In 1928, British lesbian writer Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness was published. It scandalized official British society, was decried as “a danger to the nation” and was eventually suppressed and censored for being a work of “obscene libel”—not because there was any actual description of lesbian sexual behaviors beyond a kiss and the most oblique mention of sharing a bed. Simply admitting that lesbianism existed was considered a scandalous act, and allowing a lesbian to share her thoughts on what it was like to experience romantic feelings for another woman caused official fear and outrage.
“Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed,” cried the phantom, “not to know … that any … spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunities misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!”
“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.
“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
—A Christmas Carol
In my family, A Christmas Carol is almost a sacred text. My grandmother quoted from it each Christmastime, and she, my mother (a teacher of English literature) and I watched each film and television version of it, cocoa and Kleenex in hand. We recited along with Marley’s Ghost, the Ghost of Christmas Present, Ebenezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim, weeping and hugging and loving every moment of the story. Each viewing or reading of A Christmas Carol left us renewed in our commitments to each other and ourselves to hold Christmas in our hearts all through the coming year, and to remember Jacob Marley’s exhortation that looking after each other and lifting up those around us was our true reason for living. A Christmas Carol reminded us that humankind was our business, that “charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence” were our collective responsibility to each other, and the source of humanity’s greatest joys as well.
When my own daughter was old enough, I began reading Dickens stories aloud to her, and of course A Christmas Carol was among them. I read the whole of it to her in one evening, stopping occasionally to compose myself. She and I went to see a beautiful theatrical production of it in Seattle when she was a girl, just as my mother and I had seen multiple wonderful versions of it at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco during my childhood. Seeing A Christmas Carol has always meant far more to me than attending any production of The Nutcracker ever could.
This masterful work, so perfectly composed, so moving, so excitingly paced, was written in just six weeks when Charles Dickens’s fortunes were flagging, his coffers low and his popularity waning. But it was not worry about his purse or his reputation that inspired Dickens; it was his childhood spent in a debtor’s prison with his family that made him speak out so powerfully on behalf of the poor. While still a young boy, Dickens was forced to leave school to work in a boot blacking factory. There he spent his days pasting labels on bottles in hopes of making enough money to bail his father out of his debts. It was only through the efforts of children that Dickens’s father could pay off his debts and at last leave the Marshalsea Prison. Though Dickens later grew prosperous and world-renowned, he never forgot his time spent among the poor, the sick, the fearful and the abandoned.
In early 1843, Britain’s Parliament published a report on the damaging effects of the Industrial Revolution on poor children. The Second Report of the Children’s Employment Commission moved Dickens deeply, and he planned to write and publish an inexpensive political pamphlet to encourage commissioners and other lawmakers to do more on behalf of the poor.
Dickens gave a fundraising speech in October of that year at the Manchester Athenæum, urging workers and employers to come together to combat ignorance with educational reform. It was during that visit to Manchester that he realized his greatest ability to influence and inform was not through political tracts and speeches but through his works of fiction. In those early days of October 1843, he devised the plot of A Christmas Carol. When he returned to his home in London, he worked in a fury to complete the story in time for Christmas publication, and just made it: it was published 175 years ago this week.
Here’s one of the 20th century’s most influential interpreters of popular song, Frank Sinatra, glamorizing smoking, drinking, and leaving a bar drunk right after last call. So much of what I hate most about midcentury popular culture is wrapped up in this piece, yet I love this song. Why? Because it brings together three legendary musical talents in one perfect moment to tell a familiar story in a style so compelling that you have to lean in and pay attention.
Composer Harold Arlen wrote many of the greatest tunes of the last century, from “Over the Rainbow” to “Blues in the Night” to “The Man that Got Away,” and, of course, “Lydia the Tattooed Lady.” Lyricist Johnny Mercer wrote 1500 pop tunes from “Laura” to “Moon River,” and was nominated for 19 Academy Awards for his songs, winning four of those Oscars. Some of the duo’s finest compositions were the songs they wrote together during the 1940s. Arlen wrote several of Judy Garland’s greatest hits, and Mercer, though married to someone else, was Garland’s lover for a time in the early 1940s, and he considered her the love of his life. His beautiful song “Skylark,” written with Hoagy Carmichael and brimming with unfulfilled longing, was written for her.
