Smells Like Grave Robbing

Kurt and Courtney
Lagoon Cinema, starts Friday

As a movie, Kurt and Courtney makes you wanna take a shower. And it's not just that this "investigation" of Kurt Cobain's death finds most of the Nirvana singer's associates in the business of self-aggrandizement (filmmaker Nick Broomfield included). From the first lingering shot of Cobain's telegenic tennis shoe, caught listing and uncomposed by some death scene-stealing paparazzi, this greedy documentary's sharpest, if unspoken, question is directed toward the audience: What's your interest here? What are you trying to rob from this unquiet grave?

On the surface, at least, Kurt and Courtney sells tabloid intrigue. Perhaps Cobain didn't commit suicide, goes the theory; perhaps somebody (read: wife Courtney Love) had him murdered. This hare-brained notion, put forth here by private investigator Tom Grant, rests on the "fact" that large doses of heroin prevent fingers from pulling triggers (like a horse-toppling amount stopped River Phoenix from making a night of it). The unnervingly obsessed Grant also suggests that Cobain's last letter was embellished by another hand--as if desperation wouldn't affect one's penmanship.

Broomfield gives these ideas a lot of play before casually discounting them in a voiceover. His point, I think, is to implicate Cobain as blameless victim, more acted upon than actor (which, not incidentally, is Grant's mission as well). Cobain's divorce-torn childhood comes in handy here, and Broomfield milks it with tapes of a 2-year-old's giddy singing and stories about Kurt's subsequent teen misery. He wanted to keep his music "pure," remembers Cobain's likeable aunt (but must she expose his shy secrets?). Broomfield tellingly sets the accounts of pre-stardom friends--unpretentious, artless women, every one--against the specter of artful Love, presented in all her main-chancing, Versace-vamping, Hollywood ass-kissing glory.

Broomfield compiles so many anti-Courtney tirades that some critics have felt compelled to defend her. He needn't have stacked his deck: Love reveals her awesome self-interest with every calculated move. (How, asks Broomfield priggishly, could Love prattle with the ACLU about free speech when she's intimidated backers and pulled songs from his documentary? To show the world she has that power, of course!) But the filmmaker's disgust isn't actually directed at Courtney as Courtney: In his film, she signifies Dame Fortune. And according to Broomfield, Fortune killed Cobain, sure as if she (his pronoun, not mine) put the shotgun to his head.

Kurt and Courtney were heading for divorce, declares P.I. Grant: "They had different priorities in life." Hers, apparently, had to do with owning a Lexus; his, with reminiscing about the days when he could only afford to buy one thrift-store item and not the entire thrift store. "Fame," says one perceptive former friend, "is a process of isolation," and his sudden, distancing celebrity clearly bothered Cobain tremendously. But it's more than a little disingenuous to proclaim, as Cobain did and Broomfield does, that the singer didn't work toward his success and to some extent enjoy it. Why is purchasing a Lexus somehow worse than diving into an expensive, soul-numbing drug addiction? Because you can pretend that the latter isn't a choice?

Broomfield interviews a rock writer whose life was threatened by both Love and Cobain. Love's chilling phone message follows. Before we hear Cobain's, which is equally horrid, Broomfield describes how lost and distraught he sounds--the implication being that Love consciously drove him to this evil. Which may be, but doesn't excuse him. It's obviously quite important to Broomfield and his expected audience that Cobain's persona remain that of a sensitive, idealistic "brilliant artist," disheartened and finally fucked--as Guns N' Roses once envisioned--by commerce. The irony is that Kurt and Courtney portrays killer capitalism, that creature of white men's irresponsible avarice, as a manipulative femme fatale.

If Broomfield disappears Cobain's personal and professional accountability, he's no less dishonest about his own ambitions. Even as it documents the crimes of fame and fortune, Kurt and Courtney wearies with its acute thirst for same. Broomfield spotlights himself, Michael Moore style, in a couple of meaningless David-vs.-the-corporate-Godzilla guerrilla raids, hoping to pass as another heroic victim celebrity. At the same time, he mocks the naked need of his interviewees (especially Love's bulldog dad) to prove their existence in the mirror of his lens. By the end, Cobain's face has grown fuzzy: Everyone has really come to this tawdry wake hoping to fill the star's bloody shoes.

 
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