Autobiography in Film and Literature

In the Confessions, Augustine claimed that he had become the greatest question to himself. The problem of identity, but also of what, more generally, characterizes the pronoun “I” is, I believe, still one of the most fascinating philosophical questions. In my work, I consider how such question unfolds in literature and film. I am also particularly interested in the cognitive implications of autobiography and in how different forms of autobiographical expression can contribute and enhance the understanding of who we are.

 

Dissertation: The Art of Telling About the Self: Memoirs in Literature and Film

I began working on my dissertation, The Art of Telling About The Self: Memoirs in Literature and Film, out of curiosity; a curiosity in part animated by the incredible attention, both critical and commercial, that has recently been given to a genre dating back to Augustine’s Confessions, or, as some have argued, even earlier. My goal was to provide a narrative theory of autobiographical expression, namely a theory that, as it is customary in the debate over the conditions of narrative from Aristotle until today, would encompass a structural definition of this genre, together with an analysis of its cardinal components. Two crucial problems I analyzed are the status of autobiography in relation to fiction and nonfiction, and the problem of whether we can see, in personal narratives, a response to the problem of personal identity.  I propose an analysis of memoir that, contrary to what is argued by the post-structuralist tradition, places memoir entirely within nonfiction. My nonfictional characterization of memoir is based on an analysis of two related issues, intentionality and authenticity, that I believe to be at the core of the construction of personal narratives. A further analysis of authenticity broadens my discussion of the narrative self to incorporate studies in metaphysics, as well as neuroscience and cognitive psychology. This latter portion is still of great interest to me. I am, in fact, partly revising my initial reliance on the concept of the narrative self and exploring alternative accounts in light of both studies on the processing of autobiographical memories and works in literary criticism on recent memoirs.

 

The Autobiographical Documentary (Introduction)

Lotjie Sodderland, the protagonist and co-director, with Sophie Robinson, of the autobiographical documentary My Beautiful Broken Brain (2014) is “obsessed with recording, unable to remember.” Sodderland narrates the story of her stroke and shows, on camera, its effects on her ability to learn, speak, remember, and, basically, live. Her work is, as her story, unique, delicate, and poignant, but her obsession with recording and memory (whether remembering is a possibility or not) seems to be largely more common. Largely more common in what is a complex and emerging documentary sub-genre: the autobiographical documentary.

In its literary form, autobiographical expression has seen, in the past two decades, an incredible rise in popularity. Memoirs dominate the landscape of nonfiction: they can be found on the New York Review of Books list of best books of the year as well as in the commercial section of the local Hudson News. They are varied, and they continue to vary: from more standard narrative approaches, to Smith magazine “Six words memoirs” project, to the six volumes through which Karl Ove Knausgård has made the ordinary an experimental affair.

But it has become increasingly evident that literature does not have a monopoly on personal expression. Numerous other autobiographical practices are also on the rise; virtually everyone seems to be concerned or, at the very least, share an interest in the pronoun “I,” a pronoun that has become accustomed to telling its story through a variety of different media. In fact, such is the need and number of different forms of autobiographical expression that scholars Jörg Dünne and Christian Moser have coined the term automediality, an umbrella term covering works as varied and different as Mona Hatoum’s installations, Cindy Sherman’s self-portraits, and the less praiseworthy Instagram “selfie.”

Among these forms and modalities of autobiographical expression, the autobiographical documentary is certainly one of the most intriguing. For the autobiographical documentary situates itself at the intersection of two larger, and multifaceted, debates: on the one hand, it deals and reflects on some of the questions that are inherent to the discussion on autobiography, from the connection between autobiography and philosophy to the fascinating ways in which autobiography challenges us to reconsider the boundary, and distinction, between fiction and nonfiction to, lastly, metaphysical and cognitive concerns on identity and memory, and on the routes through which both find expression.

