Kurt Cobain and George Takei: Two Very Different Icons Given the Film Treatment at Sundance…

Posted: February 14, 2015 in (All Things) CULTURE, FILM
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,


The remarkable journey of George Takei to pop-cultural icon is the subject of Jennifer M. Kroot’s documentary film, To Be Takei, which just debuted at the Sundance film festival.

The film charts the US-born actor’s childhood being transported with his family to an Arkansas prisoner camp fringed with barbed wire; he, like countless other Japanese-American citizens, was subject to this treatment after Pearl Harbour, the largely law-abiding citizens having their businesses confiscated, their bank accounts frozen and their civil liberties suspended. As this specific story recalls, when Takei’s proud father refused to be further humiliated a year later by being asked to complete a ‘loyalty questionnaire’, the family was moved to a high-security camp at Tule Lake, Calif.

On a side-note, the fact that in relatively recent history the US government was able and willing to resort to this policy, complete with barbed wire and sentry towers, might give cause for concern to current minority groups or ‘unwelcome’ communities in America as to how badly things might go in a worst-case scenario; I say that with half an eye on the persistent ‘FEMA Camp’ stories that keep popping up, whatever the truth about the purpose of those sites.

Takei of course went on to have a rather remarkable life on account of the ‘great bird of the galaxy’, Gene Roddenberry, casting him in the original Star Trek series. Star Trek of course forms a significant part of Jennifer M. Kroot’s documentary, spanning the original sixties show, the first film franchise and the countless conventions and additional Trek-related activity that Takei has been a part of since. William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Walter Koenig and Nichelle Nichols all contribute to the film, though amusingly Shatner doesn’t do much to pretend he’s on good terms with Takei; which is only fair enough, however, given how scathing Takei has been about his Star Trek co-star. For the record, my relationship with William Shatner is similar to my relationship with George Lucas – they are both much-maligned cultural figures and I constantly (and gladly) will defend both of them for all my days; frankly, if I have to go into battle to defend Lucas or Shatner, I will.

The film also traces Takei’s fascinating post-Star Trek journey to becoming a popular culture icon in his own right; a breakthrough cultural figure for Asian Americans, a same-sex marriage activist, gay icon and social-media humorist followed by millions of fans. It’s all the more remarkable because Takei’s actual role in Star Trek was so small; which is testament somewhat to just how much of a cultural phenomenon Star Trek was, that a relatively small player in the series could remain so famous so far beyond it. Takei, like Shatner, is in fact so well-known a face that he can frequently cameo as himself in various shows. Yet if we’re honest about it, Sulu wasn’t crucial to Star Trek in dramatic terms and Takei isn’t some great actor; his lasting fame and significance is about other things. For someone who had to endure the grim and rather dehumanising experience of internment camps, what Takei has gone on to do in his life is all the more remarkable, and Jennifer M. Kroot’s film acts as a fitting tribute to the 76 year-old.


Concerning Brett Morgen’s much-hyped Montage of Heck film, which also premiered at Sundance, I was initially rather ambivalent about it for a while, even as a long-time Kurt and Nirvana fan. Having been a fan for about 22 years by now, I was sort of bored with Cobain biographies or documentaries already some time back, preferring simply to maintain my relationship with Kurt and Nirvana purely by listening to the music. The more I’ve learnt about Montage of Heck, however, the more (eventually) interested I’ve become, like a moth to a flame, I guess.

The film has opened to mixed reviews, but was undoubtedly one of the festival’s biggest buzzes. Brett Morgen’s approach to the film is described as novel, with the man rather than the myth being the focus, the person and not the personality. Kurt’s drawings and journals and his home recordings and audio montages are the central nexus of the film, with use of animation in some parts to bring the subject to life in ways that straight-doc format wouldn’t accomplish. The film is pitched as being far more subjective than objective, which may lend itself to a more compelling experience. I’m now quite interested in seeing what Morgen has come up with, the film scheduled for an early May broadcast (with some degree of limited cinema screening prior to that).

The talk of Montage of Heck being highly subjective reminds me of a film we’ve already had; specifically A.J. Schnack’s 2006 film About a Son, which was also a very impressionistic, atmospheric film based entirely on interview tapes of Kurt speaking and describing different stages of his life and his views on the world. I only watched About a Son once, because I found it so jarring and so absorbing that it became actually a little bit unsettling; that film, more than any other, made me feel at times like I was sitting right beside Kurt Cobain and experiencing the world through his lens. While Montage of Heck is clearly something more elaborate and complex, it will be interesting to see if it is as powerful as About a Son, which was a much simpler affair. I say it was ‘unsettling’, but it was also sort of sweet and very empathetic, as opposed to the Last Days movie that a lot of Cobain worshipers obsess over, which was also unsettling, but was actually just upsetting and disorienting.

The premiering of Morgen’s film at Sundance reminds me of the controversy surrounding another famous documentary movie that was supposed to premier at the same festival (unless it was Cannes); specifically Nick Broomfield’s controversial Kurt & Courtney in 1997. Broomfield’s film had to be pulled from the festival due to Courtney Love threatening to sue. Kurt & Courtney therefore went from being an initially biopic-type project to instead being a film about censorship, freedom of speech and the power of celebrity versus the limited power of independent filmmakers. Anyone who doesn’t own the Kurt & Courtney DVD should get hold of it, as there is a lot of fascinating bonus material detailing the making of the film and the controversy surrounding its Sundance premiere.

It was also the film, looking back, that really gave momentum to the Kurt Cobain conspiracy theories that have kept going ever since and are now a permanent cultural phenomenon.

For the record, I don’t subscribe to the conspiracy theory surrounding Cobain’s death, but with hindsight Courtney Love did herself no favours by trying so adamantly to ban Broomfield’s film, as it only invited further suspicion towards her. Given how much damage was done to Courtney’s reputation by Broomfield’s film, Montage of Heck might be seen on some level as partly an attempt to redress the balance; not that Morgen’s project goes anywhere near the issues raised in Broomfield’s film, but where Courtney denied Broomfield any access to Nirvana music or footage (and therefore damaged that film’s artistic possibilities), she and Frances both have been intimately involved with Montage of Heck.

Whatever Montage of Heck’s treatment of Courtney herself is (and my understanding is that the film really isn’t about Courtney, but squarely centered on Kurt), one wonders if it will act as anything like a counter-point to the very controversial Soaked in Bleach movie that has also been widely talked about since last year. The Benjamin Statler directed film is entirely about the conspiracy-theory lore surrounding Cobain’s death; based on the views of investigator Tom Grant, the film – particularly judging by its trailer – doesn’t pull any punches in regard to its view of Courtney. While I don’t entirely pour scorn on this fashion for Cobain conspiracy theorizing, as any death – if there are suspicious elements – should be open to question, I also tend to view a lot of the discourse as distasteful and more oriented towards sensationalism and obsession than actual truth-seeking. It is also a strong mechanism for the propagation of Courtney hate, which there is rather a lot of.

I still haven’t been able to ascertain when or if Soaked in Bleach is going to be released. Montage of Heck is broadcast on HBO on May 4th.

  1. hortah01 says:

    Interesting read. I would like to see these movies.

    Liked by 1 person

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