Garland’s great friend Frank Sinatra was one of the key interpreters of both Arlen and Mercer, and when Frank gets a slow, melancholy song about lost love, he’s hard to beat. His styling here is impeccable: pained and haunted, dreamy and hopeless. The song seems simple and straightforward, but it’s full of surprising intervals and clever internal rhymes—it’s one of those sophisticated compositions that begs for a clean, spare performance, and that’s exactly what Frank gives here.
The Little Man movie rating system has been used by the San Francisco Chronicle since 1942. The excited Little Man above signifies a critic’s greatest satisfaction and is equivalent to a four-star rating.
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The following is one of a series of six film review parodies I wrote for the Sunday Punch section of the San Francisco Chronicle some years ago. In each piece I wrote about outrageous, nonexistent foreign films and reviewed them in the voice of a pompous film critic. This was the second parody of the six.
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Among the new foreign film releases this season are two films by female directors: Bebe Francobolli’s ode to Dada, Ciao Chow Chow, and Christiane de Geronimo’s children’s thriller, Nightlight.
Francobolli is the daughter of the Suprematist painter Mazlow Molotov (“The Black Russian”) and Constructivist painter Kiri de Kulpe Kloonig (a former courtesan known as “The Dutch Treat”). Bebe’s parents met in Rome at an international stamp-collecting convention and became Italian citizens before their only child was born.
Named Bebe Francobolli (literally Baby Postage Stamps) after her parents’ avocation, she refused to become a philatelist and rejected the art of her ancestors. She turned to Dada, the nihilistic movement that created “non-art,” laughed at overly serious artists and spawned Surrealism.
These influences can be seen clearly in Ciao Chow Chow, in which Bebe herself stars. Translated from Italian into English, and then back into Italian again, with no subtitles, the film begins and ends with Bebe waving goodbye to her beloved Chow dog, Antipasto, symbol of her lost youth and of her ridiculous early films.
Ciao is a parody of a self-parody, masterful in its simplicity and in its bold statement that life is to be laughed at, and that nothing is serious or sacred.
Basically nihilistic, with Dadaist subject matter and camera angles, this film is convoluted and uneven, personalized and stylized, and will make no sense to anyone who has not seen Bebe’s early travelogue films. Yet, Bebe promises that it will be her last film work, and that alone has prompted critical acclaim.
Avant-garde director Christiane de Geronimo’s Nightlight tells the terrifying story of the night the Mickey Mouse nightlight burned out in the Turner household. Little Bobby Turner is forced to face The Clown Puppet, The Vicious Animal Slippers and The Dreaded Man from Under the Bed.
Filmed in black and white, Nightlight captures the shadowy horror of every child’s bedroom, and forces even the adult viewer to come to grips with The Thing in the Closet. Not for the squeamish.
De Geronimo’s earlier attempts at children’s thrillers include The Teddy Bear with No Face, Scream, Barbie, Scream and Revenge of the Katzenjammer Kids, in which comic-strip characters from the past are set loose on an unwitting Nebraska farm town.
Nightlight, the third of her bedtime stories series, features the late French film star Estella de Lumiere in her final role before the dreadful accident on the set of Murder on the Trampoline.
Next month, two recent remakes: Canadian filmmaker and ice-hockey champion Pete Steed’s sport-oriented version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Fujiko Shiatsu’s sumo wrestling remake of The Music Man.
In 1908, Pathé invented the newsreel, a short-subject film shown in cinemas prior to feature films. The Pathé Brothers of France owned the world’s largest film equipment and production company, and they saw the benefit of bringing news to life for moving picture fans and thus padding out an afternoon or evening’s cinematic entertainment. In the years before television, people grew to rely on newsreels during their weekly cinema visits to keep up with royal visits, war news, sports, fashion and celebrity events and travelogues that took them to far-away places.
Over time, many short subject films took on a nationalistic bent, and they were used as propaganda tools during World Wars I and II. Some showed women on the home front how to make do with rationed food and fabrics during and after World War II. Others showed teens at play, making them seem like laughable aliens, underscoring the generation gap that caused such rifts between teens and their parents in the 1950s and 1960s and played out in major culture clashes in both cinematic and real life.
