Filmmakers have historically been coy about discussing the ties between their work and their lives, but these days, there are more exceptions to that rule than ever. Consider the films of Judd Apatow and Derek Cianfrance, whose newest, The Place Beyond the Pines, is out now.
Cianfrance's first feature, Brother Tied, was a story of sibling rivalry based on the director's own difficult relationship with his brother. His 2011 breakout, the wrenching Blue Valentine, depicted the dissolution of a marriage and was based on his own parents' divorce. Pines is a complex crime story of fathers and sons, told in an ambitious, intentionally disruptive narrative structure—a triptych—that intends to provoke thought but often leaves the viewer grasping for meaning. Cianfrance, however, has been more than willing to explain what it means to him, revealing in interviews that he wrote the film when his wife was pregnant with their second son and the notion of legacy weighed heavily on his mind. In this story about the compromises that two young fathers—a bank robber and the cop that pursues him—make to provide for their children, it is easy to believe Cianfrance when he says he has put "all of [his] fears and insecurities up on the screen."
Our ability to trace the major events of Cianfrance's life through film recalls, to a surprisingly great extent, the life and career of Judd Apatow, the reigning king of Hollywood comedy. Apatow's movies are similarly autobiographical, and he even casts his real-life family members in key roles. The 40-Year Old Virgin was a teen sex comedy whose protagonist happened to be closer to Apatow's actual age; he put his wife, actress Leslie Mann, in a supporting role. He created a surrogate family in Knocked Up, casting Mann again, as well as their two daughters, in supporting roles; handsome movie star Paul Rudd played the head of household based on Apatow. The whole family came back as lead characters in last year's This Is 40, his first film to really bomb with audiences and critics alike.
Why compare the very different work of these two very different men? Because they show one reason why some semi-autobiographical films succeed and why others fail. Cianfrance has used his own life as a source of artistic power and relevance. But for Apatow, whose films increasingly mirror his own charmed life, the use of autobiography comes at a cost: the alienation of his audience.
After the failure of This Is 40, Apatow came under fire for his lack of imagination, and much of the criticism concerned his inability to see past his own socio-economic circumstance. As a reflection of his own life (Apatow is, after all, a hugely successful Hollywood producer), Apatow's married couple, Pete and Debbie, are rich in material things. They live in Beverly Hills and drive nice cars. Their daughter spends much of her time staring into an iPad. Their marital tension is supposed to revolve around some significant money troubles (Pete's record label is about to go belly-up), but the worst possible outcome discussed is that they might have to move to a smaller house in a less affluent neighborhood. Given the economic struggles that have flooded our consciousness in the last several years, it's not too surprising that audiences did not warm up to the film. It is hard to feel too bad for rich white people right now.
Cianfrance's work, on the other hand, is deeply and consistently rooted in the working-class American experience. Although his films are not about poverty per se, the financial limitations of his characters inform their actions in crucial ways. In Blue Valentine, Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) need to get out of town for a night of passion to revive their marriage, so they use a gift certificate to a fantasy motel several towns over, where they get drunk and order takeout. Their failed attempt at romance is the breaking point for their fragile marriage, but things end better in This Is 40. Pete and Debbie spend a sun-kissed weekend at a California resort, where they eat pot brownies, order room service, and come home re-invigorated with passion.
The socio-economic differences between Cianfrance and Apatow extend to their depiction of fatherhood, as well. The narrative thrust of each director's film on the topic revolves around a father's efforts to provide for their child, but the challenges faced by the characters in Apatow's films are mostly internal. In Knocked Up, Ben (Seth Rogen) is conveniently relieved of financial responsibility because the mother of his child is a successful television personality. Instead, all he needs is to grow up a little, stop smoking pot (a recurring motif in the Apatow oeuvre), and read a few books on parenting. It is not such a tall order.
The responsibilities that fall upon Handsome Luke (Ryan Gosling) in Pines involve much higher stakes. Luke is a motorcycle stunt driver for a carnival, but he quits his job to stay and provide for the infant he conceived a year before the film begins. With no education and only one marketable skill, he turns to a life of crime, robbing banks and using his motorcycle skills in the get-away.
It's a gritty and cruel world that Cianfrance depicts. His characters struggle to do the right thing, and tragedy always seems just one wrong turn away. Apatow's films may flirt with darkness, but he always leaves us on a note of optimism; before film, he had a long career in television, and his films reflect a show runner's instinct to wrap everything up neatly at the end. But the characters in Cianfrance's movies never quite achieve their goals, and their economic struggles lurk as the underlying deficiency that has tipped the scales against them. Handsome Luke can't get a decent job in Schenectady, a town Cianfrance has referred to as "a little Detroit" and chose for its poverty, so he turns to the dangerous, near-suicidal career of bank-robbing. Meanwhile, the mother of his child is subject to police harassment and abuse, which she cannot report because her mother is an illegal immigrant. In Blue Valentine, Dean is a high-school dropout who becomes an alcoholic because his job is so menial—he's a house painter—that he can do it drunk.
Cianfrance, in being so upfront about his personal connection to the material, has found an effective way to address the issues of working-class America. By making abundantly clear that the events in his films are at least in conceit based on his own life experiences, he has deflected the usual criticisms of films about poverty: that they are either patronizing towards their subjects or romanticizing their unadorned lives. Apatow, on the other hand, is now routinely criticized for solipsism, but perhaps the real problem is that he seems to be complaining about a life that looks pretty good to the rest of us.
Of course, his success may be part of the problem. No one complained about the autobiographical elements in Apatow's first two films, which featured characters who were comfortable but certainly not extravagantly wealthy. It was only with Funny People, about a movie star who had achieved the same level of success as Apatow himself, that the grumblings started. Celebrity, of course, can breed isolation, and Apatow's blindness to the distancing effect of affluence helps explains why his films have failed to connect with audiences lately. Cianfrance, on the other hand, has never had a commercial success; Blue Valentine enchanted critics but not the public. If The Place Beyond the Pines succeeds, it could be his eventual undoing. But in the meantime, Cianfrance will remain our era's finest chronicler of the American white working-class experience.