Post Capitalism


Jonathan Taplin on Jul 25

The British journalist Paul Mason published a provocative except from his new book Postcapitalism in the Guardian last week. His theory is that the sharing economy is ushering in a new age.

Postcapitalism is possible because of three major changes information technology has brought about in the past 25 years. First, it has reduced the need for work, blurred the edges between work and free time and loosened the relationship between work and wages. The coming wave of automation, currently stalled because our social infrastructure cannot bear the consequences, will hugely diminish the amount of work needed — not just to subsist but to provide a decent life for all.

Second, information is corroding the market’s ability to form prices correctly. That is because markets are based on scarcity while information is abundant. The system’s defence mechanism is to form monopolies — the giant tech companies — on a scale not seen in the past 200 years, yet they cannot last. By building business models and share valuations based on the capture and privatisation of all socially produced information, such firms are constructing a fragile corporate edifice at odds with the most basic need of humanity, which is to use ideas freely.

Third, we’re seeing the spontaneous rise of collaborative production: goods, services and organisations are appearing that no longer respond to the dictates of the market and the managerial hierarchy. The biggest information product in the world — Wikipedia — is made by volunteers for free, abolishing the encyclopedia business and depriving the advertising industry of an estimated $3bn a year in revenue.

Since the 1930’s when Lord Keynes worried about a future in which we would have so much leisure time that we might not be able to create enough poets to fill our evening hours. So of course I am skeptical as most of my friends are working longer hours than 10 years ago when their every waking hour wasn’t harried by smartphones chirping.

But I do believe that Mason’s point, about the potential of Open Source technology to break up the “fragile corporate edifice” constructed by the tech monopolies that I have written about, is real. Consider the edifice that was Microsoft’s Windows operating system in 1998 when the Justice Department brought its anti-trust action. Since that time two Open Source software systems, Linux and Apache have made huge inroads into the corporate and Web server business. Both systems were constructed by hundreds of thousands of man hours of free labor contributed by geeks interested in improving the software and sharing their improvements with a large community for free. So in that sense, Mason is right that this is a post capitalist construct.

But here is the current problem with the sharing economy. It tends towards a winner take all economy.

Whether Uber ends up buying Lyft is yet to be determined, but my guess is that market will look like markets dominated by AirBnb, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Google. As Susie Cagle recently pointed out:

While technology has provided underlying infrastructure to spark and support new peer-to-peer network behavior, it hasn’t really changed anything about how those networks are built and owned. For example, we now have the tools and ability to disrupt the taxi industry by allowing collectives of drivers to reach customers directly — but instead, we have Lyft and Uber, multibillion dollar companies that neither offer benefits to their drivers, nor truly give them the opportunity to run their own independent businesses.

Likewise, we have the tools and ability to build collectively owned messaging and social platforms — but instead, we have Twitter and Facebook, which mediate what users can see from other users and collect personal data to better tailor advertising sales.

My concerns relate to the media and entertainment industry that we study at the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab. And in that world the possibility of using the Open Source model to build a new kind of Digital Distribution Cooperative seems very possible.

Ask yourself this question: why should YouTube take 55% of the ad revenue from a Beyonce (or any other artist) video when all they provide is the platform?

They provide no production money, no marketing support and their ad engine runs lights out on algorithms.

Imagine in today’s music business a distribution cooperative that would run something like the coops that farmer’s use (think Sunkist for orange growers). Here is how they are described.

Many marketing cooperatives operate through “pooling.” The member delivers his product to the association, which pools it with products of like grade and quality delivered by other members. After doing whatever processing is necessary, the co-op sells the products at the best price it can get and returns to the members their share of total proceeds, less marketing expenses.

In our model (much like the early days of the United Artists film distribution company formed in the 1920’s by Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W.Griffith) the producers of music would upload their new tunes to the coop servers, do their own social marketing and probably end up getting back 85–90% of the revenues rather the 45% they get from YouTube. The coop could rent cloud space from Amazon Web Services just like Netflix and Spotify do.

All of this is possible because in the world of entertainment the artist is the brand. No one ever suggested to you, “let’s go to a Paramount movie tonight.” It is possible that we are entering a post capitalist age, but it cannot exist as long as the sharing economy is dominated by a few monopolists. Perhaps some bold experiments on the part of music artists could point the way towards a truly innovative way of using technology for the good of the artist rather than for her exploitation.

