Shock Treatment and Awe: The Divided City of Lou Reed's Mind
Lou Reed’s Berlin, Dir: Julian Schnabel, Now Playing
Lou Reed is, of course, an all-time great rock and roll songwriter and vital inspiration to generations of artists. David Bowie, The Feelies, Yo La Tengo-these are just a few of the enormously huge number deeply indebted to his work and aesthetic. His achievements stand shoulder to shoulder with nearly any popular music icon in the second half of the 20th century, and as a matter of personal testimony, his work has brought almost untold joy into the lives of these authors who hold him in a state of maximum regard and appreciation.
Having stated this, it feels oddly paradoxical to assert the possibility that maybe Lou Reed is something of a moron. How unique and surprising this possibility is! Contrast this with a few of his rough contemporaries, say Bob Dylan or Elvis Costello or Leonard Cohen. Whatever masquerading and posturing these artists may have engaged in over time as say, country bumpkins, monosyllabic punks, or cranky Cassandras of social and moral decay- it has never really seemed possible for a serious minute that each of them were not, on some level, intellectual geniuses. Not so, Lou Reed, he of the famous teenage shock treatments, the staggering consumption over decades of every conceivable chemical, and hilarious malapropisms in such song lyrics as “I want a mistrial to clear my name.” God bless Lou, you just never know if he is in character or has forgotten what certain words mean. Part of the time you accept that he is making literary allusions to Nelson Algren and William Burroughs, and part of the time you find yourself guessing whether he might just be very confused. So convincing is his conjuring of a specific sort of bohemian knucklehead that it has become inextricable from the very experience of enjoying his music.
Lou’s maudlin, ridiculously bleak song-cycle 1973 song cycle Berlin is arguably the apotheosis of his “is it good or is it embarrassing?” trademark. Thirty-five years later, one can still put on this record and wonder if the man had or has any idea whether he was doing melodrama or comedy, going for laughs and a kind of commentary on narrative itself or if he really expects us to accept this craze of emotional extremes as a serious statement.
Reed has always fixated, by turns charming and portentous, on “high art” as an inspiration for his lurid version of rock and roll. But he can feel awfully unpersuasive at times. In the early days of the Velvet Underground, he was seemingly engaged in a constant struggle to appear equally as experimentally inclined as his avant-composer band mate John Cale, a kind of ridiculous meta-narrative which persisted well into both men’s solo careers, culminating with Reed’s infamous 1975 two disc set of guitar feedback Metal Machine Music, an essentially unreviewable gesture of fidelity to the notion of noise as art.
This trend has continued unabated throughout his career. One can construct a legitimate experience of Reed’s work which suggests that his persistent attraction to the experimental/avant impulses of John Cage, Andy Warhol and Delmore Schwartz is tempered by the reality that has he never really understood them. This goes some way towards explaining the great results and also the strange and thudding missteps.
Into this mélange steps Julian Schnabel. Schnabel, the 1980’s New York art star who reinvented himself as an acclaimed filmmaker, last made The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, which was many critics’ favorite picture of 2007. His interest in Berlin however, reminds us that his first film in 1996 was the biopic Basquiat, an over-romanticized depiction of Schnabel’s doomed contemporary from the ’80s art scene, a story of bohemian excess gone wrong. Schnabel is in his wheelhouse with Berlin: the material deals with a time, place and subject matter with which he is clearly at ease. Depending on one’s perspective, this makes him either an ideal confederate or the most disastrous choice to bring this performance to the screen.
Set in the divided city of the 1970s, Berlin is a patchwork narrative which follows the drug and sex-addled descent of Caroline, a beautiful young woman, into a untold misery and eventually suicide. While one must ponder how seriously Reed himself takes Caroline’s story, there can be no doubt that Schnabel finds it to be a tragedy non-pareil, worthy of any literary comparison. In the press materials, he refers to Berlin as, amongst other things, a “masterwork about love’s dark sisters: jealousy, rage and loss.” This sort of maximum investment inspired a kitchen sink gravitas in staging: dramatic hues of red, child choirs shot to emphasize maximum innocence and vulnerability, the occasional montage of ageless French ingénue Emmanuelle Seigner, apparently cast as Caroline, engaged in all manner of druggy capering on the highway to hell.
That Berlin begins as a supremely enjoyable rock album full of some of Reed’s finest comic-dyspeptic rants and rave-ups only heightens the enigma. On the LP’s first side, Reed handles the lurid subject matters with characteristic satisfaction, even pleasure. Several of his most priceless lyrics of the shock therapy patient variety fall in songs like “Lady Day” and “Men Of Good Fortune”. Amongst acolytes, it is a source of frequent goodnatured conjecture as to whether some of the churlishly misanthropic, astoundingly careless lyrics in these songs (“Just like poison in a vial/Hey! She was often very vile”) constitute Lou at his most deadpan hilarious, or if they were authored in a druggy haze or (different kind of) druggy hurry. Anyway, Reed’s comportment on stage during these songs lends a great deal of credence to the notion that he is at least half kidding about the entire thing. With an orchestra behind him and a powerful rock band by his side, Lou grins wolfishly and frequently laughs through good to great performances like “How Do You Think It Feels” and “Caroline Says 1”. Watching him take such evident joy in detailing the miasma of human misery can be extremely, darkly funny.
Given this approach by the author himself during the movie/album’s first half, Schnabel’s weighty direction feels overcooked. The director has repeatedly discussed his sense of deep personal connection to the material, but Caroline is, at best, a roughly sketched caricature of doomed beauty, and those not invested in the sort of Hubert Selby mythology from which her story derives might well find themselves puzzled over what precisely makes the strumpet’s downfall so cataclysmically tragic.
However, the second side of Berlin manages one of the most curious emotional pivots in all of rock and roll-one which accords far more effectively with Schnabel’s methodology. Having established the Teutonic metropolis as a kind of jocular hellscape, the final 25 minutes of the record chronicle Caroline’s last days with an earnest, plain-spoken sadness that incontrovertibly puts all kidding aside. The narrative, told mainly from the point of view of the raging, grief-stricken lover abandoned in the wake of her suicide, depicts how Caroline has her children taken from her by social services, falls further into an estranged depression, and eventually murders herself in the bed that she and her narrator-lover once shared. The change in tone is so abrupt, so severe, and rendered with such expertise that it is difficult not to feel both egregiously manipulated and legitimately moved. Reed’s writing here is remarkably detailed and economical, a total inversion of the carelessness of the first side. It is some of his best work and astonishingly unfun to listen to. In fact, the material at the end is so charged that it induces a real sense of catharsis with respect to characters that you don’t even feel you like, or know anything about. It is such a bullshit move that you cannot help but resent the tears welling in your eyes.
At these moments, Schnabel’s grand gestures feel appropriate. His touches become illustrative of the material, however one finally takes it: as a preposterous and mean-spirited joke, a truly great meditation on grief, or a kind of ambitious fuckup full of half-formed ideas jumbled into a deeply unsettling whole.