Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck – Brett Morgan (2015)

Who is Kurt Cobain in the year 2015? Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, which boasts access to a trove of new material, some of which includes interviews with those closest to the musician, supposes to answer the question of who Kurt Cobain “really” was. Instead, the film winds up answering the question just posed: who is he now, who has he become in the minds of those who knew him, and those who didn’t, some 20 years after his death? The cachet of this new appraisal comes from the exclusive access the filmmaker had to Kurt’s personal archive, as well as from the cooperation of many formerly combative or elusive friends and family, including Kurt’s Mom and Dad, Krist Novoselic, and, of course, Courtney Love. In order to measure the distance between who Kurt Cobain is to us now, and who he was when he died, back in 1994, it is instructive to compare the current film, so very authorized by Kurt’s family, with Nick Broomfield’s muckraking account of the immediate aftermath of Cobain’s death, 1998’s Kurt and Courtney. Rewatching that film recalls the Kurt who was tabloid fodder, often portrayed as an equal victim of his own success and of Courtney Love’s supposedly predatory nature; unlike the Cobain of 2015, who is granted posthumous status as creative genius and social renegade, the Cobain of 1998 was yet another promising rock musician who tragically died young, done in by drugs, seedy hangers-on, and the pressures of success. While Kurt and Courtney is not a hatchet job, it does portray Courtney Love (honestly, in many ways) as the mover in the relationship, with Kurt as a kind of mute enigma, the voodoo doll on which the voluble Love practiced her dark magic. Montage of Heck serves as an important corrective to this vision; it reveals, through the archival materials, a more complex portrait of Cobain, and also a more nuanced, human one of Love. It is important to keep in mind while watching the current film that it is Love’s authorized version of events, and it is interesting to note that Love does take some responsibility for Cobain’s demise within. While Kurt and Courtney spends much of its time dealing with the conspiracy theories surrounding Cobain’s death, and Love’s possible role in it, it is also true that the earlier film has a larger cast of characters testifying to Cobain’s inherent depressive nature. That film becomes much more a whodunit, coming down eventually on the side of “Kurt, possibly with some pushing.” The pushing, in this earlier account, came from Love’s purported infidelity (with Billy Corgan, yuck) after which Cobain attempted suicide in Rome, and then succeeded in the States a few months later. Montage of Heck does not deal with conspiracies, and everyone treats Cobain in a more removed, psychiatric fashion, as a depressed, unhappy person for much of his life, who unsurprisingly killed himself. Interestingly, it is Love who raises the “pushing” theory in the current film, as she takes “responsibility” for Cobain’s death. (She claims she only thought of cheating on him, and Cobain intuited it, which was enough to send him into a profound depression. The context in which she wanted to cheat on him, and the actual details of the aftermath of the suicide attempt in Rome, up through his death in Washington, are never addressed by the filmmaker or Love). Why am I prattling on about this? Well, Kurt and Courtney were, at the time of Cobain’s death, wedded, both in fact and in the public’s mind, whereas now they are much less so, and there was a sense that when one spoke about who Kurt Cobain was, it was impossible to do so without Courtney Love. It feels much less the case in 2015, but if one is interested in the dynamics of the relationship, the two films, side by side, provide some opportunity for a comparative analysis (more of Love than Cobain, perhaps, as she is alive to bear forward her story).