On the other hand, the autobiographical documentary needs to be analyzed in light and in relation to the practice of documentary filmmaking. The issue, in this instance, is not, I believe, strictly of classificatory nature. It is not, to clarify, solely linked to the well-known debate within analytic philosophy and cognitive analysis of film on whether we should simply refer to these works as documentaries – which John Grierson originally defined as “the creative treatment of actuality” – or if, as Carl Plantinga,4 Noël Carroll,5 Trevor Ponech,6 and others have shown, we should instead rely, in the classification of nonfiction film on the relational properties exhibited by such works. Rather, the problem I find more pressing, is to understand the autobiographical documentary in relation to the mission of the documentary, (as attempted by Bill Nichols’7 through his identification of six modes of documentary filmmaking), an analysis that, albeit somewhat speculative given the number of themes and aesthetic solutions chosen by each work, can help us isolate and describe their leading features and the ways in which they manage to deliver what autobiographies are created to deliver: life (in moving pictures).

My analysis of the autobiographical documentary follows the two debates above with the goal of providing an overall assessment of each problem while also highlighting what I take to be some of the responses to their most central concerns. Specifically, in Section 1, I will discuss the use, in autobiographical documentaries, of narrative structures and how such structures do, at times, diverge from the more traditional narratives we find in memoirs, their literary counterpart. Moving from considerations related to the comparison between literary and filmic autobiographies, Section 2 will review the debate on the ontology of the documentary (broadly construed)8 with a specific focus on the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. The choice of this debate is motivated by the pivotal role played by autobiographical documentaries which, it has been suggested, may be said to be affected by a certain fictive strand. Section 3, entitled “The Autobiographical Act” narrows the focus on the nature of the autobiographical documentary as a distinct subgenre of the documentary (and not simply as a “mode” of documentary or as a “blend” of different modes). Beginning with a short history of the autobiographical documentary in North America,9 I will then analyze how autobiographical documentaries stand in relation to the question of evidence and whether the “evidentiary status” of documentary may be compromised by the inevitable presence of a strong subjective slant (after all, leading character, direction, content, and point of view belong to the same person: the autobiographical documentarian).

I will conclude the chapter with a brief reflection on the questions and perspectives that scholars, as well as filmmakers, are likely to contemplate in the near future. For it is hard to doubt that the autobiographical documentary has a future. Not only do we have – and collect – an unprecedented amount of autobiographical evidence, from email accounts to pictures snapped with smartphone cameras, we are also ultimately reliant on their ability to encompass our identity – more or less loosely construed. Social media has become the public scrapbook of a global society where self-expression is coupled with an obsession for self-exposure. As Lotjie, the protagonist – and director – of My Beautiful Broken Brain, we are obsessed with recording. The recording of our lives, whether in the 140 characters of a tweet or through one of the numerous social media platforms that are today offered to us, is quick and highly affordable. So affordable that one may suspect it has already begun to replace a rather costly and complex procedure: remembering.

  1. (forthcoming) “The Autobiographical Documentary, “ in Noël Carroll, Laura Di Summa-Knoop & Shawn Loht (eds.). The Palgrave Handbook for the Philosophy of Film and Motion Pictures. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

 

Contemporary Lives: Filmic Autobiographies

The emphasis on autobiographical expression in contemporary society has undermined the theoretical and conceptual import of both the postmodern self and of objective, documentary evidence. Analyzing autobiographical expression across the arts has, as a result, become increasingly complex. Beginning with North American filmic autobiographies from the 1970s to recent examples, my purpose is to isolate three main themes that not only characterize filmic autobiographies but that also profoundly distinguish them from their literary counterpart. Filmic autobiographies, I propose, challenge the “confessional” approach adopted by literary autobiographies, they engage in ethical and aesthetic reflection on the body, and, lastly, but perhaps more significantly, they act as one of the most powerful weapons to stimulate political and social debate on crucial issues such as gender and race.

2017, “Contemporary Lives: On the Nature of Filmic Autobiographies,” Auto/Fiction, 2:1, 54-65.

 

“Critical Autobiography”: A New Genre?

Meeting at the crossroad between autobiography, the novel, and literary criticism, the past decade has seen the emergence of a compelling new genre, of what, in my essay, I will label “Critical Autobiography.” Stemming from a criticism of intentionalist classificatory strategies while embracing clarificationist genre-based accounts, my analysis points to a reflection on the emergence of contra-standard features of autobiographical narration, features that, in turn, affect both the structure and the appraisal of autobiographical works. Memoir, I conclude, is going through yet another phase: causal connections, empathy, and narrative theories of identity are, once again, at stake.

2017, “Critical Autobiography: A New Subgenre?” Journal of Aesthetics and Culture Vol. 9:1

 

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