Saturday, August 18, 2007


Well, People Say a Lot of Things...

This month's Harper's excerpts a 1986 interview with Thomas Bernhard that is probably one of the most hilariously foul-tempered things I've read in ages. But there's one passage, when he snaps at the interviewer recalling one of his theoretical statements, which really does hit home. Bernhard essentially disowns the remark the interviewer has cited, remarking:

Well, people say a lot of things in fifty years of life. If a reporter is sitting in a restaurant somewhere and hears you say the beef's no good, then he'll always claim you're someone who doesn't like beef, for the rest of your life. You go for a walk in the woods, someone takes a photo of you, and then for the next eighty years you're always walking in the woods. There's nothing you can do about it.

This actually goes to the heart of the reductionism and the deterministic interpretation of source material -- this is the material I have, therefore this is what my subject must have been like -- that I fear in biographical writing. (And not least, I might add, in my own.)

A couple years back on this blog this exact problem came up in a slightly different form; to save you the clicking, I'll paste that entry in here with this added note: Ross McElwee's Six O'Clock News is now available as part of 5-DVD set, and you most certainly should beg, borrow, or Netflix it.

Here's the 2005 entry:

Today's Oregonian reviews The Sixteenth Minute: Life in the Aftermath of Fame :

The book's editorial premise is simple: What happens when a person's Andy Warholian 15 minutes of fame are over? What does that person do when the media attention has vanished? Can the person adjust to not being famous?

Written by Jeff Guinn, the books editor for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and Douglas Perry, a features editor at The Oregonian, "The Sixteenth Minute" profiles seven people who were once very famous at some point between the early 1960s to the late 1990s and are now semi-famous for once being fully famous....

In most cases, the tour isn't pretty. In some places, it's like watching a small woodland creature agonizingly expire after being hit by an automobile. There is Cara of "Fame" and "Flashdance" theme song fame ignored at an industry party as she tries to interest anyone in her new record. There is Cooney still insisting he could have beaten Michael Spinks for the heavyweight championship instead of suffering a beating. There is Wills, embittered because he'll never make it into the Hall of Fame because he was the most hated ballplayer of his era. And there is Foley, a professional wrestler well past his prime, who takes insane physical risks in the ring to stay in the spotlight . . . and be taken seriously as a novelist!

Hey, it's hard for anybody to get taken seriously when breaking into fiction.

But really, I have to take issue with this review's conclusion: that Fitzgerald was right about there being no second acts in American lives. Nonsense. Nonsense. American lives are nothing but second, third, and fourth acts. The very mobility of our society and permeability of our class structure has long held out the possibility of being able to move on.

Look, I think Guinn and Perry have a great idea here, and I wish more people would do this kind of follow-up. But did it not occur to the reviewer that perhaps the authors chose these subjects not because they were representative cases, but because they are dramatically pathetic ones? I mean, "Former Heavy Metal God Lives Boring Home Life, Works at Post Office" isn't much of a headline, is it? And for that matter, mightn't the authors be choosing incidents rather selectively -- as authors must do -- from perhaps otherwise mundane and even contented lives?

The longer I write biography, the more hesitant I become to use standard bio segues like "He was a broken man now." Broken to who?... To you? ... To him? Is he broken every minute of the day? The formulation is a specious one.

For a thoughtful meditation of how life goes on, even after it's "over," I implore everyone to check out Ross McElwee's much-overlooked 1997 documentary Six O'Clock News. It's available on VHS, but there's no DVD yet. It's messy and exasperating, as all McElwee films are. It is also one of the most honest works on the subject that I have ever seen.

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