A new film version of Far from the Madding Crowd; Brian Wilson’s story inLove & Mercy

By Joanne Laurier
12 June 2015

Far from the Madding Crowd, directed by Thomas Vinterberg; screenplay by David Nicholls, based on the novel by Thomas Hardy

Far from the Madding Crowd is the latest screen adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s famed 1874 novel. Set in rural England, it is the story of a free-spirited young woman who attracts three suitors of diverse social and psychological make-up.

Directed by Danish-born Thomas Vinterberg, the movie is pleasant and straightforward, but with a flatness that reflects certain artistic problems: above all, a lack of urgency and historical concreteness.

The film begins in a bucolic setting of expansive green fields. (Hardy set his novels in Wessex, a fictional stand-in for his native Dorset in southwest England, where much of the new film was shot.) Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), a willful young woman meets local farmer Gabriel Oak (Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts), who almost immediately proposes marriage.

Far from the Madding Crowd

But Bathsheba does not want to be any man’s property: “I’m too independent for you.” This, despite the fact that Bathsheba is penniless and Gabriel has a sheep farm. (“I have 100 acres and 200 sheep.”) Soon after, their economic circumstances are reversed. Gabriel loses his herd and Bathsheba inherits a large farm from a deceased uncle. He now becomes her vassal.

Adjacent to Bathsheba’s property lies the farm belonging to the prosperous William Boldwood (Michael Sheen). In a rather irresponsible prank, she sends Boldwood, a lonely and taciturn man, a valentine inscribed with the words “Marry me.” The middle-aged bachelor becomes obsessed with his young neighbor, offering Bathsheba “shelter and comfort … If you will marry me out of guilt and pity, I don’t mind.” Later, highlighting one of the movie’s—and novel’s—themes, she muses: “It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.”

Having dispatched her second suitor, she falls madly in love with the reckless, pleasure-seeking gambler, Sergeant Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), whose plan to wed Bathsheba’s servant, Fanny Robin (Juno Temple), has come to naught due to a misunderstanding. When Troy marries Bathsheba, the union is from the start an unhappy one—the soldier treats his wife and her employees dreadfully—and is finally shipwrecked when a poverty-stricken Fanny dies in childbirth.

Overcome with grief and guilt, Troy plunges into the ocean and is presumed to have drowned. Years later, down on his luck, he reappears like Lazarus risen from the dead. Unable to bear the thought that Bathsheba will now be completely out of reach, Boldwood kills Troy, a desperate act that puts him behind bars for life. A much matured Bathsheba finds true love with Gabriel. Not only are they now economic equals, but having withstood various slings and arrows, they have become emotional partners.

Hardy ’s fourth novel takes its title from a line in Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751), about the dead lying peacefully in their graves. It appears that through the title Hardy was ironically countering the notion that rural folk led less dramatic, complicated lives than urban residents. The economic and social conflicts and contradictions, argues Hardy, are as acute in the countryside as in the city.

The novel concerns itself in particular with rigid Victorian morality and social roles. One historian, K.D.M. Snell, notes that Hardy, in his major novels, was attempting “to formulate the conditions in which affectionate and lasting relationships could take place … [H]is work persistently gives an embittered and bleak account of marriage and marital relations in its descriptions of what he termed the ‘false marriage.’” Bathsheba and Troy are a prime example of a marriage in which the two partners have hardly anything in common and know almost nothing about one another.

Far from the Madding Crowd

Class mobility, and upward mobility in particular, was another of Hardy’s concerns, rooted in his own personal circumstances. Hardy’s father was a stonemason and builder, and the family lacked the means to send Hardy to university. He remained acutely aware of class divisions and his own supposed social “inferiority,” as well as the fragility of an improved social standing, throughout his life.

In Far from the Madding Crowd , Gabriel makes the transition from landowner to wage laborer overnight. One minute he is comfortable enough to ask for Bathsheba’s hand; the next, he is turning his farm over to the creditors and becomes an itinera n t worker. Troy loves Fanny, but he is an opportunist and primarily desires Bathsheba’s wealth and position. When Bathsheba considers marrying Boldwood, who proposes to pay off Troy’s debts, it is as “a mere business compact.”

