Culture

Film & Television

The persistence of curiosity in documentary profiles

By Joanna Di Mattia
‘RBG’, ‘Whitney’, ‘The Gospel According to André’ and ‘McQueen’ ask: “Who are you?”

Every narrative documentary pivots on a question. When the subject is a person, living or dead, the question most often asked is: “who are you?” To construct a compelling response, documentary makers draw on a variety of resources – archival footage and images, talking head interviews, re-creations of significant events and, if lucky, the input of the subject themselves. Recent years have seen something of an explosion in the biographical documentary genre – this spans films that focus on overlooked icons, like Bill Cunningham New York (2010) and The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017), through to reconsiderations of the already well known, like What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015), Listen to Me Marlon (2015) and I Am Not Your Negro (2016).

We watch biographical documentaries because we are curious about people. We want to know what makes them tick. But in the case of celebrities or people with a public profile, it can be an uphill battle for filmmakers to create films that are both engaging and revelatory. Audiences often think they know all there is to know when the subject is well known. Not all biographical documentaries are able to tell us something new.

Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s reverential film RBG (currently in cinemas) seeks to fill the gaps in the life story of an extraordinary woman, 85-year-old Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The film opens with images of Washington D.C. monuments accompanied by audio of men from the right wing of American politics telling us who they think Ginsburg is: “a witch”, “an evildoer”, “an absolute disgrace to the Supreme Court”, “one of the most vile human beings”, “anti-American”, and “a zombie”. West and Cohen’s film is a corrective to these extreme views, a chance for Ginsburg to speak back. As Irin Cameron and Shana Knizhnik, the creators of the book Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (and the popular Tumblr that spawned it), explain, when it comes to Ginsburg’s life, people “don’t even know the half of it”.

RBG successfully fills in the rest. Stylistically it’s routine, but the intertwining of Ginsburg’s personal and professional lives is deftly handled and given a political context through her experience as a female law graduate in the early 1960s, “when women woke up and complained”. RBG is structured around the major events of Ginsburg’s personal life alongside various landmark cases she was involved in, first as a litigator, then as a judge. In particular, RGB highlights her work as co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project, and the major gender discrimination cases she argued for it before the Supreme Court in the 1970s. RBG gains its authority from the presence of Ginsburg’s voice, letting her speak both in the present tense on camera and via the words of her past judgements and dissenting statements.

While all biographical documentaries strive to be informative, they also express a point of view about their subjects, curating and editing the information they have collected for persuasive emotional affect. When the subject is living and able to determine the shape of their life story – as in the case of André Leon Talley, the subject of The Gospel According to André (in limited release) – the question “who are you?” often morphs into “who do you want people to know you are?”

“Fashion is fleeting. Style remains,” the tall, caftan-wearing Talley tells us early in Kate Novack’s film. From here, Novack’s investigation travels two streams. In the first, we encounter an extraordinary life lived on the stage of haute couture. Talley’s voice guides us, beginning on the porch of his upstate New York home, where he explains that his life has always been shaped by narration. The Gospel According to André follows suit. It’s structured into chapters, beginning with “Sunday Best”, which connects Talley’s personal interest in beauty and style with that of his church-going community.

Talley shares stories about discovering Vogue in the public library in Durham, North Carolina, where he grew up, and how it opened a whole other world to him; his proximity to “the scene” at Rhode Island School of Design (he studied French at Brown University, across the road); his 1974 move to New York, where he worked at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with Diana Vreeland, then as a receptionist at Warhol’s Factory; and his tenure at Vogue as creative director from 1988 to 1995. Along the way, we hear from friends past and present, as well as fashion luminaries, including Anna Wintour.

This narrative overlaps with Novack’s second and arguably more interesting stream of inquiry – Talley’s status within this rarefied world as a black man from the American South. We learn of his deep bond with the grandmother who raised him; his experiences of segregation at home and continued racism when he travelled abroad (late in the film, he tearfully recounts learning he was called “Queen Kong” around the corridors of Yves Saint Laurent); and the importance of the black church in his life.

But ultimately The Gospel According to André is a decidedly shy examination of an exuberant life. There is a sadness to the now 68-year-old Talley, which Novack doesn’t mine. Maybe it’s the sense of impending doom in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election (Novack followed Talley during the summer and autumn of that year). Maybe it’s connected to matters of love and sex. The word “gay” is used only once in the film, and Talley’s identity as not only a black man in America but also a gay black man is mostly unexplored here. But when Talley says “I have no love life,” Novack lets his declaration land with an intense thud, and then moves on.

