Patti Smith: Dream of Life

I’d read enough about this documentary, made over 11 years by Steven Sebring, to know not to expect a concert film. What I was less prepared for was the paradoxical view of my favorite punk star that emerges, making her seem like the ultimate postmodernist heroine — the edgy outlaw that, to all appearances, has never been in even modest rebellion against any part of her family, and modulates from angry iconoclast to contented Detroit housewife and back again with scarcely a bump. (At one point she avows that her principal claim to being a taboo-breaker as a child-rearing launderer is that she doesn’t use bleach.) It seems fairly evident that she’s very much in control of her own image here, and that image manages to encompass a sense of a rock star’s glamor while suggesting that she’s never shampooed her hair even once in her life.

Maybe the source of my confusion is her unusual capacity to shift back and forth repeatedly between ultra-theatricality and mundanity, which made the only concert of hers I’ve ever attended, in London in the mid-70s, a little off-putting. One moment she’d be leading the audience like a Dionysian Joan of Arc; the next moment, she’d be sitting on the floor cross-legged, apparently oblivious to the same audience, while playing idly with her guitar as if it were a kitten rather than a musical instrument. If the whole point of such a dialectic — even more apparent in this film — is to show that she can be both a demigoddess and just plain folks, there’s no real kind of synthesis that emerges, just some kind of contradiction. The fan of Johnny Guitar and Franju’s Judex who visits the graves of Rimbaud and Corso and also carries around a portion of Mapplethorpe’s cremated remains with her when she goes on trips is still apparently as sane and as ordinary as they come. In retrospect, the turnaround passage in her masterpiece, “Land” — “Got to lose control, got to lose control, got to lose control, and then you take control” — expresses the same unreconciled duality. She’s obviously adept at doing both. [9/18/08]

This entry was posted in Notes. Bookmark the permalink.