Hardy (1840-1928) wrote in his 1895 preface to the novel: “The change at the root of this has been the recent supplanting of the class of stationary cottagers, who carried on the local traditions and humours, by a population of more or less migratory labourers, which has led to a break of continuity in local history, more fatal than any other thing to the preservation of legend, folk-lore, close inter-social relations, and eccentric individualities. For these the indispensable conditions of existence are attachment to the soil of one particular spot by generation after generation.” This was a period of vast industrialization, urbanization and the decline of rural society, which Hardy sought to grapple with.

With his movie version of the novel, director Vinterberg (best known for The Celebration, 1998) has created a work that is fortunately some distance removed from the subjectivist and narcissistic Dogme 95 group, which he founded with fellow Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier, and some distance removed from Vinterberg’s own dreadful Dear Wendy, 2004, scripted by Trier.

His Far from the Madding Crowd is respectfully done and drenched in pretty images. But when landscape panoramas play such a dominant role, it is usually at the expense of thought-provoking content. In this case, the film’s default setting is an ahistorical feminism; and laden with a modernist sensibility, historical imagination is barely in play here.

Most of the work’s strengths lie in what the movie is not—it is not bombastic or toxic. It is not violent. It does not bore one with gratuitous sex, etc … Rather than a determined search to locate what’s universal in the novel through concrete historical treatment, the movie is essentially a series of personal relationships, with no particular historical or social significance.

Both Mulligan as Bathsheba and Schoenaerts as Gabriel spend an inordinate amount of time in gazing mode—the human equivalent of the film’s preoccupation with scenery—although one suspects the Belgian-born Schoenaerts is otherwise a fine actor. Sheen is always striking, but his Boldwood strains, no doubt because the actor must fill in too many blanks. Jessica Barden as Liddy—Bathsheba’s maid—is amusing and endearing in the film’s opening sequences, but recedes into the background for most of the movie. Sturridge as Troy barely makes a ripple.

In comparing Vinterberg’s interpretation with British director John Schlesinger’s well-known 1967 version of Far from the Madding Crowd, the most significant difference is that Schlesinger’s nearly three-hour film, although uneven and occasionally awkward, retains more of the novel than Vinterberg’s movie.

Graced with a remarkable cast—Julie Christie as Bathsheba, Alan Bates as Gabriel, Peter Finch as Boldwood and Troy marvelously performed by Terence Stamp—Schlesinger’s work does not tend to scrub away the novel’s tension-filled rough edges. And, unlike Vinterberg, Schlesinger attempts to maintain the humor of the lower rustic classes, an important element in Hardy’s classic, embodied by characters such as Matthew Moon and Joseph Poorgrass. Vinterberg comes close with Liddy, but is not really interested in concentrating on this social layer.

Also treated more effectively by Schlesinger is the pivotal, wrenching scene when Troy discovers Fanny and their child in a coffin in Bathsheba’s house. Horribly, Troy tells Bathsheba: “This woman [Fanny] is more to me, dead as she is, than you ever were, or are, or can be … I am not morally yours.” In the new movie, the scene is fairly brief and tepid, devoid of the requisite dramatic punch, much to the work’s overall detriment.

A great deal of effort and talent has been expended to make an agreeable and rather forgettable trifle.


Love & Mercy

Love & Mercy, directed by Bill Pohlad; screenplay by Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner, based on the life of Brian Wilson

[Reposted from our coverage of the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.]

I keep looking for a place to fit / Where I can speak my mind / I’ve been trying hard to find the people / That I won’t leave behind / They say I got brains / But they ain’t doing me no good / I wish they could,” Brian Wilson sings in “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” a song on The Beach Boys’ seminal album,Pet Sounds, released in 1966.

Love & Mercy

Wilson was, in fact, very much made for “these times,” as his remarkable music and the widespread popular response to it over the years so clearly demonstrate. However, he was definitely not made to conform to—or escape intact—the soul-crushing music industry in “these times.”

Attempting to tackle the pop genius’ complicated history, director Bill Pohlad’s biopic Love and Mercy divides Wilson’s life into two different phases: the early Beach Boys years, including the artist’s acute mental collapse, and the more recent decades when Wilson is rescued from the clutches of a Machiavellian psychiatrist by his future wife Melinda. The movie cuts back and forth between the two periods. The younger Brian is played by Paul Dano, while Wilson’s older self is played by John Cusack. Elizabeth Banks plays Melinda and Paul Giamatti is the manipulative Dr. Eugene Landy.