Nevertheless, Talley controls his life story in ways that Whitney Houston was never able to do when she was alive, and has lost all power over since her death in 2012. Whitney (now in cinemas), directed by Kevin Macdonald, builds on the existing “fallen angel” narrative while purporting to dismantle it. It opens with a montage of 1980s America and Houston singing “How Will I Know” that captures the energy of the times and reminds us of her extraordinary voice. Macdonald then moves swiftly back to Houston’s childhood in Newark, New Jersey, featuring a brief, tightly controlled interview with her mother, Cissy Houston.

That Houston’s parents stage-managed her life from a young age emerges early in the film. Macdonald is investigating well-worn ground to discover what led Houston to “throw” it all away, and his narrative suggests her troubles started early. Her brothers, Michael and Gary, explain that they smoked marijuana with Whitney when she was 16. They reveal that drugs were actually a part of her life, on tour, prior to her marriage to Bobby Brown.

While challenging the popular view that Houston’s life darkened only once Brown entered it, Macdonald nevertheless struggles to shift the focus of her story from the tragedy. There is a hopeful vitality to early sequences that quickly fades. Whitney’s form becomes increasingly garish and chaotic once it enters the period when Houston’s life spirals downward. The editing together of footage we have seen countless times – of Houston and Brown progressively more strung out on drugs, of her drastic weight loss and shambolic talk show appearances – is frenetic. What should be sad, uncomfortable viewing instead feels voyeuristic. It doesn’t help that Houston is unable to speak back to the narrative assembled. Whitney contains a third-act revelation that might “explain” the origins of Houston’s demons to us, but raises the bigger question of whose story this was to tell.

If Asif Kapadia’s Amy (2015) had a distinct agenda that was well served by his aesthetic choices – the use of paparazzi footage to implicate the audience in the spectacle of Amy Winehouse’s decline – in Whitney there is no such communion between the story and its form. As Macdonald has assembled it, the story of Houston’s life is all about her death. Whether Whitney gives too much or just the right amount of screen time to her decline will certainly be decided by the viewer, depending on how much of her story they are familiar with and are willing to revisit.

As with Whitney, we know how the story of British fashion designer Alexander McQueen ends before it has begun, but in Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui’s film, McQueen (screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival and in cinemas September 6), the darkness of the designer’s road to suicide doesn’t dominate. McQueen reminds us that if a biographical documentary can’t tell us something new, it should strive to reveal what we already know in unexpected ways. While it features footage of McQueen and his gloriously theatrical, savagely beautiful fashion shows, plus home movies and raw interviews with those who knew him best, McQueen is as attentive to form as it is to content. It has an elegant, elegiac design, divided into “tapes” or chapters that structure McQueen’s personal narrative around some of his most notorious (“The Highland Rape”) and provocative (“Voss”) collections.

From beginning to end, McQueen stitches the designer’s life into his designs. While McQueen is an immense physical presence here, what is more affecting than the sound of his East London accent, or video footage of him at work and play, is seeing how his designs manifest as confessions from his psyche. Emerging from the interplay of life story and artistic mission is an intelligent, often deeply moving conversation between McQueen, his garments, and the people who were closest to him and his work.

McQueen gets to speak for himself too. If someone declares the designer’s life was increasingly lonely as fame grew, we then hear McQueen say something similar to confirm it. It’s smart filmmaking. As with most biographical documentaries, there are omissions – one senses that McQueen’s drug problem is hurried over; ditto, the depths of his depression, especially after his HIV diagnosis – but in the end it’s the film’s emotional truth that triumphs over the cataloguing of facts. McQueen achieves what McQueen wanted for his shows: “I want people to come out feeling either repulsed or exhilarated, as long as it’s an emotion. If you leave without emotion then I’m not doing my job properly.”

One biographical documentary can never capture the complexity of an entire life. Even the best examples of the genre are incomplete in some way. We might do better to take McQueen’s advice – “If you want to know me, just look at my work.” McQueen doesn’t just tell but shows us who the designer was. In the end, his counsel holds the key to best understanding all the lives we encounter in these films – inside their creations, their work, lies something closest to the truth of who they are.

Joanna Di Mattia

Joanna Di Mattia is an award-winning film critic who has written for many publications and outlets, including Senses of Cinema, Screen Education, SBS Movies, Kill Your Darlings, The Age, The Big Issue and Fandor.

McQueen

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