Review by Jacob Smith

David Safin’s “The Death of a Text” is a video essay that deftly conveys a multifaceted and thoughtful argument in audiovisual form. A compelling primer for Genette’s system of transtextuality and theories of genre, Safin shows how genre and authorship are co-constitutive, with authorship calibrated in relation to generic conventions. Safin situates Love and Mercy (2015) among a network of texts relating to Brian Wilson, giving us both a case study in intertextual relationships and a vivid example of how an author (the director, Bill Pohlad) can signal their stylistic choices as innovative or artistic by asking audiences to see them in relation to more conventional, “generic” approaches. The rock biopic seems to be ripe for this kind of treatment, judging not only from Love and Mercy, but Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There (2007), which makes some similar moves. Safin makes an argument about the stakes of this textual process, suggesting that Love and Mercy constructs a hierarchy of more or less authentic versions of Wilson’s life, and even works to metaphorically “kill” a previous text.  

Safin’s focus is on the work of the director, but this video also makes me think about the labor of acting: after all, one of the strengths of the video essay is that nuances of performances by the likes of Paul Dano and John Cusack become part of the discussion in a particularly tangible way. Safin explains why a director like Pohlad might want to closely replicate “authentic” texts such as the “Pet Sounds” outtakes and scenes from the Wilson documentary made in 1995. These are moments when the director is performing authenticity through intertextuality, but they also tell us something about how actors are asked to work from a “script” that is comprised of an audiovisual archive. Moreover, they show how the restoration of archival media texts might involve subtle performative tweaks such that they better fit with the conventions of narrative genres like the rom-com or melodrama. For example, while Safin is most interested in the similaritiesbetween John Cusack’s re-enactment of lines from the 1995 documentary, I find myself drawn to the differencesbetween Wilson’s account of childhood abuse and Cusack’s performance during the scene at the restaurant in Love and Mercy. Similarly, the discovery that his childhood home has been destroyed feels quite different when we are attending to the level of performance signs; it is much more emotionally ambiguous in the documentary, with the proceedings punctuated by Wilson’s uncomfortable laughter. 

In these scenes, we are reminded that actors – as well as directors – need to make their creative decisions stand out in relation to a web of source texts. This is something I’ve written about in relation to impressionists, mimics, and historical reenactments such as Hal Holbrook’s stage show, “Mark Twain Tonight!” (1959). The popular pressfrequently described Holbrook’s dedication to research, how he studied old newspaper reports and interviews with people who saw Twain on the platform, for example, and critics found that kind of research-based performance to be a particularly refined form of acting. The work of popular celebrity impressionists, on the other hand, was often based upon learning a star’s behavior from watching film and television programs, and was deemed to be a much less prestigious type of performance.Safin’s video essay makes me think that musical biopics like Love and Mercy are fascinating texts for thinking about issues of genre, authorship, and intertextuality, both with regards to filmmakers and to actors, who are asked to construct performances that will both acknowledge and stand apart from the audiovisual archive.