Three Documentary Films

Patti Smith: Dream of Life

Man on Wire

Encounters at the End of the World

It’s interesting how triangulation creates perspective. I went to see these documentaries in the order listed, was disappointed by the first, enchanted by the second, and found that the third, amazing in its own right, illuminated the first two. (All three will be available on DVD this fall or winter.)

Why do we watch documentaries and docudramas? Aside from sheer voyeurism, we’re always looking for revelation, for understanding, for connection: ‘this is the way it really is; this is what it felt like to be there—or to be this person.’

Patti Smith: Dream of Life

(Directed by Steven Sebring)

What we find in Patti Smith: Dream of Life isn’t the revelation of a life, but the reenactment of rituals—a performance. The filmmaker, Steven Sebring, followed Smith around for years, apparently filming whatever she chose to present.

Patti Smith is a brilliant performer, and the brief concert clips are compelling.

There is always a question of the extent to which knowing about the life of a performer illuminates the performance—which, by its nature, exists in a space entirely independent of the life. Except when the life is mythologized to shape the image of the performer—as, say, with Judy Garland.

Which may be what Patti Smith is up to in this film that, she keeps telling us, took 10 years to make (although, apparently, it took 11).

It starts with her appealingly dry voiceover, summarizing her heady years in New York City as a young poet and rocker and, in 1979 (at 33), her withdrawal into wife- and motherhood in the Detroit suburbs with her musician husband. After his death, she heads back to New York—and to Europe, and into a timeless space in which the 70’s (as a continuation of the 60’s) continue forever, frozen in time (or flowing eternally in an alternate universe).

Although parts are in color, I remember the film in black-and-white: Patti Smith in her Annie Hall outfit, bowler hat and black jacket, white shirt, black pants, black shoes or boots. (Amazing the range of that outfit, which seems to work equally well with ditzy and punk.)

Patti Smith is riding in the back of a limo. She’s visiting Rimbaud’s birthplace. Sitting in his outhouse.

She’s occupying the corner of a room. She says she’ll stay there until the film is finished. Many small activities in that corner: a cat on the windowsill, objects to pick up and put down. Her omnipresent Polaroid camera.

A still photo of dirty dishes in a sink, in grainy black and white. Home movies in her parents’ south Jersey house and yard.

Her beautiful daughter and son, the son in performance with her, the daughter walking with her, hand in hand, glowing. Smith walking and dancing on the beach.

And in between, the concert clips, of which, frankly, we’d like more.

Because somewhere in there, this reenactment of holy hippie innocence—as reincarnated by a romantic punk-nihilist in her 50’s for the camera of a fashion photographer quite a few years her junior—begins to feel disappointingly narcissistic, heavily scripted and, ultimately, rather banal.

All those visits to the tombs of dead poets. Certainly obligatory for a romantic punk nihilist, but the kind of thing usually done by people in their 20’s.

So was this film really—for Smith, if not for Sebring—an exercise not just in stopping but in recapturing the time before Smith married and retreated from the New York scene?

There are moments that feel spontaneous. When she’s playing guitar with Sam Shepherd, joking about how she can’t really play the guitar. Of course they’re both performing, but they seem genuinely caught up in the moment, relating to each other as much as to the camera.

At another point, Smith is painting directly on a wall while telling us she should wear mittens to museums because she always wants to touch the paintings. When she makes her own paintings, she’s free to do that. The painting she’s making isn’t up to much, but we feel a connection to something interesting about her.

Those moments make us feel as though, in most of the rest of the film, she’s using ritual, a performance presented as if it were a life, to keep us out. She’s interesting when she shows us the life, allows something like spontaneity. But there is very little of that, and the movie ultimately disappoints.

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3 Responses to “Three Documentary Films”

  1. seriouspop Says:

    Bravo, Signe. If you can believe it, I haven’t yet seen ANY of the three. I will now. Check out my new blog. -Jerry

  2. pattismithdreamoflife Says:


  3. Bill Pearlman Says:

    Well done. I saw the Smith and Wire, but not from such a thorough perspective. And the reminders of the fate of the Towers one senses in the Wire film, probably have a peculiar resonance for New Yorkers, The context of risk in all the films interests me, and makes the threesome fit in some strong way.

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