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by Bill Gibron

23 Mar 2008


Unlike most cinematic genres, the Hong Kong crime film is a fluid, flexible category. It can easily embrace horror, comedy, drama, and even the occasional excursion into science fiction. The main reason for this is that the plot usually centers most of its purpose in a good vs. evil, black hat/white hat dynamic. Even better, such a storyline typically allows its heroes and villains to be multifaceted and purposefully ambiguous. One of the best examples of the dimensional dynamic is Johnny To’s P.T.U.: Police Tactical Unit. It takes a simple tale of one cop’s search for his missing gun and turns its overnight vignettes into a meditation on loyalty, duty, purpose, and personal regret.

When overweight Sgt. Lo gets into a scuffle with the gang of local hoodlum Ponytail, he comes out of the attack badly beaten and missing his gun. Among Hong Kong police, such an error is unconscionable. Hoping to save face, he gets his friend in the PTU, Sgt. Ho, to cover for him. The two agree - if they can’t find the weapon by morning, they will both report it to CID/Internal Affairs. Of course, this doesn’t keep steely eyed agent Inspector Leigh Cheung from following up on the case. Lo, who knows both crime bosses in the area, decides to play both against each other to find his missing piece. But they also want revenge for a recent assassination and may be setting up the policeman to take the fall.

Dark, noirish, and loaded with late night atmosphere, PTU: Police Tactical Unit (new to DVD from Genius Entertainment and the Weinstein Company’s Dragon Dynasty label) is an intriguing take on the standard cops and robbers routine. It proves that Johnny To - often referred to as the Woody Allen of Hong Kong - is a master of composition and the camera, taking risks while following standard filmic formulas. At its very core, this is a story about policemen protecting and playing off each other, the responsibility they owe to the public matched by their own internal code of conduct. It deals directly with human foibles and departmental frictions. It begins slowly, shuffling its cards meticulously before playing its flashy final hand, and after it’s all over, we realize there’s much more here than meets the eye.

For the vast majority of the film’s running time, we are involved in a three way struggle between street smart flatfoots, by-the-book procedural lawmen, and glorified gangster bravado. Director To balances all of these elements into a slowly synchronized dance, adding bits and pieces along the way to add depth to what could be a typical bit of law and order. Because Lo is somewhat loyal to both sides of the situation, because Ho understands this beat cop’s need, because Leigh Cheung is seen as bureaucracy incarnate, the infighting between them is far more intriguing than any tired Triad mechanics. While a sequence inside one boss’s den, complete with caged criminals being systematical brutalized, gives us the standard shock value of the genre, To takes away from such sensationalizing by keeping the clockwork plot percolating. 

All of which makes the way this film was created all the more intriguing. As part of the bonus features offered on the DVD, we learn that P.T.U. was made over three years. That’s right, three YEARS. Shooting almost exclusively at night, and when cast and crew could take the time away from other projects, there’s an intimacy born out of necessity here. Commentator Bey Logan, a stalwart of the Dragon Dynasty series, suggests that To was able to take this approach because of his solid reputation. While other filmmakers have to fumble for available production staff, or feed the mainstream needs of the industry, this director can call upon a stellar group of company confederates for what amounts to a night and weekend pickup. Logan also adds that, like Allen, To tends to be dismissed in his native land as being an idiosyncratic, critical darling. While P.T.U. was a hit, it didn’t match the international attention of Election or Triad Election.

Of course, the actors who work with To tend to dismiss such sentiments. The disc also contains interviews with Simon Yam (Sgt. Ho) and P.T.U. team member Kat (actress Maggie Shiu). To them, the film is a chance to explore all facets of character interaction - the noble and the wicked, the expected and the outsized. Yam praises the fact that there was no script when the shoot started. It allowed him to dig deeper into his persona, experimenting with tone and temperament. Shiu also enjoys working with To, especially in the action scenes. And then there is said ending. Taking a page out of the John Woo playbook, To sets the entire slow motion firefight to an amazing ambient score. As the bullets fly in frame by frame fastidiousness, we get the grandeur of such a sequence, as well as the horror of such a bloodbath.