News reels often depicted the people of other nations as quaint and exotic, and made women look like vain, silly, laughable lightweights. But they were wittily narrated, well-edited and often visually sumptuous, so they make for fascinating views into 20th century cultural history today.
Pathé short-subject films reached the height of their appeal in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s in Britain. Many of these shorts involve women being made to look foolish while demonstrating outlandish fashion or beauty trends and inventions, all accompanied by an orchestra playing a peppy tune and a wry male narrator making snappy sexist comments.
It’s always interesting to see how much effort has been put into inventing odd machinery to distract women, perpetuate stereotypes and keep women “in their place.” It still goes on today, of course, but now women’s voices are used to make the narrated hype more palatable and to seem more “empowering” and less demeaning.
[In honor of the Broadway revival of Mart Crowley’s 50-year-old play The Boys in the Band starring Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer and Andrew Rannells, I’m reposting this piece I wrote in 2009.]
Some years ago, while watching TV in the wee hours of the morning, I happened upon a film that I’d never before heard of. I was instantly hooked. It turned out to be a milestone in gay-themed filmmaking, a cult classic that alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) delighted and appalled New York theatrical audiences in 1968 and then moved to the screen in 1970. That film was The Boys in the Band.
Written by gay playwright Mart Crowley, the play attracted celebrities and the New York in-crowd nearly instantly after it opened at a small off-Broadway theater workshop in 1968. The cast of nine male characters worked together so successfully that the whole bunch of them made the transition to the screen in 1970, which is nearly unheard of.
Crowley had been a well-connected and respected but poor young writer when his play became a smash in 1968. While still a young man, he knew how the Hollywood game was played and how to jockey his success into control over the casting of the film. Working with producer Dominick Dunne he adapted his script into a screenplay and watched director William Friedkin, who also directed The French Connection and The Exorcist, lovingly keep the integrity of the play while opening it up and making it work on the screen.
It’s hard to believe that the play opened off-Broadway a year before the Stonewall riots that set off the modern-day gay rights movement in New York and then swept across the country. The characters in the play, and the whole play itself, are not incidentally gay—the characters’ behavior and the play’s content revolve around their homosexuality. For better or worse, the characters play out, argue over and bat around gay stereotypes: the drama queen, the ultra-effeminate “nelly” fairy, and the dimwitted cowboy hustler (a likely hommage to the cowboy gigolo Joe Buck in the 1965 novel Midnight Cowboy, which was made into a remarkable film by John Schlesinger in 1969). The play also features straight-seeming butch characters who can (and do) “pass” in the outside world, and a visitor to their world who may or may not be homosexual himself.
The action takes place at a birthday party attended only by gay men who let their hair down and camp it up with some very arch and witty dialog during the first third of the film, then the party is crashed by the married former college pal of Michael, the host. A pall settles over the festivities as Michael (played by musical theater star Kenneth Nelson) tries to hide the orientation of himself and his guests. That is, until the party crasher brings the bigotry of the straight world into the room, and Michael realizes he’s doing nobody any favors by keeping up the ruse. During the course of the evening he goes from someone who celebrates the superficial and who has spent all his time and money (and then some) on creating and maintaining a reputation and a public image, to a vindictive bully who lashes out at everyone and forces them all to scrutinize themselves with the same homophobic self-hatred he feels. He appears at first bold and unflinching in his insistence on brutal honesty, but he goes beyond honesty into verbal assault, while we see reserves of inner strength and dignity from characters we had underestimated earlier in the play. Though The Boys in the Band isn’t the masterpiece that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is, I see similarities between the two in the needling, bullying and name-calling that alternates with total vulnerability and unexpected tenderness.
The self-loathing, high-camp hijinks, withering bitchiness and open ogling made many audience members uncomfortable, a number of homosexuals among them. Some felt the story and the characterizations were embarrassingly over-the-top and stereotyped. They thought that having the outside straight world peek in and see these characters up close would only make them disdain homosexuals even more. This is a legitimate criticism; the nasty jibes, pointed attacks, and gay-baiting that goes on among and against gay characters here is the sort of in-fighting that could encourage bigots to become more entrenched in their prejudices when seen out of the context of a full panorama of daily life for these characters.