I’m getting far afield of the film itself, though, as anything more than a vehicle for reminiscing, hero worship, or gossipy armchair psychoanalyzing. In tone and style, Montage of Heck is nothing new, or special. It sticks pretty close to the style of gently investigative documentary popular these days, and is also reminiscent of Jessica Yu’s seemingly influential 2004 doc about outsider artist Henry Darger, In the Realms of the Unreal. While the authorial voice is sometimes conspicuous in Montage of Heck, most of the story is told through interviews and archival footage. The film is comprised of four modes, or types of material: the “talking heads” (family and friends); archival video of concert performances, media reportage, and Kurt’s privately shot footage; animated reworkings of Kurt’s drawings, paintings, and objects; and longer, more “realistic” sequences of animation set to Kurt’s spoken autobiography. Of the four modes, the archival footage is the most powerful, and, indeed, comprises the most powerful section of the film, the middle in which the director builds the emotional power of the story to its peak by cutting back and forth between the private video footage of Cobain and Love’s home life with footage of their public one (sometimes music performances, sometimes interviews from the period). This part of the film not only reveals Cobain in close to full detail, warts and all, but also rehabilitates Love as the harpy hanger-on she is often seen as. Bearing in mind the material is selected, Love comes off as intelligent, witty, creative (if destructively so) and in love. Given the amount of archival footage one might guess exists based on hints within the film, if Morgan had stuck just with it, and crafted a documentary almost purely based around montage, he would likely have had extraordinary results. (For a blueprint of how to make this type of film, see Crystal Moselle’s The Wolfpack). Unfortunately, the rest of the modes are self-indulgent, border on the parasitic, and make you question the director’s taste (for instance, the deadly lame title sequence which juxtaposes Seattle punk with educational film footage from the 1950s and atomic bomb blasts). The worst offender in this regard are the animated sequences that feature Cobain’s drawings and other art animated and montaged to his music. Most of this stuff is fairly stupid and cliched, the kind of work you might find in any halfway thoughtful and disturbed teenager’s private notebooks. Perhaps the animations are cliched because Cobain’s drawings and art are cliched (many fetuses/broken dolls with staring eyes and holes in their heads, or Ed Roth style characters with exploding guts), but we the audience wouldn’t know, because in this mode, we cannot distinguish what is the artist’s original contribution, and what is the director’s. Yu’s work on Darger’s art in In the Realms of the Unreal is the first instance I know of where a fine artist’s work is animated for the screen, but it is a hideous trend. This way of dealing with material exists, one supposes, because the director is too insecure or timid to allow the art to speak for itself, the way it was intended – as a static image. By “jazzing up” the imagery to prevent boredom on our parts while simultaneously devaluing our intelligence, the director destroys the integrity of the original work, turning it into something that is far beyond the artist’s original intentions, while perverting the meaning. (Such stuff also smacks of the director trying to steal some of the artist’s thunder, parasitically repurposing the work into their own while also making it commercially appealing). When practiced on Darger, it is tone-deaf and idiotic, reducing the depravity and beauty of his world to twee weirdness. I would think, however, that Cobain would be appalled, as the film transforms his art from exercises in defiance, ugliness, and protest of a reductive culture into the kind of blitz spectacle, ready made for television, that our culture excels at. (Many of the sequences just repeat fragments of text written by Cobain in notebooks over and over again while the music blasts). It seriously leads me to question if the director understands Cobain’s viewpoint. Perhaps he is merely dim, but it comes off as though he is picking over Cobain’s corpse to masturbatory ends. Kurt and Courtney, by way of contrast, barely features any of Cobain’s art, but when it does, we see it in the right way: in the context of his ex Tracey Marander’s home, where it hangs on the wall, and we can take it in quietly. The other animated portions, which were parceled out to a variety of animators and set to Cobain’s spoken word reminiscences, are not as bad, but are far too literal. This overlong film (145 minutes) could have been edited down while enriching the end result by collapsing these two modes and eliminating the animated aspect all together. Why not use still images from Cobain’s archive of art with his spoken word material laid over the top? It would allow us to really see the work, to really hear his words, and further, it would tie the two together by way of chronology – the art would become the expression of the contemporaneous experiences Cobain is speaking of. Even if the director then chose to keep the film at two and a half hours, it would have allowed him much more time for further dipping into the archive, which we obviously barely get to sample. Instead, the director becomes stingy with the material while hitting us over the head with crass, loud displays of his “interpretive” prowess. (The talking heads are a mixed bag; Kurt’s mother, for instance, comes off as self-serving and revisionist, while his father seems anguished. Novoselic and Marander, who is also in Kurt and Courtney, seem to have the inside track on reality. As for Courtney Love, I will leave it for viewers to decide how sincere she is. Overall, there are far fewer interviews, and time devoted to interviews, than the promotional materials for the film suggest). While the ending is abrupt, almost purposefully so, the details of Cobain’s demise are fully chronicled elsewhere (notably in Broomfield’s film). It is a testament to Cobain (and to Courtney Love, it must be said) that despite the director’s meddling and simplification, there is still much of interest here, and much that feels fresh and new, as if we are finally seeing Kurt, for the first time, as himself. Even though we are left with a flawed portrait, it remains a compelling, if ultimately condescending, one.

