Monday, January 7, 2019

Blaze: Inspiration

Ben Dickey and Alia Shawkat in Blaze.

Blaze, Ethan Hawke’s biography of the Austin-based country singer-songwriter Blaze Foley (born Michael David Fuller), who died in 1989 at the age of thirty-nine, leaves you in a haze. When I shut it off, close to midnight, I found myself shuffling aimlessly around my apartment, not knowing what the hell to do with myself; I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t read, and God knows I couldn’t think of watching anything else. I finally called the one friend I knew had seen it and was as gobsmacked by it as I was, because only talking about it could settle me down. How did Hawke become a director of this caliber? (His documentary Seymour: An Introduction, which came out in 2014, was quirky and interesting, but it didn’t provide any clues that he was heading in this direction.) Blaze has a dreamy, contemplative quality layered onto the mood of an all-night rock ‘n’ roll binge, and it’s as fresh and experimental as the early French New Wave pictures – but instead of blending movies and literature, it’s a heady mix of movies and music, and it’s quintessentially American, with a rough-hewn, bardic Beat poeticism. Hawke starts with his hero (Ben Dickey), gets on his wavelength, and moves in closer and closer. He approaches his subject from several angles – mostly in scenes focused on his relationship with Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat), in musical performances (generally in sparsely attended low-rent joints), and in the stories his musician friends Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton) and Zee (Josh Hamilton) tell about him in a long, rambling interview with a radio D.J. (played, appropriately enough, by Hawke himself). Not a single scene is worked through conventionally in either the writing – Hawke and Rosen wrote the screenplay, based on her memoir Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley – or the direction. The rhythms are unfamiliar and take some getting used to, and the film goes on too long, as if Hawke just didn’t want to let go of his subject. I didn’t blame him. By the end I felt I knew Foley inside and out, and I was so mesmerized by him, and by the peculiar melancholy of the picture, that I too wanted to hang on just a little bit longer.

The movie is about that kind of driving individualism that creates outlaw geniuses, most often among musicians because the life they’ve chosen is nomadic, rootless. There’s a marvelous documentary about Van Zandt by Margaret Brown, Be Here to Love Me, that gets at the way artists like him follow their non-conformist bent as far as it will take them, electing to live outside society because the only doctrine they recognize is their music. They’re generally eaten up by drugs and alcohol (as Van Zandt was) and they leave abandoned lovers and children in their wake when they go on down the road: the interviews with Van Zandt’s kids, all from different marriages, who report what it was like to visit him and try to fit into his shaggy, disordered lifestyle, make you inexpressibly sad. Yet you listen to those desolate, haunting ballads and they capture a dark subterranean view of living in America that you know is authentic. Like Brown, Hawke clearly loves his subject and is dedicated to presenting him in a way that neither short-changes him nor sentimentalizes him. What’s amazing is that he found a style – romantic but not romanticizing – to frame that project, and just as Foley was every inch his own man, that style is sui generis, even though the material overlaps somewhat with the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, which I think is the most original and evocative of their pictures. But the movie that comes closest to the experience of Blaze is another documentary, the 1976 Heartworn Highways, a startlingly intimate depiction of the Austin music scene that builds toward a long sequence, appealing and unsettling in equal parts, in which Guy and Susanna Clark and some of their friends sit around a table in their cabin, besotted with whiskey and weed, playing late into the night.

Blaze meets Sybil in an artists’ commune (she’s an aspiring actress); they move in together and eventually marry, but the spare, dusty rooms they live in make it look like they’re on an extended camping trip. Moving to Austin is her suggestion; she loves Blaze’s music and she thinks it would jump-start his career. But though they adore each other, his long road trips and his inability to resist the sexual temptations that come along with them eventually wear down their relationship. She’s a hippie with a patient disposition but she’s also a nice Jewish girl who’s bourgeois enough to want a nice home and a husband she can rely on. (Rosen herself plays Sybil’s mother in one scene.) One day she comes home from work to find him sacked out in bed and the lyrics of a song he wrote for her the night before, when he was trashed, scribbled all over their walls. The song, “I Shoulda Stayed Home,” is a confession and an apology for screwing around with some other woman after a show rather than coming straight home to her. It’s sweet but also wearying, like the prospect that she’s going to have to clean up after him and wash down those walls so the landlord doesn’t evict them. Shawkat gives a fine performance. The little we see of Sybil’s acting doesn’t reveal much color, but Shawkat’s own acting shows an economy of emotional expression, not a lack of it.

Ben Dickey, a musician who has never acted before, has an exuberant, outsize presence, and his performance is, from start to finish, totally unexpected. You can see why Hawke wanted him for the part – not just because his instincts are those of a musician (and a superb one) but also because, since he hasn’t worked up any acting technique, it’s as if he’s discovering acting as he goes. It’s a miraculous performance, and Hawke shapes it so delicately, with all the unfinished edges left intact, that we can’t see how he does it. It’s no surprise, of course, when a good actor becomes a good actor’s director, and Hawke is a brilliant actor. He gets superb work out of Charlie Sexton as Townes Van Zandt – when someone in the audience at the Austin Outhouse (where Foley gave his last performance, the night before his death) murmurs that Van Zandt’s a junkie, you realize that Sexton has been subtly showing us how drugs have worn away at this man like a ghost that somehow slipped underneath his skin, howling silently through the hollows in his face. Kris Kristofferson appears as Blaze’s father for perhaps three minutes; he has only two or three lines, but the scene is indelible, I’d say the best he’s ever played. And an actor named Martin Bats Bradford makes a frightening appearance as a dope-crazed young man who shoots Blaze when he gets between the kid and his father’s pension check, which he extorts from the old man – a friend of Foley’s – every month.

The unarranged beauty of the film is a marvel; the images were lit by Steve Cosens, who photographed Born to Be Blue, the barely-noticed Chet Baker bio from 2015 that featured one of Hawke’s most stunning performances. Among Blaze’s distinctions, it’s the most gorgeous-looking movie of the past year; Hawke is a genuine image maker. Another is its soundtrack. I didn’t know a thing about Foley before I saw the movie, though it turns out I’d heard some of his tunes in recordings by Van Zandt and others. Music, much of it written by Foley, runs through the film (there must be a couple of dozen songs) like a current, inseparable from the character of the protagonist, inseparable from the overwhelming emotional experience of the movie.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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