Capturing profound changes in biopics is best accompanied by bold changes in style.
Spike Lee’s 1992 epic Malcolm X is part of the Facets Teach-In series. The discussion following the screening will focus on Islam in America, a topic that is deeply connected to race as illustrated in Malcolm X. So this is a complicated film to say the least. It deals with race, religion, an epic scale, and the entire life of one of the most complex figures of 20th Century American history. It can be a lot to take in especially over its 3 hour 22 minute runtime. Spike Lee approaches the challenge by creating a pastiche of styles.
Many Spike Lee joints offer unique spins on old forms, like 2006’s racially conscious heist film Inside Man. Indeed, up until 2008, with Miracle at St. Anna, Spike Lee was really adept at changing his style completely to make films his way. Do the Right Thing takes cues from classic stage work, weaving together a bunch of parlor dramas or takes on an Our Town approach and updates the form for 1990. Mixing and matching styles lets filmmakers take on big, life-changing topics in a natural way. For this reason some profound biopics use pastiche to show the changes that occur in a person’s life.
Some of the most memorable scenes from Malcolm X, for me at least, come right at the start. It’s “The War Years” and the costumes and colors are flamboyant to say the least. These early scenes use the style of swing films of the 1930s and 40s to capture Malcolm X’s life at the time. Race was an issue in these films too. Stormy Weather (1943) looks nostalgically on black performers in the 1900s while Fred Astaire’s blackface number in Swing Time (1936) is hard to read as an homage.
Borrowing a style of filmmaking conjures a period, yet it’s not what you would expect from a faithful biopic. But there’s a good reason to flaunt genre conventions, it’s a powerful storytelling technique. This very technique is used to great effect in Malcolm X, but it can be difficult to follow as it becomes more and more subtle where changes occur.
It’s also hard to know just how many different genres are being remixed. Spike Lee is one of the most informed directors of his generation and he mixes prison dramas in with newsreel, with home movies, and more. It’s overwhelming, but changing approaches to filmmaking serves a greater purpose in such a sweeping biopic. It’s just hard to see it all in Malcolm X.
Steve Jobs (2015) doesn’t use the whole history of cinema in the pastiche it creates. The reason is because Steve Jobs is a lesson in narrative minimalism. When it comes to its similarly complex figure of the 20th Century, Steve Jobs lets you focus on a few clever details. This is a film with three very distinct acts and just seven characters all moving in real time. It’s easy to follow.
But an example of the changes in Steve Jobs is that it is shot on three different formats. First on 16mm, next on 35mm, and finally on 3K RED cameras. These format changes correspond with the 1984, 1988, and 1999 acts. Even though digital approaches the look of film, this film calls attention to the subtle differences between each one. It’s unmistakeable. It’s the difference between pristine and perfect. Meeting that distinction, the film satisfies with an admission, “I’m imperfectly made,” that’s lacking in most biopics.
So this approach is pretty obvious and totally woven into the makeup of Steve Jobs, which is really nice to see. Making use of heavy handed techniques is tough though. Thematically, what works is that the format changes follow Steve Jobs and the world of technology he created. It’s an illustration of changes, a problem also drawn out in numerous statements and conflicts by the characters.
Why Introduce Pastiche in a Biopic
It’s all in the enigma of taking in a person’s whole life. The first is obvious, it’s about the passage of time which is very difficult to capture on film. Additionally, using format changes goes a long way to cement the reality of a period. Using format changes or imitating styles makes me more comfortable with belief in a period in a film. In Malcolm X and Steve Jobs, it is helpful to look out of place but highlight the moment.
Nevertheless, the most important reason for changing formats in these films has to do with their subjects. These are two people who actually did experience great changes of heart, or spirit in life. Malcolm X transformed himself many times over between “The War Years” and his death in February 1965. Perhaps his last iteration cost him his life. At least this is the case shown in Malcolm X.
In Steve Jobs, his changes surround his relationship with his daughter, but cut right to the core of who he was as a person. As Steve Jobs became more compassionate, his flaws came into sharp relief. It’s hard to show these kinds of decades long changes in a few hours, but spiritual and character changes are indeed a significant part of life, one that film has ways to capture.