Two and a half stars out of five

The Wolfpack – Crystal Moselle (2015)

Memories are notoriously unreliable, because they are sensuous, living things; unlike facts, which suffer a death when committed to the page, memories transform because we transform. They age as we age, they fade as we fade. But this, the source of their unreliability, is also the source of their power – they are twinned with experience in a way that we cannot control, and if they must share our lives to exist, they also have an existence of their own. This power is attested to by their unexpected emergence; they come forth suddenly, heeding the call of some external stimuli, innocuously living its own life, unaware of the double that we have always borne along inside ourselves. In this way, memories are like a spirit, and we like a vessel – as memories age, they evaporate, leaving behind a substance which is less in quantity, but, as in any distillation, more powerful and potent because of the process. An era, a relationship, a passage, becomes an emblem: a look or a voice that, by being a fragment, cuts all the deeper. Films, like memories, are fragments, and, like memories, are notorious in their unreliability. Pieces of film, like memories, are stitched together into a larger work – the work of telling a story. The best films not only tell a story, they reflect on this ability, which is at the very heart of human nature and sentiment: the desire to use that which is fleeting as the bedrock on which to build an edifice of meaning. For memories are the evidence we sift through (if we are honest, always futilely), to make meaning, and to understand how we are and who we are. Unlike the world of fact, the more we search in memory, the less sure we become, and the less sure we become, the more we sense we are close to truth. It is a testament to the power and art of The Wolfpack, then, that the longer we watch it, the less sure we are that we understand the nature of the story we are seeing, and the more meaningful and multiple that story becomes. It is a story about loving movies. It is also a story about survival. It is a story of pain, dysfunction, and abuse, which is also a story of love, protection, and idealism.

The film, shot in a style not often seen anymore, mimics memory by allowing the story of a family to emerge from observation, and from the mouths of the family members. It is not exactly Direct Cinema, but it is close. Whereas Direct Cinema had a political teleology, The Wolfpack is interested in identity, in manifold forms. Some of these forms are indeed political, or, at least, the film is concerned with liberations of several sorts, but it is an anthropological inquiry only by the way of being an (it must be said, Surrealistic) disquisition on self and other, inside and outside, and the power relations that flow, always, from those two people we all know as Mom and Dad. As is usually the case with those who occupy seats of power, Mom and Dad emerge gradually here, in the negative spaces cast by their authority, in the differences we manage to map between the childhoods before us and memories of our own. The film concerns a band of brothers (and, sadly, discursively, one sister) who spent almost their entire childhood locked away from the world; not far away, as in a fairy tale, but close, in a run-down Manhattan apartment. They can see, smell, and taste the metropolis right outside their window, but they are home-schooled, and only father has the key to the front door. Father also has an interest in movies, and so instead of interacting with other humans, the boys interact with films, and eventually interact with each other through films. They recreate in detail (as far as they can), and re-enact, scenes from the movies they love, as a way to ward off boredom, yes, but moreso as a way to understand what it means to be a human among other humans. Reservoir Dogs (a favorite, we are left unsure, because it deeply connects or because it offers substantial roles for all of them), the Batman trilogy, Halloween, and others become quasi-religious rights, enacted in the living room and hallways with the aid of costumes painstakingly hewn from painted pieces of cereal box and sliced-up yoga mat. The undertaking has the atmosphere of a cult, more of the cargo than of the supreme leader variety – celebrations take on an intensity amplified by the close proximity to the “real thing,” the mysterious society that produced the images that entrance and educate them. (Their Halloween celebration is a thing of beauty, power, poignancy, and some dread). We are introduced to Mom early on, but she seems a bystander, almost one of the gang. Like the titular animals, we begin to think that these teens have raised themselves, and we await the revelation that Dad has absconded to another life, or to the next. But no, gradually father is revealed (although that word might be too strong) to be a hermit, ruling over his own small kingdom rather ineffectually. He could easily have been cast as a tyrant, and without sympathy, but Ms. Moselle is too canny for that. Yes, he is a monster in a way, but he is also a magician. Like Oz, he is a small, disappointed man, out of his element, and with a desire for grander things. He is an idealist – or, better, he identifies as an idealist. Originally from South America, he met mid-western Mom as a guide on the Incan trail. Somehow both of these seemingly hippy dreamers escaped paradise into the urban jungle, and never could find their way out. Unable to go native, Dad dreams of bettering himself in the city, to take the family to the true Western utopia, Scandinavia. Unable to make that happen, he slips into stasis, so close to the ideal, but always too far; he lives in the heart of modernity, and cannot escape to a better one. Or so he says – perhaps these are simply the rationalizations of a lazy, drunken failure. Like everything in this impressionistic film, it is hard to tell what is “true” from what is “real.” Failing to reach his destination, and to deliver his family to their true identities, he recreates his trapped position for his children. As he lives just out of reach of his desire, so shall they.

