Real life can be a dangerous place for filmmakers to look for inspiration. Reality can be a straight-jacket that limits creative freedom. Yet, filmmakers making autobiographical films have created some of the most important films in cinema history.
Autobiographical films have had a long history in cinema, with many of the great filmmakers taking aspects of their own lives and bringing them to life on screen. It can lead to films that are universal in their truth, as is Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, and others that are too specific in their emotions, like Gondry’s The Science of Sleep.
While autobiographical cinema is not always successful, it does give viewers the unique chance of seeing a filmmaker’s heart placed directly on the screen.
It can explain a filmmaker’s style and motivation, or simply give a glimpse of a childhood or current state of mind. Martin Scorsese’s first and third film, for example, give us insight into his fascination with the gangster genre. Who’s That Knocking At My Door and, more importantly, Mean Streets, offer revealing looks into the formative years of Scorsese and the organized crime he grew up beside. In the commentary for Mean Streets, Scorsese states, “it is not really a film, it is kind of a declaration of who I am”, revealing just how personal a film it really is. The film acts as a explanation of how Scorsese is able to capture realism in the genre and accurately portray the crime world, unlike almost any other filmmaker.
An autobiographical film can not only give us insight into the upbringing of a filmmaker, but at times explain a filmmaker’s style. This is the case with Michel Gondry and his heartbreakingly beautiful, The Science of Sleep. Focussing on a devastating relationship Gondry had as a young adult, the film gives us a glimpse into the world through the eyes of Gondry. By showing us his cinematic alter-ego as being a dreamer, inventor and child at heart, we are able to see how Gondry’s filmmaking style reflects the way he sees the world. It is not pretentious or over-the-top, but simply his own personal vision put to film. While this arguably overly-personal film may leave some scratching their heads, for others, like me, it gives us a direct view into a filmmaker’s mind and heart. And in the case of Gondry, this is a sad, strange place.
Before Gondry, it was Truffaut who created one of cinema’s most memorable characters, his own cinematic alter-ego, Antoine Doinel. The character would star in a series of films, spanning twenty years of Truffaut’s career. The series, beginning with The 400 Blows, is unique in that it is a rare example of a series that tracks the maturing, or lack of, of a filmmaker. The character grows as Truffaut did, and is at one time a mirror of himself and a meditation of what it means to be a cinephile.
Autobiographical films can explain filmmakers, or simply give us a glimpse into their world. This in itself makes the “genre” unique and important to cinema. These films can teach us both about the filmmaker and ourselves. Antoine Doinel’s adventures, for example, do more to explain what it is like being a cinephile than almost any other film to this day. And of course, these films run the risk of being self-indulgent, in fact many of them are. However, that is a small price to pay for some of cinema’s most revealing and important films.