Experience as art: Is autobiography immune to criticism?

15 Oct

Film and books based on the film-maker’s or writer’s own experience are often critically lauded. They are praised for their honesty, declared ‘deeply moving’ and ‘poignant’, and reservations go unvoiced.

It is an observation supported by research – producer Stephen Follows shows that films based on real life events have the highest average critical rating. The analysis includes ‘true story’ films made by an independent third party, (Wolf of Wall Street, for example), and I wonder if the results would be still more striking if a distinction was made between biography and autobiography/semi-autobiographical stories

We spend much of lives in the act of remembrance. Surely anyone’s stream of consciousness, if it were recorded, would include memories drawn and dredged, broken fragments interrupting the present.

Within praise for autobiography, is, perhaps, an appreciation for its creator’s efforts in bringing it to existence - an appreciation not generally extended to the creators of genre entertainment. I think this is deserved – the auto-biographer, on screen or in print, shares with the world something that would otherwise have been private. They invite us to understand something personal about them, a generous and brave gesture. But is it really more generous and brave than an original, fictional idea brought to fruition, or just a different way of daring?

The recent biographical drama Judy, starring Renee Zellwegger, was favourably received by both critics and audiences. It was largely judged as a piece of entertainment and expected to conform with all that a mainstream Hollywood film should be. Judy was made independently from Judy Garland’s family, and, of course, the performer herself, who died in 1969. What if a performer made a film or play about a difficult period in their own life, or trusted family members did? Then it departs from pure entertainment, and ventures into the more nebulous field of experience.

‘Experience as art’ is not, I argue, expected to conform to the strictures of genre and commercial entertainment. One only needs to think of Tracey Emin’s work, and the varying, even confused response to it, as an example. Of course, there is no reason why a work can’t be experience and entertainment. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, for instance, adroitly meets the challenges of both arenas; it is a triumph. But generally, an experience-based film or book need not have the balance that is almost a requirement of pure entertainment. You want it to be bleak? Be bleak. You want to be angry? Go for it. Personal experience is not always fair, or balanced, or justified, but there it is anyway, another story waiting to be told.

What silences the critic is the possibility that by levelling a criticism at the work, one is also questioning the artist’s own lived experience - an inflammatory and usually deeply unpleasant thing to do.

As Follows shows, the proportion of films ‘based on a true story’ films increased from 8% to 27% in 20 years. There is certainly an allure to ‘the true story’, shown by the explosion in true crime podcasts. A multitude of faked and fraudulent memoirs, published or nearly published, merits its own Wikipedia page.


But let us not undervalue the courage of artists who venture forth with work that is comfortably called fiction. In conversation with Charlotte Chandler, Federico Fellini said ‘Kafka, in my opinion, was completely autobiographical,’ but Kafka never - as far as I know - lived as a cockroach.

Photo credit: Oleg Magni