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.
These sorts of over- or undertones occur so often that it's hard not to credit Broomfield with them. His major source of Cobainania is a wholesome but winning aunt who proffers fond memories (and early recordings) of Cobain as a tot. But when he returns to her later on in the film, we start to notice a cross on the wall over one shoulder, and a piece of Jesus kitsch over the other. And suddenly she's talking about the false gaudiness of the temporal world and about Cobain's having gone to a better place. Broomfield neatly completes the character assassination with footage of her in a classroom, an impossibly square proselytizer using a folk guitar and her dead nephew to connect with kids, a living version of the hippie teacher in Beavis and Butt-head.
But there's something vague and incomplete about Kurt and Courtney. It's not just the stuff about Love's alleged plot to murder Cobain, which Broomfield, having stirred up the conspiracy theorists for an hour of screen time, finally dismisses. It's not the film's almost vicious one-sidedness, in which almost any insane person willing to take Broomfield's money and talk on camera is allowed to say just about anything. It has more to do with the difference between his previous subjects and his inimitable one here--the difference between involuntarily victimized women like Fleiss and Wuornos, and the rare creature of celebrity that is Courtney Love.
Courtney Love, noble and comic, is at once evidence of a cruel double standard at work in American cultural life and the beneficiary of it; a true talent with little good work to her name; a scary and probably dangerous woman nevertheless capable of searching insights and compassion. She's also the most ruthless exploiter of media in rock today.
Madonna, a manipulator as well, is of the old epater le bourgeois school; she's not really ruthless, just happy to make money poking a stick at the dog that is American middle-class morality. Love's in a different area entirely. She's not even doing it for the benefit of her art or product. Indeed, she's produced practically nothing. In the past six years she's recorded one album, toured a bit, and starred in one movie. (Granted she also got married and had a kid and endured the loss of her husband.) Yet she remains virtually a household name, the steady star of awards shows, magazine covers, and talk.
Love is a celebrity who acts out because in her mind that's what a celebrity should do. Fame to her doesn't extend from fans to the star. Rather, it's a compact a star makes with society: to shock, to get noticed, to do drugs, to sleep with other stars, to be irresponsible and interesting. This attitude creates a quotidian obligation to do almost anything to get attention, from carefully planned media assaults to impromptu sucker punches, all the better if the person on the receiving end is another celebrity. (Algebra like that she understands implicitly.)
Some years ago, she led a Madison Square Garden crowd in a cheer that included the words "bitch," "cunt," and "nigger." The genesis of the act was political: She was dramatizing her objection to the prospect of Snoop Doggy Dogg on her Lollapalooza tour. (Her point was that if Snoop and other rap stars could lead a "bitch" shout-out, why couldn't she lead a "nigger" one?) But she did it in front of a too-large crowd that didn't know what she was talking about and was attacked as a racist in the Village Voice for her trouble. She viewed the whole event as a success: "Christ, I've got a stage. Shouldn't I use it?" In this way, Love represents fame at its most nihilistic.
After a confused and desultory childhood, she left home protected, as her detractors are quick to point out, by a small trust fund. But it's also true she didn't have much else. The protectors of rock and roll's mythos romanticize runaways and vagabonds vigorously; the reality is generally much less pretty, but Broomfield and most Love haters don't give it much credence. (In Kurt and Courtney, her father says she was doing tricks and heroin at 16.) Over the course of some five years she grew from a bit player in Sid and Nancy to the Courtney Love we know and hate today. Her defenders would say that a polarizing, exhausting, sometimes out-of-control person like herself probably wouldn't have gotten anywhere without some sort of combination of charisma and talent; her detractors vehemently (and with no little evidence on their side) argue that from the start her methodology has been to attach herself to much more talented men.
Love's one notable creative work, Live Through This, is a relentlessly charged, highly persuasive portrait of an unmistakably feminine emotional angst; recently, only Liz Phair has demonstrated an ability to portray girl trouble with this elegance. Her detractors say that Cobain wrote the powerful musical setting for the album, and that Trent Reznor (or Billy Corgan, or Jordan Zadorozny from Blinker the Star) will have done the same for her new one, if Love has her way. This all could be true; but Cobain didn't create the spectacle that is Love onstage, an undeniable presence whose most ferocious shows culminate with a star diving into a frenzied audience and finally emerging back onstage battered, naked, and triumphant.