The film is at its most interesting and creative when it tries to dissect Wilson’s inner turmoil. The scenes featuring Dano are more intricate and convincing than those with Cusack, which tend to be rather conventional, even superficial. Unfortunately, Love and Mercy makes little effort to grapple with the postwar social climate and conditions in America that produced such an extraordinary figure. This helps account for the movie’s relative thinness.

To Pohlad’s credit, he does capture something of Wilson’s manic search for musical perfection. A segment in Love and Mercy corresponds to the statement Wilson has posted on his web site: “I would have the musicians keep playing over and over again till the sound made sense. I worked overtime on that; I worked hours to get it right. If the sound didn’t make any sense, then I wouldn’t know what to do—I’d be lost! It’s instinct that tells me. I have an instinct for music, or a feeling about it, and I’ll have my feelings guide my hands.”

How House Music Was Born

House Music Was Born

How a stolen piece of vinyl and a primitive drum machine inspired a young Chicago DJ to invent a new genre


by Jesse Saunders

The whole thing started with a drum machine.

In the summer of 1983, I was living in Chicago and DJing every Friday/Saturday night at one of the biggest clubs in town, The Playground, where I’d spin new wave, electronic hip-hop, disco, synth-pop and everything in between. The Playground was known for bringing together an eclectic mix of Chicagoans, people from all walks of life, and my job was to make everyone dance to equally eclectic music.

Around that time, I’d gotten my hands on a Roland TR-808, one of the first programmable drum machines, and it quickly became my pride and joy. I’d program tracks on my new toy and play them during my sets each weekend, using the club as my own private focus group. I’d watch and study as 1,500 high school and college kids moved their bodies to the upbeat, exotic sounds I’d been making.

I’d even mix and re-edit tracks right there on the turntables, using a synthesizer to add sounds. I’d add a new melody here, or experiment with different drum tracks there. Pushing the envelope with my sets and using the club as a space to explore new sounds — whether they were my own or new discoveries I made at the record store — became an integral part of my approach to DJing. It became my signature sound.

One day as I was perusing the new releases at Importes Etc, the local 12-inch store, an assistant manager name Frank Sells approached me in the aisles. As I sifted through crates of vinyl, he casually told me that people had been coming by to ask about a record I’d been playing during my sets. “Any idea what it is?” he asked.

I couldn’t figure out which track he was referring to, so he asked if I’d make a cassette recording of my set that weekend. The following week, we figured out that the track in question was one I’d made using my TR-808, which would later be titled “On & On,” itself a remake of a vinyl record that had been stolen from me a couple months prior.

Sells had an idea: “We could sell a shitload of these if you could get them pressed on vinyl.” I was shocked. While I always knew the record was great, the confluence of events that had led me to create my version of “On & On” has been so unlikely.

The original version, also titled “On & On,” had been introduced to me by my brother Wayne Williams, who was also a DJ and the inspiration for getting into the game. Wayne had bought a “bootleg” record (I don’t recall the title), a mix of various disco songs that pilfered the best aspects from different tunes and brought them together to create the ultimate disco record. The only crediting info on the record sleeve was “Remix by Mach.” Wayne used to play the A-side mix sometimes — a 15-minute-long pre-mixed version — to give us a bathroom break during our sets.

One day while sitting in my living room, I flipped the record over to check out the B-side and found a bootleg mashup. This song used the bassline from Player One’s “Space Invaders,” the “toot toot, heeeeey, beep beep” refrain from Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls,” and the horns from Lipps Inc’s “Funkytown.” It was called “On & On” and I knew right away that it was special. The first time I played it in a set, it created such a frenzy on the dancefloor that I immediately made it my signature record, using it as an intro every time I DJed. Looking back, it was probably the first mashup ever created.

Unfortunately — or fortunately, now that I have the privilege of hindsight — it was among a number of vinyl records stolen from the booth at The Playground. While I was devastated at the time, that record thief gave me all the inspiration I needed to create my own version.

I quickly found myself in my bedroom at 7234 South King Drive, piecing the elements of my prized record back together on a Tascam 4-track cassette recorder. I also began to see this as opportunity to take the original “On & On” and expand upon the things that made it great, fleshing it out into a more fully-formatted song. I banged out new drum programming on my TR-808; my songwriter buddy, Vince Lawrence, wrote the lyrics and the melody.

