(This is the final part of a series of four posts presented in relation to the premiere of Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck on HBO on May 4. This post seeks a post-review wrap-up of some issues in writing biography that I have pursued in earlier posts.)
Part of the disturbing narrative that surrounds Kurt Cobain, and which Montage of Heck seeks to suppress, turns on romanticized notions of dying young. People make note of the 27 Club, for example, which numbers Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Amy Winehouse, and Cobain among its “members” who all died at the age of twenty-seven. There was controversy last year when the singer Lana Del Ray stated that early death seemed glamorous to her, and Frances Bean Cobain, Kurt’s daughter, scolded her on Twitter, writing that “the death of young musicians isn't something to romanticize.” The language used to talk about these people who died young celebrates the quality of their artistic output, but it also inextricably allies that output with intense aspects of their personalities. Art Historians, too, often confront the “genius myth”—that is, the idea that the most celebrated of artists, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, and so on, exhibit almost supernatural qualities that place their abilities above those of their contemporaries and render them unassailable in evaluating aspects of their work or biographies that might undermine the overall product of their genius.
This genius myth is not unlike the challenges faced by Brett Morgen, the director of Montage of Heck, in trying to humanize Kurt Cobain, but the rhetoric is still problematic. Continuously throughout the film, both Morgen and the interview subjects describe Cobain in words that call to mind these other artistic geniuses, especially Vincent Van Gogh, whose legacy has been similarly altered by the role of the artist’s writings in interpreting his art. In Montage of Heck, this tone is established early—an interview with Cobain’s sister includes her saying, in awe, how “that genius brain” of his never stopped churning. From her manner, it’s clear this is not simply a figure of speech, but a meaningful categorization—an elevation—of her brother’s intellect. In turning to Van Gogh, his letters immediately indicate an interest in defining genius. He viewed genius in contrast to mere talent, but, perhaps as a result of his penchant for hard work, insisted that “theory and training” were not “always useless by the nature of the thing.”
My comparison of these two men on these grounds may seems arbitrary, but Montage of Heck furthers a genius narrative by building symbolism through the extremity of Cobain’s feelings. I view this as a means of cultivating an idea that the one who experiences the most extreme feelings is the most perceptive observer. At one point, Morgen prompts Courtney Love with a question asking if Cobain just “felt things a little more intensely,” again setting him apart from an average person. Love responds with a fabulist story about how she had considered cheating and her husband somehow just knew, and this betrayal, she says, precipitated his suicide attempt in Rome about two months before he died. He felt things too deeply and reacted disproportionately. This strain of feeling “too much” and “too strongly” resonates through pop culture perceptions of Van Gogh; his personal forays into color theory, the harsh greens and yellows that supposedly embodied his feelings, encapsulate the heightened nature of his sensations. He describes his own feelings as a “vague background sadness” and a melancholy that prevents him from reading or working.
The choice of these words is certainly not exclusive to figures like Cobain and Van Gogh, and the language participates in familiar tropes about artistic figures who suffer from depression (see also: Sylvia Plath and David Foster Wallace). However, it’s worrisome that they persist so poetically in a documentary that purports to bring its subject back down to earth—Montage of Heck doesn’t quite dispel the idea that such extreme suffering gave Cobain access to the unique emotional tools that allowed him to produce memorable music. Another common feature of these tragic artist narratives is the determinedness of their stories, the idea that they were on a collision course for disaster. Montage of Heck highlights this, too, by featuring a writing animation that focuses on the Cobain’s declaration that “Nothing’s gonna save me” and then “(Goes without saying).” Van Gogh similarly alludes to his increasingly foundering practice when, in his last unsent letter to his brother, Theo, he writes, “Ah well, I risk my life for my own work and my reason has half foundered in it.”
I readily admit two flaws in what I have written above: 1) at times I compare other peoples’ words about Cobain to Van Gogh’s own words, and 2) because I am speaking here of how genius and tragedy become conflated, some of these recurring elements also appear frequently in narratives that consider struggles with mental illnesses. Depression, especially, figures into considerations of both these men, and it must do so, but excavating undiagnosed mental illnesses is a dangerous game. In contrast, placing Kurt Cobain in the continuum of artistic melancholy that stretches throughout art history, including Van Gogh, is not remotely difficult. However, it remains interesting to me that, despite the general unwillingness of scholars to take psychological elements of biography seriously, the genius myth persists. It’s worth breaking down the components of this myth to ask what these (mostly) male artists can continue to boast without its cover. With Montage of Heck, we cannot say it truly humanizes its subject if retains his exceptionalism in emphasizing his suffering.