I, Tonya and the antibiopic

NCEA essay in response to the question: Analyse how the structure of the text enhanced your understanding of a theme. “Structure” may refer to the order, organisation or conventions of a text.

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A paramount aspect of postmodern texts is an interrogation of grand social narratives of progress and causality. “Anti-biopics” like Craig Gillepsie’s I, Tonya (2017) form part of this literary canon, deconstructing the idea of “narrative” within the lives of their protagonists, with broader implications for our perception of truth. Gillepsie’s structure utilizes self-aware irony and non-linear flashbacks to subvert the traditional biopic’s attempt to place ideologies of causality on the lives of real people (Read: Tonya Harding). I argue that this critique expands to question the supposed infallibility of truth within documentary and psychological contexts.

The title screen of Gillepsie’s biopic displays an ironic message: “Based on totally true, utterly contradictory interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillespie.” Such a message clearly pokes fun at the over-used biopic troupe: based on a true story. The subsequent montage consists of dramatic re-enactments of these said interviews, with the key “cast” of Tonya’s notable life story. While several cinematographic techniques—a boxy aspect ratio, a filmic filter, and a jaundiced colour grade—distinguish these interviews/flashbacks from the following live action, the use of the same actors implies that the interviews exist in the same narrative universe. Thus, they become ostensibly non-linear exposition. Each character makes a vague, overarching statement on the whole scandal. For example, Tonya generalises that: “I was loved. For a minute. Then I was hated.” Jeff, meanwhile: “people don’t understand. I’m a nice guy.” What Gillepsie is achieving with these flash-forwards, as he pulls on the troupes of the biopic, is the establishment of a faux-causal narrative structure. That is: in prefacing the live action with these scenes out-of-time, he draws a link between the chagrin, bitter sarcasm of modern Tonya, with the following story of cyclical family abuse and the perils of fame. One, the structure says, leads to the other. But this is really a subversion—Gillespie will go on to undermine the status of the following live chronology as infallible. As such, these opening flash forwards are really an exercise in misleading the audience; pulling on our subjective understanding of the genre to increase the effectiveness of the director’s later subversion.

The literary theorist Bill Nichols—as applies to real journalism—coined the term “reflexive documentary.” By that he meant a postmodern documentary format owns up to the struggles associated with monolithic truth: subjectivity, presentation, interpretation. While a work of fiction, I, Tonya borrows the central construct as it structures its narrative composition in a self-aware way. The interviews become a consistent motif, spliced between the action. As the narrative progresses, however, the initial conceit of typical narrative temporal causality is broken; the interviews comment on the live action, but the live action comments back at the interviews. Consider what could be termed the “abuse scenes.” Aged faux-documentary Tonya remembers that she “loved Jeff.” Cut to the live action, and a mid-shot of young Tonya turns, dead pan and as Jeff slaps her, to the audience and breaks the fourth wall: “the only catch was that he beat the living hell out of me.” Even, of course, as documentary Jeff declares that: “I never hit her, that’s not me. The fundamental conceit of realism is gradually broken; Tonya, in live action and mid-way through cocking a rifle at Jeff, turns once again to the audience and says: “I never did this.” This set of structural contradictions is thematically crucial: by undermining the status of the live action as a linear, realist chronology, Gillepsie re-positions it as a kind of fluid “memory jelly”—the product of the naturally contradictory remembrances of Tonya and Jeff. The ironic humour created by the blatant opposition of linear action—the shooting—and dialogue—the denial—pokes fun at the tradition of self-righteous biopics who attempt to place a single narrative on the innately complex, messy and unknowable life of a real person. What is truth? As a fourth-wall-breaking Tonya later tells the audience, “everyone has their own truth.” But, as far as metafiction goes, truth is really a battle for control of the societal narrative; the literature. The structural motif—the consistent reappearance of the interviews—articulates a conflict between the memories of the characters for a hold on the audience’s sympathies. At one point, for example, Tonya’s mother La Vona juts in:”Well isn’t my storyline fucking disappearing now!” The collective undermining of the linear action as reliable is postmodern deconstruction—it moralises that truth is a product of dialling contemporary memories.

The intentional structural contradictions of Gillepsie’s “antibiotic” are troubling, however. As the philosopher Daniel Dennett likes to say: “postmodernism made it academically vogue to deny the existence of objective truth.” In our current socio-politcal climate, debates around truth hold, as Foucault might remind us, immense materialist political power. Remember, back in 2017, when the press secretary of former president Donald Trump turned seriously to the press corp and declared that a contradiction between reported facts and an official White House budget came down to the simple matter of “alternative facts"; is this not a loan word from critical theory? By suggesting that truth is interpretation, Gillepsie undermines the power of the material power-politics of his story. During one of the “flashbacks,” as Tonya directly talks to the audience regarding the abuse that is happening on screen, her facial expressions are distant and seemingly disassociated from the act of violence Jeff is committing. This emotional dissonance separates Tonya from the physical act, denying it any power. It conjures the same voyeuristic attitude the American public applied to on-screen descriptions of the Tonya Harding scandal in the moment—delighting in the war of words, disassociated from the act. In parallel, Gillepsie’s intended messaging regarding the fallibility of documentary truth overshadows the fact that Jeff maybe did really ruin Tonya’s life. By undermining the traditional narrative structure, he suggests that the psychology and philosophy of postmodern concepts of truth are key to our understanding of historical documentary. But is not the “he-said, she-said” of the flashbacks and flash forwards an attempt to undermine truth merely for the sake of undermining truth?

In I, Tonya, Craig Gillepsie uses structural techniques like non-linearity and self-aware characters to interrogate our pre-conceptions regarding truth and narrative in documentaries and the biopic genre. The intertextual “jostling” of the live action characters for control of the narrative paints truth as a fundamentally perspective-orientated abstract concept. However, the manufactured irony of Gillepsie’s approach threatens to undermine any serious moralising regarding themes of cyclical violence within Tonya’s story. We are left, in the end, confused and bemused—sifting through a set of endless “alternative facts.”