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Kurt Cobain: Photographed and Fictionalized: Proud Galleries, 34 John Adam Street, London WC2 (until 17th November 2005) and Gus Van Santís Last Days (2005), reviewed by Marc Bridle




Proud Galleries exhibition of photographs by Charles Peterson and Ian Tilton visualizes one of the seminal icons of late twentieth century music. Subtitled Nirvana: with the lights out (taken from the 2004 release of a 3-disc set of largely unreleased recordings) the photographs capture the cathartic anger of youth, rebellion and isolationism. None of the images are new, but they have been curated in such a way that they come to give narrative symbolism to the comparatively short life of both band and lead singer.

Great photography can have an almost biographical aura around it and some of these photographs achieve that effect. Cobainís well-known addiction to cocaine and heroin, something which a medical misdiagnosis in his youth almost certainly made inevitable, brings with it a juxtaposition of mental anguish and photographic nakedness. Ian Tiltonís Nirvana, Seattle Motorsportís garage from 1990, for example, has an almost unrelenting anger which pervades it. Charles Petersonís Nirvana, Annex Theater, Seattle from 1989 shows a crouched Cobain, suggestive of the release that position gives for abdominal pain caused by heroin addiction. The psychological or somatic disposition towards insomnia, nausea and hallucination is captured with almost visual force in many of these photographs: the blurred psychedelia of Nirvana, COCA, Seattle, 1989 almost captures all three, whereas Kurt Cobain, New Yearís Eve 1993, is a picture of unsettled isolationism, something much more obvious to the eye than in Ian Tiltonís Kurt Cobain, September, Seattle 1990 where Cobainís loneliness is less haunted than that which emerges from the later pictures suggests.

Nirvanaís own blend of music, with its masterful, yet searing repetition, made them much more hardcore punk than their imitators, and yet its aesthetic was also a refreshingly melodic one. Photographs such as Charles Petersonís Nirvana Stage, Seattle Center Coliseum, 1992 revel in the wake of post-concert destruction: the upturned drum kits, the empty bottles, the litter trodden into the stage all convey conventional punk angst. And yet the same photographerís Kurt Cobain, Seattle Center Coliseum, 1992 gives an almost mirror image of the same concert: here we have an illusionary stick-thin Cobain (in real life he was anything but this) looking out into a dark auditorium, his isolation palpable to the eye.

One of the great virtues of modern music photography is that it captures a moment of completely unpremeditated action. Many of these photographs have a raw, spontaneous energy to them Ė even the ones which show Cobain alone and unsettled. Pictured in the surroundings in which they were intended to be taken, many of these images are given context (something which could not always be said of Dennis Morrisí celebrated portraits of the Sex Pistols which often seemed to be visualized outside of their intended setting).

None of these photographs give us a sense of discovery into the last days or hours of Kurt Cobain. Gus Van Santís Last Days, however, tries to do this, although the film itself is heavily fictionalized. The central figure Ė Blake, a brilliant but troubled musician Ė is modelled on Kurt Cobain in almost every way: from the characteristic grunge clothing of torn jeans and Converse sneakers to the physical depiction of Blake as an unkempt blonde haired depressive the allusion to Cobain is difficult to ignore. Van Santís film, though, is meditative, a study in narcoleptic drug dependency that seems almost anti-biopic. This is certainly a much more aggressive look into the mind of a musician than say Nick Broomfieldís Kurt and Courtney, a film that although both revealing and full of insights ends up being a documentary about the freedom of speech.

Van Santís film (unlike Broomfieldís) offers no easy answers or conspiracy theories Ė indeed it offers none at all. Even the music of Nirvana is deliberately taken to the periphery so as not to chain the film to a biopic reality. Michael Pittís central performance as Blake is almost overwhelming in its articulation of mood: dialogue is minimalized throughout, but when Pitt speaks, if at all, it is frequently mumbled, and largely incomprehensible. He shuffles around as if in a coma, and actions speak volumes in Van Santís illustrational film: the very fact that Van Sant shows mental confusion through action rather than words (Blake, for example, puts a box of cornflakes in the fridge rather than the milk) lends the film a stimulating metaphysicalness that surmounts the usual hysteria of film biopics.

The poetry which Pitt brings to his central performance is mirrored in Van Santís equally poetic cinematography. Shots are often cued from a distance rather than close up, and Van Santís careful use of filming from different angles gives the film a repetitiveness that comes to symbolize the central characterís confusion. And yet, despite the heavy fictionalization of the final hours, so much else about the film deals with universal truths: the loneliness of success is viscerally placed here, as is personal insecurity. Friendships are now borne of money and favours; Blake, like Cobain, does become a fugitive with suicide becoming the only release.

Seeing Gus Van Santís film so soon after the opening night of Nirvana: with the lights out leaves one with a sense of unease: on the one hand, we have the life-affirming spontaneity of music making as seen through static visual art; on the other, a sense of disillusion and destruction as witnessed through the art of cinematography which seeks to place the context of that music into the suicidal rebirth of the inspiration which made it.




Marc Bridle



Proud Galleries website is at www.proud.co.uk. Gus Van Santís Last Days is available on DVD from PlayUSA.com priced £13.99 (Region 1 only).




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