notorious, Behind The Candelabra, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, the (at least) two Buddy Holly biopics, The Buddy Holly Story and The Day The Music Died, etc.

It’s a broad genre, with diverse offshoots. There’s an NWA film in production, and a film about Mötley Crüe (technically pronounced Moitley Croyah.) Some seem like bad jokes: Take Me Home, The John Denver Story, Meat Loaf: To Hell and Back, Madonna: Innocence Lost, Too Legit: The MC Hammer Story. (Before you waste your time puzzling out exactly when it was Madonna could still spare some innocence, or when MC Hammer was too legit, the answer is, sadly, never.)

There are reimaginings. Velvet Goldmine, about a David-Bowie-type-guy and an Iggy-Pop-type-guy doing David-Bowie-Iggy-Pop-type things—which will make you wish you could beat director Todd Haynes into a coma with a copy of Ziggy Stardust—and Last Days, Gus Van Sant’s take on the Kurt Cobain story. There are riffs on reality, too, like 8 Mile and Get Rich or Die Tryin’, fictionalized accounts of the lives of rappers Eminem and 50 Cent, respectively.

But it seems the grace period between death and celluloid immortalization has gotten shorter. Even Mel Gibson had the decency to wait two millennia before he filmed his Jesus biopic, and Oliver’s Stone’s heavily-embellished The Doors (1991) waited patiently on the stoop for twenty-five years. But the more recent Jobs (2013,) the Steve Jobs film starring Ashton Kutcher (surely a career-ender for some unfortunate casting director) came out so rapidly, they had to be working on the script while the Apple CEO was still on his deathbed.

Celebrities aren’t dying quickly enough for the studios, that much is clear. There are several films in production about stars who aren’t even dead yet: the previously mentioned NWA and Moitley Croyah, but also Ozzy Osbourne, Aretha Franklin, Mike Tyson. (One imagines an air of anticipation on the sets of these films, reminiscent as they are of the thirty-second memorial montages of aging stars that major television networks prepare in advance of their deaths.)

Virtually guaranteed to turn a profit, or at least break even, celebrity biopics bring built-in fan bases, and they often provide accolades, even Oscars, for the actors cast to portray the leads. The Hollywood hype machines trumpet the lengths they go to get into character. The adoption of mannerisms—characteristic tics, shuffling walks, regional dialects. The rigorous training routines. The loss or gain of hundreds of pounds. Recent case in point: the remarkable transformation of John Cusack in Love and Mercy, a biopic about a man The Atlantic refers to as “doomed” Beach Boy Brian Wilson (mental illness aside, one must question the use of the word doomed, considering that Brian Wilson, at a ripe seventy-two, with several gold records and Grammys under his belt, is in reasonably good physical health and is astonishingly wealthy.)

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The remarkably transformed John Cusack

Sometimes, the actors are so distractingly famous that latex appliances are required to aid in the suspension of disbelief. Nicole Kidman glues on a prosthetic nose, fills her pockets with rocks, walks into a pond . . . and Oscar history. And ever since January there has been loud speculation about the Oscar-worthiness of Steve Carell’s prosthetic-nose-informed performance in Foxcatcher, the John du Pont biopic.

Of course it’s not just musicians, there are doomed artists—Basquiat, Frida, Camille Claudel, Pollock, and writers—Gothic, Barfly, Henry and June, Basketball Diaries, Shadowlands, Total Eclipse, Wilde. Two Truman Capote films, Infamous and Capote, hit the screens within a year of each other. How long will it be before we see a (possibly) delusional Helen Mirren agree to the release of Go Set a Watchman from the dayroom of an assisted-living facility in Monroeville, Alabama?

THE END OF THE TOUR

So when the trailer for The End of The Tour—the David Foster Wallace biopic—surfaced recently on the internet, I thought of course. It was inevitable.

Wallace killed himself on September 12, 2008.

The book by David Lipsky, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, was published on April 13, 2010.

The film based on Lipsky’s book is due in theaters July 31st, which—while not exactly a turnaround of Jobs rapidity—is still fairly quick.

