March 8, 2009

A Poet on Celluloid

Print More

At an hour and forty-five minutes, this documentary might not be long enough to do justice to Patti Smith, this poet and musician whose career has spanned 40 years. But Patti Smith: Dream of Life, the culmination of 10 years of filming and shown last week at Cornell Cinema, provides a captivating look at the life and work of this artist of the spoken word. We accompany her as she tours to Japan, India and Israel, performing her poetry with a rock band. But we’re also there for her quieter moments, when she’s riding in a car, visiting her parents, or sitting in a corner amidst a pile of her belongings. Her voice is strong, sharp and deep. Her poetry is raw and un-frilled. And physically, Patti Smith presents herself in the same “what you see is what you get” manner. Her face is wrinkled, her hair unkempt. Her aged appearance is a tribute to the longevity of her career, which she recounts, starting from when she moved to New York in the late ’60s and created poetic works such as “Horses” in 1975. She tells of how she left New York in the eighties, but continued creating poetry, including this film’s namesake, “Dream of Life,” 1986.

While the film’s title is Dream of Life, this documentary profoundly acknowledges the realities of death. Smith refers to the ’70s as a time when all her friends were alive. We learn how Smith’s life has been filled with death, of her friends that helped establish her career and of her closest relatives, her husband and brother. This film recurringly presents Smith’s visits to the graves of her peers and her family, and she even shows us the remains she’s kept of collaborator Robert Maplethorp. She also visits the graves of poets who inspired her, such as William Blake, as though her relationships with them were just as intimate.
Another aspect of Smith’s life that this film explores is her social activism, which in present times has taken root in her criticism of the Bush administration and the Iraq War. The film intercuts Smith’s recital of the Declaration of Independence, which she reads just as strongly and emotionally as if it was one of her poems, with images of the Vietnam War memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, anti-war protests and Smith’s own calls for Bush to be indicted. Adding a tragic endnote to a performance of “My Generation,” Smith laments of her own generation, “We had dreams, and we created George Bush!”

Despite Smith’s prowess and endurance as a spoken word artist, this film is at its most entertaining when it acknowledges her quirks and flaws. As a captivating as her poetry is, the story of how she urinated while sitting next to a pilot without his noticing makes her a legend in its own right. (Sadly, her companion manages to trump her with his own tale of stealthy peeing.) And to hear her still struggling to play the guitar that she’s had since 1971, with the friend that gave it to her looking on, asking, “And you’ve got how many albums?” shows that Smith isn’t content with the film showing her as a legend, but instead as a person.

Most importantly, this film is a celebration of art. And not just art in the form of Patti Smith’s poetry, but of art in all forms — visual, aural and tactile. In one scene Patti shows recalls her admiration for Pollack’s paintings, and how she desired to touch the portraits that she saw in museum, a problem that she remedied by making her own paintings that she could touch whenever she wanted. She tells us what Pollack contemptuously said about Picasso, “Damn him, he’s done everything!” This documentary, by looking back on Patti Smith’s decades-long career, affirms that we can say the same about her.