Squaring a Circle

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The late, unwilled propagation continues. For all the earnest desire to offer a complicated picture of Kurt Cobain (and his plagued yet lucky life), A.J. Schnack’s “Kurt Cobain About a Son” is gorgeous to look at but staid in tone; a valiant attempt to imagine filmmaking as a compiling of artifacts that falls short of piquant despite underplaying the poignant notes of Cobain’s story.

The film traces a relatively traditional narrative of Cobain’s life from his childhood in Aberdeen, Washington (near the coast of the Pacific, in the south of the state), up through Olympia (the “hippie” capital) to Seattle (“where the action was”) in three movements. Instead of talking heads, the film employs interviews Michael Azzerad taped with the singer to prepare his book, “Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana,” as guides through the images, denying the audience Cobain’s face for most of the film.

The past thrust onto the present seems designed to produce a simultaneity, but this film plays like a diary, eager to ditch trajectory in favor of tangents. However, there is a clear argument: Cobain was born a son of the Pacific Northwest as much as he was born of a home (or a lack thereof), just as the faces of locals encountered throughout the film are located within the film’s three defining cities.

In Aberdeen, we see the streets Cobain ran through run through by other children; we see the lumber mill his father worked at manned by a new generation of workers. In Olympia, we see the Salvation Army where Cobain’s ex-girlfriend bought him clothes still selling punk rock staples (plaid flannel, kitschy hats). In Seattle, we see Capitol Hill still offering drugs, still a central area for youthful couples. But the sense of time is segregated into parallel—and not collapsed—threads, which often works against the film’s flow and its delicious overcast palate of grays punctuated by amber sunlight, by blues of Lake Washington and the Puget Sound.

Perhaps most striking is the notion that Cobain sensed—if never fully understood—himself. He constantly contradicts himself, but you never think him a liar, or even confused—just growing. The plainest fact we have is that he died a young man, and a young father. Cobain would have turned 40 in 2007; Azerrad recorded these interviews in the winter of 1992-1993, when he was 25. When he

backtracks, you get the idea that Cobain is working over his past (in his present, which remains our past) as best he can. Schnack aids him early. As Cobain laughs about listening to Queen in his father’s car, wasting the battery, waiting at the mill on weekends, we see the mill in operation today with Freddy Mercury belting, “You say you love me / And I hardly know your name.”

Near the close of the film, Cobain talks about his “boring” story of just wanting, and never having, a “stable home, a family.” He says he’s grown out of that desire but he’s happy he can share it with kids still struggling with it because, “It’s not my story as much as it is anybody else’s story.” His voice is hurt and bored, but too often too disaffected to be petulant, and his plaintive tone resonates regardless of its faults, regardless of its troubles. The film may not be an entire success, more a sturdy exercise than an inspired work of film art, but its visual rhymes and Cobain’s naked perspective make it endearing, and mostly worthwhile, for Nirvana’s lasting fans, anywhere from 15 to 25 or 40 years old.

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