Thursday, February 3, 2011

Dream of Life

I highly recommend that anyone who reads and likes Patti Smith's book Just Kids also rent the (auto-)documentary Dream of Life. Thanks to Giana for sending the recommendation my way!

This movie, a collaboration with filmmaker Steven Siebring, took ten years to make, and is in some ways about Patti Smith's reflections on the loss of friends, family and lovers: most poignantly her husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith, who died in 1995, but also Mapplethorpe and her brother Todd, other musician collaborators, poets from her beloved Rimbaud to Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg, and finally, her parents, to whom the film is dedicated.

It's worth seeing even if you haven't read the book, if for nothing else than the amount of footage available, and for the music. If you've read the book, you'll appreciate even more how young she was when she lived at the Chelsea Hotel-- there is some amazing footage of her back then, and I must admit, even with the photos scattered throughout the book, it was very difficult to imagine Patti Smith quite so young. But it is also evident in the film that she is truly an artist of her time and weaves the Beat legacy, the Dylan folk legacy, the Vietnam War protest legacy and the punk rock world in which she lived and found her voice. Is it rock and roll? Is it folk? Is it punk? Is it poetry? Her performances have all these things, and her person has all these things.

She is also a Detroit mom who clearly adored motherhood and marriage and her house. Over the ten years of filming, we see her two children grow into young adults, and footage of her thirteen-year-old son in a hotel room is precious, as is the later footage of him playing guitar like his dad. He seems to be well-adjusted and as unassuming as she is.

Patti is a fan of childhood, and her visit to her parents' house in South Jersey is entertaining, real and precious. What would it be like to have Patti Smith for a daughter? Well, it would be wonderful, because she's a loving person who appreciates them. I have to admit that it also hadn't quite registered what it meant that she was from South Jersey, where almost all my relatives are from, until I heard her say the word "water" ("wudder") on screen. Her accent remains, not to be confused with a Long Island, Brooklyn or Bronx accent, and it comes out most purely in interactions with her parents. South Jersey is a fascinating place, where one can be more rooted (or stuck) than is imaginable in the 21st century when one is only two hours from New York City.

Patti Smith has no contempt, except for George Bush. Which seems well-placed enough to me! So although onstage anger contorts her face, and her words seem as charged with rage as with any other emotion, off-stage she has a smile as wide as the sea.

And in the scene with Flea on a California beach literally exchanging stories of pissing into bottles to see who is more extreme, Patti wins. Especially because what she did, she did with female anatomy. She is one impressive woman. Godmother of punk indeed.

For readers of the book, you'll get a glimpse of many fine objects, including the tambourine Mapplethorpe made for her 21st birthday, and the Depression-era guitar Sam Shepard gave her (played here by the man himself). Just as in the book, there is a visual landscape she inhabits, and it is not a natural landscape but a room full of important art objects made and invested with all sorts of meaning, concrete and pulsing with the life of those who made and gave them. There is no question she carries her whole life with her and translates it in the lyrics of her art, embodies it and gives it life with her voice. Her whole life seems as real and accessible to her as the ashes of Mapplethorpe she pours into her hand, the tape that carries the voice of her husband singing a song about a cancer-ridden Jackie O walking through Central Park that she wrote and cannot sing again because he so owned it.

1 comment:

WolfsGotYourTongue said...

I'm glad to have contributed! :) and glad that you liked it!