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Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2005
I'm sorry, but it's all a bit of a blur
The most surprising revelation in last year's documentary on The Ramones, "End Of The Century," was that the singer and guitarist of this late, great punk band hadn't been on speaking terms for two decades. When singer Joey was in the hospital battling cancer, guitarist Johnny didn't even bother to visit him, explaining "I wouldn't want someone to come crying over me."
As far as dysfunctional relationships go, this is about as hardcore as you can get. And yet, there's something in their obstinacy to be admired. It's certainly "punk" in that it runs counter to the times, our post-Oprah, post-Donahue, post-J.T. Leroy age where all feelings are to be vented, in endless confessional detail.
One would have expected a band like Metallica, far more aggro even than The Ramones, to confront their intrapersonal difficulties with a flurry of flying punches and bottles, perhaps even dueling lawsuits, but certainly not through the touchy-feely hypersensitivity of group therapy. Well, guess again, for the Metallica documentary "Some Kind Of Monster" tracks, in almost embarrassing detail, the band's near break-up and resurrection through psychotherapy.
Fans may be surprised to see the hard-partying thrash band, the epitome of rock 'n' roll rage, sitting politely around a table as band therapist Phil Towle tells them how "we become healers of ourselves," or drummer Lars Ulrich, arch-enemy of Napster, whining "it's not about what he says, it's about how I feel."
"What next?" I hear you cry. Marilyn Manson a born-again? Elton John straight? Tommy Lee sober? Has the world been turned upside down?
The band's point-of-view on this, as expressed in the documentary, is that they're fearless enough to open themselves up to the cameras, as well as their $40,000 a month full-time therapist. The shrink, along with the custom-built studio in San Francisco's Presidio which they didn't use for months on end, the "five to 600 guitars" they claim to own, and Ulrich's incredibly lucrative sale of his art collection, makes you wonder how much file-sharing has really crimped their income.
Judging from the tension in the air that the cameras capture in 2001 as the band entered the studio to begin recording an album -- "St. Anger," not finished until 2003 -- it was either getting in touch with one's feelings, or getting in touch with a solo career. And when you're one of the top touring bands in America with over 90 million albums sold, that's a daunting prospect.
With bassist Jason Newsted having quit the band, and lead guitarist Kirk Hammet keeping his head down, the conflicts between drummer Ulrich and vocalist James Hetfield, the band's founding members, boil over. Hetfield walks out of the studio, enters rehab, and isn't seen by anyone for 11 months. When he comes back, everyone's walking on eggshells, Towle is acting like a member of the band, and new bassists are auditioned . . . on day 661 since recording began.
Fans seeking a lot of concert footage will be disappointed, but this documentary -- eventually bank-rolled by Metallica themselves -- captures well the random nature and tedium of recording, as well as how hard it is to balance egos and offer criticism within a band. We learn, for example, that when recording The Black Album, Ulrich couldn't comment on the lyrics, and Hetfield was forbidden to discuss the drumming. There's a certain "Spinal Tap" quality to all this that even non-fans will appreciate.
In the end, Ulrich says of the experience, "we've proven you can make aggressive music without negative energy." Hetfield adds, "It's an angry record, but angry in a healthy way." Feel-good metal? Well, don't worry, they do lose it and scream "F*** you!" at each other with a reassuring regularity.
The self-confession continues with Jonathan Caouette's auto-biographical documentary, "Tarnation," the Sundance sensation created, so we're told, on a Mac equipped with i-Movie for $218.32. (Assuming you don't count the cost of the Mac, never mind the $500,000 needed to secure the rights for the soundtrack music.) Caouette's film is an intensely personal piece of self-exorcism, relating a traumatic childhood, which saw his mother in and out of Texas mental institutions, abusive foster parents, and PCP-induced freakouts.
Caouette assembles his work with the allusive, impressionistic style of a Kenneth Anger or Stan Brakhage, mixing home movies and video diaries with sampled bits of TV and movies, and a soundtrack that ranges from John Denver to Marianne Faithful.
The way the story is told almost overshadows the story itself. The central tragedy here is the fate of Caouette's mother Renee, who was temporarily paralyzed by an accident at age 12, diagnosed as psychosomatic, and treated with electro-shock therapy, which nearly wiped out her personality and led to a continuing mental disorder. Caouette identifies almost entirely with Renee, and it's his torment over his mother's plight, and her absence in his life, that most affects the viewer.
Surprisingly, Caouette's growing up gay in Texas seems to have been far less traumatic; by age 13 he was sneaking into nightclubs disguised as "a petite Goth girl," and it wasn't long before he was fully immersed in camp, Klaus Nomi, synth-pop and club buddies with names like "Spooky" and "Bam Bam." As Caouette puts it, "I was a teenage gay stereotype," and it's this matter-of-fact approach to growing up gay in the '80s, combined with the experimental flourishes, that no doubt attracted the support of producers Gas Van Sant and John Cameron Mitchell ("Hedwig").
Perhaps thanks to his mother, who was a child model, Caouette has an almost genetic need to be in front of a camera. There are endless shots of himself, not just confessing to the camera, but posing, preening, mugging, even weeping, as he learns that his mother has overdosed on lithium. This need to keep on filming, even in moments of extreme crisis, seems somewhat disturbed -- a phenomenon also glimpsed in the doc "Capturing The Friedmans" -- and even Caouette's certifiably addled mom has sense enough to ask him to turn off the camera while they talk.
Caouette's work thus stands as either utterly fearless self-examination, or total narcissism. Or perhaps a bit of both. It's undeniably compelling viewing, though, although its public outing of dysfunction is not as radical as its maker and supporters would think. A messed-up family environment is perhaps The Motherlode of recent U.S. indie cinema, and really, in America, what trauma is suffered in private these days?