Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright
2018 / USA / 129 min. / Dir. by Ethan Hawke / Opened in select cities on Aug. 17, 2018; locally on Sept. 28, 2018by:
The whiskey-soaked Outlaw Country biopic Blaze is Ethan Hawke’s fourth feature film as a director, and the second that entails a deep dive into the life and times of a professional musician. Seymour: An Introduction, Hawke’s 2014 documentary about classical pianist Seymour Bernstein, is less a traditional non-fictional portrait than a joyous and intensely earnest artistic statement. As a filmmaker, Hawke was able to efficaciously translate Bernstein’s hard-won, commendable worldview – about creation, performance, instruction, integrity, and life itself – into glowing cinematic form.
At first glance, Blaze appears to be the director’s foray into what is frequently a tired narrative subgenre: the True Story™ of an under-appreciated artist’s incandescent emergence, followed by their all-too-soon passing due to substance abuse and other self-immolating behavior. Often, the message in such films is essentially one of bittersweet tongue-clucking, a glib lament that such raw talent was so wastefully snuffed out in such a trite manner. Hawke is both too ardent and too astute for such facileness, however. Blaze is a conflicted film, as uncertain about its thesis as Seymour was clarion. This, oddly enough, works to the film’s immense benefit, invigorating an otherwise musty set of biopic tropes.
In recounting the short, fraught life of country music singer-songwriter Blaze Foley (born Michael Fuller), Hawke asks the viewer to wrestle with the uglier aspects of creativity and mythmaking. If Blaze doesn’t provide much in the way of easy answers – or even a clear position on the matter of Foley’s artistic legacy – such ambiguity is mostly a feature rather than a bug. This is not the sort of biopic that is all that concerned with convincing the viewer of its subject’s creative genius and enduring importance. Blaze’s methods are more poetic than proclamatory, focused primarily on transforming the raw facts of Foley’s life into an elliptical and heartsick dive bar epic, its arias picked out on an acoustic guitar in the wee hours of the night. Between the lines of this lyrical portraiture, however, is a sticky attempt to grapple with the havoc wreaked on lives and relationships by the toxic trifecta of art, commerce, and personal demons.
Blaze Foley himself remains a bit of an enigma throughout Hawke’s film. Touchingly portrayed by newcomer Ben Dickey with an easy, enviable authenticity, Foley is a hungry, lumbering grizzly of a man, eager to etch his name among America’s country legends. Limping from a childhood bout with polio, he doesn’t project the usual slate of artistic insecurities, or the devouring narcissism often cultivated to compensate for such self-doubts. Foley is comfortable with his talent, and the respect he demands from colleagues and strangers alike is that owed to any performer, not just Great Artists.
Unfortunately, Foley also has numerous weaknesses – primarily alcohol, cocaine, and the unresolved angst of an abusive childhood – as well as a hot-headed, allegedly principled streak that leads to a stalled career and ultimately to his death. Partly owing to Dickey’s relaxed-yet-reserved performance, however, there is a distinct backwoods guardedness to Foley; he speaks bluntly, but only in a vocabulary of country-fried adages and self-pitying gripes. It’s in his melancholy songs and his rambling postcards to his wife Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat) that a more effusive and honestly confessional Foley emerges.
Combined with the film’s time-hopping structure, these factors give Blaze the feeling of an observer’s conflicted recollections of Foley, rather than a work of headspace portraiture centered on the man himself. Which is eminently fitting, given that the Hawke co-wrote the film with Rosen, adapting her 2008 memoir Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley. (Rosen even has a cameo in the film, appearing as her own mother in an awkward meet-the-parents scene that’s ripe with affable redneck vs. middle-class Jew culture clash.) It’s easy to envision how Rosen might have erred here, turning the screenplay into either a sour, self-serving work or a swooning act of hagiography. With Hawke’s assist, however, she’s crafted a script that is diligently focused on her troubled lover while also consistently mindful of her perspective – with the occasional despairing head-shake at her own youthful stupidity. Blaze might be Foley’s story, but it is (mostly) Rosen’s version of the tale, filtered through Hawke’s palpable zeal at portraying the artistic life, warts and all.
The film’s structure is a darting and looping thing, but Hawke’s approach here is not digressive – the occasionally indulgent two-plus-hour running time notwithstanding. Nor, strictly speaking, is it loose and impressionistic in a manner that aims for a sensibility of jumbled reminiscence. There is a clear narrative, albeit one that’s been cut-and-pasted into a form that allows for evocative, time-tripping juxtaposition. Hawke nests roughly chronological scenes of Foley’s musical career and his romance with Sybil within not one but two framing sequences. The first concerns Foley’s last day on Earth, the centerpiece of which is a rancorous and poorly-attended afternoon appearance at a roadhouse, a performance that Foley records for a notional live album. (In the process, the tape captures not only Foley’s on-stage ramblings, but also the chatter and heckling of the indifferent bar patrons.)
Secondarily, Hawke layers in snippets of an interview given by Foley’s friends Townes (Charlie Sexton) and Zee (Josh Hamilton) to a guileless and mostly unseen radio DJ (Hawke), some indefinite time after Foley’s death. “Townes” would be fellow Outlaw Country legend Townes Van Zandt, a figure whose artistic import was similarly overlooked in his lifetime but has been posthumously recognized in a way that has generally eluded Foley. Although the interview is ostensibly about Van Zandt, he quickly diverts the discussion into a glowing testimonial about his departed friend, an endeavor that Zee regards with a kind of befuddlement that slowly evolves into angry annoyance.
