Son of a Gun
Kurt Cobain, in his own words
BY JASON BLAIR
KURT COBAIN: ABOUT A SON: Directed by AJ Schnack. Cinematography, Wyatt Troll. Music, Steve Fisk and Ben Gibbard. Narrated by Kurt Cobain. Balcony Releasing, 2007. R. 96 minutes.
For as long as there have been documentary filmmakers, history has been their sandbox. If you want to understand the many lives of Artie Shaw, say, or the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, you can bet there exists a documentary film on the subject. But while the best documentaries make the familiar new again (When We Were Kings) or the unfamiliar seem universal (Murderball), a restlessness has crept into documentaries recently, a stretching of the format that I hope to see continue. I think it’s possible we’re in a golden age of documentary film, a period of great redefinition for the genre. While technical advances help explain the shake-up — without technology, Winged Migration wouldn’t exist, nor would most of An Inconvenient Truth — I’m talking about a trend in the opposite direction: old-fashioned technique being pressed into service in highly subversive ways. Known as much for their daring as their excellence, films like Borat and Super Size Me have changed the way audiences experience documentary film. To this list of genre-rattling documentaries I would add Kurt Cobain: About a Son.
Kurt Cobain: About a Son is the story of the Nirvana guitarist and lead singer who became, during the early 1990s, the unwilling spokesman for Generation X. About a Son is significant for everything it doesn’t contain, such as sit-down interviews, recovered videos or, most noticeably, images of Cobain, at least until the closing moments of the film. Instead, like a Baraka for Nirvana junkies, the film is a present-day video record of places of significance — to Cobain, those would be Aberdeen, Olympia and Seattle, Washington — over which Cobain’s recorded voice discusses various aspects of his life. In this addition-by-subtraction format, Cobain’s reedy voice changes depending upon how and when it was recorded, while images of bookstores, coffee shops and back alleyways predominate. If it sounds tedious, like a glorified slide show, it isn’t, in part because the music is so propulsive. While the imagery isn’t consistently dynamic, director AJ Schnack (Gigantic) gets as much ambience out of Aberdeen as anyone ever could.
Aberdeen, in fact, provides the film’s most poignant moments. There are striking images of snarling logging equipment, for example, but I prefer the slow-motion imagery of a wrestling match at Cobain’s high school, or a lonely-looking student in a tracking shot as he arrives at school for another day. Meanwhile, Cobain speaks frankly and coherently about early influences, like his Hawaiian guitar and his fondness for the Beatles. The effect is an oddly soothing, if contradictory, portrait of an artist, not unlike the jumbled Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten, a similarly inventive if less subtle documentary from earlier this year. What emerges as we leave Aberdeen (for a short but colorful stint in Olympia, then Seattle) is that Cobain was a victim, to one degree or another, of bipolar disorder, compulsive behavior, paternal neglect, scoliosis, paranoia and the abundant homogeneity of his home town. He was a profoundly sensitive, profoundly deformed kid who feared being average more than anything else.
After a brief return to innocence in the (relatively speaking) deeper waters of Olympia, Cobain achieves his lifelong goal of moving to Seattle. At this point, Cobain’s interviews — recorded in late 1992 and early 1993 — turn toward the situation that gripped him at the end of his life: namely, his very public drug addiction and the relentless crush of journalists who pestered him about it. He confesses to being a “firm believer in revenge.” Along with Cobain, the film veers into a bitter, angry place, something cinematographer Wyatt Troll tries to compensate for, if unevenly, by seeking out the neutrality of random strangers, who pose for About a Son with oddly blank faces. Late in the film, while Cobain briefly meditates on the early days, the fantastic Band of Horses, Seattle’s most recent Next Big Thing, relax backstage before a concert. The implication couldn’t be more apt: Let’s avoid a repeat performance.
About a Son opens Friday, Feb. 8 at the Bijou.