Culturebox Says: Sue the Bastard!

Journalists tend to think that libel law exists to let rich and famous slimeballs escape criticism, but there are times when the law, even the notoriously anti-press British version of it, does what it’s supposed to do: protect the innocent against unfounded accusations of crimes of a heinous nature. The BBC’s refusal to air British filmmaker’s Nick Broomfield’s documentary about Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain, at least not without substantial changes, for fear of being sued by Love, is taken by Culturebox as evidence that on occasion, sir, the law is not an ass.

In the movie, currently being shown on 10 screens in the United States, Broomfield tracks down wierdos of the you-couldn’t-make-these-people-up variety to get them to accuse Love not just of being a jerk, but of being a murderer. Broomfield’s freak show includes a sadist-turned-rocker with the eyes of Charlie Manson who all but acknowledges he’ll say anything for a beer. A crazed and abusive former Grateful Dead manager from whose unparental loins it is Love’s tragedy to have sprung. An eerily slow-spoken private detective straight out of a David Lynch movie. A nanny with suspiciously strung-out friends. All have theories about why and how Love killed her late husband. None offers solid evidence or is remotely credible.

Love may or may not be likeable–Culturebox suspects she’s both phenomenally talented and a glorious bitch–but Broomfield isn’t addressing that question. His main objective appears to be to air these patently ludicrous accusations. What else could he do? he asks us plaintively. After all, she wouldn’t talk to him. She even got MTV to pressure Showtime into pulling out of the project.

Reviews have been mixed, but smart critics who should have known better have dismissed Broomfield’s journalistic malevolence as fun, wacky, postmodern, an expose of the seamy underbelly of fame by a renegade who eschews the boring objectivity of the documentary tradition. They’re so impressed by Bloomfield’s adversarial stance toward celebrity culture that they overlook the main achievement of the film, which is (here Culturebox must repeat herself): to air accusations of murder without offering evidence that the accused is guilty of anything other than being an ambitious loudmouth and drug user.

Another reason the critics are letting Bloomfield get away with it: As the Truman Show also made clear this week, sadism makes for great television, and great television excuses everything. Think of Ed Harris torturing Jim Carrey, the whole world watching in thrall.

Broomfield too is something of a professional sadist. The British know that, having seen more of Broomfield’s movies and regarding him as the British equivalent of Michael Moore, the director of the unprincipled Roger & Me. But Americans who see Kurt and Courtney and think that where there’s smoke, there may be fire, might not realize that for the last decade or so, Broomfield has made movies whose sole purpose appears to be to stalk, torment, and libel the controversial female public figures he chooses as his subjects. Then he claims it’s because they won’t cooperate with him.

Lily Tomlin sued him for $7.5 million. Margaret Thatcher simply eluded him. Accused Florida serial-killer Aileen Wuornos did talk to him, but, as the movie also demonstrated, she was sadly ill-equipped to judge who was exploiting her notoriety and who might help her out. Heidi Fleiss he just ambushed, after digging up all sorts of unbelievable charges about her then failing to refute them.

When Courtney Love denied Broomfield the rights to Cobain’s music and tried to get his movie quashed, she may not have been acting as the poster-girl for the ACLU that the organization perhaps naively tried to turn her into, but she was exercising her constitutionally-guaranteed right to protect her reputation against the worst form of libel there is. Culturebox cheers her on.

Judith Shulevitz