However, the play and film were also groundbreaking in their depictions of homosexuals as realistic, three-dimensional men with good sides and bad. Even as we watch one character try to eviscerate the others by pointing out stereotypically gay characteristics that make them appear weak and offensive to the straight world at large, there is also a great deal of sympathy and empathy shown among the characters under attack, and even towards the bully at times. Sometimes this tenderness is seen in the characters’ interactions. At other times, it is fostered in the hearts of the audience members by the playwright. Playwright Crowley has us witness people behaving badly, but we recognize over time how fear and society’s hatefulness toward them has brought them to this state.
These characters may try to hold each other up as objects of ridicule, but the strength of the dialog is that we in the audience don’t buy it; with each fresh insult, we see further into the tortured souls of those who do the insulting. We see how, as modern-day sex columnist Dan Savage put it so beautifully in an audio essay on the public radio show This American Life in 2002, it is the “sissies” who are the bravest ones among us, for they are the ones who will not hide who they are, no matter how much scorn, derision and hate they must face as a result of their refusal to back down and play society’s games. Similarly, to use another theatrical example, it is Arnold Epstein, the effeminate new recruit in the Neil Simon 1940’s-era boot-camp play Biloxi Blues, who shows the greatest spine and the strongest backbone in the barracks when he does not hide who he is, and he willingly takes whatever punishment he is given stoically and silently so as not to diminish his honesty and integrity or let down his brothers in arms.
The situation and premise of The Boys in the Band are heightened and the campy drama is elevated for the purposes of building suspense. This echoes the action in plays by Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, where the uglier side of each character is spotlighted and the flattering gauze and filters over the lenses are stripped away dramatically as characters brawl and wail. The emotional breakdowns are overblown and the bitchy catcalling is nearly constant for much of the second half of the film, which becomes tiresome. However, the play addresses major concerns of gay American males of the 1960s head-on: social acceptability, fear of attacks by angry or threatened straight men, how to balance a desire to be a part of a family with a desire to be true to one’s nature, monogamy versus promiscuity, accepting oneself and others even if they act “gayer” or “straighter” than one is comfortable with, etc.
It is startling to remember that, at the time the play was produced, just appearing to be effeminate or spending time in the company of assumed homosexuals was enough to get a person arrested, beaten, jailed or thrown into a mental institution, locked out of his home or job, even lobotomized or given electroshock therapy in hopes of a “cure.” In 1969 the uprising at the Stonewall Inn in New York City’s Greenwich Village by gay people fighting back against police oppression was a rallying cry. It gave homosexuals across the nation the strength to stand up for their rights and refuse to be beaten, threatened, intimidated, arrested or even killed just for being gay. However, anti-gay sentiment in retaliation for homosexuals coming out of the closet and forcing the heterosexual mainstream to acknowledge that there were gay people with inherent civil rights living among them also grew.
Cities like San Francisco, Miami, New York and L.A. became gay meccas that attracted thousands of young men and women, many of whom were more comfortable with their sexuality than the average closeted American homosexual and who wanted to live more openly as the people they really were. There was an air of celebration in heavily gay districts of these cities in the 1970s and early 1980s in the heady years before AIDS. It was a time when a week’s worth of antibiotics could fight off most STDs, and exploring and enjoying the sexual aspects of one’s homosexuality (because being a homosexual isn’t all about sex) didn’t amount to playing Russian Roulette with one’s immune system, as it seemed to be by the early to mid-1980s. Indeed, of the nine men in the cast of the play and the film, five of them (Kenneth Nelson, Leonard Frey, Frederick Combs, Keith Prentice and Robert La Tourneaux) died of AIDS-related causes. This was not uncommon among gay male theatrical professionals who came of age in or before the 1980s. The numbers of brilliant Broadway and Hollywood actors, singers, dancers, directors and choreographers attacked by AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s is staggering.
When the film was made in 1970, all of the actors were warned by agents and others in the industry that they were committing professional suicide by playing openly gay characters, and indeed, several were typecast and did lose work as a result of their courageous choices. Of those nine men in the cast, the one who played the most overtly effeminate, campy queen of all (and who stole the show with his remarkable and endearing performance) was Cliff Gorman. He was a married heterosexual who later won a Tony playing comedian Lenny Bruce in the play “Lenny,” which went on to star Dustin Hoffman in the film version. Gorman was regularly accosted and accused of being a closeted gay man on the streets of New York by both straight and gay people, so believable and memorable was his performance in The Boys in the Band.
