The Montage of Heck Film: More Musings on Narrative and What Might be Delivered

Just a link from the Guardian regarding where editorial control is resting with the project – in the hands of the director with advice where required or solicited, which seems pretty darn reasonable all round doesn’t it? I’m good! I don’t mind who gets to give their thoughts so long as it’s clear and stated aboveboard which it has been.

My musings are elsewhere. There’s been a lot of focus on “rare music!” “Unseen footage!” “Art from the vaults!” “Unseen writings!” That’s led fans (and the media to be fair) into a bit of a frenzy of excitement over what may/may not exist and what may/may not be seen within the film. I admit i’m not sweating on that score. Why not?

Well, it’s a film. Sure, I don’t doubt there’ll be fleeting images and sounds that entice and intrigue – no doubt at all given how clearly statements in that regard have been made (while still keeping the big unveil of precisely what for another time.) A film, however, can only deliver so much. My expectation is scanning shots across a few canvas or installations in no intense detail, brief clips of old handheld footage from the pre-fame life then more professional stuff post-1991 but with nothing left to play longer than 15-20 seconds, music down low in the background behind commentary then flaring up momentarily over silent footage before disappearing again. That’s not a jaundiced view, I’m not being cynical, it’s the nature of the medium – imagine how tedious a cinematic experience it’d be if it stapled together a full five-ten minutes of Kurt tinkering away in his wardrobe with an acoustic, if it played the entire home movie of “Kurt attends a family barbecue” (sheesh, does anyone even watch their own family home movies in their entirety?), if it just let live footage run ad infinitum…I might watch it on YouTube or play that in the background but it wouldn’t form a crafted work that I’d wish to see in a cinema, or that would drag people back after a five minute home ad break.

A valid cinematic experience isn’t the same as an interactive archive or museum piece – I’m pretty sure I’m saying nothing controversial here. Brett Morgen has a quality record when it comes to creating film that has momentum and pace; again, those elements that stop an audience getting restless across a ninety minute/two hour documentary, mitigate against anything being left to run to conclusion so what the hardcore collectors are gaining here is glimpses, snatches, teasers to material residing in the ‘vault.’ Think more that brief glimpse at “Stinking of You” during the “Hit So Hard” documentary rather than the full songs performed on “Live! Tonight! Sold Out!” Different intentions, the latter was a live clip reel.

My focus, instead, is on the narrative – the ‘plot’ if you will – of the film that’ll arrive next year. This is where my curiosity lies given it’ll be the dominant foreground which the background sound (music), background visual (video/art/writing), excerpted statements (writing/lyrics) will serve and/or illustrate. This is where I’m wondering whether “Montage of Heck” might land a few surprises…

So, the declared format is (a) predominantly Cobain giving his own views and telling his own tale (b) a very limited number of crucial individuals such as Courtney Love and Krist Novoselic providing commentary or memory where needed. Fine and dandy! Cool! I’m wondering, of course, whether this is intended to be a celebration or an exploration and how revealing each individual or each surviving artifact might prove. For example, I’ve read quite a number of Cobain’s interviews – 250 to 300? More? And there’s only so much said because, understandably, no one says everything to a camera, to a tape machine, to a witness. The lost journal entries may fill in gaps but I’m not sure I expect Cobain to be wholly honest in any public source. That leads onto that celebration/exploration point. It doesn’t sound like it’ll be the hagiography that Tupac: Resurrection proved to be – I enjoyed that film but ye Gods, it really was an application for contemporary sainthood. It’s impossible to ask hard questions of a dead man and the surviving individuals whose cooperation was required were understandably unwilling to speak ill of the dead to camera. Given the necessity of getting and maintaining participation from people there’s a fair reason not to hammer anyone either – frankly it’s simply impolite too particular in something like a film about a cultural icon (which certainly does not carry the weight of the Watergate tapes or the Pentagon papers.)

