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Love Bane of Cobain

Kurt and Courtney overcomes serious flaws for an intriguing, offbeat documentary

These sorts of over- or-undertones occur so often that it's hard not to credit Broomfield with them. His major source of Cobainania is a wholesome but winning aunt who proffers fond memories (and early recordings) of Cobain as a tot. But when he returns to her, later on in the film, we start to notice a cross on the wall over one shoulder, and a piece of Jesus kitsch over the other. And suddenly she's talking about the false gaudiness of the temporal world and about Cobain's having gone to a better place. Broomfield neatly completes the character assassination with footage of her in a classroom, an impossibly square proselytizer using a folk guitar and her dead nephew to connect with kids, a living version of the hippie teacher in Beavis and Butt-head.

But there's something vague and incomplete about Kurt and Courtney. It's not just the stuff about Love's alleged plot to murder Cobain, which Broomfield, having stirred up the conspiracy theorists for an hour of screen time, finally dismisses, and it's not the film's almost vicious one-sidedness, in which almost any insane person willing to take Broomfield's money and talk on camera is allowed to say just about anything. It has more to do with the difference between his previous subjects and his inimitable one here -- the difference between involuntarily victimized women like Fleiss and Wuornos, and the rare creature of celebrity that is Courtney Love.

Courtney Love, noble and comic, is at once evidence of a cruel double standard at work in American cultural life and the beneficiary of it; a true talent with little good work to her name; a scary and probably dangerous woman nevertheless capable of searching insights and compassion. She's also the most ruthless exploiter of media in rock today. Madonna, a manipulator as well, is of the old pater le bourgeois school; she's not really ruthless, just happy to make money poking a stick at the dog that is American middle-class morality. Love's in a different area entirely. She's not even doing it for the benefit of her art or product. Indeed, she's produced practically nothing. In the past six years she's recorded one album, toured a bit and starred in one movie. (Granted, she also got married and had a kid and endured the loss of her husband.) Yet she remains virtually a household name, the steady star of awards shows, magazine covers and talk.

Love is a celebrity who acts out because in her mind that's what a celebrity should do. Fame to her doesn't extend from fans to the star. Rather, it's a compact a star makes with society: To shock, to get noticed, to do drugs, to sleep with other stars, to be irresponsible and interesting.

This attitude creates a quotidian obligation to do almost anything to get attention, from carefully planned media assaults to impromptu sucker punches, all the better if the person on the receiving end is another celebrity. (Algebra like that she understands implicitly.) Some years ago, she led a Madison Square Garden crowd in a cheer that included the words "bitch," "cunt" and "nigger." The genesis of the act was political: She was dramatizing her objection to the prospect of Snoop Doggy Dogg on her Lollapalooza tour. (Her point was that if Snoop and other rap stars could lead a "bitch" shout-out, why couldn't she lead a "nigger" one?) But she did it in front of a too-large crowd that didn't know what she was talking about and was attacked as a racist in the Village Voice for her trouble. She viewed the whole event as a success: "Christ, I've got a stage. Shouldn't I use it?" In this way, Love represents fame at its most nihilistic.

After a confused and desultory childhood, she left home protected, as her detractors are quick to point out, by a small trust fund. But it's also true she didn't have much else. The protectors of rock and roll's mythos romanticize runaways and vagabonds vigorously; the reality is generally much less pretty, but Broomfield and most Love haters don't give it much credence. (In Kurt and Courtney, her father says she was doing tricks and heroin at 16.)

Over the course of some five years, she grew from a bit player in Sid and Nancy to the Courtney Love we know and hate today. Her defenders would say that a polarizing, exhausting, sometimes out-of-control person like herself probably wouldn't have gotten anywhere without some sort of combination of charisma and talent; her detractors, vehemently (and with no little evidence on their side), argue that from the start her methodology has been to attach herself to much more talented men.

Love's one notable creative work, Live Through This, is a relentlessly charged, highly persuasive portrait of an unmistakably feminine emotional angst; recently, only Liz Phair has demonstrated an ability to portray girl trouble with this elegance. Her detractors say that Cobain wrote the powerful musical setting for the album, and that Trent Reznor (or Billy Corgan, or Jordan Zadorozny from Blinker the Star) will do the same for her new one, if Love has her way. This all could be true; but Cobain didn't create the spectacle that is Love on-stage, an undeniable presence whose most ferocious shows culminate with a star diving into a frenzied audience and finally emerging back on-stage battered, naked and triumphant.

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