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					                    Film's Le Pacte Autobiographique

 Paper given at the Florida State University Conference on Literature and
Film, January 1991

      In living that life over again I struck up a first acquaintance with
      myself. . . . When my past life came alive in me after lying for so long, a
      dead weight, my actual life came alive too as that new life passed into it;
      for it was new, though old; indeed, I felt that only now was I truly living
      it, since only now did I see it as it was, so that at last it could become
      experience. Without . . . looking and looking back, I might never have
      lived my life. Edwin Muir, The Story and the Fable


Although the "end of autobiography" has been frequently predicted, a side-effect of
the contract post-structuralist critical thought has taken out on the author as the
"textual, non-subjective 'I'" muscles in (the phrase is Jean Thibaudeau's; see Sprinker
324), "the impulse to take the fiction of the self and its acts as facts persists, a more
than willing suspension of disbelief in which the behavior of writer and reader refuses
to coincide with theory" (Eakin 26). As Timothy Adams notes, "Like the profound
novels and valuable criticism produced since the celebrated 'death of the novel' or the
exhaustive list of new fiction written in the twenty years since John Barth published
his well-known essay 'The Literature of Exhaustion,' autobiography, as well as its
theory, thrives precisely because of its paradoxical position" (Adams 3). Indeed,
autobiography continues to be, according to some measures, the most popular of all
literary genres (Mandel, "Basting" 187).

It is by no means certain, however, whether autobiography will survive the
mediamorphosis from book to film. In her "Eye for I: Making and Unmaking
Autobiography in Film," the late Elizabeth Bruss argued that cinematic autobiography
faces two possible fates, each of which make it something more, or something less,
than literary autobiography: 1) that attempts at autobiographical discourse in the
movies becomes ultimately indistinguishable from biography due to the inescapable
realism and seeming objectivity of film, what Bazin calls the "myth of total
cinema" (303); 2) that all attempts to escape becoming "objectively" biographical
produce a film which is in turn much more nearly expressionistic than
autobiographical (306).

Film, Bruss thinks, can thus be personal only when it is "somehow 'private' or
'abnormal,' only when something disrupts the representational illusion and prevents
the audience from automatically assuming the spectator's position." All attempts "to
recreate the more selective truth of the autobiographical text," Bruss concludes,
"appear to diminish the truthfulness that is peculiarly cinematic" (302). In short,
cinematic autobiography is, if Bruss is correct, the victim of a fatal aesthetic double-
bind. "It is perhaps undeniable," Caroline Portuges adds in an essay which endeavors
to rethink Bruss's thesis in light of gender-based criticism, "that in view of the
divergent specificities of the two forms, no exact equivalent of autobiography is
possible in film" (340).

Like its literary progenitor, cinematic autobiography continues to thrive in spite of its
impossibility. If the Academy Awards are any measure of prominence--admittedly, a
large "if"--autobiography continues to be a prominent, though largely
unacknowledged and theoretically naive, "genre" of cinematic expression. In the last
two decades alone, numerous films identifiably "autobiographical--retelling in some
manner the life story of a filmmaker (usually the director) or adapted from
autobiographical literary sources--have been honored with Oscars. Fellini's Amarcord
(1974), Bergman's Fanny and Alexander (1983) and Giuseppe Tornatore's Cinema
Paradisio (1990), films reviewers routinely spoke of as autobiographical, have won
Best Foreign Film Oscars. At the 1977 awards ceremony, two "autobiographical"
films--Woody Allen's Annie Hall and Fred Zinneman's Julia (based on Lillian Hellman's
Pentimento)--carried the day, with the former earning academy recognition for best
picture, director, and original screenplay, and the latter securing Oscars for best
supporting actor and actress and adapted screenplay. Bob Fosse's All That Jazz was
nominated for nine awards in 1979 and was honored for costume, art direction,
editing, and music. Barry Levinson's autobiographical Diner received an Oscar for best
original screenplay in 1982. Robert Benton's Places in the Heart, a memoir of his
childhood in Texas during the depression, was honored for best actress and original
screenplay in 1984. Sydney Pollack's Out of Africa, based on Isak Dinesen's
autobiographical writings, was named best picture in 1985 and also earned awards for
screenplay adapted from another medium and direction. Platoon, which retold
director Oliver Stone's experiences in Viet Nam, was 1986's best film and earned
Stone an Oscar for best director as well, an award he won again in 1989 for Born on
the 4th of July, a film based on Ron Kovic's autobiography of the same name. At the
1989 awards, Daniel Day-Lewis likewise won an Oscar (for best actor) in My Left
Foot--a film purportedly based on Christy Brown's autobiography.