We wanted to properly evoke the feelings of unadulterated euphoria, the release associated with dancing and jacking your body in the club. House music, as we would come to know it, was a lot like my DJ sets had always been: defined by the drive to make people dance.

I even began to think about the new “On and On” as a pinnacle dance record, taking the four-on-the-floor beat of disco, the electronic thump of Kraftwerk, the popsynth impulses of Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer’s “I Need Love,” and arranging them into one expertly calibrated rush for the dancefloor.

I had an instinct that we might be onto something. I started playing this new version in all of my sets, and it became a massive hit.

 I sought out Vince to help hook me up with a pressing plant. A week later, I was holding the first 500 copies of my version of “On & On” which I promptly delivered to Importes Etc. Considering the high demand for the record before anyone had even known exactly what it was, the original sold out in a matter of days and and another 1000 copies were quickly manufactured. We distributed them to local stores and radio stations and the record began to gain traction.

And the rest, as they say, is history. A local radio station in Chicago played it, and the song took on a life of its own, spreading to other U.S. cities and to nightclubs across the world.

The influence of “On and On” has been far-reaching, both in terms of distance and time. It inspired a whole new sound, ultimately branded as Chicago House, and this new genre immediately informed recordings like “Move Your Body.” What we know as EDM today also owes much to “On and On” — both are essentially engineered for the dance floor.

Indeed, the story of “On and On” is the story of house music as we know it. It’s a story that continues to go on. And On. And On.

Illustrations by Thoka Maer
Photography by Jessica Chou | Grooming by Su Han/Dew Beauty Agency
Follow Jesse Saunders on Twitter @

How Dancing Boosts Brain Cells and Lifelong Learning

There’s a hidden value to dancing.

Merely art? Recreation? Dance may be the Cinderella of education. About 400 studies related to interdisciplinary 21st-century neuroscience lead to the discovery that there is a hidden value to dance education for young and old alike.

Dance is a language of physical exercise that sparks new brain cells (neurogenesis) and their connections that are responsible for acquiring knowledge and thinking. Dancing makes some neurons nimble so that they readily wire into the neural network. Neural plasticity is the brain’s remarkable abil­ity to change through­out life. As a septuagenarian, I’m dancing: flamenco, belly dance, jazz, and salsa!

Dance stimulates the release of the brain-derived protein neurotropic factor that promotes the growth, maintenance and plasticity of neurons necessary for learning and memory. And dance is a means to help us improve mood and cope with stress that can motivate or interfere with learning. Influenced by body senses, environment and culture, the brain “choreographs” dance and more.

The mysterious brain, probably the most complex living system in the world, hides from our sight the wondrously complex operations that underlie the feat of dance. I was surprised to witness 6,800 people fill a room at a Society for Neuroscience annual meeting to hear renowned choreographer Mark Morris field questions about creativity and the process and production of dance. Although there are many secrets to unravel about the power of the brain and dance, advances in technology, such as brain scanning techniques/experiments of dancers, dance-makers, and dance-viewers, reveal to us that dance activity registers in regions of the brain responsible for cognition.

The brain is comprised of about 100 billion electrically active cells (neurons), each connected to approximately tens of thousands of its neighbors at perhaps 100 trillion synapses (the spaces between neurons where information transfers occur between the senders and receivers). These atoms of thought relay information through voltage spikes that convert into chemical signals to bridge the gap to other neurons. All thought, movement and sensation emanate from electrical impulses coursing through the brain’s interconnected neurons. When they fire together they connect and reconnect, and the connections between them grow stronger in impacting our perception, comprehension and different kinds of memory.

If a pattern is repeated, the associ­ated group of neurons fire together resulting in a new memory, its consolidation and ease of retrieving it. Neurons can improve intellect, memory and certain kinds of learning if they join the existing neural networks instead of rattling aimlessly around in the brain for a while before dying.

Scientists have turned to dancers creating, doing and watching, primarily not to improve dance teaching, learning and performance. Rather the researchers find dance is a rich and multifaceted source to try to understand how the brain coordinates the body to perform complex, precise movements that express emotion and convey meaning. Dancers possess an extraordinary skill set—coordination of limbs, posture, balance, gesture, facial expression, perception, and action in sequences that create meaning in time, space, and with effort. Learning a dance genre requires discipline, persistence, engagement, auditory sensibility, visual acuity, memory, and imagination. Studies explore how dancers’ brains can illuminate the relationship between experience and observation.

