Monday, March 10, 2008

As Bright As the Stars

This past weekend, my wife and I watched La Vie En Rose, a French-language biopic that garnered actress Marion Cotillard an Oscar for her portrayal of singer Edith Piaf. Cotillard more than earned the honor. Her performance, which starts with Piaf’s wide-eyed teenage years and ends with her shuddering, raving death at 47, is enthralling. The role subsumes her so thoroughly that the audience experiences the rare cinematic treat of forgetting there’s a performer onscreen.

The plot is another thing altogether. Naturally, one must exercise caution in critiquing a story based on a real life, since a writer can only exercise so much creativity with it. Yet you can easily predict the film’s trajectory after seeing the first scene during which Piaf collapses onstage. Artist grows up in hardscrabble circumstances, is serendipitously discovered by a benefactor, achieves great fame, struggles with a preferred addiction, and either finds redemption or perishes tragically. Unlike its American cousins Ray and Walk the Line, La Vie En Rose takes the latter tack with Piaf succumbing to liver cancer after years of swilling booze and shooting morphine. It’s a downer. Which is to be expected, I guess, it being French and all.

The reason why this particular pattern gets tossed up again and again is that artists repeat it in their lives. Quick -- name three famous and creative individuals who have battled gross dissolution. My three are Jimi Hendrix, River Phoenix and Brad Renfro. You probably named a completely different trio. This common theme of self destruction makes me wonder about its cause. Why do these people who burn so brightly snuff themselves out? Art requires great discipline. Shouldn’t it carry over into life?

My mother hazards that the need to escape from rigid restraint is their downfall. They overdo it trying to find release. A close friend argues that their discipline remains intact, but finds new, unhealthy objects. When creative pursuits fail to provide lasting fulfillment (as they usually do), they start looking for something else. If that something is harmful and they attack it with the same dedication once reserved for their art, well, you can do the math.

Whatever the reason, it feels as though someone has buried his fist in my gut every time it happens. Each Cobain and Belushi is such a stupendous waste. My friend pointed out Phil Keaggy, who Hendrix allegedly called the greatest guitarist in the world, as a contrast. What if Hendrix had followed Keaggy’s lead, stayed clean and was still recording today? Could River Phoenix have grown into the same caliber of actor as his brother Joaquin? Perhaps their flames would have flickered and dimmed. Or perhaps they would have burned as bright as the stars in the sky.

(Picture: CC 2007 by beatdrifter)


Amy said...

No spoiler alert? Thanks a lot!

This is such a sad phenomenon, and I think it has something to do with the general social capabilities of true "artists." If you've ever been in the presence of genius, it is not hard to see how awkward and out of place the one with genius tendencies is. They would, more often than not, rather be hermits, left alone with a pen or a guitar or a paintbrush, or in the company of a very tight inner circle of trusted friends. I believe it is when we yank them into the open and force them to be our marionettes that they must find a way to cope and play the game... and moderation doesn't work.

I think of Elvis, Chris Farley and well, Britney - although I'm not sure "genius" applies to the latter.

But for each one there is a Johnny Depp and a Paul Newman and a Tom Petty - out of the spotlight, just making their art.

Loren Eaton said...

My friend and I were talking about the "out of the spotlight" factor. Usually after a person dies, his output gets sorted and the classic works separated from the dross. But if you're just living your life and working (and having a heck of an output), you have a lot for fans and pundits to sort through after your death -- and their isn't the dramatic impetus brought on by a tragic death to hasten it. It can take years for such people to be really recognized.

Sorry about the spoiler. Although, honestly, you could tell it was going to go badly within the first ten minutes.