Kurt and Courtney rubbed many reviewers the wrong way, partly because director Nick Broomfield slyly set his documentary up to do exactly that. This slice–no, slash–through the grunge underworld masquerades as a whodunit, poking and prodding through the hypothesis that Courtney Love, before she made herself over as a Hollywood princess, lorded it over the sad prince Kurt Cobain and one way or the other drove him to his death.
Stoned in Oliver’s sense, but more amateurishly, the film gushes juicy insinuations. Ms. Love’s father, Hank Harrison, interviewed in a Sacramento, Calif., subdivision, hints darkly that his daughter was capable of murder. A private dick named Tom Grant trots out his own version of grassyknollology. A friend of Cobain’s, who supplied this soulful wreck of a post-teen rebel with the fatal gun, gives vaguely unconvincing answers to apparently straightforward questions. A totally tattooed, hulking phenomenon named (no typo here) El Duce, fresh from a musical group called the Mentors (seen bringing to the world their song “I Am Your Sex Slave”), testifies on camera that Ms. Love “offered me 50 grand to whack Kurt Cobain.” (Not long afterward, this amazing figure, having been introduced on screen by a man identified as “Divine Brown’s pimp,” mysteriously, or not so mysteriously, dies in an accident, or what Mr. Broomfield might call “an accident.”) Ms. Love’s former boyfriend Rozz Rezaback recalls her violent temper. We hear a threatening message that loyal and/or bullied husband Cobain left on the answering machine of former Vanity Fair writer Lynn Hirschberg.
As fact-finding, Kurt and Courtney is surely as sloppy as Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line was rigorous. It is stuffed with evasive finger-pointing and finger-crooking that eventually leads to a shrug. It is as if we were lost in the sideshow at a convention of Oswaldologists. All this thread of the movie lacks is the sighting of a second Cobain. Naturally, the gumshoe aspect left a good number of reviewers in an indignant mood. The Los Angeles Times ‘ Kenneth Turan called the film “unreliable.” In Newsday , Jack Mathews called him a “lame sensationalist” and wrote that Nick Broomfield’s movies–including a documentary on Heidi Fleiss, among others– “reveal nothing so much as his incompetence at making movies.”
True enough, all the murder talk amounts to so many teases. The movie itself is a grungy, inconclusive investigation. It’s a good thing Mr. Broomfield doesn’t have access to grand juries. But what impresses and unnerves me is the film’s sociological shock value. For Mr. Broomfield succeeds in entering lowlife worlds and showing how they are nested within the subdivisional, Mickey-D normalcy of much of American life. The flat tracts where almost all the principals live are sections of quintessential Western suburbia–featureless zones of fugitive tranquillity where the good life is touted and American dreams ought to drift through the landscapes of infinite possibility. If white-bread success myths are in place, they ought to flourish in Hank Harrison’s affluent Sacramento, Rozz Rezaback’s middling Portland, Ore., and the town of Aberdeen, Wash., home of Cobain’s Aunt Mary, who plays her poignant reel-to-reel tapes of the young Kurt and is now a Christian activist alerting schoolchildren to the dangers of drugs. It is in these spiritually hollow neighborhoods–if that is the right word–that desperate families spawn suicidal teens and hurt souls like the distracted middle-aged woman who leaves a note on Mr. Broomfield’s windshield and introduces him, in her basement apartment, to an apparently traumatized ex-nanny who fled from the Love-Cobain household and speaks no good of Ms. Love. Nirvana, indeed.
Reckless murder charges are only the bait, in other words, for a film that has a remarkable virtue. The truly disturbing thing about this film is what it shows about the intimacy of culture and counterculture. If the weirdos are confabulating, the sheer abundance of their lies and delusions is the interesting thing. The film has an argument, really, of which it may not be aware: Grunge is the underside of the cleanest of suburbs. Vitriolic teen spirit is the backlash against the battered and battering family that produced it. The margins belong to a culture that lacks ballast. The supersaturated drug culture to which Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love belonged belongs to the everyday. The nihilism that pours through this deeply unsettling film is the nihilism spawned by normality. See it and weep.
Kurt and Courtney is playing at the Cinema Village, 22 East 12th Street.
The Resistible Rise of the Chicago Bulls
The sports sections June 15 were overstuffed with the inevitable encomia to the Chicago Bulls, especially the never-ending Michael Jordan, with his 45 points, his quickness, his grace, reliability, relentlessness, etc. Who could cry foul to the commentators who regaled readers with accurate enough tales of the last 37 seconds of the game, featuring his layup, his steal off Karl Malone, his crossover dribble, his hang-glider jump shot? But it takes nothing away from M.J.’s bounce under fire if we note the absurd air of inevitability wafting from this prose. The Bulls were so strong, so great at defense, so fast, so great on the offensive boards, so good at attracting fouls, etc. they were apparently bound to win, and self-evidently Karl Malone and John Stockton just didn’t have it …
The object of all this breathlessness was a team that had just won a game against the Utah Jazz by one point . Moreover, according to instantly replayed evidence presented on NBC, two bad referee calls cost the Jazz an obvious five points. In the second quarter, the Jazz’s Howard Eiseley tossed in an amazing three-point shot with a fraction of a second left on the 24-second clock–only to have the refs rule that it left his hand too late. Then, in the third quarter, Chicago’s Ron Harper got credit for a two-pointer that left his hand–such is the investigative wonder of instant replay–a smudge of a second after the buzzer. Three points here, two points there–a total of five illegitimate points for Chicago. In the alternative universe where the rest of the game plays out exactly as before but those two calls goes the opposite way, i.e., correctly, M.J. would have played just as great a game and all that gaudy inevitability would have vanished.
History is written by the winners, as they say.
Follow Todd Gitlin via RSS.