It’s the perfect payoff for all the foundation laying P.T.U. does. This is a film as firecracker, the lost gun acting as a lit fuse to further push the plot toward its explosive end. Fans who enjoy the clichés created by the genre over the last two decades may not enjoy all the subterfuge and slow burn here. They want choreographed chaos and lots of it. Instead, Johnny To is more interested in the human toll taken by such a tightrope walk. On the one hand, criminals are running ramshackle over the Hong Kong streets, mandating new and novel police protection agencies like the P.T.U. On the other hand, the lure of easy money and professional frustration leads to lawlessness on the wrong side of the badge. For Johnny To, this dramatic dichotomy creates inherently volatile cinema. P.T.U.: Police Tactical Unit is an excellent example of this ideal. 

by Bill Gibron

21 Mar 2008


Sometimes, a filmmaker needs to be dragged out of his or her comfort zone. It’s not because what they do is so dull or derivative. Far from it. However, in the ‘what have you done for me now’ world of Hollywood, repeating oneself can be akin to career suicide. For Frank Darabont, such a situation is actually a double edged sword. An admired master at adapting Stephen King’s sometimes difficult literary works into solid big screen efforts, he’s taken three of the bestselling author’s works - The Women in the Room, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile - and turned them into solid cinematic statements.

But for a man who got his start crafting several genre scripts for the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, the Blob remake, and the Fly sequel, he’s never directed a straight horror film himself. So when it was announced that Darabont would next take on the much beloved novella, The Mist, the reaction was definitely mixed. Many felt that, once again, Darabont was treading down totally familiar territory. The fear faithful, however, were anticipating something special. Even when less than impressive casting and the director’s decision to go ‘low budget’ were announced, the geeks were prepared for macabre manna…and it was well worth the wait. The Mist is destined to go down as a modern horror classic. The DVD release (from Genius Entertainment and the Weinstein Company) furthers the film’s spell.

When a powerful Nor’easter tears through a tiny Maine town, movie poster artist and family man David Drayton discovers that a massive branch has torn through his studio, and a stubborn neighbor’s dead tree has destroyed his beautiful boathouse. After heading into town to buy supplies, he is stunned to see a local man running into the store, screaming. He claims that there is something in the oncoming mist, and as the patrons watch the fog roll over the parking lot, the screams of those stuck outside suggest that there may indeed be a presence there. Some think it’s a joke. That includes the big city lawyer Brent Norton and local yokel Jim Grondin. On the other side of the situation is bitchy Bible thumper Mrs. Carmody. She’s convinced its Judgment Day, and suggests the shoppers use a blood sacrifice - expiation - to appease a vengeful God. Between Drayton, who believes in truth, and Carmody, whose stirring up dissent, clear sides are drawn. About the only level headed individual is store clerk OIlie – that is, until the monsters actually arrive.

It needs to be repeated, just in case you missed it the first time - Frank Darabont’s The Mist is a masterpiece. It’s the kind of determined fright flick that few in the industry know how to make - or even comprehend. Everything you expect from this kind of story is here, - the otherworldly setup, the recognizable heroes and villains, the coincidental clashes, the big moment attacks, the smaller sequences of suspense. There’s even a nice amount of gore and some unexpected darkness. But Darabont is not content to simply let this opportunity go by without messing a little with the mannerisms. The Mist is so purposeful in how it thwarts genre ethos that it’s almost arrogant.

There are times when you can literally see the director ducking the likely to lunge over into the unpredictable. In the audio commentary that accompanies the two disc collector’s edition, Darabont admits that he did everything he could to avoid the carefully controlled compositions and framing of his previous films. He used two cameras simultaneously, moving fluidly throughout the grocery store set. There is no music used during the first 80 minutes, and a real lack of sonic cues when the terror is about the strike. In his script, which follows King’s story very faithfully, Darabont also lets its character’s core elements overstay their welcome. Good guys are almost too noble, baddies belligerent in their shocking psychotic cravenness.