ABUNDANT DISCLAIMERS

I haven’t seen The End of The Tour, and frankly, except for the David Lynch essay and a few interviews, I haven’t read Wallace. Oh, I’ve got the doorstop, like everybody, in paperback and on Kindle, and one day I’ll read it. (Maybe. 2666 just about killed me last year.) And I know I’m not alone. There are plenty of people out there just like me. I have witnessed shamefaced admissions from writers much smarter and better educated than myself who simply haven’t yet gotten around to reading Infinite Jest.

And Wallace doubted whether many of the reviewers so quick to jump on the adoration bandwagon had actually read it, either: “[I feel] a certain amount of ambivalence about the reception that Infinite Jest got. This is a long difficult book, and a lot of the attention came at a time when—I mean, I can do elementary arithmetic—a lot of people hadn’t had enough time to read the book yet. So, the stuff about me, or interesting rumors that developed about the book, and all that stuff getting attention—I didn’t like that very much, because I wanted people to read the book.” –from an interview on Charlie Rose, 1997. (Wallace’s family was opposed to the production of The End of The Tour because, “That’s the last thing he would have wanted,” and when one reads quotes like the above, it’s hard to imagine that he would have.)

Anyway, it was incredibly brave of me to admit to not having read the book. I think we can all agree to that. Despite this deficiency, I have completely absorbed the idea that David Foster Wallace was a tragic wunderkind and we could all learn a lot from him—if not about life, or how to deal with depression, then at least how to reexamine the art of the novel.

I’m certain that David Lipsky made an earnest effort to mirror reality when he wrote the book and directed the film. I can’t begin to imagine what a daunting task it must have been, not only to author a book of adapted conversations organized in such a way as to accurately reveal the workings of a complex mind, but also to create something dramatic out of the material. The pastoral epistolary Vincent (1987) meets the two-hours-of-a-couple-of-guys talking My Dinner with Andre (1981.) Good luck. Is there a flat tire in there somewhere? A stop at a convenience store for Slushies? God, I hope so.

I’ve got nothing but esteem for the actor cast to portray Wallace, Jason Segel. He played the lovelorn Nick Andopolis on Freaks and Geeks with an impulsiveness and vulnerability that I’ve always admired. I have never watched How I Met Your Mother, but I assume he’s good in that, too.

 ~

But watching the trailer for The End of The Tour triggered a series of ruminations about the conjunction of the Western cult of genius, the fascination with terminated potential, and what I like to call The Hollywood Martyr Machine, which I imagine as a celebrity-consuming capitalist juggernaut that exchanges factually inaccurate moral fantasies for the price of admission, that exchanges fact for the wishful projections of scriptwriters, directors, and producers on the significance and lives of the dead.

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The remarkably moist Nicole Kidman

OH SHIT, THEY’RE TOTALLY GOING TO FUCK UP SOMETHING I CARE DEEPLY ABOUT

Call it The Peter Jacksoning. When wrongheaded art direction trespasses on cherished childhood fantasies.

As someone who is kind of a writer and sort of an intellectual, and who has a passing association with professional writers—serious folks, MFA types, published novelists, poets—you don’t want to admit that you ever considered Jack Kerouac anything but a hack, one who types but cannot write, because that would mean you’re a simpleton. Someone better off doing find-the-word puzzles and reading Peanuts than scribbling. Someone who would never get around to reading Infinite Jest.

So don’t do that, OK?

But On The Road was one of my first grownup books, and I still have a weepy fondness for it. The Beats, too. Because if you don’t do college or attend MFA programs, that’s your intro to reading and writing—Ginsberg and Corso and Burroughs and the rest.

So when I heard that they were making a glossy version of On the Road with a bunch of cheekbony fashion-model-types and choreographed dance routines, I wanted to drive out to Hollywood and stuff the original coiled up manuscript straight down their sacrilegious moneygrubbing throats.

But my animosity for biopics didn’t begin there.