This second framing device is the most conspicuous indication that what Blaze is up to is something thornier than the standard biopic ambition to give a neglected artist their due. As Townes waxes on in an authoritative “I Knew the Man” way about Foley’s hidden reserves of kindness and spirituality, Zee is visibly taken aback – and then begins to outright seethe – at the contradiction between this depiction and the drunken, belligerent reality that he recalls. Some of this may be sheer resentment: Zee is painted as the least successful of the trio, often more akin to an over-enthusiastic fan and enabler than a fellow artist. (In one memorably bitter flashback, Townes tells a wonderful anecdote-joke whose aim is entirely to humiliate Zee in front of Foley.) However, some of Zee’s irritation plainly stems from a rumbling of integrity, an understanding that the unglamorous truth matters more than the gauzy, obliquely self-serving myths that Townes is pushing.
Of course, the truth about Foley likely lies somewhere between the poles of the tender artistic soul and the self-destructive alcoholic, a middle-of-the-road cliché that nonetheless feels credible given what Sybil’s viewpoint reveals about the man. It’s easy to see why she fell in love with Foley, who is portrayed as a sweet and soulful partner whose unassuming, whiskery bulk conceals the deep reserves of emotion that she craves. (Pointedly, their first encounter occurs at an actor’s commune, where his set-building interrupts her rehearsal of a monologue about the all-consuming nature of a woman’s love.) It’s also understandable why she ultimately finds it impossible to love him and simultaneously maintain her self-respect and sanity. Once the couple moves from their Edenic starter shack in the Texas woodlands to the relative bustle of Austin so that Foley can pursue his music career, the cracks in his easy-going, sensitive hillbilly schtick begin to appear.
Gone for weeks and weeks at a time while Sybil waits tables to pay the rent, Foley succumbs to all the usual temptations – booze, drugs, and women – while also trying to maintain his artistic voice in a world that doesn’t have much patience or interest. Unfortunately, this latter impulse largely manifests as a propensity to drunkenly provoke music producers, venue owners, and random audience members. (As Inside Llewyn Davis demonstrated, there are few things more intolerable than a starving musician who equates self-inflicted failure with integrity.) Sybil is willing to make sacrifices for her husband, to a point, but Hawke and Shawkat portray her as more actualized and self-aware than the stock wife character in similar artist biopics. Shawkat, who is quite good here, uses her usual cool, mumblecore-ish style as an affecting counterpoint to the film’s melodramatic beats; in those rare moments when her countenance splits into a slow, shuddering sob, the authenticity is all the sharper.
When Sybil finally throws up her hands and leaves Foley, it’s a clean break, made without much regret and for reasons that are entirely understandable. For Foley, however, the loss of the woman who was the Love of His Life haunts him for the rest of his days, dragging him even deeper into the abyss. Blaze, then, is a film about the Hemingway Myth, the notion that great art (usually produced by a man) requires great suffering, and that that suffering is best elicited through vice. Townes himself is shown explicitly peddling this poisonous idea when Foley’s record label bosses – a trio of Texas oil wildcatters turned dilettante music producers, played by Steve Zahn, Sam Rockwell, and director Richard Linklater – furiously lay into the drunk musicians after yet another fiasco performance. “We’ve got everything under control,” Townes slurs, gesturing around at the empty bottles and snoring, streaked-mascara groupies. “This is what we do. This is research for us.” While Hawke’s film never denies that great art can be made by addicts, it sharply critiques the notion that such behavior is essential to great art, or even particularly conducive to it. (Van Zandt himself was a notoriously ravenous alcoholic and heroin addict who likely suffered from bi-polar disorder, and much like Foley he died relatively young, at the age 52.)
Certainly, there’s an undeniable familiarity to the narrative beats in Blaze – right down to the doom-laden scene depicting Foley’s faintly absurd death at age 39, at the hands of a friend’s thieving son. Hawke never manages to completely banish that whiff of staleness from his feature. Yet the film’s insistence on complicating the biopic form with skeptical, grounded observations about art marks it as bolder and more distinctive than other works in the subgenre. Frustratingly, Blaze never articulates a conclusive stance on its subject, and that reticence leaves the film feeling somewhat hollow, lacking as it does much insight about a purportedly overlooked artist. (One essentially leaves the theater with the takeaway, “Boy, Blaze Foley sure drank a lot, died young, and wrote songs that some people think are great.”) In its favor, however, Hawke’s film isn’t aiming to inform or argue – Kevin Triplett’s 2011 documentary Blaze Foley: Duct Tape Messiah functions well enough on that score – but to deliver a lyrical, wholly cinematic meditation on creativity, with Foley as its tragic case study.
Essential to the film’s novelty is the nonlinear structure that Hawke employs, which he elaborates on with all sorts of fascinating stylistic gestures. Often, his camera will wander among the anonymous bar patrons as Foley mutters thickly over the microphone, observing them passively but not without empathy in their routines: staring at the television, popping bar peanuts, kissing in hallways, making phone calls, smoking in the alley, snorting a key of cocaine and primping in the restroom. At times, Hawke’s mise-en-scène jumbles the timeline almost magically. Early in their relationship, Sybil goes to clinic in a shabby strip mall to end an unwanted pregnancy – and yet across the street is the dive bar where Foley is currently muddling through his final performance. Hawke and cinematographer Steve Cosens give tge film a yellowish, muddy look, half faded Polaroid photograph and half cigarette smoke stain. (A fitting aesthetic, given the feature’s embrace of both wistfulness and grime.)
Blaze doesn’t have much of substance to say about it its titular musician, but it’s a poetic and touching exemplar of the biopic form, unafraid to use its subject to ruminate provocatively on the trials of being (and living with) an artist. In its low-key way, if feels like Hawke’s most accomplished directorial effort to date, a poetic work full of sneaky intelligence and acidic pessimism about the creative life.