Take Thomas Jane’s David Drayton. He’s the perfect hypocritical hero. Out of one side of his mouth comes a calming, ‘let’s work together’ sort of spiel. On the other hand, he gets his ‘followers’ together to horde food and plan an escape. Similarly, he warns others about apparent acts of altruistic sacrifice. Yet he’s typically the first to volunteer for any suicide mission. Though he’s more a b-list personality than a real blockbuster anchor, Jane is very good here. He balances both sides of his protagonist with Darabont-intended ease.

Sitting on the other end of the situational scale is outright horror Marcia Gay Harden. Her Jesus loving Mrs. Carmody is not just some Gospel spewing shrew. She’s a manipulative cow, the perfect embodiment of the Jim Jones type of cult killer that King used originally to formulate the story. There are moments where you literally want to reach up from your seat and wring her self-righteous neck. That’s either great writing, great directing, great acting, or a combination of all three.

Indeed, what happens between people is far more important and terrifying than the various chaotic creature sequences in the film. When King described them in his novella, they were a perfect mind’s eye payoff, gifts for the reader still rapidly turning pages. In the film version of The Mist, they are the inevitable catalysts, the reasons for the characters challenging – and in some cases, harming – each other. Without them, we wouldn’t have the standoff between Drayton and Andre Braugher’s Norton. There wouldn’t be the reunion between young lovers Sally and AWOL GI Wayne…or the fatal finish to their relationship. We wouldn’t have the preaching, the plotting, the gun waving anarchy, or the fear-based fisticuffs.

Thanks to Greg Nicotero and the tireless efforts of KNB F/X, the featured fiends have a wonderful computer generated junkiness. They are definitely derived from the ‘50s schlock cinema which originally inspired King. During the commentary, we learn that this was all part of Darabont’s plan. He wanted to make a throwback kind of movie, a drive-in delight for the home theater crowd. The featurettes on Disc Two discuss this concept, and there’s even a black and white version of the entire film (with an into by the director). It’s all aimed at capturing that certain post-War passion pit feel of a Burt I. Gordon or Ray Kellogg.

And then there is the ending. Much has been written about Darabont straying rather significantly from King’s original conclusion, but there’s a reason for that. During his discussion, the director points out that you can’t have an ambiguous send-off after 90 minutes of purposefully paced realism. Imagine if the characters that you’ve followed for nearly two hours simply got in a vehicle, plotted a course, and headed on down the highway. Fade out. Roll credits. There’d be much more fervor over such an anticlimactic moment than the angst being aimed at Darabont’s decision.

Logic states that a bleak and rationality based narrative demands an equally dour and grim finish. Is it painful and purposefully harsh? Yes. Does it ruin the experience overall? Only if you’re the kind of person who can’t stare the truth in its desperate and ill-prepared face. In an included Making-of, King embraces the choice. As a matter of fact, he likes it so much that he would have used it himself, had he thought of it at the time. Oddly enough, Darabont quotes lines from the novella showing where his inspiration came from. Clearly, the literary master of horror wasn’t so far from this finale after all. 

When it comes right down to it,The Mist is not a movie about semi-super human men challenging the forces of darkness like invincible immortals. This is not the kind of film where antagonists heed the pleas of those wanting compromise or the reckless reel in their hasty reactions. Darabont has used King’s creative premise as the outline for a dissection of panic – how people react to it, and how our very humanity helps to fuel it. What we are witnessing is not really a horror movie, but a mock doc depiction of how man is more menacing than some interstellar interlopers. It’s an uncomfortable lesson to learn, but as Ollie the clerk says, humans as a species are fundamentally insane. Put two of them in a room and they’ll pick sides and start dreaming up reasons to kill one another. Frank Darabont may by now be a cliché, the first filmmaking name associated with the most successful genre author ever. But there is nothing formulaic, or false here. The Mist is magnificent.

 

by Bill Gibron

20 Mar 2008


Is it fair to judge a comedy as a failure if it doesn’t make you laugh? That’s not really a rhetorical question. Indeed, it is meant to be more reflective than anything else. If an action spoof satisfies genre requirements without ever making you giggle, is it an outright failure, or something more complicated. It’s the issue that arises when discussing Drillbit Taylor, the newest offering from the Apatow et. al. inspired humor conglomerate. On the one hand, screenwriters Seth Rogen and Kristofor Brown (based on a story by none other than John “Breakfast Club” Hughes) do a wonderful job of recreating the awkward freshman dorkdom of early adolescence. But as an intended riotous rib tickler, there is barely a belly laugh to be found.