ACTUALLY, A ROSE IS THE ROSE OF MYSTERIOUS UNION

I lived in San Francisco in 1991, when Oliver Stone was filming the Haight-Ashbury-Summer-of-Love sequences for The Doors, and I secured a fleeting background part in the film. I only got three seconds of screen time, but it was enormously significant to me, because (embarrassing to admit) I kind of felt like it meant something. The universe was telling me that I too would one day be a really cool guy, and that when I was dead they would make a movie about my life, and everybody would be sorry they’d been mean to me—especially high school jocks and cheerleaders—but basically anybody who didn’t share my high opinion of myself.

And then the movie came out.

If you’ve never seen The Doors, let me save you the trouble. Buy or steal the albums L.A. Woman and Morrison Hotel, give them a listen, and then watch the documentary narrated by Johnny Depp, When You’re Strange (2009.) Because The Doors is so full of inaccuracies, fabrications, and downright falsehoods as to have incensed nearly everybody who was actually there at the time. If you must watch it, just skip ahead to 00:42:12 and watch me shaking my fist and running around in a bloody American flag for three seconds. Then hit rewind and watch it again. I know I do.

I’m convinced that Jim Morrison was a much more interesting character than Oliver Stone’s fanciful script or Val Kilmer’s sluggish acting could convey. Flawed as he was, Morrison pushed the boundaries of what pop music could be, helping to move it away from the sweet dreamy warbling of The Byrds and The Monkees, and he was arguably a predecessor of the punk rock movement. (Iggy Pop was so impressed by Morrison’s stage antics and singing style that he was inspired to develop his own manic stage persona. He went on to “invent” stage-diving and crowd-surfing, and his songs influenced a generation of musicians.)

Was Morrison a mediocre poet who staggered around pissing on the graves Huxley and Rimbaud? Sure. Was he a drugged-out pitchy bellower who aped the Delta blues? Sure. But he was also a unique performer, and some of his lyrics—if not exactly Czesław Miłosz—were OK. (He also functioned as sort of a gateway drug into other, more accomplished artists—Kurt Weill, Anaïs Nin, Howling Wolf, etc.)

Sadly, Oliver Stone used The Doors as an opportunity to shoehorn in his own agenda, resulting in a series of bizarre scenes that include ‘80s-era Goth wiccans, spectral Native Americans, a fictional acid trip through the desert, mysterious dancing bald men, and an outrageous sequence where Morrison barricades his wife Pamela in a closet and (come on baby) LIGHTS IT ON FIRE—things that say more about Oliver Stone’s feelings about the band than anything else.

I do not think The Doors mean what you think The Doors mean.

One particularly strange directorial decision involves the soundtrack, which is full of Doors songs, played by The Doors, but with the vocals removed and replaced by the passable but inauthentic crooning of Val Kilmer. Logistically, a smart, economical move—it saves time in the sound studio if you don’t have to match lips to prerecorded tracks—but Kilmer’s performances are lacking. Certain characteristic inflections simply aren’t there. It’s a soft drink sweetened with Stevia, a stoned college friend with an adequate baritone barking Roadhouse Blues on karaoke night in some dive . . . it’s almost right. But there’s a wrongness lingering beneath the surface.1

I AM NOT LEGALLY PERMITTED TO HEAR MY TRAIN A-COMIN’

It might have been worse. Experience Hendrix—helmed by adopted sister Janie Hendrix, who barely knew the psychedelic guitarist when he was alive, and was only nine when he died—owns the rights to the entire Hendrix catalogue, and refused to allow John Ridley, director of the biopic Jimi: All is by My Side (2013,) starring Andre Benjamin, to use any of the original music. My heart goes out to Ridley—the supremely gifted writer, director, and producer of 12 Years a Slave. What a disappointment that must have been.

Jim Morrison without Jim Morrison. Hendrix without Hendrix.

It makes me think of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992,) and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994.) Both films attempted to render the hundreds of other Dracula and Frankenstein movies inauthentic by linking the authors’ names to their titles. Both claimed they were the real thing, and yet both diverged significantly from the source material. They had to. Frankenstein and Dracula are epistolary novels with sometimes plodding and awkward exposition. Oh my dear Mina! You will scarcely believe what I have to relate to you! does not play well on the big screen.