The play is very much an ensemble piece; some actors have smaller and more thankless roles with less scenery chewing, but it is clear that it was considered a collaborative effort by the cast and director. The enormous mutual respect and comfort of the characters with each other enriched their performances and made the story resonate more with audiences than it would have otherwise. The actors saw the film and play as defining moments in their lives when they took a stand and came out (whether gay or straight) as being willing to associate themselves with gay issues by performing in such a celebrated (and among some, notorious) work of art. When one of the other actors in the play, Robert La Tourneaux, who played the cowboy gigolo, became ill with AIDS, Cliff Gorman and his wife took La Tourneaux in and looked after him in his last days.
In featurettes about the making of the play and the film on the newly released DVD of the movie, affection and camaraderie among cast members are evident, as is a great respect for them by director William Friedkin. Those still alive to talk about it regard the show and the ensemble with great love. As Vito Russo noted in The Celluloid Closet, a fascinating documentary on gays in Hollywood which is sometimes available for streaming on Netflix, The Boys in the Band offered “the best and most potent argument for gay liberation ever offered in a popular art form.”
According to Wikipedia, “Critical reaction was, for the most part, cautiously favorable. Variety said it ‘drags’ but thought it had ‘perverse interest.’ Time described it as a ‘humane, moving picture.’ The Los Angeles Times praised it as ‘unquestionably a milestone,’ but ironically refused to run its ads. Among the major critics, Pauline Kael, who disliked Friedkin and panned everything he made, was alone in finding absolutely nothing redeeming about it. She also never hesitated to use the word ‘fag’ in her writings about the film and its characters.”
Wikipedia goes on to say, “Vincent Canby of the New York Times observed, ‘There is something basically unpleasant . . . about a play that seems to have been created in an inspiration of love-hate and that finally does nothing more than exploit its (I assume) sincerely conceived stereotypes.'”
“In a San Francisco Chronicle review of a 1999 revival of the film, Edward Guthmann recalled, ‘By the time Boys was released in 1970 . . . it had already earned among gays the stain of Uncle Tomism.’ He called it ‘a genuine period piece but one that still has the power to sting. In one sense it’s aged surprisingly little — the language and physical gestures of camp are largely the same — but in the attitudes of its characters, and their self-lacerating vision of themselves, it belongs to another time. And that’s a good thing.'” Indeed it is.
[Originally published in June 2009.]
One of the loveliest of The Carpenters‘ songs, “Bless the Beasts and the Children” was the theme to a 1971 film directed by Stanley Kramer based on a coming-of-age novel by Glendon Swarthout. The book, the film and the song warned of the dangers of failing to look out for the most vulnerable among us—youths and animals. “Bless the Beasts” reminded us that neglecting or harming the most fragile members of society weakens and degrades all of us. Sadly, we are seeing our failure to heed these warnings play out again in deadly, tragic ways in our own world today.
In 2018, the film and song seem a bit obvious and cloying, but during the Vietnam War years, when they were written, young Americans were being killed by the tens of thousands in a war they didn’t believe in. They had to fight hard to be heard and respected by a world that had long believed children’s first duty was to shut up and obey their elders. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. teenagers were shipped off to kill and die in Southeast Asia, and young people at home who protested were often gassed, assaulted, even killed on campuses or in public streets for speaking out against the war.
In that context and in contrast to other messages presented to teens by the establishment, this story and song had a powerful message—as sung by the especially wholesome-seeming, middle-of-the-road Carpenter siblings, “Bless the beasts and the children, for in this world they have no voice—they have no choice” made a strong statement. On what would have been Karen’s Carpenter’s 68th birthday, please enjoy her beautiful voice and this thoughtful song. In the current climate, teenagers are again forced to act as America’s conscience. As they urge us to think before we allow troubled people to rush out into the world to try to solve problems with guns, their messages are as important as ever.
Originally published in April 2015.
