I have long held a fascination with the complex and chaotic relationship that cinema has with the representation of history. Since the earliest beginnings of humanity’s attempts at iconographic representation, we have endeavoured to tear the past from the vague and intangible clutches of memory and thrust it into the living present moment. Despite these efforts, which will not cease as long as people live and breathe, we are also acutely aware that such a process must ultimately end in failure. The past is the past and cannot be resurrected. All that we can do is assemble the artefacts and documents that time has left standing, and attempt to piece them together in the most accurate fashion that we possibly can.
Of course, no book or film detailing the events of history is without erroneous details (many facts are inevitably lost to us) or misrepresentations of individual’s personalities and intentions (which can never truly be known). Nor can any book or film ever escape the trap of narrative – the process of distorting the infinitely complex real world into an unrealistic binary universe of cause/effect driven storytelling. This is not so much a fault as it is an inescapable truth of our relationship with the world.
It is also inevitable that the creator of a historical film or book will pass their own thoughts and ideologies into their work. One need only take a look at two films that deal with the same slice of history to observe the beginnings of ideological discrepancy. Consider the representation of the American Civil War in D.W. Griffith’s masterpiece/outrage The Birth of a Nation (1915) compared to the more contemporary and sentimental Glory (1989). One is a racist attack on the abolishment of slavery, and the other is an attack on racism and slavery itself.
If we take the above points as an accepted fact in all films that deal with the past in one way or another (which I do), and accept them not as accurate representations of history but as inevitably tainted reconstructions of a lost past, then the films that come out on top are those that tackle this issue of lostness. In other words, films that acknowledge what they cannot know.
One of the most impressive Hollywood directors to tackle this problem of historical representation is the New Zealand born Andrew Dominik. Dominik has thus far directed only three films in his career with a fourth on the way. The first is the Australian biopic, Chopper (2000), a brilliant film that details a portion of the life of Mark ‘Chopper’ Read, the Australian crime figure most famous for cutting off his own ears and a proclaimed love of torture. The second is the underrated biopic epic, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), a brilliant look at the distorting mythology of celebrity and its discordance with the real world. The third is a crime thriller I am yet to see, Killing Them Softly (2012). And the fourth is to be perhaps his most ambitious production of all, Blonde, a biopic on the life and times of Marilyn Monroe. Here, I’d like to focus on the first of the historical works that Dominik completed, Chopper (without ruining it for those who have not yet had the opportunity to view it).
Dominik’s Chopper is an incredibly concise film, its narrative consisting predominantly of vignettes from various points in the life of a man who needs no introduction to Australian culture. Chopper has attained a level of celebrity in Australia akin to that of a contemporary Bonnie & Clyde, predominantly due to his self-declared love for blackmailing, torturing and killing drug dealers. First coming into the public eye in the mid-seventies when he took a courtroom hostage to force the release of a close friend, he now has a series of best-selling autobiographical books that detail his rather heinous career in graphic detail. Since Australia has laws prohibiting criminals from profiting from their crimes, he claims to only detail the events and acts that he has not been prosecuted for. Most people agree that the main reason he has not been prosecuted for these crimes is that they did not occur. But as Chopper is fond of saying, “never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Combine this with the reality that the man has dealt with severe mental health issues his entire life and it quickly becomes apparent that getting to the core of Mark ‘Chopper’ Read is no simple task.
And yet Dominik has chosen to undertake the difficult task of sifting through Chopper’s stories, police records and any source he could find to uncover the real Chopper. The result is a masterful film, shaped around the endless half-lies, lies, paranoid delusions and truths-made-to-look-like-lies that make the subject so inaccessible. Dominik demonstrates the difficulty of obtaining the truth of his character by having the viewer sit at a distance from the action, never quite able to ascertain the character’s thought process, or to fully comprehend what is or is not a lie. Indeed, Dominik presents the very real possibility that not even Chopper himself understands who he is or what he is doing. Perhaps the greatest achievement of the film is that the character does not come off looking two dimensional or entirely unsympathetic. Instead he is presented as an unknowable, loveable beast – as much a monster as a human being.
The film’s incongruent scenes cover a large time-period in his life, often sitting chronologically distant from each other (at least in the first half) to avoid the viewer developing a solid narrative relationship with the character. This also serves the purpose of avoiding the aforementioned process of ‘distorting the infinitely complex real world into an unrealistic binary universe of cause/effect driven storytelling’. Many of the most famous moments of the character’s life are fleetingly referred to, and the characters in the film are often amalgamations of several individuals from the real world, highlighting the fact that this is not an accurate account of history, but an experimental grappling with the psychology of a significant Australian figure. The open titles indicate as much: “This film is a dramatization in which narrative liberties have been taken. It is not a biography.”
The result of Dominik’s approach (and I am limited in what I can say by my unwillingness to spoil the film for future viewers) is a biographical study of a significant Australian figure that distances itself from the tainted obligations of biography and history in general. Dominik’s film is about the process of understanding and grappling with the past, without ever having the ability to truly know it.
To finish off, here is one of the few scenes I could find online that didn’t compromise the film for those who hadn’t seen it. Enjoy…