In Kurt and Courtney her father reads a poem that Love wrote--and threw away--as a teen. The refrain went something like "I've got my eye on the next date." To her hateful father and her ungenerous biographer, the poem displays a daughter's cynicism and ambition; but you can just as easily see it as evidence of a precocious talent for provocative wordplay and a worldliness that's sad coming from a teenager. Of course she had her eye on the next date; in a hostile and exploitative world, what smart and ambitious woman wouldn't?
Kurt and Courtney is what happens when two nihilists collide. In his other movies, Broomfield was dealing with victims: women overtaken by events that crush them. Heidi Fleiss is a seriocomic figure; Wuornos' story, of course, is truly tragic. Love exists in a different universe.
When it comes to media consciousness, she's more than Broomfield's match. In Kurt and Courtney Broomfield shows a priceless piece of TV footage. Love, on the Larry Flynt publicity trail, is refusing to talk about heroin on a morning TV news program. "Not on the Today show," she says firmly when the sanctimonious, helmet-haired interviewer persists, and gets up to leave, saying something like, "This is not the demographic I'm going to talk about that in front of." Now, who else in the world would talk about media demographics when asked about drug use? Only Courtney Love sees things in such bald terms, and alone among stars she has the courage to call a vacuous medium on a double standard. Love knows that alcoholics and adulterers, wife-beaters, and worse have traipsed through the Today studio unchallenged. They weren't going to start with her.
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Which makes you wonder why Broomfield did. Mick Jagger is probably the most coldly calculating and ruthless person in the history of show business, but he'll be treated like royalty until the day he dies. A thousand other stars like him will never have their ex-girlfriends interviewed to describe what lousy lays they are, as an ex-boyfriend of Love's does here. Why is Love open to such attack? Love has threatened journalists in the past, as Broomfield intones soberly at the ACLU banquet; but if hypocrisy at social-cause awards banquets were a disqualifying factor, there wouldn't be any more of them. Love's attacks on Vanity Fair writer Lynn Hirshberg (who reported that Love had done heroin while she was pregnant, a charge Love eventually copped to) are wrong but still somewhat understandable: The couple nearly had their child taken away from them as a result. Heroin users probably should have their kids taken away from them, but that magazine's choice of targets is suspicious. Had today's version of Vanity Fair been published in the 1930s, readers would no doubt be engrossed in accounts of the glamorous, intriguing lives of the likes of Benito and Adolf. (Love had her revenge when the magazine had one of its in-house celebrity ass-kissers do an expansively affectionate portrait of her a year or two later.)
In the end, Kurt and Courtney doesn't--can't--resonate because Broomfield has met too difficult a target. About the worst thing you can say about Love is that she's advanced her career on the dead body of her husband. She was at least married to Cobain; what's Broomfield's excuse?
You can sense his nervousness and his agenda. In previous films, he slyly dispenses money to his interview subjects on camera. Here he never does, perhaps thinking that we might distrust some incoherent mumbling from a wasted former nanny in a basement if we knew she had a monetary incentive to do so. He can't talk about the real Kurt Cobain, because sooner or later it would basically come down to the fact that he, too, is just exploiting the memory of a fatally depressed junkie inexplicably in love with his junkie wife. A real documentary could be made about Love's media manipulations, but Broomfield can't really talk about that because it would expose the weaknesses of his methodology, which is to rely on absurdism when the facts aren't there.
And in the end, Love demonstrated that she's operating on a level that even Broomfield never considered. With the world film community clustered this January in Park City, Utah, for the Sundance Film Festival, Love gave the movie a priceless burst of publicity by attempting to suppress it. She unquestionably dislikes Broomfield and has been uncharacteristically silent on Kurt and Courtney generally. But she, more than anyone, understands the power suppression can give to its object. Why did she do it? Because Kurt and Courtney is about her--in Love's mind the critical factor. How can Broomfield compete with a mind like that? In the end, Love's in the news again, and Broomfield's left standing in a field, giving screen time to a moron babbling something about being offered $50,000 to kill Kurt Cobain, a terribly unhappy young man who shot himself on a desolate spring day in Seattle some four years ago. There are better ways to make a living; for all her faults, Courtney Love's got one of them.