As a method of conveying ideas and emotions with or without recourse to sound, the language of dance draws upon similar places and education processes in the brain as verbal language. Dance feeds the brain in the process of communication. The brain does mind and consciousness, a state of mind with agency. Through dance, a person can learn about herself, including sexual, gender, ethnic, regional, national, and career identities.

We acquire knowledge and develop cognitively because dance bulks up the brain. Consequently, dance as an art in education is a good investment in well-being. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio points out, “Learning and creating memory are simply the process of chiseling, modeling, shaping, doing, and redoing our individual brain wiring diagrams.” The “brain that dances” is changed by it.

Brain research has given us many insights for dance and other kinds of education. Illustratively, we can apply what psycholinguists have found about learning a second or third verbal language to learning more than one nonverbal language—that is, another dance vocabulary (gesture and locomotion) and grammar (ways movements are put together), and meaning. Children who grow up multilingual have greater brain plasticity and multitask more easily. Learning a second or third language uses parts of the brain that knowing only one’s mother tongue doesn’t. Students who learn more than one dance language not only are giving their brains and bodies a workout, they are also increasing their resources for creative dance-making.

A goal in teaching is to enhance procedural learning; that is, how to do something. In traditional approaches (blocked), the learner is encouraged to focus on mastering a particular dance movement before moving on to new problems. By comparison, varied practice (interleaving) that includes frequent changes of task so that the performer is constantly confronting novel components of the to-be-learned information is more effective. If dance education has such brain-enhancing potential to promote cognitive growth, how can it be offered?  Multiple venues range from arts magnet schools and academies to dance in regular schools K–12 and universities, studios, and community and recreation centers.

Venues may have their own dance faculty. Performing arts organizations, nonprofit operations and dance companies offer dance education, often as partners with academic schools. Illustrative dance programs, some established in the last century but continuing to develop, show how dance education promotes skills for academe, citizenship, and the workplace. Obviously curricula and assessment vary. Dance may be a distinct per­forming art discipline with in-depth sequential exploration of a coherent body of knowledge guided by highly qualified dance teachers. Dance may also be a liberal art, complementary to or part of another subject. Brief introductions to dance may fill gaps in school curricula. Historical serendipity, leadership, teacher interest, parent involvement, and economic resources affect how youngsters experience dance.

Society privileges mental capacity—mind over matter and emotion. Talking, writing and numbers are the media of knowledge. However, we now know that dance is a language, brain-driven art, and also a creative knowledge base for learning subjects other than dance. In short, dance is a way of thinking, translating, interpreting, communicating, feeling, moving, and creat­ing. As multimedia communication that generates new brain cells and their connections, dance at any age enriches our cognitive, emotional, and physical development beyond dance to most facets of life.

Judith Lynne Hanna is author of “Dancing to Learn: The Brain’s Cognition, Emotion, and Movement” (2015). She is a former California-certified social studies and English teacher who has taught dance. Learn more at


The great bluesman Blues Boy King has passed. Not unexpected, for he has been critically ill and in hospice care. I have had boundless respect and love for this amazing musician since I first saw him perform when I was in my teens. My favorite Pandora channel is named after him.

The blues have fueled my musical passions since I was a boy. My musical tastes have always been defined by my love of the blues. I have often said that were I to have my life to live over again I would play sax in a blues band. BB King has been an important part of my musical soul and I will miss him.

“I stepped out of Mississippi when I was ten years old. With a suit cut sharp as a razor and a heart made of gold. I had a guitar hanging just about waist high. And I’m gonna play this thing … until the day I die.”

“Montage of Heck” captures the contradictions of Kurt Cobain — and the America that shaped him

Smells like doomed genius: 

Yes, it’s Courtney-approved, but this documentary is a moving and powerful portrait of Kurt Cobain’s America

Smells like doomed genius: "Montage of Heck" captures the contradictions of Kurt Cobain -- and the America that shaped him

“Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” (Credit: Sundance Institute)

I remember coming to work on the morning Kurt Cobain was found dead, and feeling puzzled that a younger writer at our San Francisco alternative weekly – who would go on to become a prominent newspaper and magazine editor in New York – was so upset that she sat at her desk all day crying. I could psychoanalyze myself at Cobain-like depth, but the reasons I didn’t get it were basically stupid and defensive. Of course I knew Cobain’s music, and I understood that his death was a big story. But I was also deeply committed to my own disillusionment, to never being taken by surprise. I had already been through the first wave of punk rock, the worst years of AIDS, the deaths of a lot of people less famous than him. I would have rejected Cobain’s status as generational icon even more forcefully than he did – which, in retrospect, looks a lot like deep yearning, thinly wrapped in snobbery. His combination of suburban angst, drug addiction and mental-health issues was an old story, wasn’t it? Just another “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” a song David Bowie wrote in 1972. Nothing to cry about.

