In a BBC documentary called the Power of Art, the historian Simon Schama described the contradictions apparent in the Renaissance painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath. Schama alluded to the hooded shadows on David’s face, the uncertainty and his humility. To Schama, it was a self-portrait reflective of Caravaggio’s own complexities.
The darkness apparent in Caravaggio’s paintings—he was one of the early masters of chiaroscuro—echoed that in his own life. Forgotten immediately after death; Caravaggio is now regarded as one of the major influences on Baroque art that came after the Renaissance. Caravaggio’s legend has only grown, as have stories of his misunderstood genius, and the violence, so much part of him, that shaped Caravaggio’s genius and in turn, was a product of it.
What makes an artist, or at what moment, does the realization of artistic gift happen? Moments of epiphany, or realization, are always, especially for artists themselves, difficult to pinpoint; even with hindsight and retrospection. It’s best left to interpreters – filmmakers or memoirists; and fiction, that with all its allusions and suggestiveness, can help shed light, on what makes possible the creative process. This piece looks at some films on writers; how their lives were shaped indelibly by their art.
Chasing a Poet
Pablo Larrain’s Neruda(2016) is a film with a fictional take on a key event in Neruda’s life. In 1945, soon after the Second World War, Neruda then 41, read poems in honour of the Communist revolutionary, Luis Carlos Prestes, in front of a huge gathering at Sau Paolo, Brazil. Neruda was beloved as a poet and also, influential. He was, at that time, a senator of the Chilean communist party.
But Cold War rivalries, American interference in Latin American politics, had then Chilean president, Gonzalez Videla, soon outlawing Communism. A warrant was issued for Neruda’s arrest, forcing Neruda into hiding. For days, he remained closeted in the basement of a friend’s house near Valpariso, Chile and then later he made his escape eastward to Argentina. It was these months on the run, and his escape that made Neruda, a hero: a fact that Larrain builds up in his film.
Larrain gives these events a fictional twist, indeed several. Neruda, in Larrain’s film and Luis Gnecco, who plays the poet, appears a complex figure. He is heroic and hedonistic in equal measure, is mystifying and mischievous, inspiring and ironic. Neruda is loved and inspires loyalty. Neruda’s alter ego, the man on his trail, is however, a fictitious character. Oscar Peluchonneau, chief of police, wants to vindicate himself, by successfully tracking down Neruda.
Art and its Opponents
Played by Gael Garcia Bernal, Inspector Pelucchonneau is a Javert (from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables) like figure, forever trying to catch up with life, and with Neruda, but is only left with more questions and self-doubt. Neruda leaves behind clues and sardonic notes for Peluchonneau to read. And the latter always encounters the evidence of Neruda’s poetry, and interrogation of Neruda’s accomplices—including a drag queen pulled away from a brothel—who lavish praise on their hero and what he means to them, leave Peluchonneau even more frustrated.
He is left more aware of Neruda’s myth. A fact almost symbolic of the regime’s attempts to stifle Neruda. The film that details how Neruda used his art well, is also about how art converts and tears down its opponents.
The hounding of Communists in a similar time-period, is reenacted in Trumbo (2015), the story, based on Bruce Alexander Cook’s biography of the screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, who was hounded for his left-wing beliefs in the McCarthy-influenced era when people of communist sympathies in the US were condemned, vilified and even imprisoned. The urgency to write, the necessity to keep doing so—as solace and protest—and the desperation to make a living, appear in how Trumbo tried to use the Hollywood system, despite the surveillance he was under.
Trumbo used pseudonyms to write his screenplays, or collaborated secretly with friends, as he did when writing the screenplay for Roman Holiday,that went on to win an Academy award. It was when Trumbo won credit for Exodusand Spartacusin the early 1960s that the clouds lifted from his life.
Formative friendships, the inspirations they offer, and the perils they invite is a theme in Kill Your Darlings(2013), where Daniel Radcliffe, in his first role since the Harry Potterfilms, played the Beat Generation poet, Allen Ginsberg. The film (and the book too) is centred around the deposition Ginsberg wrote at his friend, Lucien Carr’s behest, after the latter is charged with the murder of David Kammerer, who was Carr’s professor at Columbia University, and who was, in Carr’s case, a sexual predator.
Kammerer was jealous as Carr’s affections had moved onto Jack Kerouac. But Carr realized too that Ginsberg’s text gave a more emotional portrayal of things and could in fact implicate him for deliberate murdering Kammerer. Carr gets away with the lesser sentence of manslaughter, and Ginsberg’s typescript later secured him much-needed encouragement about his writing, from a professor.
