Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Montage of heck


Kurt Cobain once wrote what might well be the most perfect rhymed couplet in popular music, "What else can I say? All my words are grey." Instead of using that on the final record, or in later live performances, he changed the second part to "Everyone is gay". Whether he was trying to piss people off, as he regularly claimed, trying to obfuscate the meaning of the lyrics, as he often did, or simply breaking off the perfection from the song to make it more jagged, less perfect, I've often wondered. There's probably a little of all of that, and I'm not sure even he ever had a real sense how that balanced out himself.



In the publicity leading up to the documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, his daughter Frances Bean Cobain gave an interview in Rolling Stone, Frances Bean Cobain on Life After Kurt's Death. It created the expected firestorm, with news outlets everywhere posting versions of the big quote, "I don't really like Nirvana that much. Sorry, promotional people, Universal. I'm more into Mercury Rev, Oasis, Brian Jonestown Massacre."

The best part is that is reports her grinning after the first statement.

Man, does that sound like something Kurt would have said.

She could have said, "I don't really like Nirvana that much. I'm 22 years old. I'm more into Vampire Weekend, Death Cab For Cutie, Mumford & Sons."

All of the old fogey alternative guys like me would have rolled our eyes and sighed, a little about how we're old and a lot about how the kids of today will never understand how much better things were when we were that age. The same thing every generation of old fogeys has said since time immemorial.

But, no, by choosing contemporaries of Nirvana, and ones considered so much less cool by the kinds of music fans who like Nirvana, she really stuck in and twisted it, didn't she?

Fuck us old fogeys! And, man, so many of us got sucked right into the trap. Just beautiful.

So, now I've seen the documentary myself. I wasn't sure if I wanted to or not. I knew I was going to, mind you, but I wasn't sure if that would be an expression of my joy or not.

The movie switches a lot between a normal talking heads documentary and chaotic montages of events and impressions. It is very much working for the same kind of approach as Nirvana's blend of catchy pop hooks and hard core punk rage. It only rarely seems to find those "Lithium" moments where it seamlessly fuses the two comfortably into something uniquely accessible and haunting. I'm not sure that means it doesn't work.



The movie definitely feels sometimes like it's breaking off its smooth edges for something more jagged, less perfect.

It does stumble a bit. I expressed how tired I am of the overuse of animation to fill in the gaps in documentaries. It's a nice idea, but it rarely works. First, most don't have the budget to quite manage what they think they're doing with them, and, second, what they're doing tends to feel a bit lazy.

Some of the animation in Montage of Heck really do work. When they sloppily animate Kurt's drawings and journals some into chaotic montages, like punk rock versions of the Gerald Scarfe animations in Pink Floyd - The Wall, that attempt to capture something about Kurt's spirit and person.

Other times, though, they used some kind of awful smoothed over Flash animation is used to recreate events that don't exist on film and those are so awful that I wanted to vomit blood in disgust at the inappropriateness of them. Yes, I believe that somewhere there are some really great storyboards for those sequences. The angles and choices made for them was solid, but the cheap, slick animation used was so slick and over-polished looking, they just grated on me. Perhaps in another Kurt Cobain documentary, they would have fit. I suspect in that one that Frances told Montage of Heck director Brett Morgan she didn't want, the mythic, romantic Kurt Cobain documentary.

Most of the time, this is the one that uses shitty looking footage of Nirvana's 1992 performance at the Reading Festival when a readily available DVD of that show, Nirvana: Live at Reading, shows that there is very clear, beautiful footage of the show. In fact, I believe most of the footage in the documentary is just roughed up versions of that, or perhaps pre-cleaned up versions of it. That footage, rough and cut tumble, feels right. It feels like the very personal, warts and all story they're telling, in a way that feels exactly right to capture the spirit of the man they're trying to tell us about. It's exactly the right decision in the same way that the animation on the flashbacks is exactly the wrong decision.

I confess, there was probably never any satisfying me in the making of this. I have my own confusing, complicated relationship with Kurt Cobain, which this only confirms and complicates. I am an old, overly self-conscious man. I know exactly how easy it is to fall into confirmation bias in seeing the commonalities with an artist one admires. It's just a matter of ignoring the similarly obvious differences. This, though, not only confirmed a lot of the ones I already knew, but exposed ones that hadn't been discussed before, or I'd never taken notice of before.

I don't know if that makes me feel better or worse about the movie, and I'm certainly not sure how I feel about the movie as a document, but it certainly has moved me in a lot of ways, which is all I could ask of it.

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