Steven Sebring

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Last night we planned to see the new Woody Allen film (though they never bill them as the new Woody Allen films these days). Turns out we had the dates wrong and it doesn’t open until Friday, so we caught a quick cab down the street to Film Forum where the Patti Smith movie (mentioned here earlier by Cyrus) was already a few minutes in progress. From what I understand we missed some opening footage of horses, horses, horses, horses.

The audience was made up mostly of fans (like me), judging from the appreciative response.  If you plan to see it but don’t know the basic outline of her career, I’d suggest reading Sharon Delano’s New Yorker profile from several years ago, which isn’t on the magazine’s site but may be accessible here or via Lexis-Nexis if you have an institutional subscription.

patti smith dream of life.JPGPatti Smith: Dream of Life is an impressionistic film, dreamlike (as the title would suggest), alternating between candid moments and short, tightly composed sequences rather than offering a traditional documentary narrative. We get a sprinkling of early footage, lots of photos from the 1970s, some memories of CBGB and the Chelsea Hotel, but this isn’t an account of her rise to stardom so much as a portrait of her return from retirement. She gets the important details out of the way fast via a sometimes stiff voiceover: Living in Michigan for 16 years with her husband Fred “Sonic” Smith and their kids, Jackson and Jesse, she’d been a homebody rather than  the punk rock icon she’d transformed herself into by 1975. When Sonic died in 1994, she decided to return to New York and to performing, her kids in tow, and she hasn’t stopped since.

The movie, which involved over 10 years of filming,  has only the barest hint of chronology, and even then it relies on you to recognize her kids as teenagers and then as early 20-somethings, as it toggles back and forth through those ten years. She mentions musician friends who helped her return to the public — Dylan, Michael Stipe — but the comeback isn’t really what anchors the narrative. Rather, the film grounds itself via two recurring sequences. First, she announces that she’s sequestered herself in a corner of her bedroom until the film is finished. Sitting there, she unpacks boxes of mementos — a guitar given to her by Sam Shepard, her favorite childhood dress, her son’s baby shirt from the hospital, an antique Persian urn containing a portion of Robert Mapplethorpe’s remains — and uses them as touchstones for reflections on her life.

The other pattern is weirder, and is what I think really makes the film: The woman loves graveyards. If Smith’s self-conception as a Romantic poet isn’t evident enough to her fans, the point is hammered home here. She sees herself as an Artist in a genealogy that stretches from Blake to Shelley to Whitman to Rimbaud to Picasso to Ginsberg and Corso and Burroughs to Jackson Pollock and Bob Dylan to herself.  These folks provide her with sacred texts that govern her cosmology; they also structure her world travels. She references all of them over the course of the film; she also visits most of their graves — and in the case of Rimbaud visits his outhouse for good measure.

pattiandblake.jpg

There’s little in this world that could be more Romantic (in the capital R sense) than visiting graves of the poets, unless you want to go the Gregory Corso route and actually have yourself buried at your master’s feet (we find him, in the film, buried as close as he could get to Shelley). When I asked, during a Q&A with the director, the fashion photographer Steven Sebring, about the tension between the film’s emphasis on “life” (as in her life after the death of her husband) and its preoccupation with death and cemeteries, he made the point that Smith very self-consciously shapes her living in relation to loved ones and heroes dead and long gone: when she travels to a city she often books her hotel in proximity to a graveyard she wants to visit. “She seems to know where everyone’s buried,” he said.

The subject of literary tourism (and “necrotourism” in particular) has its own minor publishing cottage industry in the academy, one which interests me professionally. But it’s rarer to find someone who carries on the practice today to the extent Smith does. She defines herself in relation to the dead — family and friends, but the writers who shaped her personal and artistic identities (which clearly can’t be separated for her). In our jaded, 21c world, it seems a little ridiculous: identifying as a Poet (black hood and cloak and all), taking appreciative rubbings of headstones, scribbling in notebooks everywhere you go, never getting tired of William Blake. But Smith comes to figure, in the film, as an alternative not simply to contemporaries like George W. Bush (whom she indicts in high style late in the film) but to those members of her generation who gave birth to postmodernism as well. She comes off not simply as the last great Romantic but as someone who advocates Romanticism as a way of life — as a way through life. As much as the film relies on graveyard scenes, we find these visits (and her reflections on fallen friends) giving her the strength to survive her husband.

None of this should suggest that the film lacks when it comes to music. It’s not a concert film, and some of the music will be unfamiliar to those (again, like me) less familiar with her recent work than with her classic recordings. But from her punkrock reading of the Declaration of Independence to spittle-laden, vein-popping renditions of “Land” and “Rock n Roll Nigger,” the film reminds you that, contemporary peace activist or no, this woman still earns every bit of her title as the Godmother of Punk.

Smith appears in person at select screenings this week and next; see Film Forum’s website for more details.

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