Documenting Kurt Cobain, Part 4: Genius

(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.)

Under the bridge where Kurt Cobain hung out in Aberdeen, Washington.

Under the bridge where Kurt Cobain hung out in Aberdeen, Washington.

Van Gogh's grave in Auvers-sur-Oise, France.

Van Gogh's grave in Auvers-sur-Oise, France.

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.

Documenting Kurt Cobain, Part 3: The Review

When I started writing this series of four posts on the new Kurt Cobain documentary Montage of Heck, I made a mental note that beginning such an effort without yet having seen the film itself could be risky.  I had always intended to include a standard review as one of the four posts, and then to conclude with another more “scholarly” commentary after having seen what the director, Brett Morgen, had actually produced.  Though the two-week delay in resuming these final posts is simply a matter of logistics—I didn’t have time to sit down and watch the entire film—it turns out that my fear of the riskiness in not waiting to comment were well-founded.  I have some reservations about how the movie actually produced measures up to the movie described in the press coverage and, more than that, concerns that it actually perpetuates the hyperbolic biography it was meant to debunk.

First, the high points:

  • Much of the movie is composed of animations—of Cobain himself engaged in activities, of the words in his notebooks writing themselves and building visually and rhetorically in intensity, of his drawings coming to life.  In many cases, these are genuinely lovely and novel; they’re a clever way to bring to life material that is not precisely calibrated for film as a medium.
  • Morgen matches recordings of Cobain speaking to animations that match the sentiment of those words, and this goes even further toward building the illusion that this film is the “true” portrait of Cobain.

In an earlier post, I characterized Morgen’s role as one of a tactician necessary for identifying symbolism within the cache of evidence the film purports to explore—for creating a credible biographical narrative.  It seems to me, with a subject like Cobain, there is something to be said for cultivating a meaningful tension between ambiguity and closure in creating a narrative that mirrors the rawness of the music and art produced.  However, Morgen’s film deliberately acts to remove ambiguity by the extent to which he emphasizes thematic statements within the interviews, especially humiliation as a recurring motivation for Cobain’s depressive and destructive acts.  Morgen’s narrative strategy resembles a Law and Order defense attorney’s—by giving us example after example of specific humiliations leading to negative responses and therefore posing a credible alternative “theory of the crime,” if you will, it’s as if he poses a cure-all cause for Cobain’s various ailments.

Where my first post considered biography, my second considered intimacy and what it means to strive for that as a defining characteristic of a portrait.  From the initial press coverage of Montage of Heck, it became clear that intimacy meant removing the veneer of legend/genius/rock star that has always been attached to Cobain and replacing it with a “humanized” interpretation of his presence as a man.  The film seems to act on this purpose primarily through showing what are, frankly, upsetting home videos of Cobain while he is clearly affected by drugs and by allowing Courtney Love, his widow, to speak freely and perhaps exasperatedly about her perspective on their marriage.  This highlights how negativity can seem to streamline the process of exposure; if someone conspiratorially whispers damaging opinions, they seem truer as the result of the care taken to cover them up. 

But can negativity actually heighten intimacy?  I would argue that it does not, at least not in this case.  Morgen’s film seeks to counter the extreme romanticism of myth with an extreme abjectness of suffering, and perhaps this successfully undercuts the angsty dreams of casual fans.  However, there are probably Nirvana super fans somewhere in between those two extremes (I prefer to count myself here) that understand Cobain’s evolution as a performer in more meaningful shades of grey that don’t come through in the dazzle of the animations and sound montages and the wry regret of the interview fragments included.  The move toward intimacy and unorthodox methods of constructing biography in Montage of Heck may have been undertaken in an effort to avoid overlaying another’s words on Cobain’s materials, but there’s little context to firmly position these materials outside the realm of psychobiography. 