For skinny, geeky Wade and chubby, curly haired Ryan, the first day of high school is supposed to begin their ascension into cool. Unfortunately, after sticking up for the wussed out, braces wearing idiot Emmit, they become the ongoing target of big time bully Filkins and his ferocious flunky Ronnie. Hoping to find some personal protection, the trio decides to hire a bodyguard. Into their life walks Drillbit Taylor, self-proclaimed Army Ranger and master of martial arts. For a fee, he will guard the boys and help them avoid any further humiliation. What they don’t know is that Taylor is a con man, a beach dwelling homeless bum who needs some quick cash for a planned exile to Canada. Wade, Ryan and Emmit are hoping for a miracle. They get a messed up proto-hobo instead.

Bereft of jokes while overloaded with keenly observed individual moments, Drillbit Taylor can best be described as an almost success. This also means it’s a figurative failure. Like Superbad without the potty mouth, or any number of Apatow-inspired efforts sans the sexual obsession, what could be a bright and breezy coming of age effort gets bogged down in an unnecessary desire to be clever and cutting. Unfortunately, by staying within the confines of a PG-13 rating while pushing the very envelopes of such a standard, Taylor gets equally confused. Instead, it accurately recreates how teens talk and act while failing to illicit a single snicker from the adaptation.

Part of the problem is the now familiar ‘skinny and fatty’ set up to the friendship. It’s becoming an archetypal Apatow trademark. Wade and Ryan are nothing more than surrogates for other symbols from the writer/director’s cinematic setup. One gets the characteristic nerd voice (in this case, a love of magic) while the other is a frat boy without the grain alcohol gimpiness. Nate Hartley and Troy Gentile are winning enough, but since each is doing little more than extending an already formulaic routine, they aren’t offered much room to explore. And things are even worse for Ring boy David Dorfman. His Emmit is a missed opportunity, a Broadway musical loving loser who gets more mugging time than Jerry Lewis during the Labor Day Telethon. But we sense there are other facets to his character than the endless flashing of his metalled mouth.

Yet the biggest letdown comes from Owen Wilson as our so-called adult hero. Smacking of later day Hughes - think Dutch, Uncle Buck, or any number of his substitute parental surrogates - Drillbit possesses a bumbling oaf quality that no longer seems endearing. In fact, it can grow grating at times. And just like almost every movie the Sixteen Candles man has been involved in since Home Alone, burglary is an important plot point. Thankfully, director Stephen Brill doesn’t turn the heist into a slapstick set piece. It happens organically, without any cartoon histrionics. That Wilson waltzes through most of the movie like the sour smell emitted from a pair of rank gym socks is one thing. But his motiveless maneuvering (he doesn’t raise a fist against the bullies because…they’re underage?) and lack of comic bravado deadens his impact.

Indeed, it’s up to the boys to carry this film, and for a while, they do. Brill doesn’t do much more than provide the kind of snapshot touchstone montages that recall Reader’s Digest condescended memories of high school life, and the times when he turns things down (Wade’s crush on an Asian gal named Brooke), the drama barely breathes. In fact, Drillbit Taylor manages to feel like two separate and wholly incompatible movies tossed together and forced to make nice. Instead, they constantly pick at each other like unsettled siblings in the backseat of a long cross country car trip. Eventually, it’s the audience that gets nauseous and needs a rest stop to pull over.

