Wild Men Blues

The tortured artist abuses his privilege in Sound Unseen's painful docs

I saw Last Days, Gus Van Sant's creative imagining of Kurt Cobain's end times, three weeks after Katrina hit. Fans are always trying to rewrite the trajectories of tragic figures: My favorite lie has been that what Kurt lacked was a civic crisis to take his mind off the personal variety. Who worries about the authenticity of one's performance, the worthiness of one's fans, or the pain in one's belly when the sky is falling? That fantasy couldn't possibly survive Last Days, which envisions an isolation so profound that not even external states of emergency would penetrate it.

Which is not to dis Kurt--or Townes Van Zandt, Andrew Wood (of Mother Love Bone), and Jeff Buckley, whose depressed and twisted ends are carefully examined in documentaries screening in this week's Sound Unseen festival. I just mean to ask, again, Why? Why must fame isolate? Why must we who empathize with the sad/crazy songs also worship their singer--insist upon his/her "real" sadness/craziness, mythologize it, appropriate it? Then again, why must genius be protected from responsibility? And, in terms of those greater civic struggles that always exist, but are less obscured now: Why should we care at all about these fellows' well-fetishized private griefs?

It's too easy to mock the earnest hagiography Malfunkshun: The Andrew Wood Story (screening at the Bell on October 13 at 7:30 p.m.), especially as Wood appears neither saint nor genius--so I'll leave it for the moment. Be Here to Love Me (Oak Street Cinema, Saturday at 7:30 p.m.), Margaret Brown's adept look at Townes Van Zandt, acknowledges a subject of more complexity, yet it, too, occasionally falls into the trap of excusing selfish behavior on the grounds of mental instability and artistic brilliance. Granted, it's difficult for the filmmaker to balance appreciation and reality checks: The only reason Brown and all her talking heads (with the exception of the musician's relatives) are still fascinated by Van Zandt seven years after his death is that he was, in the words of Steve Earle, the "best songwriter in the world."

Still 'crazy' after all these years: Townes Van Zandt in 'Be Here to Love Me'
Palm Pictures
Still 'crazy' after all these years: Townes Van Zandt in 'Be Here to Love Me'

Brown has collected plenty of rare performance video and film to show the depth of Van Zandt's talent; there are tantalizing audio snippets of song demos, interviews, and conversations. Alongside this evidence is the story of a rich kid from Houston who sniffed glue in military prep school and graduated to hallucinogens and recklessness, winding up adolescence in a mental hospital where insulin shocks left him with no memory of his childhood. Brown doesn't even attempt to separate Van Zandt's substance addictions from his mental illness, let alone from his "gift"; it's left to his (essentially abandoned) oldest son to wonder what the artist might have created if he hadn't sprinted into a vagabond's feckless life (with the support of a revolving cast of admirers).

In Malfunkshun, director Scot Barbour supplies a pat explanation for Wood's self-destructive behavior: His parents' volatile relationship taught him that "love had to hurt." Brown offers only the smallest hint that the young Van Zandt was bothered by the monetary discrepancy between his family and other people (such as the black help seen holding baby Townes). Exploitative footage of a black friend crying at Van Zandt's "Waiting Around to Die," and Van Zandt's confessed love for Lightnin' Hopkins, cries out for context. Is it only white men whose hauntings are de-racialized and -sexualized as "pure" soul struggle (and therefore somehow heroic and universal)?

Thomas Reichman's documentary Mingus: Charles Mingus 1968 (Oak Street, October 15 at 6:00 p.m.) shows a man in the grip of that same anesthetized isolation, and yet in conversation Mingus can't help making connections--to history, to contemporary society, to spirituality. Sitting around his apartment with his kid and Reichman, he plays with metaphorical words ("pledge allegiance" becomes "pledge legions") and images (helping his white-looking daughter wrap a noose around his neck). I don't mind Mingus's self-pity, because he so clearly sees himself in the context of others who suffer. I'm hoping that I don't find the pain in his performance more "authentic" because of his blackness; I wonder if these other movies stress their subjects' authenticity as a kind of white defensiveness.

I had to let out a hoot when a commentator in Amazing Grace: Jeff Buckley (Bell, Sunday at 7:30 p.m. and Oak Street, October 14 at 8:00 p.m.) described Buckley's singing as "raw soul." Soul it may be, but Buckley looks about as raw as duck confit: As he himself notes, he had taken in and filtered a slew of musical influences (including Nina Simone), analyzed and honed his virtuosic style. When he talks, with the self-conscious poise of a young Bob Dylan, about getting beyond self-consciousness, it's the goal of an overthinker. To have his friends and fans speak of his music as more instinctual than fabricated is an insult--and misinformed. But this whole movie seems predicated on a series of narrow "talking points": 1) He was an amazing artist; 2) He felt and expressed more deeply than most artists; 3) Other artists loved him (...and?); 4) His death by drowning was accidental (there will be no acknowledgement of #2 here, nor a single mention of his father, singer Tim Buckley, who died of a heroin overdose).

If Amazing Grace worships Buckley, an incredible stylist, for his emotional authenticity, imagine what happens with another documentary, whose subject suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. Derailroaded: Inside the Mind of Larry "Wild Man" Fischer (Oak Street, October 12 at 7:30 p.m.) contains so many scenes of comfortable white men lauding the onetime street singer as "pure" and "real" that I began to think he was a bar of soap. When Mark Mothersbaugh--a cerebral artist if there ever was one--starts talking about Fischer mainlining the creative unconscious, he seems downright condescending. Indeed, there's a great deal of condescension in the whole myth of the tortured artist: no credit given for the imagining and fashioning of emotionally resonant material. It's not Mingus's tics, or his blackness, that made him great, but what he made of them.

And what did Andrew Wood make of his nasty childhood? He sang some fuzzy lyrics, did a ton of drugs, betrayed his brother, and beat up his girlfriend. Does he deserve a documentary that makes a trippy rock video of his treatment center intake notes? Probably. Someone who cares will have to decide whether the sound he made was worth the pain he caused.

As for me, I'm sad that Townes Van Zandt's record company didn't put out his best album for 20 years because all the drugs involved in its recording left a bad taste in the owner's mouth. Would it have been pandering to accept it as it was? The bad taste in my mouth is that it seems Van Zandt created beauty not from his addiction, but despite it. And I wonder how many others believed what he did, craved what he did. And never attained an authenticity not of pain, but of art.

Also in this issue: Sweet Sixteen: Beautiful (mostly) and all yours, our sneek peek at the 6th Annual 'Sound Unseen'

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