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Monday, Apr 7, 2008


It is 1978, over two years since a conflict between China and Russia resulted in the release of bio-chemical weapons that have destroyed almost the entire population of the planet. We meet the apparent sole survivor, a scientist named Robert Neville who injected himself with a vaccine before the destruction came. He is now immune and stuck spending his days in the never-ending chores of survival. When it’s light, he forages for food and seeks signs of other life. He also hunts for the headquarters of The Family, a dark loving group of disease-altered mutants who want to kill Neville. Their leader, the crazy, charismatic Matthias, sees Neville as a personification of the technological evil that led the world to destroy itself. He wants to be the one who wipes out this “human plague” once and for all. Their battles of weapons and wills consume their lives.


That is, until Neville runs into Lisa and Dutch, two additional survivors who are caring for a group of kids. Unlike Neville, they are all infected with the germ. But they have not changed as quickly as The Family, meaning there is still time for Neville to find a cure. As he battles to find a way to keep Lisa’s brother Ritchie from “turning,” the mutants up their campaign against their mortal enemy. But not everyone can survive the terrors, the torment, and the treachery of being the last one left on Earth. Someone will be The Omega Man.


Since it was first published in 1954, Richard Matheson’s grim story of the last man on earth and his battle to survive has become a prized cinematic commodity. Back in 2002, Ridley Scott was developing I Am Legend to star a pumped up Arnold Schwarzenegger. Sets were designed and effects prepared. Fans couldn’t wait to see the Blade Runner visionary’s take on the material. Eventually, the plans for that version of the novel were scuttled, and Will Smith pegged Constantine director Francis Lawrence to jerryrig his own schizophrenic adaptation of the tome. Luckily, there are still two other movies out there, both with their own set of motion picture setbacks. Each one tried to capture Matheson’s sense of isolation and menace, and for the most part, each one more or less succeeded.


Vincent Price starred in the Italian-made The Last Man on Earth, a decent little B-movie from 1964 that sought to stick to as many of the epic notions that the novel envisioned without bankrupting the budget. And then there was 1971’s The Omega Man, the Charlton Heston sci-fi vehicle that marked the A-list superstar’s second foray into the realm of future shock (with 1968’s Planet of the Apes behind him and 1973’s Soylent Green looming ahead). Given a name symbolizing its place in the Greek alphabet (Omega is the 24th and last letter) and modifying Matheson’s story of vampires out for blood to a more socially consciousness, anti-war, and proliferation statement, this effective, if occasionally eccentric, take on the material has long been a cult favorite. Some buy the changes in the story and find the new, idealistic enemies threatening indeed. Others simply shake their head and wonder when someone will give the gifted Matheson his due.


The Omega Man does so many things right that when the two things it gets completely wrong rear their ugly, ill-considered heads it’s almost enough to destroy the entire film. Director Boris Sagal, a veteran of television, does one of the better jobs of conveying a post-Armageddon environment for his characters to function in. It is rare when his abandoned streets and empty shops feel like back lots or sound stages. There is an attention to detail (the beginning of vegetation overgrowth, masses of intertwined cobwebs) that really sells the isolation and desertion. Never once is the spell broken. And then he finds an actor who seems to purposefully carry the weight and fate of the world on his broad, beefy shoulders.


Heston is a very physical actor, a presence that’s not model attractive or body builder perfect, but does resonate a strong, heroic determination. Frankly, if the risk had been taken to simply let Chuck be the last ACTUAL person on the planet, he could pull it off brilliantly. Even reduced to stagy sequences of externalized internal monologues, he sells the silly characteristic very well. Heston is often accused of over the top scenery chewing, and anyone who remembers the ending of Green or the “damn dirty ape” histrionics of Planet will tend to agree.


But in The Omega Man, we see a much more subtle, subdued protagonist, a man battling the outer threat of the gang of mutants known as “The Family” as well as the personal demons of loneliness and dogged preparedness. It requires him to turn the bravura down several notches and still remain powerful and potent. And Heston rises to the occasion flawlessly.


It’s just too bad, then, that the flaws in the film are so near fatal. Some people argue that, while not novel specific, the fiendish force of The Family makes the perfect frightening foil for Heston’s Robert Neville. But aside from the times when they mock him, calling his name out in childlike singsong from the shadows, the overall effect of these diseased drones is campy, not creepy. It’s like being trapped in a cult full of giggly albino Earth-First luddites.


As their leader, Anthony Zerbe gives both Charles Manson (who seems to have been an obvious model) and the Rev. Jim Jones a run for their rhetoric with his “back to the basics” balderdash. His and his clan’s motivation (no more science or technology, including the wheel!) seems stupid, self-righteous, and downright suicidal, and their stark lack of skin pigmentation will probably only scare those people who find clowns, or Edgar Winter, unnerving. If they didn’t try to stab or set fire to Heston, the only thing he would have to fear from them is being pontificated to death.


The other weak link is Ritchie, the young black boy saved from “the plague” by Neville’s scientific discoveries (and, to some extent, his sister Lisa). Their presence in Chuck’s life seems superfluous to all that is going on, as if to add a humanizing and womanizing angle to Neville’s non-stop battle for survival. Indeed, time and The Family’s terrorizing of Heston seems to stop so he can treat the child and do a little repopulating with Lisa. The fact that they are associated with Dutch, a hippie ex-medical student biker who harbors, “Christ-like,” a group of orphaned children, shows the sanctimonious tone that undermines the potential thrill and chills to be had. When it’s lean and mean, The Omega Man is an effective and evocative thriller. When it’s heavy handed and preachy, it’s stifling.