By the time we get to the big showdown, the standoff between the unfathomably evil bully and our newly gonad-ed guys, there’s not much more to do than cheer on the fisticuffs. Drillbit Taylor even allows both kids and adults to get their own special brand of comeuppance. Since entertainment is subjective, and comedy specifically is the most personal of all genres for responses, it’s clear that this film cannot really be universally judged. It comes down to a person-by-person response, a case-by-case reaction to misfired jokes, unexplored cleverness, and a constantly competing sense that a simple, My Bodyguard like story would have worked much better. In the end, Drillbit Taylor is not an awful film. It simply fails to deliver in one obvious way while providing some unexpected insights. Not the greatest recommendation for an all out laughfest, huh?

by Bill Gibron

19 Mar 2008


Don’t worry if you don’t “get” Tyler Perry. You’re probably not his intended audience, anyway. As a playwright, he strives to understand the urban experience, giving voice to those grossly underrepresented within the theatrical medium. As a filmmaker, however, he is more in touch with his pocket book than his ‘people’. Everything he does on camera tends to go upscale, moving his African American characters into near fanciful realms of luxury and lifestyle. Still, the stories are the same, interpersonal topics like marriage and fidelity, parenting and childhood, relatives and family strife filling his scenes. Toss in a healthy dose of the Good Book, and some soul salvation, and you’ve got the makings of one of the most unusual phenomenons ever.

Trying to uncover why Perry is so popular is not all that difficult. The standard issue response is that he caters to a demographic previously disregarded. And when one looks back at how Hollywood treated individuals of color as recently as 40 years ago, he’s clearly filling a massive niche. Others mention his drag act diva-ship via the madwoman matriarch character he created, Mabel “Madea” Simmons. She’s Redd Foxx without the ‘blue’ moods. Some site a skillful balance between the clichéd and the creative, a gift for using old school melodramatics to touch upon updated, contemporary nerves. And then there are those who simply respond to his God is Great pronouncements. If popular culture is anything, it’s afraid of religion. Perry embraces it fully, reflecting the beliefs and faith of the audience his efforts play to - and they love it.

With the latest big screen adaptation of one of his plays, Meet the Browns, set to open on 21 March, it may be time to dig deeper into the Perry mystique to try and ascertain his staying power. One things for certain - when he puts out cinematic versions of his previously road showed events, crowds clamor. Of the four films he’s been involved in - Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Madea’s Family Reunion, Daddy’s Little Girls, and Why Did I Get Married? , only one has had less than impressive box office returns. Oddly enough, Girls was also the only one without a theatrical foundation. The rest of his oeuvre has grossed in excess of $100 million, and Browns is likely to continue that trend - especially since this movie marks the return of that all important insane woman, Madea.

Much has been made of Perry, a tall African American male playing an outsized female stereotype, a character noted for her pot smoking, gun toting, pop culture referencing rigors. Perry has said that Madea represents every strong black woman he ever grew up around, the care giving center of a father-less, often frightening urban environment. The jocular personality is merely part of the entertainment paradigm. But there is actually more to Madea than this. As a comic foil, she is the entertainment heart of many of Perry’s plays. Even when she’s not a part of the production, the author finds a funny business substitute (usually in the persona of Leroy Brown) to do the humor heavy lifting.

On the other hand, Madea is also the no nonsense voice of reason, a guide through many of life’s more complicated and vexing issues. Certainly, some of her advice is outdated (beat your kids) and outrageous (the classic “hot grits on the stove” for a cheating man), but it plays directly into the audience’s collective memory. No one has done a better job of filtering the African American experience of the last 50 years into a viable production package than Perry. Even others who’ve tried to mimic his approach - David E. Talbert, for example - seems stuck in a purely post-modern position. But Tyler Perry is old school without being ancient, effectively mixing the contemporary with the classic to create his universe.

It’s something that plays directly into the spiritual element as well. Perry’s scripts are like toe tapping tent revivals, action intermittently interrupted so that good time Gospel shout outs can be introduced. It’s a very important part of their effectiveness, the pressure cooker conceit of all those pent up problems breaking free and into the hands of Christ. Perry hires wonderful vocalists, from David and Tamala Mann (better known as The Browns) to Cheryl Pepsi Riley and D’Atra Hicks, and they all know how to really sell a song. Yet it’s odd that these mainstay moments are stripped from the cinematic versions of his work. Even when he casts noted superstars from the music biz - Janet Jackson, Jill Scott - to play certain roles, music is barely mentioned.

