Sunday, February 17, 2008

about a son

In the interest of full disclosure: I am not a Nirvana fan. I sing along when presented with their songs –- as a person under the age of thirty, it is my duty to do so -- but I don’t own a copy of Nevermind. My music development went from Bob Dylan, to Robert Smith, to mid-career Beck and onward. Somehow I missed the early nineties. Sorry, I was seven when Bleach was released.

I am, however, utterly fascinated with the cult surrounding Kurt Cobain. As someone who's passive-aggressively researched his life while simultaneously dodging all but Nirvana’s most radio friendly singles, the new documentary About a Son fascinated me to no end.

Chances are this documentary won't recruit new devotees. But the novelty of hearing the story of Kurt Cobain’s rise and fall straight from the horse’s mouth adds an undeniably intimate dimension to his iconic, overly romanticized journey -- one that even the casual fan will find fascinating. This is not the story of a band; the music is only mentioned in passing as background information, all the better to frame its creator. One thing that struck me time and time again is how truly normal he was: an idyllic childhood, marred by the rising trend of divorce, a love of art and music, hatred for gym class; this could just as easily be my story. Being an non-fan I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting. Is it possible drink the Kool-Aid by proxy?

Anyone watching this documentary will undoubtedly know that Kurt Cobain’s story is ultimately a tragedy. The knowledge of his untimely end adds an even sadder glow to many of the more painfully aspects of his life: his certainty that he would never take the easy way out of being a father, his insistence that his dabbling in drugs was okay –- since he used it for pain control and got out before it ruined him like the other junkies he knew. At one point Courtney’s voice chimes in, reminding him to make a bottle for the baby. These sporadic touches of normalcy offset a perverse truth: he could have just as easily retreated into quasi-normalcy.

Film composed of audiotapes, the story plays out over footage from Kurt’s hometowns and favorite haunts. However, the problem with a running stream of images is that the human brain tries to bring too much order and meaning. While some reflected the narrative –- Kurt explaining going to work with his father over shots of a lumberyard, images of people on the street while he pondered the universal nature of his upbringing -- these I get. Others felt more like a pretentious attempt to fill space. What meaning are we supposed to extract from images of a janitorial closet while Kurt talks about meeting Dave (Grohl)? Is this a message to the "true" fans? Am I missing something? Direct shots of the singer's face are saved for the end –- after captions explain his death. At this point, straight forward images of the man we've been exploring for the last 90 minutes almost feel like an afterthought. What’s the point of seeing Kurt Cobain’s face when we’ve been given the closest equivalent of a look into his soul?

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