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Friday, July 3, 1998 Published at 14:43 GMT 15:43 UK


Broomfield's reflection in Cobain magnifying glass

Nick Broomfield's controversial new documentary Kurt and Courtney, about the late Kurt Cobain and his wife Courtney Love, has now received its European premiere. But as the BBC's Ryan Dilley found, the film tells as much about its maker as it does about its subjects.

Rolling Stone magazine described Kurt and Courtney, Nick Broomfield's latest documentary, as "a must-see for Nirvana fans". This seems to wildly miss the point of the piece.

A rockumentary it certainly is not - it is a film about making a film; and if I understand the subtext correctly a film about the rights and the stature of the film maker.

[ image: Broomfield on the trail of Lady Thatcher (picture:Channel 4)]
Broomfield on the trail of Lady Thatcher (picture:Channel 4)
For their intended audience all of Broomfield's films are funny and reassuring, they tell us of our sanity and reason, and poke fun at those scary people, the "others".

Woody Allen once said it was impossible to satirise men in jackboots - in The Leader, His Driver and the Driver's Wife (1991), Broomfield did just that following the maxim that given enough microphone cord the South African neo-nazi Eugene Terreblanche would obligingly hang himself for the camera.

In many ways Broomfield is an anthropologist of the margins, sending back specimens from the dark continent to the good folks back home.

The horror, the horror

His belief that his inquisitive camera can peel back the artifice of his subjects to reveal an objective "truth" is strangely linked to the tradition which had Victorian scientists lugging their box brownies out to catalogue the jungle natives.

This analogy is not as crazy as it sounds, for hasn't his work always followed a Heart of Darkness formula? Hasn't he always sought to expose the absurdities and menace of a culture through the pursuit of a single figure?

Broomfield has always seen a Kurtz in every corner - Terreblanche, Margaret Thatcher, Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss, serial killer Aileen Wuornous and now (film title notwithstanding) Courtney Love. However, it is not these individuals that Broomfield's crusading tells us most about - we learn more about the director himself.

[ image: He tracks down her former toilet, now a plant holder (picture: Channel 4)]
He tracks down her former toilet, now a plant holder (picture: Channel 4)
As an investigator, Broomfield is far from clinical. The constant undercurrent of Kurt and Courtney, Love's attempts to stop any examination of her rock star husband's suicide, seems to preoccupy him. He is far more interested in exposing Love's media-wise meddling and hypocrisy, than pursuing the story of Kurt Cobain.

Wild claims

The wild claims that she somehow did in her partner become conflated with Broomfield's own beef with the starlet. He complains bitterly that libel laws curb the flow of his finished film - forcing him to cut and overdub the various interviewees and their onspiracy theories concerning Kurt's death.

He seems aghast that he should have to substantiate any of the claims made by those that come before his camera. How much he actually cares if Cobain died by his own hand is debatable, and is certainly not the focus of his film.

Teen spirit

The lack of serious cross-referencing and biographical detail in Kurt and Courtney is not due to any lack of skill on the director's part.

The meteoric rise and fall of the Seattle grunge star is but a means for his pursuit of other ends. This is clear from the eagerness with which he switches attention from the unreliable (but luridly entertaining) testimony of his stranger interviewees to his personal battle with Love over his right to film these crackpots.

[ image: And he gets no joy at Mark Thatcher's house (picture: Channel 4)]
And he gets no joy at Mark Thatcher's house (picture: Channel 4)
Broomfield is a canny angler, reeling in an array of odd fish - Cobain's God-fearing aunt, Love's pathological father, a pair of hapless and incompetent "stalkerazzi" along with the host of drug-addled small fry.

Few tears

Watching them being landed and cudgelled by his combination of understated wit and exaggerated Englishness is highly entertaining, but also unsettling.

Just like the street photographers Weegee and Diane Arbus, his camera is unsympathetic, if not cruel. Of course one can shed few tears for the likes of Hank Harrison - who bought a brace of pit bulls to discipline his daughter Courtney - but everyone Broomfield encounters feels the bite of his mockery.

His films exaggerate this trait, allowing him to make a virtue of the hiccups and headaches which all documentary makers endure. Such a non-linear approach has often proved disastrous - take virtually any rockumentary of the 1960s - but Broomfield chooses to ignore the issues his eventful odyssey throws up.

[ image: Eventually reaches the woman herself - but no interview (picture:Channel 4)]
Eventually reaches the woman herself - but no interview (picture:Channel 4)
The conspiracy theories about Cobain's death, which spark the feud with Love, become just anecdotes. He eagerly, indeed glibly, points out the glaring holes in these bizarre inventions, but never stops to ask why they were created.

Faux naif

That the conspiracy theory has taken on an almost religious tone - one with which some seek reason in chaotic events like Cobain's death - is of little significance to Broomfield.

The nature of fame, central to the death of Cobain and the Hollywood rebirth of his wife, is also of scant interest to the real star of the show, the man with the boom mic and the final say.

All Broomfield's works bare a common hallmark, a knowing amateurishness and seeming spontaneity, leading away from an underlying truth - that the director is always the hero. Broomfield often treats his camera like a lie-detector, his editing style and sparse commentary further create an air that to sit before him is to sit in the dock.

For all its merits, Kurt and Courtney cannot wring any revelations from the conclusion that most people are flaky and self-serving and that influential people are not above using that influence unscrupulously. The world Broomfield reports from isn't so different from our own. As a brave media frontiersman, Nick Broomfield is an intriguing character - in fact a subject crying out for a documentary.

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