In assessing what Morgan has or has not included, many have noticed the absence of Dave Grohl, Nirvana’s drummer, who has become a documentary filmmaker in his own right with Sound City and Sonic Highways providing careful portraits of, respectively, a recording studio and eight urban music scenes.  I don’t mean to allude to his absence as a failing, though it may be.  Instead, I want to point to Grohl’s forays into documentary, which deal with material just as legendary and narratives just as tragic (see the Sonic Highways episode that spotlights Austin and discusses the struggles of the 13th Floor Elevators’ frontman, Roky Erickson).  Where Grohl often skillfully skirts the line between sweet nostalgia and difficult truth, his role as compassionate interviewer abets the humanization of his subjects—it seems like they’re telling him things they’ve long kept secret.  This is where Montage of Heck faltered for me—in adopting the visual and symbolic language of the legend to illuminate the extremes of his actions, it misses the comfortable middle ground where nostalgia, pain, and truth can mingle to illuminate how myth and man can exist in one iconic cultural figure.

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.

Documenting Kurt Cobain, Part 1: Biography

(This is the beginning of a series of four posts presented on the occasion of the premiere of Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck on HBO on May 4.  The press coverage surrounding the film’s theatrical premiere on April 24 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.)

Writing biographies can be deceptively difficult.  The genre requires authors to negotiate the divide between how people are seen and how they see themselves.  Biography, as a guiding research method or question, is often eschewed by scholars seeking a measure of objectivity in their source material—in art history, this often occurs as devotion to the formal elements of the artworks themselves (color, line, structure, among others) and a resistance to theorizing artistic intent.   Critics often pejoratively classify treatments of a subject’s life and emotional capacity as “psychobiography”—accusing the authors of delving too deeply into the uncertain innerworkings of the mind, creating imaginative fiction in place of fact.  This accusation may be particularly salient when the subject is a prominent figure like Kurt Cobain—the embodiment of a regrettable nexus of exceptional creativity, unfulfilled potential, and inarguable tragedy. 

The subject of my dissertation, the painter Frédéric Bazille, also exhibited these qualities, including an early death at the age of 28 on a Franco-Prussian War battlefield in 1870.  I have spent years considering how to talk about such a tragic figure without unnecessarily mythologizing his life in the name of doing justice to addressing the significance of his art.  This similarly seems to be the primary challenge faced by Brett Morgen, the director of the new Cobain documentary Montage of Heck, and indeed, much has been made in the press of Cobain’s daughter, Frances Bean Cobain, making the demand that her father be “humanized” through the process of making the film.  And yet the onus remains on Morgen to construct a portrait of Kurt Cobain, with the materials at his disposal, that answers the requests of his family, that serves as a compelling documentary film, and that proposes a theory of Kurt Cobain, the man, that works with and against the legends that dominant his pop culture persona.

In answering the question of how to write biography that is squarely in the realm nonfiction, I found the most substantial assistance in the work of sociologists which describes how individuals are affected by the environments that surround them. Barbara Laslett wrote that the key to biography is understanding consciousness, “how it is constructed and its relationship to action.”  The famous sociologist Pierre Bourdieu described “the world of objects” and how bodies and these objects define each other in relation to the evolution of the spaces that they share.  Which is to say, very simplistically, that we are the books we read, the music we listen to, the places we visit, and the people we love and tolerate, and we are defined, wholly, by the intersections of these items/ideas and the actions that these “objects” move us to take.

In this sense, Montage of Heck’s unprecedented access to the carefully curated objects that Cobain left behind—cassette tapes of experimental recordings and spoken thoughts, drawings and diaries, banal ephemera of daily life—seems to distinguish it from biographies that embrace the hagiographical impulse to view Cobain as a martyred grunge poet.  In Rolling Stone’s recent interview with Frances, the only interview she will give about the documentary, she describes an experience of going into the storage facility holding Cobain’s belongings and finding a guitar case full of his art supplies.  She speaks of a paintbrush and how the case “smelled like he smelled.”  She says, “He became humanized to me.  He actually painted with this and touched it.”  Here, again, we see the strength of objects—these art supplies, probably used to make some of the archival material so prominent in the film, substantiate the human connection between father and daughter.  The objects excavated from the storage facility outline connections between man and legend, a distinction deliberately blurred by both man and the tastemakers who have crafted his legacy.  Even if we cannot find true closure from these objects, their individual significance and their relationships to each other can provide a useful biographical outline.  It takes a tactician, like Morgen, to turn that outline into a credible and complete biographic portrait.