What separates the monster from the magician might be a matter of perspective. For while this father locks his children away, he does not throw away the key; indeed, he creates a situation (or was it always the case?) that allows them, slowly, to discover that they can escape. And, one by one, they do. They begin to rebel against him, in the necessary process of creating their own identities, and by doing so, reveal their uniqueness to the world, and bring the world into the household (in ways that in other films would have been obvious and ham-handed in their “drama,” but which here flow by suggestively, as memories tend to do). So while father replicated his own prison, he also created a way in which his children could escape theirs in a way he never could. Yes, we can say he has hobbled them, ill-prepared them for the “real” world. At the same time, as we see in a late movie trip to an upstate pumpkin farm, the years cloistered from “reality” have also enchanted reality in a way most of us cannot comprehend. The boys run, whoop, and play, experiencing the colors, tastes, and smells of nature at a time of life which ensures they will be remembered. The father’s sin allows his offspring to experience the world with the fresh senses of children. And, in a turn that is both poignant and potentially self-serving, the children liberate their father as much as is possible – he is along for the ride, although, heartbreakingly, always keeping himself at a remove. As the film winds down, questions only multiply, while answers do not, and the narrative becomes even more fragmented. One of the brothers seems to hitchhike away. Another gets a job as a PA on a film set, and even moves into his own apartment. Mother is reunited with her own mother, who she has not seen in decades. (We hear of a reunion, but do not see it). The daughter, too young to be independent, and who naturally seems to stick close to Dad, remains obscure. (One devastating shot, taken from a distance at the pumpkin farm, shows Mom, Dad, and daughter moving across a field in happiness, only to part as Mom wants to investigate what the boys are up to, Dad splitting off, recoiling into solitude, and the daughter, tottering between them, staggering on, unsure who to follow. We do not see her choice). I am quite positive that the unresolved nature of much of what we see will be dissatisfying for many viewers. If so, that would be a shame, because there is much skill, and strength, in Ms. Moselle’s technique. It takes considerable command, and resolve, to let material speak for itself. The results are mysterious, enigmatic, and gripping, revealing depths that reflect on the nature of the self and of family, and on how we live together at the larger level of a society. In some ways the film is reminiscent of Werner Herzog’s films from the ’70s that focus on outcasts in relation to society, but in many aspects The Wolfpack is more powerful, as it is more humble and less mythic. With the logic of a dream, the film ends with the family producing a “real” film; no longer enacting the dreams of others, each player comes before the camera transformed, representing both him or herself as well as enacting their newly recognized “role.” It is both the logical culmination of the life of a cinephile (playing out in micro form the New Waves of the 1960s) as well as a poetic testament to the forever present possibility of self-fashioning and transfiguration. It is a portrait of the artist as a young man as well as a family portrait; it is the family portrait of us all.

