Director Brett Morgen distinguishes the biographical documentary by viewing himself as more of a curator than a film director. He locates unseen or previously discarded archival elements and orchestrates them into an experiential mode that understands insight less as emanating from authority-based reflections than providing an immersion within the subject at hand. That’s certainly the approach he took in a remarkable entry from 2010 into ESPN’s “30 for 30” series called June 17, 1994, in which media footage and coverage from the day is organized to recreate events without the intrusion of voiceovers or explanatory segments whatsoever.
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is Morgen’s attempt to apply this approach to the life of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, as previously unseen footage and audio montages from Cobain’s personal materials are collaged together in an epic-length documentary that seeks to stand as the definitive portrait of Cobain’s oft-contested biography. As much sonically as visually inclined, Morgen draws on track after track of Cobain’s music to offer a series of montages, each with a differing visual component. The film opens with images of 1950s America as a place of booming consumerism following World War II, but set to various grunge riffs that explicate Morgen’s aesthetic aims, as he attempts various forms of clashes between sound and image throughout. These were happy times for Cobain’s parents, but the seedlings of youthful dissent and aggression were already being sewn.
The film’s subtitle is the name Cobain gave to his early demos and Morgen takes this concept as a mantra, jumping from ’50s archival footage to Nirvana concerts to animated reenactments of Cobain’s adolescence, narrated by the singer himself through a series of audio recordings he secretly made as a teenager. The effect is something like a combination of Korn’s “Freak on a Leash” video and Richard Linklater’s use of Rotoscoping, as Cobain’s entries are treated as awkward misadventures that border on criminal, since Cobain explains his sexual encounter with a mentally and handicapped girl and a proclivity for property damage. These sequences offer not only Cobain at his most intimate, but find Morgen pushing the boundaries of autobiographical expression by imagining Cobain’s painful flirtations with suicide and rebellion as the visual materials of serialized fodder, suggesting of a satirical sitcom.
While Morgen locates these elements with an intensity that moves past a sense of totalized knowledge, Montage of Heck relies a bit too heavily on contemporary interviews (Cobain’s mother, Wendy O’Connor; Nirvana bass player Krist Novoselic; and wife Courtney Love), which serve as unnecessary qualifiers to the more unbridled sequences of ceaseless engagement with existing materials. Of these interviews, Love’s proves the most compelling, if only because she has seldom spoken about her relationship with Cobain following his death in 1994. Most notably absent from Nick Broomfield’s 1998 doc Kurt & Courtney, here Love appears willing to discuss the details, but Morgen’s questions are less pressing than comforting, gleaning insight into the couple’s heroin-fueled days spent with daughter Frances. Home-video footage of the couple is simultaneously fascinating and tabloid-level sophisticated, as the footage is shown untouched and displayed purely for its privacy and intimacy.
When the film tips away from offering footage and music as a symbiotic expression, it flirts with offensive moments of voyeuristic access that, especially in Love’s moments of nudity and Cobain strung out on heroin, uncritically fosters the sort of peep-show mentality that much of the film elides. Yet this is a rather brief portion of the film’s larger tapestry of cultural anarchy, seeking less to canonize Cobain as an “acne superstar,” as he writes of himself in a letter, than constructing a forcefully cinematic presentation of Cobain’s appeal, explained through the time period itself. By generally avoiding sweeping statements (sans O’Connor’s assertion that she knew after hearing Nevermind that “things were never going to be the same”), Montage of Heck is a worthy, unique addition to progressing the concert documentary’s formal traits.
While Morgen avoids hagiography by prizing immediacy over a fleeting sense of comprehension, directors Robert Gordon and Morgan glorify American TV-news passions in Best of Enemies, a quick-pulsed case-file doc that seeks to recreate the fervor surrounding 10 debates broadcast on ABC in 1968 between conservative pundit William F. Buckley and liberal rabble-rouser Gore Vidal. These nightly tête-à-têtes become the foundation upon which Gordon and Neville explain the emergence of news-channel bickering, with the style forged by ABC becoming the template for the contemporary debate styles of CNN and Fox News. However, the film equally enshrines media power through an uncritical emphasis on ratings, which conceives of ABC’s dwindling success as an underdog story of great significance. In a similar sense, Buckley and Vidal are portrayed too specifically as opposing iterations of identity politics, with talking heads ranging from biographers to media scholars supporting the film’s weakly chiseled assertions.
Essentially, the film understands the pair as public intellectuals, fortified by Vidal’s assertion that “there are two things a man should never turn down: sex and appearing on television.” Historical information comes in droves, explaining Vidal’s work as cultural cherry bombs, with Myra Breckinridge clips peppered throughout as indicators of a contrasting sensibility to Buckley, who viewed such material as pornographic and a transgression upon moral sanctity and religious devotion. Nevertheless, Buckley is no stiff, but a raconteur seen appearing with Dick Cavett and Woody Allen, and claimed by his biographer to be one of the best debaters of his time, because “he could carefully pick apart your argument.” The primary material itself makes for rousing evidence of the pair’s intense hatred for one another, with Gordon and Neville adeptly selecting notable archival clips to service the contemporary interviews.
Yet the film’s final third neglects to grasp the full extent of its implications, so that when Buckley snaps and calls Vidal a “queer” in response to being called a “crypto-Nazi,” the moment is mostly played for a laugh, reveling in ABC’s shock at the unedited live moment. Moreover, Buckley’s outburst licenses the film’s insistence on pinpointing this particular moment as one that haunted his career, as he subsequently refused to discuss the matter at length. These culminating turns reveal Best of Enemies to be thoroughly content in psychologizing its dual protagonists to easily graspable ends, while neglecting to more sufficiently interrogate network interests in formulating binaries and political dividing lines. By engaging celebrity worship rather than using these figures for deeper claims about media-dominated information cultures, Morgan and Neville reinforce the very circumstances they outwardly condemn.
The Visit functions as an historical document of a different sort, serving as a pre-enactment of a hypothetical alien invasion, with various scientists, military personnel, and intellectuals performing their potential roles were extraterrestrial beings to make contact. The conceit proves initially worthwhile, with images of various parts of the globe documenting a cultural specificity that the film parlays into a global unity, as the proposed scenario unfolds. Yet director Michael Madsen fails to initialize these points in a manner that progresses past any number of fiction films envisioning the same scenario. When ground troops mobilize in slow motion or innocent civilians scramble around city streets, the dramatic tactics are mere replications of The Day the Earth Stood Still or Independence Day, exploiting fears of the unknown for morbid “what if?” posturing.
Madsen even calls upon the usual cinematic suspects, with requisite music cues from 2001: A Space Odyssey meant to be nothing more than a gesture of kinship. The film’s attempted blending of fact and fiction leans heavily to the latter, except when the lot of talking heads stare directly ahead into the camera, as if addressing the alien life forms that have just landed. In more playful moments, two government agents joke about how they will need to reassure panicked communities, gently massaging their rhetoric to offer comforting, equivocal statements of how knowledge and action are being combined “to the best of our abilities.” In these moments, Madsen glimpses a more focused satire of public relations and political stroking when faced with impending catastrophe. Yet Madsen ultimately prefers to stand on the heels of invasion film forbearers, with too many dramatic sequences that resemble low-budget versions of mega-blockbusters. Were Madsen inclined to critique Hollywood fantasies of destruction rather than ape them, The Visit would be a notable rebuttal rather than disposable speculative fiction.
True/False runs from March 5—8.