MIDWAY : Genius isn’t here
Mad, bad and sad: that’s artistic types for you, if star biopics are anything to go by. I’m Not There, Todd Haynes’s new film about Bob Dylan, perpetuates the cliché faithfully, if idiosyncratically. A succession of actors, among them Cate Blanchett, portray the whiny, mercurial singer at various stages of his development. Minor emotions are ramped up to epic scale, as if, like some biblical hero, Dylan must transcend each artistic challenge before advancing to the next.
Here, it seems, is a deeply important man whose soul-contortions are more meaningful, whose crises are more pertinent and whose perceptions are just that bit sharper than the rest. Having been groped by the Muse, Dylan has achieved exalted status here on earth.
And so it goes. Gifted chaps are depicted as rugged individualists powered by pure genius, no matter how seedy their actual fates or how boring their real lives. So we have Jackson Pollock played by a wiry, gurning Ed Harris, Truman Capote as a grand swell who ventured tragically out of his depth and Picasso rendered by Anthony Hopkins as a lusty old goat. In life as in film the Great Men attract subservient women and are forgiven for their unkindness because of the marvellous gifts they present to the world.
In women it’s the opposite: their troubles are a function of their shrill pettiness and lack of staying power. In High Art, the character based on Nan Goldin is sacrificed to heroin abuse; Jennifer Jason Leigh’s seedy, squinting Dorothy Parker drinks her talent away.
Female geniuses are passed off as neurotic
nut-jobs and called by their first names — Sylvia, Iris, Jane, Jackie, Frida — like pet dogs. Sometimes the demeaning rewriting strays into falsity: we know from Hermione Lee’s bestselling biography that Virginia Woolf was a speedy, twitchy type, prone to losing weight — miles away from Nicole Kidman’s depiction in The Hours.
Viewers are in thrall to the Romantic inspiration that makes artists snatch up a pen and create a great work in one go, usually after some easily dissolved writer’s block. In reality, the creative life is much more like Last Days, in which Michael Pitt plays Kurt Cobain, pottering ineffectively while grooming his death wish.