That’s why many in the mainstream just don’t “get” Perry. They see his undemanding storylines, his exaggerated characters, his good vs. evil straightforwardness, and conclude that there is nothing of substance present. They even mock his lack of context. But it’s clear that audiences attending a Perry picture are already well versed in the foundation for the film. They don’t need to see every song, recognize every character, or experience every subplot. As long as there are familiar elements from his celebrated stagings, the ticket sales will soar and the turnstiles will spin. It’s not unlike making a cinematic version of a noted bestseller or beloved TV show - except Perry is much more entertaining.

Oddly enough, as of late, the author has been messing with the formula. While Madea’s Family Reunion used most of the play’s storyline, both Why Did I Get Married? and Meet the Browns have been substantially altered. There are many explanations for such a stance. Part of the rationale is that Perry wants to give moviegoers a different experience than those familiar with the plays. There are delightful DVD versions of these efforts, after all. At the same time, much of the man’s acclaim has come from familiarity. Though his TV sitcom, House of Payne, is a syndicated cable hit, Daddy’s Little Girls barely grossed $31 million - almost $20 million less than any other of the films. Changing the premise seems antithetical to those intentions.

On the other hand, he’s a name brand now, a noted Oprah approved member of the medium. He can do anything he wants and it literally brings out his devotees. Married was still a sizable hit, and another Madea outing (Goes to Jail) is in the works. Perry’s latest play The Marriage Counselor, is making its church and congregation run and his last effort, What’s Done in the Dark… has just landed on the digital format. It seems there’s no stopping this creative powerhouse - and the profits can attest to his staying power. Yet one has to wonder if Perry can ever resolve the hominess of his theatrical works with the archness of his film. Madea might be a powerful iconic image, but could she work outside an already established story? Would a wholly original Perry film be seen as a stretch, or as something to be avoided until word of mouth strengthens the sense of success?

These are the pitfalls Meet the Browns faces when it opens nationwide this weekend. Most critics will not see it in advance (Lionsgate takes a genre-oriented horror-haters position when it comes to many of its previews) and there will be those who instantly dismiss anything with Perry’s name attached no matter what the circumstances are. The few who see it will trot out the standard rejections, and race will get a minor airing along the way. Even that derogatory term ‘chitlin’ circuit’ will show up now and again. But the fact remains that Tyler Perry is a solid, seasoned entertainer with enough invention and drive to keep going for years. He’s patented. He’s bonafide. He’s sanctified. No one can take that away from him - not even his own sense of self. There will always be an underserved element of society looking for someone in sync with their views. For now, Tyler Perry is it, and that’s all that matters.     

by Bill Gibron

18 Mar 2008


There has always been something accidental about Kurt Cobain’s legacy. His remains a myth forged out of an undeniable gift, cultural happenstance, and a “My Generation” style burnt out limelight. Had he not died by his own hand in 1994, the victim of so much fame and so much pain, he’d probably be a laid back Henry Rollins, regaling young emos with his cynical tales of antisocial grunge glory. But because he came and captured a moment, because he stood for something at the end of an era that had wallowed in superficial excess and carte blanche selfishness, he’s now considered a God. It’s a tag he’d never want to wear, though he gladly let you pay him for the privilege.

The internal yin and yang that drove this isolated Pacific Northwest child to the heights of rock stardom, and the depths of personal despair, are given a remarkable airing in AJ Schnack’s tone poem to one man’s talent, Kurt Cobain About a Son (released this past February on DVD by Shout! Factory). Consisting of conversations recorded with the late musician by author Michael Azerrad, we get that clichéd intimate portrait of a man coming to terms with his suddenly show biz past. Delving deep into areas that have now become iconography, while skimming over elements (drugs, his mental problems) that fail to serve his sense of place, we wind up with something akin to an unintentional elegy. On the one hand, it is clear that Cobain enjoyed most of his life. Yet there are so many fatalistic pronouncements and defeatist confessions that his suicide now seems like a forgone conclusion.