If the generation, consumption, and reception of literary life histories are governed,
as Philippe Lejeunne has shown, by "le pacte autobiographique," a "delicate entente
between writer and reader," created and sustained through the collaborative effect of
title page, preface, and library classification, if an unwritten generic covenant leads a
reader of autobiography to believe in the "historicity" of the text he/she is about to
encounter, the protocol that entices readers to "turn to autobiography for the kind of
satisfaction that one derives from reading something true rather than fabular" (Eakin
10; Adams 8; Mandel, "Full of Life Now" 55), the same cannot be said for the
production and distribution of those films thought of as "autobiographical." What
precisely do we mean by this often-applied movie-descriptor? "What we would want
to understand," Paul John Eakin observes in a recent study of literary autobiography,
"is the motivation for writing autobiographical narrative, which is doubtless parallel to
the motivation for reading it" (27). What motives govern the filming of such


It is not at all clear, of course, that literary autobiography itself constitutes a genre.
For Jerome Mazzaro, for example, autobiography, "whatever the obvious generic
similarities," "transgresses fictive and nonfictive prose forms as well as prose, poetry,
and drama" (Mazzaro 190). For Bruss (Autobiographical Acts 15), "even the most
superficial acquaintance with the diversity of works customarily received as
autobiographies should lead us to recognize that 'there is no intrinsically
autobiographical form'" (I quote here Paul John Eakin's paraphrase of Bruss, Fictions
in Autobiography 20). And for Paul de Man autobiography is simply not a genre but
rather "a figure of reading or of understanding that occurs, to some degree, in all
texts" (921). Even the authors of autobiographies themselves often "try to remain
deliberately ambiguous about genre" (Adams 8). Needless to say, the ambiguity
inherent in cinematic representation of self is pronounced and multiple. Time will
permit today only a preliminary investigation, and I will limit my examination to one
of a variety of identifiable complications.

Like literary autobiographies, cinematic ones are perplexed by the intrusion of the
fictional. Contemplating Louis Malle's autobiographical honor in Au Revoir Les Infants,
a New York Review of Books' critic would hold all autobiographers, literary or
cinematic, to the same high mimetic standard: "An autobiography," he prescribes, "is
convincing only when the author is perfectly honest. One has to sense that he does
not falsify his past, in order to embellish it or else to make himself appear more
sinful, and thus less banal, than he was. One has to be impressed by the passion and
sincerity the author expresses in looking back" (Hoffman 19). Given this imperative,
is conviction possible?

If (as Clive James has noted) "most first novels are disguised autobiographies" (Coe
5), then it is equally true that most cinematic autobiographies, whether the first film
or the twentieth from an auteur, seem compelled to fictionalize. The number of films
in which an auteur speaks without an alias, presents himself or herself without the aid
of fiction, is slim indeed. Cinematic autobiography, we might say, is rare, while the
"autobiographical" is common. Bob Fosse becomes Joe Gideon in All That Jazz. In 8
1/2, Federico Fellini is Guido Anselmi; in Amarcord, however, he is Titta. Woody Allen
undergoes numerous metamorphoses: into Alvy Singer (Annie Hall), Isaac Davis
(Manhattan), Sandy Bates (Stardust Memories), and Joe (Radio Days). In Au Revoir
Les Infants, Julien Quentin stands in for Louis Malle. Michael Kaye represents Barry
Levinson in Avalon. Francois Truffaut's cinematic self (in 400 Blows, Bed and Board,
Love on the Run, Stolen Kisses) is Antoine Doinel. Giuseppe Tornatore becomes
Cinema Paradisio's Toto. Distant Voices, Still Lives' Tony is Terence Davies. Fanny
and Alexander's Alexander Ekdahl is a version of Ingmar Bergman. John Boorman
becomes Billy Rohan in Hope and Glory. In Platoon, Chris is Oliver Stone. In Akira
Kurosawa's Dreams, the great Japanese director becomes a character referred to as
"I." In Chocolat, Claire Denis calls herself France.

