Cobain: Montage of Heck

Cobain: Montage of Heck ★★★★★

Proust drank a sip of tea and his mind exploded. His memory spiraled outward like shooting stars, searching for those lost ships from lost nights, the vanquished and the affected ones, vessels that bare an actorly weight, anchored by a single recollection so fierce in felicity, in its own inert mania, as to make tidal waves of the moment itself, in this perfect storm of remembrance, a montage of memory, happiness is no longer a pursuit but a corporeal entity, it a bliss that exists but refuses to be recognized and obtained, only felt and with mania, with madness, and delirium, it exists in fragments and it’s painful to endure. Proust felt an ecstatic sensation and lost himself, his whims, wit, and judgement, to a foggy memory, dazzling and electrifying, but dwindling, its impression soon lost to him completely, its source a mystery, he could not pinpoint its exact moment of existence, but it was reoccurring just as it was fading, it was to be forgotten forever, an eternal enigma of the most soulful quandaries, it was to be lost, taken away from him and buried in the earth.

And then…

“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.” - Marcel Proust

Montage of Heck is a film about a voyage. It’s as intimate as you could possibly get. It’s about Prometheus as he suffers, David as he conquers, and Absalom as he returns to his father’s home. Montage of Heck is about taking a cultural icon, in America we call them Gods, and humanizing it to the point of unbearable sympathy. Filmmaker Brett Morgen takes Kurt Cobain, this wax idol of the people, this marble statue of a generation, and he undresses the emperor, he gives us our God with all of his faults and shortcomings, track marks and all. 

Morgen is simply a very skilled documentarian and Montage of Heck is a deeply moving, very impressive film. Morgen wanted his audience to see through Kurt’s eyes, to experience the world of the early ‘90s as Kurt did. He does this by making great use of his personal materials, including his diaries, private recordings, and artwork. Morgen’s documentary is strikingly dynamic, flowing in and out of chaotically animated sequences with the gifted foresight of an absurdist painter, displaying the teething grace of some punk rock auteur, Montage of Heck’s genius is in its pathos. This is where Morgen’s vision works so unbearably well, in his nearly divine ability to translate empathy with his audience through a great understanding of music, well timed sound-bytes from a truly stoic assembly of talking heads, and masterfully arranged plot-points or key moments, pivotal and heartbreaking or surprisingly delicate in their importance, and to rewrite in our hearts this God who we always thought we knew so deeply is the sign of an author that is both equally brilliant and haunted by his subject.

Brett Morgen’s film isn’t just intimate, Brett Morgen was intimate with it. You can feel Morgan’s hands, sense his heart’s pains, palpably and without maudlin lip service or saccharine idol worship, Brett Morgen was fascinated with Kurt Cobain for the junkie superstar that he was, for the physical poetry of his rise and fall, the living verse of Cobain is a haunting refrain and Brett Morgen gave us the ghost, he gave us that feeling only the haunted can share, in exorcism and celebration, Montage of Heck dispelled fiction from facts, but could not vanquish the ghost, the phantom grew in terror. 

Montage of Heck often feels too intimate and I understand that I’m using my words improperly because what I actually mean to say is that it is quite a disturbing film. It’s disturbing on nearly every human level and it can be very difficult to watch. Montage of Heck gives us the truth, forget about the subject, disregard Kurt Cobain for a moment and do it entirely, what you have is a terrifying tale of junk and depression. I’ve known junkies personally, I’ve lived in punk houses and smack dens, I’ve used the terrible drug and I’ve lived to tell the tale. Kurt Cobain was not living the life of a millionaire, of some pop sensation, from what I could gather from the home videos provided me by Montage of Heck, Cobain lived the life of a junky, the normal and unbearably average junky. It was all too familiar, watching Kurt and Courtney in their united mania, it gave me more than just a few unwanted flashbacks of a part of my life that would be better off forgotten. Proust drank a sip of tea and his mind exploded. I saw a few frames of a film and my arm started to sting me, I felt it prick, and it disturbed me but it ashamed me even more.

I am a fan of Nirvana and of Kurt Cobain generally. I’ll make no reservations about it and I’ll come right out and say it: my three favorite bands are Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., and Nirvana. So, accordingly, Brett Morgen’s film instantly appealed to me on a level deeper than most. While Nevermind will always be, and rightfully so, the emblem of an entire generation of disaffected, disassociated, and disenchanted youth, In Utero is the exceptional album, it is the artistry of Cobain, where his mastery and one-of-a-kindness is on full display, the very best of its time and type, it is ferocious and it is sick. In Utero is achingly striking. It feeds off you. It is the last truly great, truly destructive punk record. 

What I find so spectacular, or mystifying, about In Utero, is how far gone Cobain's brain was. You can hear him losing his mind. His vocals, his shrieks, they sound like he's spitting blood. Lyrically, the album's equal parts an attack on the music industry, a well-organized and smoldering epitaph, and madness in the form of parasites eating each other's shit and severe dope-sick trauma. In Utero is a dangerous record, damaging, scarring, lovingly hateful, relentlessly hopeless, philosophically deranged and aesthetically extraordinary. Like I said, it's the last truly great, truly destructive punk record. I'm not taking anything away from Nevermind but it's certainly clear to me that In Utero was Cobain and Nirvana's artistic triumph, with psychological and a deeply emotional resonance. It's pathos that doesn't give a fuck about your feelings. It's great. Also, Serve The Servants, Milk It, and All Apologies are my favorite Nirvana songs, so there's that too, they are also three very good examples of the three major themes of the record (music industry, parasitic madness, auto-obituary).

Montage of Heck does an incredible job of translating Cobain’s life in a purely visual, totally cinematic language. This is where Brett Morgen’s genius is cemented in my mind. Montage of Heck is a story told through the association of sounds and images. It is a true film in a way Orson Welles or Alfred Hitchcock would champion in that it is a visual voyage. Almost every crucial bit of information is given to us in sublimely imaginative fashions, through the use of spectacular visual fireworks. Brett Morgen may have made the most truly cinematic documentary ever. This thing conveys more pathos than a Malick film and pummels you with more creative energy than even the most intense of today’s filmmakers. 

That’s what my love for Brett Morgen’s film really comes down to: composition. It is superb, focused though not without mania, and its tapestry is a gorgeous one. Montage of Heck stunned me, be it because of the film’s narrative complexity, the structure of its tale, the elegance found in its artistic realignments, its no-bullshit and pure punk rock ethos and creed, or its outlandish pacing that seems to cinematically scream bloody murder like Cobain’s most manic material (Milk It, Tourette’s, Scentless Apprentice, etc.). Montage of Heck is one of the best films of the decade, easily and without question. It is a piece that intoxicates, searches, and destroys.

I love film. We all know that, I’ve said it enough times and it’s certainly obvious by now when you look over my collected writings. Film can do many things for me but there are certain, fatalistic things that film can’t accomplish in my heart, and that’s why I need music. Music that I love, that I cherish and hold dear, hits me harder than that cup of tea hit Proust. Music’s power never fades on me. Nirvana’s music is some of the most powerful stuff I can think of. It elevates my spirit and it engages with me, transporting me to several different places at once, to my youth, to my imagined fates, and out of that unspeakable place only depression lays claim to. 

Montage of Heck gives us a man who was never able to feel at peace with himself and society, who never really knew how to be unconsciously happy, a man who simply could not comprehend contentment. Brett Morgen weaved a tragedy from the loose threads of undying angst.

"All in all is all we are..."

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