Autobiographical movies are the most personal of "personal movies," and big U.S. studios rarely champion personal movies of any kind. Noah Baumbach based his corrosive yet empathic new indie, "The Squid and the Whale," on his parents' marital breakup when he was a teenager. It's a welcome addition to the small body of American features that put their creators' lives onscreen with unprecedented directness and intensity.
Executives look askance at autobiographical movies, partly out of fear that they'll be narrow and self-absorbed. But these films are usually stocked with outside observations, like any good film director's mind.
They often bring to life unusual slang and argot. There's never been a more brutally eloquent term for townies in a college town than the word director Peter Yates and screenwriter Steve Tesich use in "Breaking Away" -- "cutters," for the men who worked in the quarries and cut the stones that built Indiana University's Bloomington campus. There's never been a more ominous way of saying a girl is gorgeous than that of the underachiever Fenwick (Kevin Bacon), who refers to one beauty as "death" in Barry Levinson's "Diner." (He also calls a prank "a smile.") In Martin Scorsese's "Mean Streets," when an enemy labels one of Scorsese's antiheroes a "mook," his friends react first with befuddlement, then with rage: No one knows what a "mook" is, but they know it's bad.
And "The Squid and the Whale" revels in dated literary jargon. It's hilarious to hear the academic father and his acolyte son use "dense," repeatedly, as a term of great acclaim.
The music is as important as the language in these movies. In "Diner," "American Graffiti" and "Radio Days," pop and rock bring back the moods of fading eras; in "Mean Streets," the mostly febrile rock brilliantly sets off director Scorsese's jolting camera moves and helps ignite his explosive talent.
Putting all the elements of film at the service of their memories, autobiographical moviemakers at best transform their private obsessions into public worlds rich with fantasy and revelation. Resting on a chunk of the writer's or director's real-life experience -- usually childhood and adolescence, the time of first contact with the eternal verities and, even more stimulating, the eternal mysteries -- these movies comprise just as identifiable and varied a genre as gangster or cowboy films.
"American Graffiti" (1973). George Lucas' nostalgic memories of growing up with carhops, cruising, hot rods and hoods produced a film that sent the whole country into an early-'60s flashback. Other filmmakers swiftly imitated its in-and-out, vignette style and nonstop rock oldies soundtrack. Some of Lucas' characters -- the nerd, the dumb blond, the hot-rodder -- were stock even in 1962, the year of the story. But Lucas reanimates the cliches, using them to externalize and flesh out the cruising mind-set of his teen era. And the rock 'n' roll rhythms provided by the constant aural presence of legendary DJ Wolfman Jack gives "Graffiti" a souped-up engine of its own. This movie recaptured the idea of teen years being fun -- a notion that has since gotten way out of hand. The uncanny casting of Ron Howard, Cindy Williams, Richard Dreyfuss, Paul Le Mat, Harrison Ford, Charles Martin Smith and Candy Clark ensured "Graffiti's" place in history. By now, it too is a nostalgic memory.
"Mean Streets" (1973). Scorsese co-wrote and filmed his Little Italy Graffiti in hot blood. A breakthrough movie, starring Harvey Keitel as the would-be street saint Charles -- a mob kid on the rise -- and Robert De Niro as Johnny Boy, his out-of-control friend, "Mean Streets" captures the tension and confusion of New York in extremis. Its vision of a claustrophobic, unjust criminal subculture still shocks starry-eyed fans of "The Godfather." The conflict raging in the hero's skull, between his religious sensibility and his pursuit of success, mirrors the cloudy idealism and compromise that afflicted many Americans in the Vietnam-Watergate era.
"Breaking Away" (1979). The late Steve Tesich's best script, lovingly developed and directed by Peter Yates, centers on a bicycle race that pits four local "cutters" against the college kids of Indiana University in Bloomington. Though Tesich was, in reality, one of the college students, he turns the cutters into the heroes of the movie. The unemployed working-class friends have a bond that's a cushion for their mutual frustrations, as well as a source of humor and affection. Dennis Christopher plays the main character, Dave, a bicyclist who's so obsessed with Italian racers that he tries to pretend he's Italian (he affects an Italian accent).
But equally vivid are the volatile Mike (Dennis Quaid), who says, "The only thing I'm afraid of is wasting the rest of my life with you guys," and flaky, sensitive Cyril (Daniel Stern), who replies, "I thought that was the plan -- we'd waste the rest of our lives together."