Four and a half stars out of five

A Life in Dirty Movies – Wiktor Ericsson (2013)

We live in the age of the throw-away documentary. Perhaps this seems unnecessarily disparaging, and I only mean it partly so, as I love documentaries and am happy that there are many more being made lately; all the same, as anyone with a Netflix account knows, we are awash in films that focus on some semi-niche of reality for 80-100 minutes. My guess is that there are so many being made simply because the barrier to entry is lowest in this corner of cinema city, as unlike much narrative film making, a documentary can often follow a tried (or tired) and true structure as long as it plugs into some topic that has not been addressed in exactly that same way before. Talking heads are cheaper than actors, and “reality” needs much less glamour to mount successfully than fictionalized reality, which often requires a bit of seduction. I have seen a lot of these docs (thanks again to Netflix), and while some are very good, like the recent Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films, many, even when they aren’t bad (like the much overrated Marwencol), tend to feel exploitative and samey. Find some person to latch onto, usually an against-the-system outsider, or an outsider in general, rough out the narrative in a way that at least makes a play toward suspense or a reversal of some kind in the fourth reel, throw in a few talking heads for “context,” and poof, you’ve made a movie.

A Life in Dirty Movies is, in many ways, a cookie from such a cutter. It reflects on the life of Joe Sarno and his wife, Peggy, who made sexploitation films back in the heyday (and really, the only day) of the genre, the 60s and 70s. Now, I am familiar with Mr. Sarno and his films, but I must confess I have not seen any of them, simply because sexploitation bores me silly (aside from the films of Russ Meyer and Doris Wishman). Sarno, called the “Ingmar Bergman of 42nd Street,” made many acknowledged classics of the genre – the reference to Bergman is due to his interest in the interiority of his characters, their relationships, and his emphasis on women and their pleasure. All to the good, and the doc did succeed in making me want to sample his filmography, especially his work made in the late 70s, after sexploitation was no longer a viable genre. Anyone looking for a thorough overview of Mr. Sarno’s biography, his career, or the contextualization of his work within film history as a whole might be disappointed by this film, however. There is some of that, of course, but it is very glancing; the film is really a contemporary portrait of Sarno and his wife, in their final years together. The film takes up Sarno in his late eighties, when he is trying to put together one final project. The star of the film, though, is Peggy, eighteen years his junior and, to a large degree, his mouthpiece and memory. While the film might fail as an educational vehicle, I found the divergences from the norm refreshing, and ultimately enlightening. As a portrait of an artist, it is a rich one, in that it concentrates on what few films about working artists do: how they end up, what they feel their legacy is, and how they manage to live day-to-day, having been on the margins of the mainstream, and success, all their lives. We see the Sarnos at their “summer home,” a quite anonymous apartment in an equally anonymous Swedish apartment block; Peggy talks at length about the personal sacrifices they both made, but she in particular, to take him on as a partner and live the life they did (needless to say, Mom and Dad were not too thrilled about having the young actress marry a sex film director two decades her senior). There is little “dirt” here, as Peggy has few regrets, and believes in the integrity of her husband’s work (although she does not hold back on criticism either). What makes the film compelling is indeed the day-to-day, ambient nature of its unfolding. We get a true sense of how life for an artist gets defined, and defines itself, by way of trying to make a living. One would hardly call a business person or professional before himself to explain, for instance, why he switched out of insurance and became a car salesman, or why he never got to V.P. instead of settling for regional manager. An artist, on the other hand, is always caught partly between reality and ideality, between the contingencies of living and the desire for something other. Sarno, in this regard, has to “answer” (partly to the audience, or society, but in the narrative of the film, to the parents) for why sexploitation is art, and why he made sexploitation at all. In the beginning, of course, it was because he was offered the work, and had experience using a camera. He enjoyed making films, and these were the films he could easily make. Once hardcore pornography became the norm, he was forced to choose; he wasn’t interested in making hardcore, but he also didn’t want to stop making films, and sexploitation had become instantly passe. So, he made some pornography (not very successfully) and also managed to finance, mostly through his father-in-law, further sexploitation features (also not very successful). All artists deal with negotiating the reality of their ideals – indeed, that place between desire/concept/vision and the reality of material execution, often defined by external forces, is the space of art – but this film provides a more poignant than average portrait of what these struggles really look and feel like. Life is a series of exclusions, forced choices, and unexpected detours for all but the “lucky” few; artists simply live this reality in a more self-conscious, heightened, and often frustrated way. The film does a great job of giving us the feel of such a history, but it also builds to a satisfying climax – with Sarno’s death comes, perhaps not paradoxically, the ultimate redemption of his legacy.