Next, there’s my curiosity about whether the film will deviate from the well-established narrative that has been written and re-written since the authorised Nirvana bio in 1993 (Come as You Are by Michael Azerrad.) Essentially, the well-trodden path goes as follows; ‘tough childhood and legendary divorce, ambitious but still punk, surprise capitalist triumph met with discomfort, drug problems overrated and he wasn’t that bad, artistic resurgence and triumph, depression and shock ending for all concerned. The End.’ (Roll credits to maudlin piano-led rendition of a Cobain hit and some grainy footage or nature imagery fading into close-ups of the icon’s eyes.) If the film stays in that comfort zone then…Well…It’ll be nice to look at the short clips of art and video, to hear the short music clips and then to walk away having learnt nowt new of any consequence.

Brett Morgen, on the other hand, has promised a deeper glimpse at Cobain the ARTIST – if that’s been fully followed through on then that’d provide a potentially very enlightening and truly new approach. It would thread together Cobain’s childhood life in which he was surrounded by relatively musical and/or artistic relatives, where his father’s dismissal of those influences deemed ‘feminine’ (art, music, literature, contemplation) led him to take a side against his father’s definition of ‘masculine’ pursuits, would trawl for evidence of his teenager ambitions and desires in terms of pursuing the full spectrum of art (painting, collage, writing, video, drama, animation…Oh, and music too) then show how those elements blossomed in Cobain the young adult. This’d be a valuable shift away from the ‘soap opera’/biopic approach to an artist’s life story – a true focus on connecting up and tying their works into a lattice in which the mode of expression varied to fit the impulses or desires the individual was seeking to express. I’d be enthralled to see this less controversial, more unified, more complete vision of Cobain brough to the fore.

Even if that dramatic revision is not the approach, or forms only part of the approach, again I’ll come back to the point that there are numerous points of unclarified curiosity about the Cobain tale which would be intriguing to learn. Sad to say but I would be curious to learn precisely how many times (and for how long) Cobain was in rehab between 1992 and 1994 as it would either reinforce the extent to which he sought to fight his drug issues, or indicate that he didn’t feel much need to except when forced – each alternative would bring fresh clarity and a very different understanding of his last years. Similarly, disentangling his medical challenges would be welcomed given I think it’s fair to say even Charles Cross didn’t full explain them – Cobain’s narcolepsy was a cover story for when he kept nodding off in interviews, yes? No? He really did have curvature of the spine and it was/wasn’t treated or affecting him? The stomach issues weren’t actually resolved despite statements to the contrary (given he speaks of his burning nauseous stomach in the April ’94 note? I guess I sometimes want to ask “What Was Eating Kurt Cobain?” in that regard. The establishment of a clearer narrative of Cobain’s final year would also be beneficial; was there any truth to the divorce rumour? Did Krist or any other member of Nirvana believe they’d broken up in early March 1994 or was it really perceived as simply a pause in the band’s ongoing progress – what did they feel was going on? And did Cobain indicate at any point prior to departure for Europe that he didn’t want to go on tour or was it only as the tour progressed that fatigue (and drugs) and discomfort got the better of him? Understanding if the much vaunted ‘jam’ from November/December 1993 that was revisited during the Robert Lang sessions was actually a scrap of a song the band or Cobain had practiced any more fully would also be rather a welcome detail given it’d then become the second to last ‘new’ Nirvana song (Do Re Mi is not a Nirvana song just to clarify.)

Looking earlier in Cobain’s career it’d be quite the commentary to show precisely how poor he was in his late teens through early twenties – I’ve never found it much of a surprise that he should end up with dietary issues and so forth given a brief tour round the Pacific North West left me thinking “damn…This guy lived in shacks…” I met one guy who bumped into Cobain who was tossing an apple up and down in his hand. It turned out the apple was the only food he had been in possession of for about two-three days but he said he was “saving it until I’m really hungry.”

Anyways, there we go. That’s my primary speculation; (What’s the Story of) Morgen’s Glory? I’m intrigued to find out.


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