Love hate

Nicholas Broomfield's Courtney problem

Nicholas Broomfield's biggest asset is his ability to keep a straight face. The British documentary-maker's several films about transgressive women--Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam; Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer; and the new Kurt and Courtney, which despite its title is thematically about Courtney Love--are thrilling tabloid rides and distracting intellectual puzzles. In each, Broomfield flaunts his dogged reportorial instincts, a subversive and mischievous documentary style, and a world-class nerviness.

But overarching all is his talent for questioning everyone-- fools, the powerful, and even the dangerous--with a straight face. His normal interviewees are so rattlingly weird that it takes a true aberrant--the aging El Duce, the blubbery, decrepit leader of a disgusting L.A. porn-metal band called the Mentors--to finally give him pause. Near the end of Kurt and Courtney, the singer tells Broomfield that Courtney Love had offered to pay him $50,000 to "blow Kurt's head off with a shotgun." El Duce is an obvious moron and a patent liar; and Broomfield finally, rather wanly, cracks a smile.

Kurt and Courtney is a vastly entertaining, deeply flawed movie that begins by spending 20 minutes or so establishing the sainthood of the late Kurt Cobain, the better to set up its real intent, a haphazard but biting attack on Love. Broomfield talks to a resentful old boyfriend and her malevolent father, spends oodles of time speculating whether she had Cobain murdered, and stalks her with a zeal that will disturb even those who think celebrities deserve what they get. A minor and unconvincing subtext implies that Love was working behind the scenes to deny him financing to complete his documentary. The film climaxes as Broomfield mounts a podium at an American Civil Liberties Union awards dinner to denounce Love for threatening journalists.

Broomfield's smile at El Duce was the rueful one of a reporter whose story doesn't pan out, but it's also a rare moment in which he breaks character. The force of his movies is the way he maintains his clarity of tone. His shtick is to portray himself as a low-budget seeker of truth: microphone harness over a T-shirt, hair tousled, a faithful camera following along unblinkingly. He sets up his films in broad portentous tones, and then makes the rounds of the players, explaining to viewers that he "doesn't know what the story is," zeroing in on this issue or that, blandly dispensing cash and asking blunt questions of an impressive array of freaks.

He tries to include footage of both the beginning and end of each interview. The idea seems to be to convey the impression that viewers are seeing every bit of information he has; he wants us to know that he's operating under only the knowledge he generates on camera.

His cinematics are now set as well: the recurring placement shots through a car window; the driving shots of a pensive Broomfield puzzling out this or that matter; the use of particularly ludicrous footage from local TV reports; and his amusing tendency to barge through doors. The hokey, cinema verite-esque realism contrasts sharply with his extreme subject matters and their attendant hallucinogenic qualities; in this context, he's a voice of reason, trying to shed light on our age's weird penumbral vortex of media and celebrity.

At the same time, he's a tabloid Dadaist, reveling in incongruity, absurdism, contradiction, and self-consciousness. His movies are specifically about the process that went into making them. In his bustling, unwavering seriousness, breathless reportage, and threadbare approach--as he blandly questions charlatans or bursts into the wrong apartment--lies a potent critique of Big Media pomposity.

The puzzle of Broomfield's work is how much of this is sheer gall and how much is a glancing postmodern commentary on the tangled, impenetrable aesthetic of late-20th-century mass media. Is he a grubby exploiter, hiding tabloid values under a veneer of indie-film accoutrements? Or is he an amused provocateur blithely producing unstable constructions whose only point is to display their own unreliability? It's possible that the conceptual peak of his previous works comes near the end of Hollywood Madam. He finally gets Fleiss on camera, only to get distracted by an argument about his own professional legitimacy with a local TV reporter, a marvelous look into the maw of media self-absorption.

One clue is that with Broomfield, trying to understand how a particular interview is supposed to read requires an intense assessment of his attitudes toward both journalism and documentary filmmaking. Both professions have a lot invested in the integrity of the filmed image; but Broomfield delights in filming liars whose serene faces and wide-eyed protestations are eerily reminiscent of the faces--of politicians, victims, TV reporters--we see on the news each night.

In Broomfield's hands the camera can be both merciless and provocative; it can't produce truth, but it can induce a dialogue that might lead to it. When it works, it's a startling display of filmmaking power. Courtney Love's rebarbative and disturbing father makes his last appearance in the movie with a frightening, out-of-control rant against his daughter. But then at a certain point he says words to this effect: "But it doesn't matter how much LSD she takes or how much cosmetic surgery she has, I know who she is." It's a frightening thought, but wasn't he suddenly saying something that makes sense? And from there it's not much of a jump to think that Courtney Love is probably her father's daughter. The result is as damning a moment as the film can produce.

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