The movie begins with inspired images of Washington State - cold, autumnal, as beautiful as it is bleak. It’s Twin Peaks without the surreal soap operatics. Without even one direct portrait of the man or his now classic flannel shirt persona, landscapes and city blocks paint the picture. Schnack purposefully avoids making Cobain’s own words a support for such documentary standards. There are no old yearbook photos, no John Mellancamp like trips down Polaroid memory lane. Instead, we see Aberdeen and Olympia as they are now, reflections of the changes that Nirvana and the entire early ‘90s music revolution had on the region. The bohemia Cobain references is illustrated by current musicians and artists, some working the very same venues and spaces that, more than a decade ago, literally defined an entire cultural shift. Indeed, About a Son is as much about one man and his family as one symbol and the medium he mastered.

For the most part, Cobain’s childhood memories are soaked in a sense of measured relevance. He professes his ‘punkdom’ repeatedly, reinforcing the archetype with tales of homelessness, parental disassociation, and chucking rocks at cops. The slacker aesthetic is also championed, as idleness and a hatred of work are paired with poverty and a desire to succeed. There is very little about music here. While there are namechecks to Queen (and News of the World) as well as fabled influences like The Vaselines and Butthole Surfers, Cobain is very closed about his own muse. We don’t even realize he is talking about Nirvana until he specifically mentions the recording of Bleach. There are riffs on catering corporate interest, and a plan to garner favor by including little prizes with each unsolicited demo tape, but the songwriting process is barely mentioned.

Of course, one has to put these conversations into context. Cobain would die almost a year from the last of these late night Q&As, and he was riding a wave of tabloid fervor over his tumultuous marriage to Courtney Love. One of the most revelatory moments of the entire film comes when said wife is mentioned. Though it’s clear that Cobain adored his spouse and child, he calls Love one of the most prophetic names in the annals of flame out rock stardom - Nancy Spungen. While it may be Freudian, it’s also the kind of fuel bound to fan a hundred angry messageboard screeds. The John and Yoko element of their coupling is a surface barely scratched, and when pressed about their partnership, Cobain gives an odd, detached answer. He’d already quit Courtney several times - just like his band.

The rest of Nirvana gets equally light airplay. Krist Novoselic comes across as the kind of agent provocateur Cobain was desperate to find. Grohl is the roommate who pressed the royalties issue later on. Others who fell in and out of the band are left out of the mix, and the entire tone of the material is businesslike and perfunctory. It’s odd to hear this man so centered on money. The parable talks of a wounded butterfly who tried to press art out of the MTV dervish of marketing and merchandising. But in About a Son, he’s frank about his financial focus. While offered under the guise of taking care of his then infant daughter Frances Bean, there’s clearly a cutthroat approach to the music industry in the man’s attitude. It’s something that goes hand in hand with all the frontloaded foreboding.

In fact, if Cobain were not already dead, one would picture him less than a step away from such a self-inflicted end. The notorious issues with his back and stomach are touched on, each one dissipating into a “wanting to kill myself” diagnosis. Heroin, when broached, also warrants a similar response. Clearly, Cobain was a man afflicted with demons, but he also appears in harmony with such horrors, chalking it up to his personality and his parenting. One of the things About a Son lacks (and it’s something the DVD avoids as well) is a clear explanation of such facets. Obviously on his guard most of the time, we have to infer a great many things from the man’s hints and circular conclusions. But that’s also the beauty of this mesmerizing document. It’s rare that we get to hear a famous face, in his own words, try and explain his celebrity.

It’s this very dissection that also helps this movie soar. Instead of relying on backseat psychologist or post-modern head shrinking, Azzerad and Schnack let the subject study himself. The lack of another presence, the use of day to day visuals to support the foundation, allows the many meanings in Cobain’s riffs to resonate. Our director does imply a few feelings (he admits as much on the scene specific audio commentary included on the disc) and when the images of the man finally appear at the end, the strategy seems more than sound. We are moved by the comparison between the frail, elfish human onscreen and the voice from Heaven we’ve heard for 90 minutes. It’s a juxtaposition that encapsulates everything that makes Cobain’s myth so unexpected. His songs may say it all (rights issues keep them out here, sadly), but there was much more on his mind than chorus and verse. About a Son proves that in sad, salutary spades.

 

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