Long before Kurt Cobain displayed the depth of his hopelessness to the world by taking his own life, his fans had known he was suffering. Anyone who has listened to Kurt Cobain sing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” has heard the pain in his voice. Every Nirvana song is built upon a platform of angst—the music, the lyrics, the growls and wails all make the turmoil and drama inside Cobain’s head quite clear and accessible for anyone to hear. This transparency of feeling is what makes Nirvana’s music great and greatly beloved: it taps into a primordial well of anxiety, anger, longing and disillusionment in listeners and makes us feel as if our own personal, raw feelings are being scooped up, wallowed in and worn like warpaint by a rock god for all the world to see.
The obviousness of Cobain’s extreme pain was so evident to millions of people years before his suicide in 1994, so it comes as a shock to watch interviews with his friends and family and see how many cries for help they ignored, how little aid they sought for him, how limited were their resources in guiding him toward hope even after he became one of the most famous people in the world. The very elements of his psyche that made his art so powerful and meaningful to others were the parts that caused him the most misery. His charisma, stubbornness, insularity and difficult personality seem to have paralyzed those who should have seen him clearly and helped him most directly. These same characteristics and his remarkable ability to build a bridge between himself and other disaffected souls brought him a level of scrutiny that made him feel trapped in a dangerous tidal wave of success that he was constantly trying to ignore and retreat from. It’s as if he was hiding in plain sight.
All of this becomes devastatingly clear in Brett Morgen’s excellent new documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck currently in limited theatrical release and soon to be shown on HBO. The first film about Cobain to have the support of his daughter Frances Bean Cobain (who is also one of the film’s executive producers) and her mother, Kurt’s widow Courtney Love, this documentary could never have been made without their treasure trove of audio recordings, videos, home movies, drawings and family photos and access to Cobain’s diaries and notebooks. All of these elements come to life in stunning animated montages that make us feel as if we’re in the room with Kurt, his mom, his wife, his baby and bandmates Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl. Sometimes we feel as if we’re inside Kurt’s head as well.
His violent and disturbing drawings, his remembrances of distressing moments in his personal history and the pained, sad stories of those with whom he lived and worked make abundantly clear how lonely, frightened and angry he was from a very early age. But the home movies of him as a baby and child show a heartbreakingly sweet and pretty little boy with a beautiful voice. He was hungry for attention and constantly in need of deep soothing that he rarely received. It hurts to see him so fresh and so loved, and to know that his overwhelmed parents, stepmother, siblings and friends had no idea how to deal with his enormous kinetic energy, his destructive impulses or his lack of self-control. The things he needed most—stability, understanding, unconditional love and safe ways to soothe himself—seemed nearly always out of reach, so he went for one dangerous activity, addiction or relationship after another, and that resulted in self-loathing and mental disintegration.
Two interviews really stand out among those in the film. One was with his stepmother, with whom he had a very difficult relationship. She recognized how abandoned and unwanted he must have felt when he was kicked out of his parents’ houses and moved from one to the other, then went off to a grandparent and moved back around through the family again. She expressed regret that she hadn’t recognized his pain at the time but could only be frustrated by his acting out and worried about the effect of his behavior on his siblings. Bandmate Krist Novocelic, long his close friend, expressed great sadness that he was unaware of how serious Kurt’s problems were during his life even though he saw evidence of Kurt’s rage and watched him self-destruct. He says in hindsight it is obvious that Kurt was in extreme pain and that there were numerous red flags and cries for help, but he wasn’t able to recognize their seriousness at the time.
Novocelic also noted something crucial to an understanding of Kurt’s enormous antipathy toward fame and success: he said Kurt had a huge fear of being humiliated. As we watch Kurt in films and videos and hear his words, it becomes clear that he hid his fears with bravado, dark humor, dramatic performances, drugs and acting out. He derided establishment values and behaviors and deliberately set up barriers between himself and those who might have been best able to recognize and help him. And of course, it is that raw, urgent ugliness inside of him that sometimes comes out in gruesome drawings, in his bashing his guitar to smithereens on the battered wood floor of his own house, or in refusing to bathe or wash his hair for days, or living in squalor and backing out of major tours so he could go home to do little but play guitar, have sex and shoot up for days or weeks on end.