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Sunday, Apr 6, 2008


Splatter offers its own unique brand of cinematic satisfaction. When done correctly, within the context of a tightly scripted narrative, it looses most of its geek show sensation. In turn, it forms the basis for some ballistic shivers, an all guts and no glory groove on our most primal of fears. Thanks to the so-called ‘torture porn’ genre however (blamed for everything from the death of movie macabre to the demoralization of society), blood has gotten a bad name. Film snobs now view gore as a motion picture pariah, the equivalent of toilet humor in comedy or the disease of the week in drama. The latest foreign fright film, Inside, may just change that onerous opinion.


It’s been five months since a car accident took Sarah’s husband, and while the external scars have healed, the internal pain is very, very real. Still, the couple’s unborn child remains safely in her womb, and with Christmas just around the corner, things are looking up. The doctors are ready to deliver and it should be a happy time for the former photo journalist. But instead, she is swept up in memories of the past and an unending depression - that is, until a mysterious woman shows up at her house. Unable to recognize who she is, Sarah calls the police. The threat grows real. Sarah is all alone. Without warning, the slaughter begins.


Wow! The French have really figured this out. Looking over the landscape of horror this past decade, these particular European proponents of terror have delivered some devastating turns. From Haute Tension to Ils, France has forged a new wave of nastiness that has redefined the genres and styles of their continental countrymen. Inside (new to DVD from Genius Products, The Weinstein Company and their Dimension Extreme label) is no different. Like watching the ultimate collaboration between Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento (with some nauseating originality thrown in for good measure) this sluice-filled sensation is one of the sickest, most gratifying gross out efforts in quite a while. But this isn’t just gore for the sake of shock. Directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury have combined the visceral nature of childbirth with the mandates of the slasher film to forge a brilliant, ballsy bloodbath.

There is a clear connection to the joys of motherhood and the physical brutality of the process on display here. Both Sarah and the woman after her baby are desperate to hold onto the life such procreation provides. Death is then suspended right alongside, illustrating in the same personally intrusive manner a stunning juxtaposition. While Inside is not the first film to explore the link between parenthood and dread, biology and the blood-soaked, Bustillo and Maury have made the logical leap into Grand Guignol glorification - and the results are as repugnant as they are dazzling. Fans of films featuring a certain Mr. Voorhees while wonder why Hollywood has been so ‘anemic’ when it comes to this kind of iconic terror tale. The answer is literally splashed across the screen.


We gratuity-loving gorehounds really do need to rejoice. This is the kind of film where faces are blown off, limbs are pierced and prodded, and bodies are violated with an imaginative mayhem one associates with a Savini or a Bottin. The link to the previously mentioned Italian maestros is also obvious, especially in how Inside‘s filmmakers add arterial spray to the most stylized or mundane situation. The use of a single setting is also crucial to the film’s success. Instead of moving us around the Paris suburb, turning the craven cat and mouse into some sort of failed action adventure, Bustillo and Maury keep the killing to one house - actually, one internal hallway from bedroom to living room. Such a logistical limit really ratchets up the tension while remaining totally rational and real.


And the acting definitely needs to be mentioned. Alysson Paradis has the kind of dour, dejected expression that has us hating her almost immediately. While we understand her post-accident misery, it grows grating…that is, until the slashing. It’s a genius move by Bustillo (who helmed the screenplay). By lulling us into a sense of complacency, by making us almost hate our heroine, it turns the slice and dice into something meaningful. The violence elevates our emotional responses, changing and challenging our perspective. By the third act, when Sarah has suffered beyond all rational means, we get the impression of a battle well fought, a victim about to be victorious. It’s the ultimate conquest. Yet as with all slasher films, that’s not the final beat.


On the other end of the performance spectrum is Béatrice Dalle, who becomes an instant classic movie monster with her turn as ‘the woman’ (she is listed as La Femme in the credits). Unrelenting in her pursuit, heartless in the way she meters out jagged blade justice, she’s reminiscent of Lucy Butler, the memorable psycho from the Chris Carter series Millennium. But Dalle is much more maniacal. With a gap-toothed smile that seems to symbolize the bubbling dementia in her mind, she toys with Sarah, saving her most disturbing murder moves for the ancillary bystanders who come to her rescue. Even better, when given the chance to end the pain, to stop the suffering of all involved, she drags it out, hoping to instill the kind of torment in her prey that she’s felt ever since…sorry, no spoilers here.


All of this was planned out purposefully by Bustillo and Maury. In the only substantive bonus of the DVD, the duo speak openly about trying to find a property that would address old school horror ideals while bringing forward a new sense of fright. The omnipresent offal was merely a means of achieving a very tasty and terrifying ends. It is also clear that the artistic ambitions the directors tried to achieve required a great deal of technical expertise. The behind the scenes footage included as part of the Q&A indicates as much. Together, the vision matches with the mechanics to produce a satisfying scarefest.


Indeed, horror geeks waiting for the next great gore flick will literally foam over Inside. It provides a level of vileness that few recent films have even tried to achieve while adding enough aesthetic support to keep everything from overflowing into offensiveness. It is not a movie for the squeamish. Even fans of the funkiest splatter rampages will see something here unexpected and disturbing. Let’s hope that Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury don’t wind up taking the same path to Tinsel Town talentlessness as Ils‘s David Moreau and Xavier Palud. Their remake of The Eye was painful to say the least. Inside‘s creative team deserves much, much better. Their film is a claret covered sensation.



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Sunday, Mar 23, 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. 



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Friday, Mar 21, 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.


 


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Tuesday, Mar 18, 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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