HE DIED FOR FUCK’S SAKE! AND THEY JUST TURNED IT INTO MAKING MONEY. Ha ha ha ha. How hi-larious for them. Fucking chic. I’ll hate them forever for doing that. —John Lydon, The Filth and the Fury

For me it goes all the way back to the heroin-glorifying Sid and Nancy (1986.)

Sid and Nancy was sort of a guidebook to punk subculture for middle class suburban white kids of my generation. But although certain scenes were based on actual events—a boat ride on the Thames during the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, a bus ride through The Heartland on an abortive North American tour—most were fabrications, designed by screenwriter and director Alex Cox to support the thematic points he wanted to make. As former Sex Pistols frontman John Lydon said: “I don’t think they ever had the intent to research properly in order to make a seriously accurate movie. It was all just for money, wasn’t it? To humiliate somebody’s life like that—and very successfully—was very annoying to me. It was all someone else’s fucking fantasy, some Oxford graduate who missed the punk rock era.”2

But who cares? If anybody walked away from Sid and Nancy or The Doors or any of the other films feeling like they had a better understanding of a band they liked, or a celebrity they admired, what difference does it make if it’s true or not?3

Because these films claim to be the real thing, the true story, the honest depiction . . . and they’re not. It’s Oliver Stone’s The Doors. It’s Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy.

This steakhouse isn’t Chris’s, it’s Ruth’s Chris’s.

(Which would be a hilarious sub-genre. Derivative versions of famous director’s biopics—Danny Boyle’s Oliver Stone’s The Doors. I would pay to see that.)4

So that’s my point? Art is different than life?

Revelations stacked on revelations.

One might argue that “just because it’s true doesn’t make it a good story,” or “you don’t have time to stage an accurate depiction of a life within the two-hour cinematic structure.” Both valid points. You need to move the narrative forward. There must be conflict. There must be an antagonist. There must be character development, arc and transformation. Prerequisites that have little to do with real life. And you don’t have time to introduce a lifetime’s worth of supporting characters, either, so you change one here and there, composite two or more into one.

But while these devices remove the story further from reality, I don’t think that they’re really the problem. The problem I have with the biopic is that all too often the dead are used as unwitting sock puppets for the director’s agenda, their life stories reduced to symbolic fables.

Let’s refer back to that Mel Gibson flick about the Son of God. Did The Passion of Christ have an agenda? Sure. Jesus suffered. A LOT.

Why?

Because The Jews.

wally

The remarkably Wallacy Jason Segel

WE NEED A WHOLE NEW SET OF MYTHS

A preternaturally gifted man came. He said beautiful things, he performed a few miracles, he taught us how to live, he suffered for his talents, and then he faded into the West. Or got skewered on sticks by iniquitous Romans, or disemboweled while shouting Freedom! to a crowd of toothless Englishmen. It’s the Jesus story over and over and over again, with minor variations.

This is how we rationalize our lives. We aspire to be special people with unique perspectives, who, despite suffering greatly, are capable of transcending the flesh to speak to posterity. It’s how we attempt to transcend our situation, using myth to bolster ourselves, as we slog under an indifferent sky, striving to measure up to some fanciful notion of greatness, striving to measure up to our own grandiose projections.

THE HOLLYWOOD MARTYR MACHINE

I’m open to the idea that maybe none of this matters. I haven’t read Wallace, but it’s been enough for me to know that he was a genius. He wrote an incredibly large book that received rave reviews, which included thousands of footnotes, and the people who ought to know who-is-and-who-isn’t-important told me that he was. The End of The Tour may be a fantastic film. It may become one of my favorite real-life martyr movies ever. (Until a Syd Barrett movie comes out.)5

David Foster Wallace said something like “What passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic.”

How ironic that when he died they made a biopic about his life that encapsulated and codified his struggle, reducing his humanity to an easily digested myth, a guaranteed indie success about a smart sad man who died too young.6

Buy the T-shirt, the album, the book.

But no matter what, it’s always going to be Nicole Kidman in a latex nose.

