Portraits of the Artists as Artists
For the sheer number of movies there are about artists making art, you’d think the actual practice of art-making would be a lot more interesting. Of course, there are some exceptions — watching Tom Hulce’s Mozart compose his scores is two steps beyond stirring & Nigel Terry’s Caravaggio paints in the most erotic manner the human form allows for—but, in general, it’s no fun just to sit and watch someone else create.
And yet there is an indefinable, numinous beauty to the creation of art. Watching pencil put to paper may not itself be riveting, but there’s an undeniable satisfaction to watching the churn of an artist’s mind alchemize reality into something utterly sublime. This is especially true if the artist is demented.
Yukio Mishima killed himself in 1970 following an abortive coup attempt which would have restored the Japanese emperor to absolute power and instated military rule. Though this is all very much in sync with Mishima’s radically traditionalist philosophy, to try and and draw meaningful equivalencies between this act and Mishima’s significant literary output over the course of a single film would, in a word, foolhardy.
What, then, made Paul Schrader’s biopic of Mishima not only successful but borderline transcendent in its quality? The answer comes in a concept referenced by Schrader in the film and alluded to by Mishima in his writings: harmony of the pen and sword, the absolute consummation of philosophy through act.
Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters features memorable retellings of certain Mishima novels alongside its narration of the author’s life which is not in itself interesting — this technique is only a step or two removed from what was later featured in Shakespeare in Love—but works here because it fails to act in a solely referential manner.
The retellings themselves are not all of Mishima’s most notable works, and many viewers will likely not be familiar with at least some of the stories. They are also not just reflections of Mishima’s life; a movie that seeks only to demonstrate how an author’s life impacted his work is a movie that seeks to do nothing at all.
As viewers, we have the benefit of knowing how Mishima’s story itself ends (Schrader reminds us at the start just in case), so all of our looks into his writing occupy a rather queer place in time — we see what inspired Mishima to write them, but we also see how their content seemed to presage what would itself eventually happen to him. Schrader emphasizes this by ending the film with a rapid sequence of all 3 of the different novel visualizations alongside Mishima’s own death; the works were both created by Mishima and yet live alongside him, their own brutal outlook weighing more and more heavily on his own over time.
Thus Schrader confronts the paradox of the artist, that individual who must at once be an absolute creator while also being a subject of the power of his own creations. Mishima’s writings turned compelling, contradictory, disturbing thoughts of a young man and ossified them into something so large and indefatigable that they informed his own life all the way up unto its final moments. But more on that later.
William S. Burroughs did not kill himself, but he did kill his wife Joan Vollmer in Mexico in 1951 while supposedly trying to shoot an apple off of the top of her head. Here’s what he had to say about it some 30 years later:
I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from Control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.
This is … unpalatable, perhaps, but it is Burroughs’s own self-assessment nonetheless. Do we take him at his word? If we do, must we think of the case of Burroughs whenever an artist engages in the unfathomable and unforgivable?
I don’t know (I am choosing not to know) but David Cronenberg gives us quite a bit to chew on with his adaptation of Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. The movie’s plot is not always present and even when present not always comprehensible, so I’ll share what I think are a few key details.
- The main character, William Lee, kills his wife Joan Lee accidentally while attempting to shoot a glass off of her head.
- Lee escapes to the Interzone, a North African city where he begins to write an endless series of “reports” for a mysterious agency.
- In the Interzone, Lee meets Joan Frost (played by Judy Davis, the same actress who played Joan Lee) and has an affair with her.
- Lee’s reports turn out to be excerpts of a novel, known as Naked Lunch, that Lee himself cannot seem to successfully finish in the Interzone.
- As Lee is attempting to cross an international border with Frost in tow, the border guards ask for proof that he really is a writer, as he claims. In order to prove it to them, Lee attempts to shoot a glass off of the top of Frost’s head, missing and killing her. The guards are convinced and allow Lee to pass.
Unsurprisingly, much of the above is not actually in the original novel but was added for the film by Cronenberg. Cronenberg seems to be laying bare the absurdity of Burroughs’s claim while also perhaps validating the logic itself: it may be at the far end of offensive to claim that you needed to murder your wife in order to become a writer, but if you could not assume the status “writer” until your wife’s murder, then maybe there is something to this.
The question shouldn’t be whether or not we agree but rather if this is a successful way of wrestling with the thorny questions an artist’s life and work pose when tangled together. Cronenberg isn’t presenting evidence to the viewer and asking them to decide; he’s creating a strange loop in which the movie we watch constantly references the events that produced which are themselves contained in the movie we watch and so on. He’s setting up the dynamo to see just how furiously it can spin before it combusts.
If Naked Lunch is a loop, then Mishima is a plane that is boundless on one end and convergent to a single point on the other. We see how the segregated worlds of fiction and reality may all lead to the same place, the same embodiment of an ideal. Many of Mishima’s philosophies are distasteful to the modern viewer (and Schrader does not attempt to rehabilitate them), but there remains something all too compelling in the idea of how the artist may meet his art, immortalizing both in tandem.
Conversely, the currency of Naked Lunch is not ideas or philosophies but fears and anxieties. The question of identity looms large over the film, and those moments in which it can be verified — the authoritative border guard letting Lee know that he is, in fact, a writer—only come as a result of great trauma.
In this way, we may look at the wounds of the two films: the gunshot wound in Joan Vollmer/Lee/Frost and the wound of seppuku in Mishima. The latter is a hole into which all spills, all art and life fall in and swirl around together in order to become thing single identifiable thing — the harmony of pen and sword. Joan’s wound is no such receptacle; it is expulsive. Burroughs/Lee are witness to all that spills out of it and think that speaking of it makes them a writer. With this we may (perhaps even we should) disagree, but they write nonetheless.
The process of creating art may not itself be engaging, but then again neither really is its adaptation of screen. A film adaptation of one of Mishima’s novels may not itself be unsuccessful, but what would have been left behind in its creation? Surely the unspoken life of its creator would loom large over it, becoming the unaddressed thing that haunts it thereafter.
The same is true for the inverse: a straight biopic of Mishima’s life would elide the fact that his art is not simply an expression of his philosophy but also a work of prophecy and a source of pressure itself.
With Burroughs, it’s all a bit more complicated. Maybe we would even prefer that Cronenberg had omitted the murder of Vollmer from the film entirely such that we need not confront Burroughs’s troubling remarks on the incident. We don’t need to believe in Mishima’s philosophy of the writer to understand its relationship with his art; even (especially) if we do believe in Burroughs’s philosophy of the writer, we would perhaps rather not understand its relationship with his art.
Schrader and Cronenberg both understand that to tell only the stories of their writers or only their writers’ stories is to perform an evasion far too often seen in cinema. There’s that awful unattributable quote about how all someone needs to do to be an author is sit a typewriter and bleed. Most movies show us the paper; these films, for all their faults, show us the bloodstained keys.