Monday, May 05, 2008

Spoken Words on film: "Patti Smith: Dream of Life"

- Life is an adventure of our own design, intersected by fate in a series of lucky and unlucky accidents.
Last Friday night, Janet and I met Sheila at Dukem restaurant on U street before seeing the movie "Patti Smith: Dream of Life," which was shown at the Lincoln theater as part of Filmfest DC. Over the past few years we've seen several excellent movies about aging rock stars (Leonard Cohen's "I'm Your Man," Neil Young's "Heart of Gold" and, most recently "Shine a Light"). We enjoyed them all, but this movie is quite different. The others are essentially music video. This is performance art and poetry.

Patti narrates the movie, which was directed and shot by Stephen Sebring. Most of it is in a straightforward autobiographical style. Some of it is her speaking to the camera, showing us her life or talking about people she has known. Some of it is transcendent spoken word in the style of Whitman or Ginsberg. You hear her recite Alan Ginsberg's poetry in memorium. You hear her recite the Declaration of Independence and an indictment of George W. Bush. You hear beautiful words that are surely her own.

Many people close to Patti Smith have died, and this movie is very much in honor of them. The film shows us her photos: William Burroughs, Alan Ginsberg, her late husband Fred Smith and many many others. Her parents, now deceased, are interviewed. She shows us a small urn carrying some of Robert Mapplethorpe remains, which she takes with her on trips. She visits the grave of William Blake. She visits the graves of Gregory Corso and Percy Shelley. She visits the grave of Artur Rimbaud. She quotes Whitman about writing for future poets (like herself). She quotes T. S. Eliot about the tension between honoring past poets and creating something new. She quotes someone to the effect that we all die, but our words live on. The film opens by saying, repeatedly, that "Life is an adventure of our own design intersected by fate in a series of lucky and unlucky accidents." It is a celebration of poetry and life.

After the film Patti and Stephen came onto the stage and answered questions. Then, Patti performed a few songs with her son Jackson. It was a great evening.