Saturday, August 1, 2009

Who's in Control?

I re-watched Control recently, the biopic about Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis.

I've watched a lot of films about male artists, and it is always fascinating to look at the impact of their obsessiveness — and their fame — on their family. This one is no exception.

In Control, which tracks the short life of cult figure Ian Curtis, there is a party scene where a woman talking to Curtis's wife enviously acknowledges how famous he has become. “Not to me,” Deborah Curtis smiles. “I still have to wash his underpants.”

Here, the music scene is a masculine world; Deborah is the long-suffering, marginalised wife, bearing the brunt of her husband’s creative talent, while he winds up the tragic hero, despite his domineering behaviour towards his wife and almost total negligence as a father.

Although the teenaged Deborah was also writing poetry when she met her future husband, he was always the focus of the relationship, she has said. “I don’t remember him ever asking to see what I was writing. That’s partly my own fault — I stopped writing after we got married. But I think he was so powerful that our lives were sort of centred around his art, and what he was going to do.”

In her response to the film, British novelist and art critic Bidisha argued that: “Great men attract subservient women and are forgiven for their unkindness because of the marvellous gifts they present to the world”.

She accuses recent artist biopics, such as those celebrating Bob Dylan, Jackson Pollock and Ian Curtis, of passing off acts of rebellion, arrogance and cruelty as reflections of greatness in men, while female artists are “neurotic nut-jobs … called by their first names” — think Sylvia, Iris, Frida — almost always in thrall to some more famous (though, history shows, not necessarily more talented) man.

Do you agree with this? Can anyone recommend some positive biopics about artists who wove their art into full lives as partners and parents?

One wonderful antidote is The Beaches of Agnes, French New Wave filmmaker Agnès Varda's film-memoir (currently showing at the Melbourne Film Festival) about her very full life as an artist and mother.

Placing herself amongst extracts from her films, and images and interviews recalling her past, the unstoppable Varda offers a fascinating and playful account of her creative work, her feminism and her family life.


adelaidefromadelaide said...

Good question. *thinking, thinking*

genevieve said...

He would not qualify as parent or partner, but Anton Chekhov did a great deal to support the people around him, working as a doctor and housing his brothers who were the more indigent kind of artist (and far less successful than him too), and generally supporting family after his parents' household dissolved. The picture I have in my mind is of an incredible artist, like Austen, who wrote with people always around him, making noise, living, creating in the middle of it all. Probably quite a good model for most creative parents. Not that I'm trying to set a high bar or nuffink :-)

Damon said...

T.S. Eliot was a surprisingly dutiful' husband. By this, I mean he worked full time at the bank, got up early to write, and still made time to care for his very sick wife.

Like many carers, he withdrew into himself (quite understandably), but the mere fact of his ministrations strikes me.

simmone said...

i can only think of negative depictions - the edge of love (about dylan thomas) springs to mind, and more about frustrated artists, revolutionary road ... it would be interesting if someone did one of patti smith because she was not at all screwed up about gender (or maybe she was hmmm - she did leave the stage to go and be a wife in the suburbs after all ... there's a film about t.s eliot and his wife ...also there's one coming out about keats and shelley and mary shelley - maybe that will be more fem=pos

Rachel Power said...

I'd love to see the film about T.S. Eliot--and, yeah, I think Patti Smith's choice to withdraw and focus on mothering is fascinating--particularly when art is so obviously in her bones. I'm sure she was always creating in one way or another--and had already reached a solid level of fame, which helps. The death of her partner was obviously a huge catalyst. I'm not trying to suggest all male artists are narcissists--more a comment on the way artists are depicted in film. Of course cinema’s format demands drama, but the popularity of these biopics suggests the public remain wedded to romantic illusions about pure, mythic genius.

katiecrackernuts said...

What about working mother Veronica Guerin, played by Cate Blanchett. It's a while since I've seen it but it portrayed her as a working mother - not just a journo who was gunned down. From memory I was left with a very strong sense of not a great journalist who was killed but of a journalist AND mother AND wife.

Emma said...

Ah Rachel, I've been thinking of you and the questions you pose, as I struggle with a workaholic artist partner, who has been extremely absent of late.
I'm also preparing for an exhibition, but I'm still parenting our 4 year old, running the house, and missing out on a full life while my partner is at work every day and night for the past few months. It does get so frustrating, isolating, anti-social etc.
Yesterday I had a mini tantrum, I actually feel that I deserve a full sized outburst, but I do hate my son to see me that way.
When both people in the relationship are artists, and therefore need a lot of creative time, when there are kids involved, it's a messy complex situation, and I have no answers, but would be appreciative of any!

genevieve said...

Pffft biopic! next time I promise to read the post PROPERLY.

genevieve said...

The Patti Smith doco is simply beautiful. Not quite a biopic in the sense intended here, but really very fine indeed. The scenes in the middle with her parents at home are just lovely. She goes out in the yard with her dad and talks to him about the trees he planted, and their dogs, then goes on stage and performs her socks off. Art and life are seamlessly engaged with each other there.

andres-kabel said...

I'm just reading Hilary Spurling's stunning two-book bio of Henri Matisse. And yes, he's so obsessed with his art that he told her at the time of marriage that he would always care more for his work than her. And yes, by age 40 or so (I'm partway through book two), she's losing her sense of self.
At the Melbourne International Film Festival, I saw Shadow Play: The Making of Anton Corbijn, a doco about the making of Control. It strikes me that Corbijn (one of the most famous rock photographers, Control is his first feature film) is as selfish and obsessive about his art as his subject, Ian Curtis.

Rachel Power said...

So many things to follow up--Patti Smith and TS Eliot and also Shadow Play, and Keats plus Shelleys when that comes out. Thanks everyone for those suggestions. Emma, sounds like you're doing an amazing job of holding it all in! The different ways of operating become so stark in a household where both parents are artists, don't they?! Is his exhibition first? If so, I would ask him to offer you exactly what you've given him all these weeks. Surely it's your turn? Most important thing for women in these situations is learning to just walk out that door (knowing the kids are in safe hands with Dad)--just hand over the reins and take the time that's owed you. Is that possible?