The tendency toward fictionalizing is apparent even in adaptations of literary
autobiographies. Stone's Born on the 4th of July, for example, includes numerous
scenes and several characters nowhere to be found in Ron Kovic's original life story.
If Born on the 4th represents "something true rather than fabular," what are we to
make in its alterations of Kovic's life as he wrote it? Do they represent real but
previously unrecorded memories of the original autobiographer? Since Stone, like
Kovic a Viet Nam veteran, co-authored the screenplay with Kovic, might they be
Stone's own memories, which by mutual agreement they decided to include in the
film's collaborative, enhanced version of Kovic's life? Or are they wholly fictive,
created to meet the perceived needs of storytelling in another medium?]


According to Lejeune, without an autobiographical pact it is impossible for a reader of
literary life stories to discern from the text alone whether he or she encounters a
work of memory or imagination. Working without a contract, cinematic autobiography
remains highly problematic.

Though some cinematic autobiographies--most notably those based on adaptations
from literary works--have been marketed from their inception as "true stories" and
pitched in order to appeal to a simplistic contemporary audience need to be inspired
by reality narratives, the historicity of such films is through and through tainted. For
the most part, all the forms of mainstream autobiographical film--director's
autobiographies, both those of unknowns (e.g., Davies' for example) and prominent
auteurs (Fellini, Allen); adaptations of pre-existent texts (e.g. My Left Foot, Born on
the Fourth of July, Mommie Dearest); various experiments in cinematic autobiography
(My Dinner With Andre, Swimming to Cambodia, The Beerdrinker's Guide to Fitness
and Filmmaking, Sherman's March)--have received surprisingly little generic
recognition from studio, public, or critics.

Occasionally, of course, we learn, from a wire service review, or perhaps Siskel and
Ebert or Pauline Kael, that a Louis Malle drew on his own memories of a Jewish boy
hiding in his school during the Nazi occupation of France in order to make Au Revoir
Les Infants--a fact that lends the story real poignancy and a special sense of history
as we watch "a movie made out of one experience he hasn't been able to get out of
his mind or to put on the screen for more than forty years" (Hoffman 19). Or we read
that Levinson's Avalon is "about 75 percent based on fact," though it does switch
family genealogies at will, making the discount department store-entrepreneur
Krichinskys--in reality Levinson's mother's family--into his movie father's family
(Yagoda 37).

Or we can discern, with the aid of only a little extra-filmic knowledge, that a movie
(All That Jazz) about a Broadway director/choreographer who, while simultaneously
making a film about a controversial standup comic, has a fatal heart attack . . . a
movie made by an individual you know to be a Broadway director/ choreographer
who, while simultaneously making a film about a controversial standup comic
(Lenny), had a near-fatal heart attack--might well be autobiographical. (Questioned
about the authenticity of a film in which his representative dies at story's end, Fosse
promised doubters that he would die at the movie's premiere to authenticate his self-
fulfilling prophecy [Grubb 223].)

We may also suspect the autobiographical in a film about which we know next to
nothing. In Jon Amiel's Queen of Hearts (1989), when we realize early on that the
voiceover rehearsing the through-a-child's-eyes history of the Lucca family is in fact
Eddie, the Luccas' ten year old son, we presume from the resonant tone of his
memories that they are grounded in someone's actual recollection. When, at the
film's end, Eddie's high-pitched child's voice, acknowledging the possibly imaginative
nature of the sometimes fabulous story he has told ("My name is Eddie Lucca and
that's my story. You can believe it or not, but that's the way I remember it"),
transforms in mid-sentence into that of an adult, explaining that his wandering
through the streets of London in search of his family's "Lucky Cafe" has been futile,
we realize that our hunch was probably right: Queen of Hearts is at heart
autobiographical. (Director Jon Amiel claims no such intent; screenwriter Tony Grisoni
is most likely the uncredited autobiographer, though I cannot substantiate this
admitted speculation.)

We may even puzzle out, years after first viewing, that a film (Eraserhead) about an
ultra-strange young man, living in a desolate industrialized wasteland, left to care
for--and eventually to kill--an illegitimate monstrous, premature infant is likewise
autobiographical, though in this case the highly metaphoric, indeed gnostic, reverie of
a much more private first-time director (David Lynch) during an equally troubled
period in his own life.

