Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Corporate Documentaries Still Suck

I watched Montage of Heck yesterday.  After all the hype, it was definitely a letdown.  It showed some promise in both the name- after an obscure cassette assembled by Cobain that has been on a number of bootlegs throughout the years- which promised experimental form and a deep musical dive- and the initial reviews from music critics (always the most reliable of sources, I know).  Ultimately though, the film comes off far too cohesive, with an all-too familiar and barely revelatory narrative.  The plot, chronological and complete with "innocent" before footage (Cobain was a cute kid though), is mostly  laid out in an expressionist manner through sound and image rather than the conventional use of talking heads, but the places it travels are a bit of a museum/mausoleum, letting objects speak for themselves, but offering little wisdom in the way of editorial.  Interview subjects do appear, but their role is limited, wasted even.  Novoselic and Love, for instance, would surely have great insight into specific ephemera or experience, but the film is painted in such broad brush strokes that it rarely surpasses a Google image search and a Wikipedia entry.

Of considerable absence, unsurprisingly, is musical context, specifically regarding the late 80's and early 90's punk and independent scene.  In fact, the film gives off the distinct impress that Nirvana operated mostly from a bubble, one that ballooned from a lone vantage and subsequently popped there, detached and alienated from all peers (except Guns N' Roses, whom Love and Cobain seemed to have a running distaste for).  No other key musical figures appear, despite Kurt's close friendships with the likes of pivotal figures like Kathleen Hanna, Thurston Moore, and Dylan Carlson of Earth (a fellow junkie who bought Cobain the shotgun he used to kill himself).

Cobain was certainly an interesting figure, and not just in the obsessive-compulsive/manic depressive/vaguely juvenile ways depicted on screen.  The film hints at how he felt perpetually like an outsider growing up and found solace and a muse in Seattle's underground scene, but there's little sense of the deeply political bent of this affiliation that manifested in both his art and public persona  (his staunch feminism, warm embrace of queer identity politics, seething disapproval of the corporate value system).  It doesn't give a sense of what being alienated and alone felt like before the age of the internet, what it meant to be accepted into a community like the Sub Pop/Kill Rock Stars set, and how those communities formed the only stratum of resistance against capitalism for young suburbanites during this timeframe.

What made this such an interesting period in musical history was that after what seemed like an eternity of yacht rock, party-hard misogynist metal, boomer nostalgia, and plastic pop, America actually embraced something that was very anti-establishment.  Not only did the nation embrace it;  Nirvana was the biggest band in the country, maybe even the world.   But unlike The Beatles, who came in with noveau haircuts and eased their fans in to more radical notions, Nirvana was a fully-formed ideology.  Despite this, their rise, in pure Deleuzian form, corresponded with a concurrent embrace and co-option of countercultural values.  In Montage of Heck, Cobain lets out a jibe against "EmptyVee", but his meteoric rise was actually entirely bestowed by these cultural guardians, who took a chance on "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and put into regular rotation apropos of very little else that was being shown on the channel at the time.

Cobain was keenly aware of his place within the machine and the way he was being sucked into the cool kids table, realigning the center to his own view.  The media still wanted him, but only on their terms, only as a rebellion they could sell and control.  He tried to pass it off as if it couldn't eat away at him, as would many that followed him, with ironic disaffection- posing on the cover of Rolling Stone with a T-Shirt reading, in McLarenesque poise, "Corporate Magazines Still Suck" and mocking Nirvana's press, fans, haters, et al.   But he was also keenly aware that he was now the next in a long line of hip gurus, the latest fashion.  This may not have eaten at him with the same vigor as the stomach pain and the heroin, but it did pose an impasse in the rock and roll narrative (it's probably no mistake that there hasn't been a significant rock movement since grunge/alternative overtook the airwaves in the early 90s).

The graphic designers helped make the case for him

His station turned Cobain into a new kind of celebrity one who posed a strategic threat to the peak power of late capitalism: the self-aware, reluctant star.  One for whom fame itself could be used weaponized against him.  The achievement of the American rock star ideal in every sense of the word who didn't want success and for whom its arrival didn't immediately convert him into an evangelist.  Instead, it just destroyed him.  This can be seen on down the annals through Kanye and his depressive hedonism.

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