…And First Love
Jane Austen may never have written Pride and Prejudiceif not for a failed, yet long-lasting love. Becoming Jane(2007), Julian Jarrold’s film, is based on Jane Austen’s love for the lawyer, Thomas Langlois Lefroy. Though their first encounter begins inauspiciously, Lefroy and Austen do fall in love. Soon after, she begins writing First Impressions– that would later become Pride and Prejudice.
It is Thomas’ uncle who comes in the way of their marriage (much like Lady Catherine in Pride and Prejudice). Nevertheless, Austen and Lefroy make their plans to elope, till Jane changes her mind. Twenty years later, they meet again, and Jane reads from her novel, at Tom’s daughter’s (also Jane), insistence. There is gentleness and gentility at this last encounter.
Shakespeare in Love(1998) is based on essential details of the playwright’s life, but creates the fictional story of Will Shakespeare’s (played by Joseph Fiennes) love for Violet de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow). It happens just when he is struggling to complete Romeo and Julietand is almost penniless, despite his wishes to own a part of the theatre company. When Viola auditions as Thomas Kent (a male part), a mesmerized Will follows her home. And has a confrontation with her fiancé’, Lord Wessex.
The complications, leading from assumption of false identities, rivalries in love, and in the theatre, are somehow finally resolved with Queen Elizabeth I’s intervention. Love finds a happy ever-after in a way, when Shakespeare envisions Viola as a castaway (again, disguised as a young man) in The Tempest.
Inside a Writer’s Mind
Films that reveal a writer in the moment or just after writing a major work are also revelatory of the writing process. The End of the Tour isbased on David Lipsky’s 2010 memoir, featuring his interviews with David Foster Wallace (DFW). These had been conducted over five days in 1996, soon after the publication of DFW’s Infinite Jest; hedied in 2008.
Lipsky’s quest was, of course, based on his need to find out how a writer’s mind works, for he was impressed with Infinite Jest. And Lipsky was privy to several personal moments as Wallace was candid about various things – his love for dogs, his agonizing self-doubt, his confusion over his fame. But DFW took objections to what he thought were stereotypical references to his struggles with alcoholism and depression.
Capote(2005) that followed the writer Truman Capote as he worked on the book, In Cold Blood, based on a real murder narrative, won Philip Seymour Hoffman an Academy Award for his portrayal of Capote. Capote, with his writer-friend Harper Lee, set off to Kansas to investigate the brutal murder of a family.
In his meticulous detailing of the town, the victims, neighbours, suspects and even the murderers, who were nabbed soon enough, Capote wrote a masterful non-fiction account; it was published first as essays in the New Yorkerand then in book form (1966). But Truman’s seeming empathy, his attempts to know why and get under the skin of his characters, even the murderers, creates (fascinating) complexity.
The Ecstasy and the Agony
For their creators, works of genius, somehow coincide with troubled moments. The Hours,based on Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Winning novel of 1999, features three women—one of whom is Virginia Woolf—over three different time periods, unhappy in their own way. Clarissa, in early 2001, appears early in the book and the film, engaged in planning a celebration after her partner, now stricken with AIDS, wins a major award.
Six decades before this, Laura in the mid-1940s, finds herself unhappily married to Dan, and contemplates suicide in a motel. She is saved, i.e., changes her mind, as she reads Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.And two decades and more before this, there’s Virginia Woolf in the year 1923, who is struggling with depression as she tries to write Mrs. Dalloway. She feels guilty of being a burden on her husband, Leonard Woolf. But Woolf has always known, as she writes in the notes she leaves behind, that she has been sustained in life, and her writing, by Leonard’s love.
Jane Campion’sAn Angel at My Table(1990) is based on three memoirs by the award winning New Zealand writer, Janet Frame, who struggled with loneliness and was misdiagnosed for her mental illness. It is a slow, intense movie moving from Frame as a child to a young woman, and how the winning of an award for a book of poems, and encouragement from another writer, saved her from a lobotomy.
The movie focuses on Frame’s shyness and intensity, but it teaches a valuable lesson for a writer: about the very writerly quality of being an outsider, of seeing with empathy and making no evident judgement.
Formative friendships, impressionable first loves and anguish – all appear fodder to art. Creativity, as such films have shown, needs both the humaneness to experience life’s defining moments and then, the artistry to convert these into art.