But the system cannot be said to facilitate such realizations; we are seldom
encouraged to consider them in an autobiographical context at all. James Olney,
whose seminal Metaphors of Self marked the beginning of contemporary interest in
literary autobiography, has noted in "Autobiography and the Cultural Moment" that
the critical literature of autobiography began only very late; he cites 1956 (the year
of Georges Gusdorf's essay on "The Conditions and Limits of Autobiography") as
marking its inception. "It is as if," Olney comments, "autobiography were a normal
and natural human activity--and lately even a necessary human activity--while
criticism of it is a moral perversion (I have heard it so described) and a simple
nuisance" (7). "Why?" Olney wants to know. "Why now? Why not earlier?" (11). The
theory and criticism of autobiographical film remain in a pre-1956 state, not yet
conscious of being needed, unsophisticated, unable as yet to reflect with any accuracy
the many facets of an increasingly prominent mode of cinematic narration.


Asked to compares the labors of the writer and the filmmaker (both trades at which
he has excelled), John Sayles took as his case-in-point the problem of presenting a
crowd scene in a baseball story (such as his own film Eight Men Out [1988]). To make
such a scene come to life in a novel or a short story, Sayles observed, the writer need
only type on his keyboard words like "Fifty thousand people cheered wildly when the
homerun left the stadium." The filmmaker, on the other hand, must find the proper
set, put fifty thousand people in the stands, direct them to cheer at the appropriate
moment, and, of course, capture the whole scene on film.

The proliferation of written autobiography today, both bestselling, celebrity memoirs
(often ghost-written)--Wilt Chamberlin's, former President Reagan's, Geraldo
Rivera's, Joan Rivers', Colonel Oliver North's, General Norman Schwartzkopf's
(forthcoming), and true specimens of autobiographical art (McCarthy's, Kingston's,
Stein's, Hellman's), suggests that the genre can be easily written.

The re-creation of a life on film--including biopics as well as film autobiographies--is
clearly of another order of magnitude. When John Boorman undertook transformation
of his memories of youth, family, and World War II--tales originally told as too
familiar bedtime narratives to his children--into what would become Hope and Glory,
he did not foresee that it would take fifteen years to bring the project to fruition,
necessitate an intercontinental pursuit of funding sources, require the patient and
expensive (three quarter of a million pounds) reconstruction on an abandoned air
field of Rosehill Avenue, Carshalton, the "monotonous street of . . . semi-detached
houses" where the director grew up, as the film's primary set. He did not know that,
for commercial and/or artistic reasons, it would need four complete revisions of the
screenplay, each draft editing out events, characters, and scenes which for Boorman
himself represented nothing less than "life itself." He had not yet learned that even
the best intentioned cinematic autobiography can be, given the necessaria of the
medium, but the "composites of movies and memory." And yet Boorman's
extraordinary efforts, eloquently recorded in a "Memoir," were all the a day's work for
a cinematic autobiographer. (Russell Baker has noted that while a biographer "never
knows enough," the problem of the autobiographer is that "he knows too much" [49].
The knowledge burden of the cinematic autobiographer is exponentially compounded
by the predicaments of the production system, the Janus-faced demands of
commerce and art, the elaborate logistics of actual filming.

But in the complex and arduous mise en scene of moviemaking may lie the possibility
of a newer, more technological le pacte autobiographique, a techne succeeding,
consummating, the poeisis of literary art. In an interview on E!'s "Extreme Close-Up,"
Barry Levinson recalls that during the filming of Tin Men, one of his Baltimore films,
he grasped for the first time the true nature of the filmmaker's autobiographical pact:
"I was sitting on the porch between setups," he recalls,

      and I was looking out and we had all the period cars on the street, and we had
      all the extras in period clothing, . . . and the setting was 1963 and that was the
      year that I left Baltimore and that house. And I realized that it looked exactly
      like it did the summer I left, and it was this bizarre feeling of suddenly being
      there well over twenty some years later to realize that you had recreated
      something that was from your past. And it was literally like a moment of
      suddenly being there at my age and sitting on this porch and looking out and
      seeing something the way it was that we had recreated. It was a very eerie
      feeling. . . . Sometimes when you do semi-autobiographical work . . . you
      create something and it connects with your life, and past and present suddenly
      become one and the same.

In Levinson's on-the-set epiphany, an insight inspired by the creation of a film not
directly autobiographical, we can identify the movie version of autobiography's
originary, introspective covenant, with one's past, with memory, an imaginal pact
made fundamentally with oneself--the realization that, the genius of autobiography is
not only, as Edwin Muir learned by "living [a] life over again," oroboric, but

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