It is that very grunginess in his personal life that bled, sometimes almost literally, into his music, and made it so accessible, thrilling and fresh to a youthful audience tired of the smooth, highly produced technopop of the 1980s. Cobain’s squalor and literal stink combined with a vulnerability, a gritty poetic streak and a compulsion to create helped him build a dirtily sexy persona, but they also pushed him into a dangerously intense public world that made him endlessly terrified of being exposed, embarrassed, ridiculed, overadored and ultimately used up. So he used himself up in a hurry before life had a chance to do it to him.
The urge to create and the urge to destroy, including the urge to self-destruct, were always living side by side within Kurt Cobain, and his overwhelmed family members shunted him back and forth among houses a number of times during his childhood, recognizing his neediness but experiencing it always as a destabilizing and dangerous force that they couldn’t control and couldn’t stand. He also had a long history of serious and excruciating abdominal pains that caused extreme and frequent pain and sometimes bloody vomiting, but there was little money available until the end of his life for psychological help or appropriate medical care. So he developed dangerous ways of self-medicating with food, drink and drugs that exacerbated his ill health. By the time he had the money for proper mental health support and medical care, his dangerous habits were well ingrained, and his beloved companion and wife Courtney Love was herself so drug-addled, angry and self-destructive that she could only feed into his addictions and his rejection of others’ attempts to offer help. When her eye started to wander and he recognized that even she, the partner whom he thought understood and loved him better than anyone, was on the verge of betraying him, he lost all hope, attempted suicide, and then successfully finished the job with a gun a few days later.
Why would someone want to sit through two hours of this dark story with so many regretful loved ones sitting stricken in front of the interviewer and recounting their memories with wringing hands and guilty eyes? Because the pain of his story, like the pain in his music, is compelling even as the details are sometimes repellent. Some of his memories, words and images are grim and disturbing, but watching the intimate dynamic between him and Courtney, drug-addled and gritty as it often was, shows why they were drawn to each other—admiration, understanding and humor are all evident, as is a certain pleasure in courting death and mayhem. It hurts to watch him hold his baby Frances with such loving tenderness and read and hear his words of devotion, then later see him barely able to hold her on his lap, so drugged-out and nearly incoherent is he in one awful scene. It is hard to watch knowing that Courtney, a friend filming the scene and another helping with the baby were all present, and, like everyone else in the film, they observed the clear self-destruction of the man but no one either would or perhaps could do anything to pull him back from the brink.
I saw the film in Seattle’s Egyptian Theater, which is right in the neighborhood where Cobain had his last meal. One block from the theater is Linda’s Tavern, where he was last seen alive on the night before he shot himself through the head. The film is currently in a few theaters around the U.S. and in the U.K., and is garnering high praise for its intimate portrayal of the man and his life and his ardent, nearly compulsive need to create. I’m glad to have enjoyed it in a cinema where the never-before-seen concert footage was especially powerful and immersive and the intimate moments felt even more immediate. I’m even gladder that it will be available to so many more via HBO television showings.
While the film has received mostly very good reviews, some have complained that it is uneven and a bit jumbled because of the lack of a narrator and the sometimes abrupt switches between interviews with those who knew him, private film footage, concert footage, images of his writing and art and montages of animation and recordings. Boyd van Hoeij of The Hollywood Reporter wrote that the film is “impressive in parts, but wildly uneven as a whole.” I found this unevenness and the montage style particularly appropriate for the story of a hyperkinetic, often drugged-out man with serious mental and emotional problems. I might have found the style more annoyingly disjointed had it been used to tell the story of a different subject, but in this case the style illustrates how overwhelming it must have felt to live inside of Cobain’s brain and body. The barrage of images and sounds approximate the cacophany of a grunge concert, a life of rock and roll excess and the disabling and endless waves of chronic and extreme physical and emotional pain he felt. All of that is shown amid reminders of how much love and admiration those around him felt and wanted to share with him alongside the frustration and confusion they felt over his extreme emotions and behaviors.
The film, which gets its name from a musical collage made by Cobain with a four-track cassette recorder before Nirvana became famous, is no feel-good movie. It is often funny, sometimes darkly beautiful and occasionally mesmerizing, but it is also a very raw view of the life of a dangerously mentally ill and emotionally damaged human being. Even though it shows how difficult and ugly he and his life could be, it also helps us see his vulnerability, humanity and his hunger to create, and it makes clear his devotion to his wife and child.
