View to a kill: Kurt Cobain and the movies

Had Kurt Cobain never existed, we probably would have invented him.

The Nirvana founder's life story - a perfect, if tragic, narrative trajectory that reads like some gnomic page torn from the encyclopedia of modern antiheroes - has achieved the status of myth, so archetypal and broadly drawn that it seems to define rather than just reiterate the unholy triad of "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.

At this point in history, a mere dozen-plus years after his untimely but predictable death, Cobain's image has already been carved into the Mount Rushmore of great American burnouts (rather than fade-aways), right alongside Jimi, Jim, Janis and Sid (Vicious, not Caesar).

Somehow, the very brevity of his life feeds our fascination. It's as though the shotgun blast with which Cobain took himself out of the game opened the door on endless interpretations.

His life and his art, inextricably linked, pose an endless riddle, one full of deafening feedback and double meanings.

A NUMBER OF FILMS - both fictional and documentary - have been made about Cobain and Nirvana.

One of these is Portland-based director Gus Van Sant's "Last Days," a Cobain-inspired meditation that's part of a fascinating string of films that also includes "Elephant" and "Jerry."

The 2005 film - which stars Michael Pitt as an internationally famous junkie songwriter wandering his dilapidated, tree-girded mansion in a funk of muttering and nodding off - couldn't be further from a standard Hollywood biopic.

Containing next to no dialogue or backing music, the film is a quiet, beautiful, haunting portrait of alienation and despair. By forgoing the blunt "facts" of Cobain's life, Van Sant is able to create something indelibly true: an impressionistic and highly subjective journey into the stillness and loneliness of Cobain's final days.

LOS ANGELES-BASED FILMMAKER AJ SCHNACK scored a big hit a few years back with "Gigantic," a documentary about the Brooklyn pop duo and critics' darlings They Might Be Giants.

Schnack's latest offering, "About a Son," was inspired by his discovery of 25-plus hours of audiotapes documenting an exhaustive Cobain interview by journalist Michael Azerrad, author of the excellent Nirvana biography "Come As You Are."

"About a Son," which has been nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, combines passages of Cobain talking about this and that with mostly live footage of the places he spent the preponderance of his short life.

"About a Son" presents something of a geographical/psychological triptych - it is divided more or less evenly into three chapters, each one a place/name covering a particular phase of Cobain's life: Aberdeen, Olympia and Seattle.

The Azerrad interviews that provide the soundtrack were conducted between August 1992 and March '93; they were actually requested by Cobain, in response to Lynn Hirschberg's controversial August '92 Vanity Fair piece that suggested, among other things, that Courtney Love introduced Cobain to heroin and that the couple, just months before having a baby, were still using drugs. As Cobain at the time is under court order for drug testing, the talks, which usually took place between dusk and dawn, find him dope-free. Kurt was 25 at the time.

"ABOUT A SON," unfortunately, is an example of a nonfiction work that likely sounded good in theory but ultimately fails in practice. Much of the footage - dingy, gray shots of Aberdeen smokestacks, Arbus-like live portraits of small-town people, aerial shots of the Seattle skyline - is quite lovely and conjures a feeling for the quintessentially Northwest context of Cobain's upbringing and development.

The Aberdeen section of the film is most successful in this regard; that busted-out former boom town - forever portrayed by Cobain as a godforsaken Nowheresville, populated by hicks and homophobes - is photogenic in its very miserableness, a perfect example of a small, industrial town victimized by the socio-economic whims of the market. Aberdeen is a Petri dish for punk rock.

Beyond this, however, Schnack's footage is just too broad. Many of the Seattle shots, such as the footage of young couples dining in fancy bistros, feel generic and arbitrary.

The director's decision to never show Cobain's image (nor play any of his music) until the film's final moments has the effect of further distancing the viewer from any deep feeling for or identification with Cobain's milieu.

Schnack's film is just too visually inclusive, especially when it comes to representing an artist whose songs conjured a very hermetic and claustrophobic world.

Cobain's appeal was universal, but his focus was tight and specific.

THEN THERE ARE THE INTERVIEWS themselves. Despite the candor and confessional tone of Cobain's ramblings, the film doesn't break any new ground. We've heard it all before - or at least anyone moderately interested in Nirvana has heard it all before: about the broken childhood home, the absent father, sleeping under a bridge, high-school ostracism, the stomach pains leading to heroin use, the trap of the status quo, the lifesaving discovery of punk rock.

Despite Cobain's obvious intelligence, passion and sense of social outrage, it's really no treat to hear him talk at such length. Because his words here have been decontextualized and edited into monologues, he comes across at times as petulant, whiny and overly sensitive to insult - as might any smart, famous, 25-year-old man asked to talk about himself for days on end.

It would have been fascinating to have been in on these talks, but to hear them at such a remove and in such an impersonal visual context, does something less than humanize the subject: It makes him faceless, an everyman reiterating an old story.

Ultimately, Schnack - who obviously appreciated Cobain as an artist - evinces little feel for what made Cobain such a great artist. If his heart is in the right place, the director's technique nonetheless falls short of the mark.

Whereas Van Sant's "Last Days," a work of imaginative fiction, perfectly invoked the emotional and psychological swelter of Cobain's final hours, Schnack's film - with its disjunct between its audio and visual elements - fails to engage with Cobain or his world in any but the most general sense.

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