Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Thu Aug 23, 2018 4:59 pm 
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BEN DICKEY AND ALIA SHAWKAT IN BLAZE

A singer-songwriter, gifted and doomed: an artfully fractured film of a fractured life

The way Ethan Hawke's offbeat musical biopic Blaze works shows in this slice from somewhere past midway: First, a shot of Blaze Foley seated in front of a big fireplace singing for his wife. Then, second shot, as the song continues, a closeup of Blaze and his wife in a dark, intimate setting, in each other's arms as she says, "I think my days as your muse are nearly over," and he replies in a hoarse whisper, "Oh, I think they're just getting started." Third shot in the sequence, as the song still continues: Blaze performing the song on stage at a big, important concert, one of his few. Hawke slices and dices, but sometimes in a virtuoso way, and everything is heartfelt and deeply germane. Whether this film works for you depends on opening up to its rhythms, and half the time I didn't, but I accepted its sui generis sincerity, if not the way it reflects, abundantly, the current fashion for slice-and-dice editing style. (Have today's filmmakers just watched too many trailers?) At least here that style, however excessive and alienating at times, is executed with loving care and evident craft.

Blaze Foley, stage name of Michael David Fuller, the subject of this loving hipster treatment (drenched in nostalgic yellow), was an obscure but talented country-western blues singer-songwriter from Texas whose drunken boorishness often got him kicked off the stage and whose recording sessions were mostly disastrous too, but who legends like Merle Haggard, John Prine, and Lyle Lovett have celebrated and caused to be remembered through their own performances of his songs - likewise the also doomed, but longer-lived, Townes Van Zandt. I reviewed a documentary about Van Zandt in 2005. Van zandt's dissolute living is said to have helped doom Blaze Foley, who died of a gunshot wound at 39. They were pals, and fellow onstage drunks.

Van Zandt (who made it to 52 when he died of heart failure), played here by musician Charlie Sexton, does a lying radio interview about Foley that bookends and interrupts Hawke's portrait with a segment set later in time than all the rest. The portrait of Foley, given its source in his ex-wife's memoir Living in the Woods in a Tree, lingers on the couple, starting with their idyllic year in an abandoned house. Her parents point out she's Jewish and want him to convert, but the wedding and conversion are skipped over. Foley was a wanderer, and later segments, toggling back and forth with the early ones and the Van Zandt interview, show him out on his own, having left his wife to her own devices. An unlikely protagonist, Foley, inarticulate, but given to rambling tall-tale shaggy-dog jokes, with a pronounced limp from an early bout of polio, an angry drunk and largely a failure, he reflects Ethan Hawke's sympathy for talented losers, artists who never get recognition. Call it a cult of obscurity - a quality that in the movie may momentarily gather a certain perverse caché.

Several writers commented on the Blaze trailer that suggested the film had "an Inside Llewyn Davis vibe." But if so, it hasn't the Coens film's irony, energy, and momentum, only its sense of futility. Non-hipsters, not under the spell of this movie, may ask Why? and I might be glad to trade it in for Hawke's winning documentary about the New York pianist teacher Seymour Bernstein, Seymour: An Introduction. In his review of Blaze, David Edelstein calls Hawke "our most-likable movie-star dilettante." He displays his ecllectic dilettantism right in the space of this film, it jumps around so much, so nervously. Though he transforms the identity of the subject, the lead role is ably handed by singer-musician, first-time actor Ben Dickey, and anchored by Alia Shawkat, who provides conviction and clarity as Blaze's wife, aspiring actress Sybil Rosen, whose memoir this chopped narrative is based on.

Ben Dickey is good, sings and plays guitar well, and inhabits the role completely. It seems from descriptions of the real Blaze Foley, however, that he is not exactly the reincarnation of the original Blaze. The actor's hillbilly beard and ample girth give the character a softness rather unlike the actual Blaze, who was taller and thinner, more like Townes Van Zandt. Either way, this protagonist, whether sexy or soft, is hard to like. He is frequently drunk, and can be mean when he gets that way, with rambling, hostile monologues when on stage in lieu of actually singing that got him 86'ed from venues.

Many think the best scene is one in which he meets his formerly drunken and abusive father, now inarcticulate and institutionalized, and played by a diminished and barely recognizable Kris Kristofferson. Kristofferson's presence helps connect this movie emotionally with American country-folksinger legend, as name-dropping; but as a scene, it's just blank (and sad). Likewise the joke-casting of Richard Linklater, Sam Rockwell and Steve Zahn as "cowboy moneymen" (John DeFore, Hollywood Reporter review) who start a record company, Zephyr Records, to promote Foley, which fails: this is "movie-star dilettante" name-dropping and adds cultish fun.

Though obviously accomplished and affectionate, Blaze remains off-putting to the end. As Owen Gleiberman puts it in his Variety review, it's a film that continually "walks a thin line between inspiration and indulgence," even if it "ends up on the right side of that line."

Blaze, 127 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2018, and showed in six other festivals including SXSW and Locarno. It opened in US theaters 17 Aug. Metascore 77%.

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