This film helps to humanize Kurt Cobain without lionizing him. Seeing how far back his deep emotional illnesses went also helps us to empathize with him and feel sympathy along with the disgust his actions sometimes inspire. The film shows how off-puttingly, determinedly filthy, squalid and unhealthy his lifestyle often was (though he and Courtney did sometimes live in luxury hotels in Seattle and elsewhere once they became wealthy), and interviews with his mother and his widow give some glimpse into their own sometimes impaired ability to see how much of a part each of them played in his feeling unsupported and betrayed.
David Fear of Rolling Stone described the film as “the unfiltered Kurt experience,” noting that Cobain is shown “not [as] a spokesman for a generation,” but as “a human being, and a husband, and a father.” Frances Bean Cobain said at the documentary’s premiere in Los Angeles, “After seeing it, I thought I could only watch it once. But the film that [Morgen] made—I didn’t know Kurt, but he would be exceptionally proud of it. It touches some dark subjects, but it provides a basic understanding of who he was as a human, and that’s been lost.”
I was talking with my daughter the other day about something I enjoyed that was a little creepy, and we laughed about that creepiness. I’ve always thought of myself as someone who doesn’t really DO creepy—I detest horror and zombies and vampires and gore. I loathe scaring people. I hate practical jokes and nasty surprises and causing people fear.
But then it dawned on me that I love The Twilight Zone, which I think of more as a source of slightly chilling campiness than creepiness. When I received a box set of every Twilight Zone episode as a Christmas gift a few years ago, I actually burst into tears, I found it such a touching and generous gesture.
I thought a little further about what constitutes creepiness and I realized that I love cemeteries, which I see as beautiful memorials to lost love. I seek them out in my travels and I have hundreds of photographs of headstones. Indeed, on the walls of my home hang several small casts of particularly lovely elements from New England’s grave markers.
I followed this train of thought a bit further down the track, and I had to admit to myself that I get a kick out of hiding weird disembodied hands and arms from antique baby dolls in my houseplants. I see them not as frightening but as absurd and laughable when they’re stuck randomly in nonsensical places. I also love them because I collect hand-related art—it reminds me of creativity and connecting with people and holding out one’s hand to others. To me, those creepy little hands are actually a mental shorthand for being willing to lead people toward something funnier, less expected, better. I don’t assemble them into horrific tableaux; I use them to accessorize my home and inspire me to stay close to those I love, to beauty, to my muses. My creepy baby hands also keep me from taking myself too seriously. They remind me to stay goofy, which I think is vital to staying human.
Then came the epiphany: Creepy people never think of themselves as creepy.
It turns out that I’m a creep. I’m a weirdo. But I’ll bet I’m the perkiest little creep you know.
Here is a chilling scene from the musical Cabaret by composers John Kander and Fred Ebb. In this first week of the Trump presidency, when our freedoms are already being ripped from us and a dark, xenophobic hatred is settling on our nation, sharing this troubling work of art feels particularly and horribly apt and important.
Kander and Ebb wrote a number of musicals, including Chicago, together. Their biggest hits were stories of darkness and decadence in which the music, though catchy and clever, eloquently underscored the sordid qualities of the worlds in which their stories took place. Their songs (including “Cabaret,” “New York, New York,” “Maybe This Time” and “All That Jazz“) are so pleasing that they can be pulled from their context and enjoyed as great tunes whenever and wherever you like. But in context, Kander and Ebb’s songs enrich and amplify the plays’ messages and power and make them two of the most important creators in the musical theater canon.
As Jews and homosexuals born in the 1920s, both Kander and Ebb had seen and experienced antisemitic and homophobic bigotry personally. One imagines that those difficult experiences can only have deepened their understanding of and sympathy for the characters for whom they wrote.
Please watch this clip to the end to experience its full, chilling power. Far from being a simple musical comedy, Cabaret is the story of life around a Berlin cabaret during the rise of the Nazi party during the early 1930s. It shows how evil infiltrates a cultured and cosmopolitan nation, and how no amount of retreating to the cabaret for distractions can keep the evil truths of the outside world from overtaking a once-beautiful culture.