A film about an artist is inescapably an act of interpretation. Here is the artist’s life; now what does it mean? From Vincente Minelli’s Lust for Life, to Martin Scorsese’s Life Lessons, to Julian Schnabel’s biopics of graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, artist movies have tended to glorify self-destructiveness as a side effect of genius. In the past few years, a spate of Tortured-Artist movies-Pollock, Joe Gould’s Secret, Frida, The Hours-have nudged the concept along. The coloration has been darkened, so that self-destructiveness no longer figures as a mere byproduct of genius, but perhaps its genesis. Art created out of emotional disorder.

Writers’ emotional disorders, and the art they engender, are harder to capture on the screen than painters’, if only because there’s nothing to look at. “What happens is typing,” novelist Michael Chabon has said of the writer’s life; “a lot of typing.” That’s why a filmmaker may be best advised to take on a failed and/or unknown writer-as Curtis Hanson did in his adaptation of Chabon’s own Wonder Boys. With an unknown you don’t have the problem of the work. When Michael Douglas’s manuscript blows away in the wind at the end of that movie, we know it isn’t The Sound and the Fury that’s being lost, but a failed novel. We care about his life in part because we don’t care about his work. A filmmaker can take on an obscure writer with the...

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About the Author

Rand Richards Cooper is Commonweal's contributing editor.