Fourteen years later, I was with my kids at a beachfront amusement park when my friend Laura Miller, Salon’s book critic, called to tell me that David Foster Wallace was dead. I got out of the roller coaster line to talk to her – Laura knew Wallace, but I didn’t – and one of the first things to swim into my brain, addled as it was by sunshine and a friend’s grief, was Kurt Cobain. At the time, I understood the connection as a personal commandment to have this experience, complete with all the Cobain-like and Wallace-like ironic introspection it might require; I took it as an edict not to insulate myself against the shared emotion, and potential shared meaning, of this moment of collective mourning. It took longer to see that the linkages between Cobain and Wallace go much deeper than that, and that many other people registered the connection in approximately the same way.

For many viewers of Brett Morgen’s extraordinary HBO documentary “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” the most fascinating and powerful elements of the film will be found in the intimate home videos shot by Cobain and Courtney Love in the early ‘90s, before and after their daughter Frances was born. (Frances Bean Cobain is an executive producer of the film, and both its remarkable depth and its limitations derive from the fact that it’s an authorized biography, made with the cooperation of Love, Cobain’s parents and various former friends and bandmates.) That footage is absolutely heartbreaking in its depiction of a loving, flawed, high-spirited and essentially normal young family, a long way from the drug-crazed rock-star fiends favored by the tabloids of that not-so-distant era. Yes, rock fans, you do get to see Courtney naked. Impressive as that is, it’s not half as much fun as hearing her ventriloquize baby Frances complaining that her dad’s band are self-indulgent whiners who aren’t as good as Guns N’ Roses. (Footnote for scholars: Cobain’s obsession with GnR frontman Axl Rose is fascinating, but ultimately aren’t they more alike than different?)

But I watched that amazing material with a sense that by that time the die had already been cast. Love and Cobain were famous and their baby, allegedly born addicted to heroin, was famous too. What they were “really like,” as human beings, was irrelevant. As long as they lived they were going to be famous rock ‘n’ roll fuckups, damaged symbols of a damaged generation. For someone with Cobain’s particular set of neuroses, ailments and vulnerabilities, not to mention his philosophical and aesthetic predilections, that might literally be a fate worse than death. I’m not saying that other outcomes, not involving a shotgun blast to the head, were not possible. But there was no easy or painless exit from the prison-house of celebrity available to Kurt Cobain, and he didn’t much like living in it.

Morgen’s title refers both to an extended audio collage Cobain once recorded on cassette tape – just one example of his explosive, unstoppable cultural output – and to the method of the film itself, which assembles an immense trove of public and private material to illustrate a life spent first in obscurity and then in the unbearable spotlight. He has Cobain’s famous notebooks full of lyrics, journal entries, cartoons and momentary observations, of course, but also home movies of his 3rd birthday party, a collection of family snapshots, recordings of early radio interviews and footage of the first Nirvana shows in Aberdeen or Olympia, with a few dozen people in attendance.

He interviews Wendy O’Connor, Cobain’s overly loquacious mother, Don Cobain, his monosyllabic father, and Tracy Marander, who was Cobain’s first serious girlfriend and the first woman he lived with. (He was a total deadbeat, from the sound of things, but Marander doesn’t seem to regret working for a living while he played guitar and watched TV. Here she is in a movie, all these years later.) Oh, and there’s music – a lot of it, the famous tracks and a bunch of lesser-known ones. You will indeed hear “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” in a number of versions and a variety of contexts – and when we finally get the actual Nirvana recording over the closing credits, well, I’m not saying I cried in grief and joy and anger but I’m not saying I didn’t.

