Dennis Bingham’s recently published volume, Whose Lives Are They Anyway?: The Biopic as Contemporary Film Genre, illustrates the author’s versatility. Bingham takes the biographical film, or “biopic”, quite seriously, and he uses the paradigms of advanced cinema studies to investigate the genre in its historical and social context, while exploring a variety of cultural discourses. It is both thoroughly researched and thoroughly enjoyable.
Beyond that, unlike many other one-dimensional authors in the film studies discipline, Bingham does not neglect either what Herbert Marcuse called “the aesthetic dimension” of the medium or the economic-industrial factors that influence what we view. This synthetic, overall perspective on the biopic is precisely what the discipline needs – not just the narrow focus on one small aspect or another of a phenomenon, or the exclusive use of only one methodological paradigm to the exclusion of other approaches that have come to dominate the field.
Bingham sets as his goals to both redeem a genre that has been unjustly demeaned and to outline its dynamic historical evolution over time by tracing its “life-cycle changes … from the studio era to the present” (p. 10). Thus, Bingham positions his study as a follow-up to and update of the much-revered first major research on the biographical genre, George Custen’s pioneering and influential Bio/Pics: How Hollywood Constructed Public History (1), which mainly covered the Hollywood studio years. As such, Whose Lives… is able to address the questions that pertain to the emergence of “independent cinema” over the past 30-40 years. Indeed, the book outlines the full gamut of historical periods associated with different kinds of biopic subjects: the classical, celebratory form (melodrama); warts-and-all (melodrama/realism); transition from producer’s genre to auteur’s genre; critical investigation and atomisation of the subject; parody; culture based on consumerism and celebrity; minority appropriation (queer, feminist, African American, Third World, etc.); and neoclassical biopic, which integrates all of the above. Thus, although he does not use the ubiquitous term “postmodernism” very often, Bingham is able to bring biopic history and aesthetics up to date by historicising the stylistic paradigm in terms of his chosen films’ artistic and national/international contexts. This is perhaps the chief methodological contribution of this book: it deconstructs and synthesises (re-constructs?) both the classical Hollywood period and the more recent, more adventurous films on historical subjects, whether made by Darryl F. Zanuck or Todd Haynes.
As a subsidiary purpose, Bingham’s volume aims to make clear the many distinctions between biopics about men and those about women, and between those about whites and biopics about blacks. Indeed, the volume is cannily structured into two Books: “The Great [White] Man Biopic and Its Discontents” and “A Woman’s Life Is Never Done: Female Biopics.” This structuration emphasises the role that gender plays in the biopic genre but the individual chapters also show the overlap and even epicene aspects of the films under discussion. For example, Bingham’s concluding chapter, a thorough analysis of the postmodernist biopic of Bob Dylan, Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There (2007), synthesises much of the meta-level of the entire work, particularly since both a woman (Cate Blanchett) and a black boy (Marcus Carl Franklin) each play one of the incarnations of the singer-songwriter-poet.
Malcolm X (Spike Lee, 1992) and Lumumba (Raoul Peck, 2000) are discussed from the important perspective of whether they represent racial-colonialist “appropriationist” or “assimilationist” narratives, and Bingham uses specific textual details (including cinematic techniques), extensive background production research, and his own logical argumentation to substantiate his opinions on these significant issues. He also reiterates the value of having a young black actor play the “Woody Guthrie” aspect of Bob Dylan in I’m Not There.
Ultimately, Whose Lives Are They Anyway? addresses many of the major concerns of contemporary academic cinema studies: gender, genre, race, class, and sexuality. In fact, I would say that the volume is at the forefront of those ongoing debates and contestations. Just as important, Bingham does not rely only on the content areas of those topics, as many scholars do; he investigates the unique role played by cinematic articulations, or film style, in the representation of the sociopolitical meanings of the movies he has chosen. (If I had to proffer a critique of Bingham’s approach, it would probably also apply to a majority of recent scholarly film-media publications: that too often the specific examples provided conveniently just happen to be the ones that prove the author’s general theses, to the exclusion of counterfactual instances that might contradict those premises. Put another way, too small and too consistent a sample is sometimes used to substantiate a sweeping conclusion.)
Nonetheless, aside from that nitpicky point, Bingham’s new book is a complete and fully erudite explanation and study of a neglected subject. Whose Lives Are They Anyway? represents an intervention that makes a distinctive mark and sets a high bar for future scholarship in this area. I hope that it also encourages other film scholars to use his multifaceted approach – and clear and effective writing style. Indeed, the volume can easily be seen as both a valuable intellectual contribution to film scholarship and as a potential course textbook for “Special Topics” courses on the biographical film. It would make a fine companion piece to George Custen’s work on that important genre.
Whose Lives Are They Anyway? The Biopic as Contemporary Film Genre, by Dennis Bingham, Rutgers University Press, Piscataway, 2010.