Thursday, September 3, 2009

New York Doll

I've been without a computer at home for several months now, following the hard-drive blowup that occured FIFTEEN HOURS before the external backup drive I'd ordered finally was delivered after shipping delays. Since I can't surf at work, this means my Netflix qeue, at that time about 102 items deep, has been a blind item with every new DVD. I've enjoyed depleting my long waiting list, watching the organization of my themed periods of rentals going by.

I'm thinking "Velvet Goldmine" must be next - because yesterday's special was "New York Doll."

NYD is a documentary about Arthur "Killer" Kane, founding member and bass player for the much-fabled, but short-lived (and ill-starred, if one listens to Morrisey) band, The New York Dolls. I can say I've probably been an indirect disciple of the Dolls, through a storied and scattershot career as a fan of many, many different kinds of music - but even adding them, for some time, to my Slacker radio station hasn't made me a fan. I think I got the documentary originally exactly because of this - a desire to learn or at least expose myself to a group I know to be "seminal" in, in fact, many of the fields I've been attached to in one way or another over my career.

I also suspect I read reviews explaining what a hell of a good documentary this is.

It's a first-time venture by a guy named Greg Whiteley, who knew Arthur during a period after he had converted to Mormonism and was working in Los Angeles in the Temple's Family History Center, living hand-to-mouth and dreaming of his lost success.

Kane (I can't stick to calling him either Arthur OR Killer, in this context) comes across as a fragile, disconnected, and extraordinarily open man entirely unequipped for the necessities and realities of life. There is some history of the Dolls, a good layer of context for the present, in a well-told and briskly edited backstory not dwelling too twee-ly on the past - but the movie is unequivocally Kane's; his story, his perspective, his LACK of perspective; his life. It's not entitled in the singular by accident.

I was stunned, for a fairly short film, by how extremely well edited it is. It's densely visual, and nothing is wasted. A few visual dissolves are repeated in the first stages of the film, pictures of Kane at present morphing through periods of his life back to the lipsticked-and-long-haired rockstar he was at twenty-four.

If you come to this film, like me, having forgotten your reasons for seeing it, and without any knowledge or understanding of either its subject or the New York Dolls more generally (but with a good chronological position in life to "get" the period in a contextual way), it's a pleasurable revelation. As you learn what's going on (Kane has just been invited to a Dolls reunion show at the Royal Albert Hall, after thirty years' despair over the lost glory days), it's quite easy to invest real interest in what's about to happen next - will Kane be able to heal old wounds between himself and former bandmade/relative success David Johansen? Will the show go well? What can possibly happen next, this dream having come true ... ?

The neatness of the progression of real events is almost too perfect to be believed. The final denouement is genuinely affecting.

But the movie doesn't really play for effect, and that is wise. It knows it's a movie about rock and roll, about a band whose influence was unexpected, powerful, far-reaching, and completely destructive to the members themselves. It doesn't manipulate, and it doesn't make much of a saint of Kane (one should pardon the pun, given his religion ...). His intense suggestibility and inability to cope combine with a very real affability to make for a compelling character study of a man I suspect many viewers wouldn't actually care to know personally.

But the filmmaker knew Kane personally for three or four years before this project. He apparently comes, too, from that area of Kane's life - the Church - where the view of his rockstar-dom was most unusually situated (see also - interviews with his septugenarian coworkers, gently laughing about being groupies, and earnestly assuring the camera what an invaluable coworker he is). Whiteley was acquainted with a confused, fifty-something guy in a square white shirt and cheap apartment, who could never go long without mentioning his former fame, who would bring friends to his home and incongruously position himself right in front of the memorabilia of his astonishingly raucous past. He seems to have taken every opportunity to think and talk about his losses, but been perhaps overwhelmed by his own inability to assimilate or even properly analyze his sadness.

As we move through pawn shops and the Temple, then to New York for the reunions, and finally to London, where Kane is almost unable to compute the level of comfort and luxury of a fairly standard hotel quite, we see the inevitable, repeated response of face after face to his understated, damaged, undeniable charisma. This is a man often bewildered, but never wavering. His faith in his church is deeply sincere, and therefore really beautiful. His easily-recalled habits of rockstardom, dusted off thirty years later in the attainment of a dream he has held so long, are no less real. The aging, meek librarian is no contradiction to the pirate-shirted bass player whose bass lines, I do have to acknowledge, probably make up the very best part of anything the Dolls ever recorded. He isn't able to conceptualize or concern himself with what some people consider sophistication. But his gratification in being blessed by his faith is palpable, and impossible to deny. When he prays, there is powerful gratitude in it.

People around him, over and over, throughout the film, do not respond to him patronizingly nor protectively. Gentle as he may seem, he doesn't inspire nurturing, but an uncanny kind of respect he manages to take for granted with a kind of arrogance I don't believe I have ever witnessed. Whatever he is, he knows, and if he's never been at home in his own skin, he knows every last crease of it - knows his abilities to their last atom - and does not apologize, nor incite pity, for anything he has ever been. Or is.

What is interesting is that, as much as I've talked about my impression of the man, my first response, in watching, was acutally most strongly to the film making. I could see the craft, and appreciated it immediately. The visual editing is second to none; every single image, fast cut as each of them may be, is interesting and substantial. And, though it moves fast on the screen, it's not edited for style nor effect (in the "special" effects sense); each image or video, as it appears, comes when it should, has some relevance to whatever is being said or whatever is happening. More impactful than anything else are simple images of Kane's own face - past and present. I've seen films in which a long-held shot of someone's face is edited to create an impression (I'm looking at YOU, "Fog of War" ... about which, I mean to post more at some point too). Kane can't be manipulated in the same way. His relationship to the camera is about as honest, as unaffected, as anyone I've seen. His quasi-childlike lack of agenda when performing (and being in front of any camera is a performance for anyone) is possibly more engaging than he himself, or his rockstar-to-rock-bottom story really is. The arc isn't interesting without the charisma, and whatever that is, he does have something of his own.

For many of the talking heads, I had little use to speak of - Chrissye Hynde seems to have nothing to say, apart from quiet but definite agreements with anything Bob Geldof might have to observe. Morrisey seems a nice enough guy, but is fortunately not presented here as the featured Fairy Godfather his role in Kane's reunion/concert might have led another director to; he's a fan. They all are.

Kane's own oldest friends, his surviving bandmates, Sylvain Sylvain and David Johansen, are the people who gain the very least depth here. What's interesting is, I find that appropriate. Johansen in particular, the adversary of the piece, the guy *I* first knew a Buster Poindexter, remains a bit of a cypher, reunited but not particuarly emotionally reconciled with Kane - and fairly oblivious to anything apart from himself. He comes across not so much as the nemesis resolved, but as the ghost merely dissipated by daylight, as insubstantial as morning's mist.

Which is actually better than he ever came off as Buster Poindexter, and would have been a pleasanter alternative ... Johansen has always come off as a minimally talented blowhard, to me, thanks to his alter ego - but he came up with the idea, so the taint still sticks, and it's all his to bear.

For my money, Kane was probably the Doll worth playing with. Or worth hearing him play.

The basslines ARE killer.

Get this if you're a Netflixer. It's an easy and interesting, very well made doc.

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