If you go to see the documentary Patti Smith: Dream of Life expecting to be given the chronology of Patti’s life or a traditional music/concert documentary, you may be disappointed. If you go to see it with an appreciation of Patti Smith as a visual artist, songwriter, poet, activist, and iconic performance artist who turned her life into art, then you very well may be floored by the film’s stunning beauty. Not a documentary in the traditional sense at all, Dream of Life is a meditation on and a tribute to Patti Smith and the aesthetics and impetus of her art. From its opening image of horses running through red saturated grainy film with Patti’s voice echoing with divine power through the celluloid, I was completely enthralled by this film. I absorbed every fraction of image and sound, and let it wash over me with its aesthetic power.
More than just a movie, Dream of Life is like a visual poem, a piece of art that mimics Patti Smith’s style and aesthetic. It doesn’t document an individual person as much as a whole aesthetic that was born from a specific moment in history (the 1970s) and which manifested itself into this iconic diva Patti Smith who truly is larger than life. Patti Smith and the art movement of early punk are intimately intertwined. Patti Smith is more than a person. She is an entire movement and history embodied in a single voice and presence. As a woman, she moved history in music. As a voice, there is no other like Patti. Just as Patti is an artist, poet, singer, songwriter, performance artist, activist, the film is many things at once all meshed together into a beautiful piece of abstract, multi-layered art. Patti made her life into art. Everything she lived, breathed, did, performed was an art form, and the movie is just another extension of the art that is Patti Smith. To deliver the massive artistic power of Patti Smith, the film itself operates as a piece of art reflective of the place where Patti’s work originated and the aesthetics that drove it. The movie is constructed with a beautiful collage aesthetic with its blurry and grainy abstract black and white imagery intersecting with archival footage and super-saturated color sequences. Frequently the images on screen and the audio cover are from different sources. While we see the image of Patti on stage belting out her music, we hear an abstract resonating electronic pounding. While Patti recites one of her poems, we see a fractured skyline moving through a car window. The disjunction between image on screen and audio content not only adds to the sense of the film’s abstract art form, but it also works to powerfully deliver the feeling and emotion of Patti’s work. By fracturing the content and using the collage aesthetic of punk to give us this portrait of Patti, we are able to experience it as abstract visceral sensation. We are able to feel the reverberation of Patti’s art and what it signifies rather than getting caught up in the specificity of the archival moment.
Of course the aesthetics of the film and of Patti Smith’s art were not born from punk. While the film functions as a tribute to Patti Smith, it is largely framed by Patti paying tribute to the artists who inspired her and inspired the whole punk movement – William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Walt Whitman, Charles Baudelaire, and Arthur Rimbaud. These artists were monumentally important to the punk movement, inspiring a renegade anarchist poetic lifestyle that Patti has dedicated her life to. In fact, Patti Smith, through her art, has elevated herself to an art object. As represented in the film, Patti is always self-consciously living her life as an act of art. Every act is a conscious performance. You can see her editing her presence as she goes. She is constantly in possession of her Polaroid camera which she uses to distill every possible moment into a single abstract image, an artifact. When she visits Rimbaud’s grave, she isn’t just visiting a grave, she is creating a piece of performance art. The act of visiting the grave is staged so carefully, and she then pauses to kneel down and capture its essence in one single snap of the camera.
While many of Patti and punk’s literary influences are acknowledged in the film, the construction and aesthetic of the movie pay tribute to visual artists such as Stan Brakhage and Joseph Cornell who also influenced early punk. The film’s visual style – with its grainy abstract fleeting black and white photography exemplifies the punk aesthetic and the influential experimental filmmakers who inspired it. That Patti’s life is largely constructed via a series of representational objects echoes the collage aesthetic of people like Joseph Cornell and Bruce Conner that influenced punk. By the end of the film, we know less of Patti as a person than we do as Patti as an assemblage of objects that carry the intimate meaning of her life — her favorite dress from when she was a little girl, a Persian urn with Mapplethorpe’s remains, the guitar Sam Shepard gave her, a baby t-shirt with drool stains, a beat-up copy of Baudelaire. You can view some of these objects as a slideshow where the objects take on the aura of freestanding art here at the film’s website. Sure, there are some intimate personal glimpses in the film – Patti when very young, Patti visiting her parents, fleeting interactions with Patti’s children, but it is amazing how much of the “real” Patti as a human being, and not just an art form, remains inaccessible. These glimpses remain fleeting and ghostlike. They tease us in offering threads of Patti’s life, but ultimately stay beyond our reach. The filmmaking technique moves these sequences beyond a mere documentary element. The film’s style maintains a distance between Patti as aesthetic object and historical icon and Patti as a living and breathing person. The camera and Patti herself do not let us in because to make Patti Smith “real” would be to remove her from her iconic state and to deny the film its status as an impressionistic piece of art in its own right.
Despite of (or because of) its aesthetic distancing, I was overwhelmed with the power and beauty of this film. After reading some of the criticisms of the film, I was prepared to be annoyed by Patti’s presence, but that was absolutely not the case. I was hypnotized, enthralled and completely transported into the magnificence of Patti’s art. She deserves every bit of fetishistic treatment she gets in this film because there is no other Patti Smith, and there never will be. We cannot underestimate her iconic power. I was nearly brought to tears many times during the film, by Patti’s sheer force and by how much her voice has resonated in my life. I am always astonished at how much I identify with Patti Smith and how much her voice, words, presence, and art resonate with me. It was liberating for me watching the film because it validated my own voice and the place where I come from in my own creative expression, and that place still has validity here in the 21st century – as an aesthetic, an art form, a way of life, a way of thinking, and as political activism through creative expression. Listening to Patti indict George W. Bush and recite the crimes of the Bush administration and its policies on war, torture, and surveillance carries as much weight and power as listening to her rant about all the outsider “niggers” of society over thirty years ago. Her voice has not lost its power or its meaning. She has carried it with force and urgency into the 21st century.
Yes, Patti Smith continues to be a voice to be reckoned with. She changed the landscape of male-dominated rock-n-roll, and she is a living example of life as art. She deserves the gorgeous treatment she gets in this film. The film took ten years to make, ten years during which filmmaker Steven Sebring shadowed Patti and compiled footage. Imagine the daunting task of editing ten years worth of material and putting together a 109 minute film. I thank him for doing it because it was a 109 minutes that reminded me to unshackle the binds on my own creativity and to listen to the Patti inside myself and let her voice out. It reminded me that artists like Patti Smith, her aesthetic and everything she stands for, never die, and that their voices will always have value. That’s why they’re artists.
Patti Smith: Dream of Life will be released on DVD on Tuesday, January 13, 2009.
KIM NICOLINI is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her partner, daughter, and a menagerie of beasts. She works a day job to support her art and culture habits. She is currently finishing a book-length essayistic memoir about being a teenage runaway in 1970s San Francisco. Her work has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Bullhorn and Berkeley Review. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.