Three stars out of five

The Last of the Unjust – Claude Lanzmann (2014)

Lanzmann, best known for his masterpiece Shoah, has extended that project with a few other films in the last ten or so years. Sobibor, Oct. 14, 1943, 4 p.m. told the story of Yehuda Lerner, who lead an uprising and eventual escape from the titular extermination camp. The Karski Report recounted the history of FDR’s unwillingness to intervene in the early years of the Holocaust after being notified of the horrors by Polish Army courier Jan Karski. Both of these films, while having to do with the Holocaust, fill out areas of interest mostly untouched by Shoah itself. The Last of the Unjust revisits material from Shoah directly, in the form of extended interviews with Benjamin Murmelstein, the last Elder of the Jews (and the only to survive the war), the president of the Jewish Council in the “show ghetto” of Theresienstadt, and self-appellated “last of the unjust.” Murmelstein, as the political leader of the ghetto, was in close contact with Adolph Eichmann, and was tainted by this contact, considered suspect basically for having survived the war, and for (as the film eventually explores) working to improve the ghetto, which had the side effect of making it more effective for propaganda purposes. Because of this, he was imprisoned after the war and then lived in exile in Rome for the rest of his life, rather than emigrating to Israel.

In many ways, this feels like Lanzmann’s most intimate film, and his most chronologically resonant. Anyone who has seen Shoah will recognize the aesthetic; in that film, he eschewed period footage in favor of returning, in that film’s present day, to the sites of the atrocities. In The Last of the Unjust, he deploys a similar stratagem, but is now at a once remove, both from Shoah and from Murmelstein – he travels to the present days sites that form Murmelstein’s chronology and story, and reconstitutes the past by reading from Murmelstein’s writings at the sites, and by unfurling large portions of the Murmelstein interview conducted for Shoah. He also makes use of the art representing the ghetto produced by its inmates during their interment. So while this is a film about Theresienstadt, it is also a portrait of Murmelstein as a man, and as a friend (or at least someone Lanzmann obviously admires). Much of the film is Murmelstein talking; at first he seems purely heroic and self-effacing, but later Lanzmann complicates this by asking harder questions about his “collaboration” with the Nazis and his choices during the later stages of the war. Murmelstein is not defensive, and a complex portrait of a man in an impossible situation emerges – he makes no bones about the fact that defending and improving the ghetto was of paramount importance to him (and at one point even claims that he and the ghetto were one and the same thing, although he does not mean this in a megalomaniacal sense). By the end of the film, we might feel that, all judgement being impossible (this is one of the key points of Shoah, that agency, and hence an ethics, was suspended in toto for those in the camps), he might have something in common with Colonel Nicholson in Bridge on the River Kwai, in that he came to love too dearly that which allowed him to hold onto some semblance of a world. Beyond these issues, the film is very interesting, and indeed touching, as a conversation between two old men: Lanzmann, in 2013, near the age that Murmelstein was some 35 or so years earlier. Lanzmann appears on camera more than in his other films, and by reading Murmelstein’s text, performs his absence. We get the feeling that he too identifies as a “last of the unjust” – the end of the film confirms his affinity for this man, who survived any way he could for the sake, he says, of telling the story. Essential viewing for documentary fans or for those interested in the Holocaust (which should be all of us, really).

Four stars out of five