It’s always going to be John Cusack frowning. It’s always going to be Andre Benjamin singing Sgt. Pepper because they won’t let him sing The Wind Cries Mary. It’s always going to be Gary Oldman dancing with ghetto kids and then flying away to heaven in a magical taxi. It’s always going to be Jason Segel in little round glasses—like a myopic Axl Rose—in a bandana and a bad wig, muttering pseudo-deep thinkthoughts as a toady Mark Zuckerberg (or whoever he is) stutters and nods, as they wend their way through the back roads of America, having scripted conversations frivolous and deep.

It’s always going to be Val Kilmer singing L.A. Woman in faux leather pants.7

~

Author’s note: the final four footnotes are excerpts from Dancing With The Vacuum, The Amusing Observations of SB.


  1. The Patsy Cline biopic Sweet Dreams suffers from the opposite problem. It’s a good film, generally, once you get past the Gone With The Wind Hollywood/country accents. Jessica Lange and Ed Harris are great. But the lip-sync is so distracting that I challenge you not to fixate on it. 

  2. After I finished this it occurred to me how predominantly male my examples were. The perspective is too narrow. Another essay should be devoted to movies with female leads. The obstacles opposing women in film (and the world) are often male—Angela Bassett in the Tina Turner biopic What’s Love Got To Do With It? (1993) suffers violent sexual abuse from the dominating Ike Turner (Laurence Fishburne,) Jessica Lange in the Patsy Cline biopic Sweet Dreams (1985,) from the philandering Charlie Dick (Ed Harris,) and in the biopic about the troubled sculptor Camille Claudel (1988,) Isabelle Adjani hides in a dim cellar, destroying statues as quickly as she can sculpt them, to prevent Rodin (Gérard Depardieu) from stealing her ideas—but the story is essentially the same: great gifts thwarted.

    Spousal abuse is a regular theme in the rock god wing of the genre. Andre Benjamin as Hendrix beats his girlfriend with a telephone (Kathy Etchingham, the girlfriend the character is based on, says this never happened. Her IMDB review of the film Yes, it is Garbage is worth a look.) Nevertheless, this sort of behavior is common. Control (2007,) the film about Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, based on the book Touching from a Distance (1995) written by his long-suffering wife Deborah, is a film about a beautiful vacant dude who staggers around being a jerk to his band-mates and who cheats on her while she’s pregnant. 

  3. There’s an honestly to the Gus Van Sant Cobain film Last Days that is absent from the others. At least it has the decency to say, “Look, this is not real. This is a fictional story loosely based on the life of Kurt Cobain.” Elephant, also by Van Sant, loosely based on the lives of the Columbine school shooters, took a similar approach. They are some of the more artistically successful of the genre. 

  4. Might be worth mentioning the lack of a “David Fincher’s Fred Astaire” biopic, but fortunately we have that commercial of his body dancing with a vacuum, which is closer to reality than reality—SB 

  5. Maybe mention his relationship with Mary Karr, and her writing basically being book-based self-biopics which are no doubt heavily fictionalized even as they purport to be “The Truth”—SB 

  6. Also, it’s well known he was difficult, extremely unbalanced, and often “an asshole” to deal with . . . when he wasn’t a saintly genius—SB 

  7. . . . while a Krieger-channeling Frank Whaley whines, “Bunny” from Platoon pretends to know how to hit a snare, let alone be bad-guy John Densmore, and Kyle MacLachlan wigs his way through the zany charmlessness of Ray Manzarek—SB 

Lawrence Benner

About Lawrence Benner

Lawrence Benner squandered his early years as a punk guitarist and chapbook-slinging street poet in the Mission District of San Francisco. He did a decade as a subway musician in ex-Communist East Germany, worked as a zusammenfassung schreiber for the legendary Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz in Berlin, and went on to write, produce, and direct three failed low-budget films for the independent production company Buried Pictures. (In reference to his 2002 film, Ether, actor Willem Dafoe scribbled, "Liked it" on a yellow Post-it note.) Mr. Benner has been a Weeklings contributing editor since 2012, and when he isn’t writing this bio, he can be found hard at work on his debut novel, Memorial World. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina with his common-law wife and three insubordinate cats.
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