[13 September 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
If art were easy, everyone would do it. And if it were a purely private endeavor, few might pursue such a lack of fame. Still, some prefer to work their particular brand of magic outside the glare of the ever-present camera, their concern being that pure truth and absolute beauty only comes from a secure sense of privacy. When former Velvet Underground guide John Cale set out to make his album 1989 Words for the Dying (a tribute to poet Dylan Thomas) with superstar musician/producer Brian Eno, he asked filmmaker Rob Nilsson to tag along. He thought that the recording process would make a decent documentary - or at the very least, a clever commercial tie-in. Upon arriving in Moscow, the crew discovered something quite disturbing. Eno wanted no part of the project - and his objections were strident.
Thus begins the cinematic presentation named for the LP, an incredibly intimate and often unwieldy look at the creative process. Never simple, always impassioned, and technically rife with all manner of mood swings and personal/professional pitfalls, why anyone would want to invite unattached eyes into the process seems arrogant at best. Lucky for us film fans, such ego overdrive has resulted in some classic motion pictures - Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, DiG, and now Words for the Dying. While Cale can occasionally be a figure of feigned experimentalism, gravitating toward the avant-garde and the unusual because it seems to satisfy his lingering sense of importance (and this is meant in a good way), his work on “The Falklands Suite” and other Words tracks making up this album argues for a musician of much broader scope.
Eno, on the other hand, comes off as the kind of snickering dick you’d immediately want to shy away from. Nilsson listens to his surreal psychobabble explanation of why he doesn’t want to be filmed (and this after Cale warned him and he relented), and even stands on his head to get the producer to acquiesce. Instead, Eno sets up three rules of filming which could easily encapsulate the entire recording process. It seems strange to watch the same man who hogs the screen during several U2 clips (the rehearsal video for the hit “(Pride) In the Name of Love” comes to mind) act like a pissy prima donna. The few glimpses we catch suggest a meticulous taskmaster, a Kubrick like magician who won’t let his artist rest until he gets the exact performance he hears in his head. While such a stance might be embarrassing, it’s also quite engaging. We want to know the mechanics of making music. Eno’s demands strangulate the insight.
Instead, Nilsson is left looking for other areas of focus, and Words for the Dying (new to DVD from upstart distributor Provocateur) is better for it. The first section of the film takes place in Moscow, in the still Soviet Union. Perestroika has given Cale the chance to work with a major orchestra, and the conductor praises the rock God turned composer to the point of embarrassment. It’s quite the contrast from Eno’s frequent faultfinding. Similarly, when a legendary soloist comes in to record, his moment of singular glory is immediately undercut by our beloved producer nitpicking over improvisational choices. It’s an odd experience, like watching someone complain to Picasso over his lack of symmetry. Much of Words for the Dying takes this tricky approach.
Much of the mixed messaging falls on our man from Wales. He is supposed to be celebrating a comeback of sorts (this was his first album in almost four years), and yet he allows Nilsson to do things that deaden the merrymaking. When he has to “trick” his mother into signing the family house away, the director follows Cale to the nursing home, and through the uncomfortable moments between the two. Similarly, a group of snooty pseudo-intellectual fans rag on their imperfect hero in a backstage parlance of self-righteous smugness. After finally covering the creation of Words, Nilsson then offers Cale a chance to see this prosh predetermination. His response? A second or two of feigned acceptance, and then a literal run off into the English countryside.
It would be nice to understand why the filmmaker took such a confrontational conceit. Unlike previously mentioned movies, Words does not do the inward soul searching that Metallica or The Brian Jonestown Massacre/Dandy Warhols offer. On the DVD’s only major bonus feature, an interview with Nilsson, offers limited explanations. Much of the blame is foisted on Eno, the director stating rather emphatically that if said producer had only allowed for greater access, we wouldn’t have the overall piecemeal paradigm, shooters struggling to find material to fill the frame. But this doesn’t address the implied disdain for Cale. Why hurt a man already suffering? Even better, what does seeing the trailed twinkle in the musician’s mother’s eyes add to the creation of an album?
Indeed, the biggest flaw in all of Words for the Dying is the lack of clarification and context. We never get to hear the final tracks, much of the music presented in snippets or snatches. Cale’s previous career is given an equally cursory montage, allowing the elitist dreck spewed by those so-called devotees to remain our lasting impression of his post-Velvets years. Unlike other making-of movies, Nilsson’s cinema verite variations never offer the true backstage experience. Of course, some of this could be Eno’s fault, but one senses a loss of interest in the subject at hand. As state before, Words is at its best when it’s talking to Russian rock bands, listening to a female violinist discuss the chauvinistic Soviet view about women in the workplace, or capturing Cale with his precious daughter Eden.
Again, if any of this were easy, films like Words for the Dying wouldn’t be necessary. For all its turmoil and travails, for allowing Eno’s attitude to drag everything down to his illogical level, Nilsson deserves censure. Luckily, the small amount of music we hear in combination with the inherently interesting man that Cale appears to be mends most of the fences. It’s hard to argue against Words wounded effectiveness. It may come off as coarse and unsympathetic, especially when one realizes that actual professions and reputations are at stake, but the ancillary aspects surrounding the sturm and drang continuously draw us in. Clearly, Cale deserves better. His entire career can’t be marked by what happens here. For Eno and Nilsson however, the results do feel like jeering just desserts - at least for now.