Documenting Kurt Cobain, Part 2: Intimacy

(This is the second part of a series of four posts presented in anticipation of the premiere of Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck on HBO on May 4.  The press coverage surrounding the film’s recent theatrical premiere has raised numerous thematic questions about how documentarians, writers, and/or scholars treat issues of biography, intimacy, and self-fashioning that I will pursue in this series posts over the next two weeks.)

The first post in my series on Kurt Cobain and the new documentary Montage of Heck focused on challenges that biographers face in trying to assemble portraits of their subjects.  Often, the goal is transparency—to know as much as possible, while coming to terms with what can never be known.  Biographers seek a level of intimacy in the narratives they expose, and the director of Montage of Heck, Brett Morgen, seems to have succeeded in this respect.  Among the review quotes that flash onto the screen during the film’s trailer, Rolling Stone’s jumps out: “THE MOST INTIMATE ROCK DOC EVER.”

I wrote previously how significant it was to the production of this documentary that Morgen was granted access to the storage facility that housed the remaining examples of Cobain’s art, his experimental recordings, and his diaries; many of these items had never been seen before by anyone beside the artist himself.  In this sense, intimacy is part of the process of creation, or, as the philosopher Julia Kristeva wrote, it is the process where an individual assesses his or her feelings and attempts to form those feelings into literary or artistic expression.  Rather than being a static mentality or condition of being, intimacy can seem active and territorial.  The literary scholar Lauren Berlant has written that intimacy “creates spaces and usurps places meant for other kinds of relations.”

So what conditions beget the creation of intimacy?  Often, people conflate intimacy with privacy and private acts.  For example, people who keep diaries or journals often keep them for themselves for the purpose of protecting their most private thoughts from people who may misconstrue their meanings.  Of course, for public figures like Cobain, even those journals may be transformed from a private chronicle of intimate feelings to a public document, reproduced en masse and marketed to fans seeking to understand more clearly how the author gained access to the angst that fueled his fame.  Sometimes the revelations of these documents help by facilitating connections between the art and the actual biography, but more frequently, poetic documents help fuel mythologies that limit, as with Cobain, the potential for a subject to remain humanized.

The issue of misinterpreting or misunderstanding literature and art produced in intimacy is a particular challenge to people like Morgen, who assume the responsibility of constructing a documentary narrative that upholds that same intimacy for new audiences.  In reviewing Montage of Heck for Vulture, music critic Lindsay Zoladz commented, “it’s that very feeling of familiarity between film and subject that left me feeling a little uneasy. Something about Montage of Heck’s conjured, artfully crafted intimacy tricks us into thinking we know Cobain better than we actually do — which tricks us into thinking we can finally make some kind of neat, cause-and-effect sense of his death.”  Achieving intimacy can be positive when it raises new questions, but what Zoladz suggests is something else entirely.

If the intimacy in Montage of Heck tricks viewers into thinking they have closure in regard to Cobain’s suicide, it has transformed the spectacular and unusual into the mundane and ordinary.  In a sense, this is exactly the mission that Cobain’s daughter requested as a condition of allowing the film to continue production—that her famous father be seen as a son, as a man, as a husband and father, roles that resonate with fans and which regular people have access to in their daily lives.  However, research conducted with the intent to reveal intimate knowledge about a person should, by focusing on distinctive details, be able to retain the divide between exceptional and human.  When I watch Montage of Heck next week, Morgen’s approach to cultivating intimacy will remain foremost in my assessment.