Rather than trying to describe all these people who have lived on and gotten older, and who now find themselves sitting on their couches struggling to describe or explain a guy they used to know who became very famous and then died, I would say that “Montage of Heck” paints a bitter but compassionate portrait of the downscale white America that shaped Kurt Cobain. He was born in 1967, which surely felt more like 1957 in Aberdeen, Washington, than it did in the tumultuous climate of big cities and college towns. O’Connor says she remembers Aberdeen as a wonderful place to raise a family, and that her kids had a happy childhood. Not much later in the film we hear Cobain describe Aberdeen, in a recorded conversation with an old friend, as an “isolated hellhole” dominated by moralistic Reaganite conformity. You don’t get the feeling that teenage Kurt was an easy kid to live with, or someone who naturally made the best out of difficult circumstances. But his inarticulate sense that the society around him was fundamentally inauthentic, and his yearning to transform it or destroy it, molded one of the last and greatest voices of what Casey Kasem used to call the “rock era.”

Teenage alienation and rebellion is of course not a new phenomenon, and is not unique to the depressed lumber towns of the Pacific Northwest (although I imagine that lent it a particular coloration). In the animations Morgen’s team has created to illustrate Cobain’s audio montages, we witness the highly familiar quality of Cobain’s childhood and teen years: His parents were unhappy and got divorced, he smoked a lot of pot and had frustrating sexual experiences, he was an intelligent and creative kid who found school to be soul-deadening and found some release in loud music. There may be no comprehensible answer to the question of why he responded so keenly to these stimuli, which were applied with equal force to millions of other kids of the downward-trending ‘70s and ‘80s. From an early age, Kurt Cobain yearned to make memorable art, escape his surroundings and become famous, and from an early age he contemplated ending his life, with the kind of obsessive, repeated “jokes” that are impossible to gauge from the outside.

If Cobain and Wallace worked in different mediums and different registers, and emerged from different sectors of middle-class white suburbia – indeed, you can only call Cobain’s background “middle class” under the postwar convention that all white Americans who have jobs and cars belong to that class by definition – there is no mistaking the kinship of their unnaturally keen responses. They were 1960s babies who grew up amid Vietnam and Watergate and the gas crisis and Whip Inflation Now and Jimmy Carter in his cardigan talking about our “national malaise,” and who were teenagers and young adults as that malaise and turmoil turned to amnesia and denial and the suicidal, delusional counterrevolution of the Reagan years. America has not recovered from the cultural and political whiplash of those years and probably never will.

All of us who lived through that period bear the scars, and we have all tried to react to it and push forward as best we can. Of course Wallace is not the only important writer of their generation, nor is Cobain the only memorable singer-songwriter. But they are joined by the intensity of their response – “Nevermind” and “Infinite Jest” are highly singular works in totally different traditions, but I think they represent the same scale of achievement and possess a similar cultural resonance – and by the way they touched a deep well of passion, hunger and unease that transcended demographic or generational clichés. It’s by no means irrelevant that they were both white heterosexual men who were deeply aware of the problematic nature of the Great Man archetype, and committed to addressing that issue in their work and their private lives. And it’s certainly not irrelevant that they became overwhelmed by the vicious contradictions of fame in our era — or, to put it more simply, that they could not escape the private demons of mental illness and drug addiction and ended by killing themselves.

As I noted earlier, “Montage of Heck” was made with the cooperation of Courtney Love and several other relatives or intimate friends of Kurt Cobain. (The most prominent omission is Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl.) Among other things, that means the movie does not traffic in any of the pathological conspiracy theories around Cobain’s death, or indeed depict his death in any way. It may whitewash some details of Love and Cobain’s relationship – I wouldn’t know, and don’t especially care – and it certainly depicts the reporters who raked up dirt on the couple, especially Lynn Hirschberg of Vanity Fair, as unscrupulous vultures.

I would agree that the media’s vampirical obsession with the Kurt-and-Courtney story was not journalism’s finest hour, and that it reflected profound anxiety about the youth-culture moment they were seen to represent. But that’s too large a problem to unpack here; I think it’s best to take the Courtney-centric area of the film with a grain of salt and draw your own conclusions. Those are minor issues in a masterful and often deeply moving portrait of a volatile American genius, a portrait that goes far beyond one man, one family and one rain-sodden small town. It depicts the society that nurtured and fed that genius, and that made his unlikely creative explosion possible, as being the same environment that poisoned him — and suggests that the rise and fall were inextricably connected. Kurt Cobain was a canary in the coalmine, as was David Foster Wallace. You and I are still in it, and it’s getting harder to breathe.

“Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” opens this week in Los Angeles, New York and Seattle, and then premieres May 4 on HBO.