Movie Article

The Real Thing

''Kurt and Courtney'' and ''The Big One,'' sensational new documentaries, prove that truth is stronger than fiction

''Kurt and Courtney'' and ''The Big One''

Ah, reality. It has become so much more gripping than our hollow-spectacle ''entertainment,'' so much more intricately deceptive (who's a greater actor, John Travolta or Bill Clinton?), so much richer in the rhythms of intrigue. As surely as fiction, though, reality is now poked, prodded, and shaped. The two most electrifying movies of the moment, Nick Broomfield's Kurt and Courtney and Michael Moore's The Big One, are documentaries fashioned by filmmakers who both insist on charging into the frame, shameless and egomaniacal, armed with little but their boom mikes and their cojones, driven not just to record reality but to penetrate it. Welcome to the age of guerrilla verite.

Early in ''Kurt and Courtney,'' there's a startling video-cam interview in which Kurt Cobain explains that marrying Courtney Love changed his entire outlook. For a few moments, the legendarily morose poet-hero of Seattle rock doesn't appear shy or depressed. His eyes are clear, he's articulate and relaxed and, well, happy. It's an ominous scene, because it sets up the question, How did Cobain, at 27, slide from this to suicide?

That's just what Broomfield wants you to ask. After ''Kurt and Courtney'' stole headlines at this year's Sundance Film Festival, where it was yanked from the lineup and given one unofficial midnight screening following Love's threat of legal action, Broomfield explained that the film's most incendiary aspect -- its exploration of the theory that Love may have had Cobain killed -- wasn't necessarily something the filmmaker believed.

Maybe not, but the power of the movie lies in the way that Broomfield's investigation lures you, like a black magnet, toward this scandalous scenario. Two songs, by Nirvana and Hole, have since been excised, but what remains is a cataclysmic backdoor expose of Cobain's death, as well as a portrait of Love as a flamboyantly hostile and seductive femme fatale whose drug-drenched, love-hate marriage to Cobain, one way or another, helped form the tragedy's emotional backdrop.

''Kurt and Courtney,'' which has been playing for a month to packed houses in San Francisco, is about to open in other major cities, and with good reason. Lurid and freakishly arresting, it's a muckraking sensation, made by a wry tabloid maverick whose offbeat, sometimes questionable methods of inquiry (why didn't he interview a forensic-evidence specialist?) are offset by his eagerness to go where no one else will. Broomfield orchestrates his conspiracy mystery like a chamber version of JFK, interviewing Cobain and Love's friends and ex-lovers, some compassionate, some visibly unstable, a few both at once. The murder theorists include Love's own father (who turned pit bulls on her when she was a child) and a psycho-eyed scuzz-rocker named El Duce, who claims that Love ''offered me 50 grand to whack Kurt Cobain.'' The most piercing indictment: Broomfield interviews Love and Cobain's last nanny, who describes their conflicts over the late rocker's will. What ultimately emerges from Kurt and Courtney's raw tapestry of accusation is not a homicide theory but a possibility almost as disturbing -- that Cobain did indeed commit suicide, and that Love may have goaded him into it.

In ''The Big One,'' Michael Moore, nearly a decade after ''Roger & Me,'' uses a book tour for his comic screed ''Downsize This!'' as an excuse to storm the gates of various corporate headquarters. Moore knows that he's not going to get to interview the CEOs. His real agenda -- and it succeeds marvelously -- is to embarrass the corporations by revealing their bureaucratic-automaton style as the inevitable extension of a philosophy that squeezes workers even when profits are at a record high.

Is Moore, with his bullying belly and his gimmie caps, pushy and self-aggrandizing? Of course. He's also a witty and savagely intelligent provocateur who, for all his disheveled power-to-the-people self-righteousness, is out to reveal the indecency of executives who treat employees like chattels because they can get away with it. In the end, when Moore lands an interview with Nike's Phil Knight and, in a priceless bit of outrage, impishly offers the CEO a plane ticket to Indonesia, site of the company's sweatshops (Americans, says Knight, ''don't want to make shoes''), Knight's frozen smile speaks a thousand words. You hardly need to worship Michael Moore to see that he's dead-on about a great many things, or to see that a brickbat document like ''The Big One'' shows more American enterprise than anything it's attacking. Kurt and Courtney: A-; The Big One: A-

Originally posted Apr 10, 1998 Published in issue #426 Apr 10, 1998 Order article reprints
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