With ‘Anti-Biopics,’ Anthology Refuses to Walk the Line


A series defined as a protest against the Oscar-winning Great Men narratives, in which contemporary celebrities passably reproduce dead celebrities’ mannerisms, Anthology’s edifying “Anti-Biopics” program screens 20 films—and as many modes of historical consciousness.

Peter Watkins’s Edvard Munch (1974) concentrates on its subjects’ social context as much as his life in the years from 1884 through 1895. Heading a cast of recruited amateurs, Geir Westby’s Munch is a spectral presence in his own story, a wallflower in Christiania bohemia who speaks through his diaries. Stretches of this three-hour project seem like dry timeline—but as memories return, fugue-like, one feels Munch’s anxious, mounting sense of life as an unbearable accumulation of sensations.

Also peopled with nonprofessionals are Roberto Rossellini’s Blaise Pascal (1972) and Descartes-focused Cartesius (1974), both part of the director’s late-period turn to formal “educational” histories, in which Professor Rossellini, with Pancinor remote zoom as pointer, probingly burrows into historical tableaux that achieve a grandeur in their mundaneness.

Anxious with discordant electronic music, Pascal shares a sickbed atmosphere and interest in varieties of mordant religious experience with Alain Cavalier’s Thérèse (1986), strobed scenes from the life of French nun Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, who died in her faith, aged 24. Mark Rappaport, meanwhile, argues for the martyrdom of St. Jean in From the Journals of Jean Seberg (1995), narrated by Seberg’s high school classmate, Mary Beth Hurt, who also plays beyond-the-grave Jean in a choppy Breathless wig, back to indict her persecutors: ex-husband Romain Gary, J. Edgar Hoover, and cinematic patriarchy at large. Rappaport’s j’accuse hostility aims to provoke—it’s hard to imagine this hard-faced Jean being so bullied—but the intelligence of Seberg‘s rage is worth confronting.

Less so Walker (1987), the adventures of American expansionist William Walker—a pinch-collared Ed Harris—parting seas of absurd ultraviolence in his unwavering slo-mo advance toward an obscure destiny. Going on location to Nicaragua, where Walker led a short-lived dictatorship in the 1850s, director Alex Cox didn’t seem to pack any ideas beyond a parallel to the then-underway Contra War. Compare that to Salvatore Giuliano (1962), Francesco Rosi’s strategic breakdown of another complex outlaw-antihero, a Sicilian separatist both friend to the poor and alleged hired gun in a May Day massacre. Rosi’s abruptly anti-chronological film makes inquisitions on both sides of Giuliano’s 1950 assassination, with the triggerman more closely seen than the putative subject. The all-access, omnipresent documentary style will remind some of The Battle of Algiers—made four years later—but Giuliano is more ambitious, elucidating perfidious power structures in the postwar South.

The historical film is not just a survey of the subject’s era, but also a history of when the film was made, as in two “Anti-Biopics” seeking analogies to the ’70s permissiveness and macho peacocking: Ken Russell’s Listzomania (1975) and Federico’s Fellini’s Casanova (1976). Russell’s campy, buffoonish film novelty-casts Roger Daltrey as proto rock-star piano virtuoso Franz Liszt, while Donald Sutherland heads a cast of 600 wigs as the Venetian diarist and cocksman.

Casanova, the last of Fellini’s debauched cosmopolitans, tours the continent without leaving the cathedral-like studios of Cinecittà. Sutherland, in a wholly stylized performance, shows himself to the camera in profile, imitating his character’s flyleaf portrait; Fellini described his star as “a sperm-filled waxwork with the eyes of a masturbator.” Casanova is last seen dancing on a frozen Grand Canal with a female automaton, an 18th-century RealDoll—a scene that arguably has more reverberating relevance than Listzomania‘s climax, with Daltrey piloting a rainbow organ-spaceship while singing the execrable “Peace at Last.”