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A Down-Home Lens on Patti Smith

July 25, 2008

By Terrence Rafferty

When Steven Sebring began filming Patti Smith 12 years ago, he was, by his own admission, pretty much an amateur. He made his living as a fashion photographer, as he still does. He didn’t own a movie camera. (He now does.) He had been hired by Spin magazine to shoot some pictures for a story on Smith, and although his wife, he said, “nearly fell off her chair” when he told her about the assignment, he didn’t know very much about his subject, the singer, poet and artist whose 1975 album “Horses” had, if not revolutionized rock ‘n’ roll, at least infused it with a new and arresting sort of incantatory power.

More to the point, he didn’t know what he was getting into. Amateurs, bless them, never do.

“Patti Smith: Dream of Life,” the movie Sebring emerged with after all those years of on-and-off, caught-on-the-fly filming, opens Aug. 6 at Film Forum in Manhattan, and it bears almost no resemblance to any other documentary about the punk-rock heroes of Smith’s turbulent era. (Julien Temple’s 2000 Sex Pistols movie, “The Filth and the Fury,” and Jim Fields and Michael Granaglia’s 2003 “End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones,” are among the better ones.)

“Over the years,” Sebring recently said by phone from his Manhattan home, “Patti’s been approached by a lot of filmmakers who wanted to do these rock ‘n’ roll historical pieces, and she’s just never been interested in that. She says, ‘You know, I’m alive, and I have more to say and a lot more things to do, and I don’t need anybody talking about me.’”

But when she and Sebring met at her home in Detroit, there was, he said, “an immediate connection.” Smith had then been living there for a decade and a half with her husband, the guitarist Fred (Sonic) Smith, rarely recording and never performing. After her husband’s death, though, in 1994, she put together a band, finished the beautiful album “Gone Again” and was preparing to appear onstage for the first time since the end of the ’70s. It was the first live performance of her tour, at Irving Plaza, that gave Sebring the idea of making a film.

“She was a totally different woman onstage,” he said, “nothing like the person I’d photographed in Detroit. I thought, this is too interesting not to put on film.”

And then “Patti really let me into her life,” he said. “I think it intrigued her that I didn’t know a lot about her, that I’d just be getting to know her through my lens.” It makes sense that Smith – a passionate autodidact whose idiosyncratic style is a kind of homemade concoction of Bob Dylan, William Blake, Arthur Rimbaud, Allen Ginsberg, Little Richard and Buddha – would be attracted to the idea of having her life recorded by a man who was himself learning on the job, winging it, as she always has.

“Because I was financing this myself,” Sebring said, “I didn’t have anybody telling me I had to do it in a certain way.” (The PBS documentary series “P.O.V.” became involved toward the end, but didn’t, he said, exercise any editorial control.) The big decision – the choice that an outside producer would surely have tried to talk him out of – was to shoot “Dream of Life” on 16 millimeter film rather than video. “Using video,” he said, “which I was sometimes tempted to do when I was broke, would have felt like cheating to me. It’s not the same look. With film there’s, you know, more love in it.”

And besides, film is one of those old-fashioned things that Smith, in her eccentric, new-fashioned way, has always been keen to commemorate. In “Dream of Life” she rummages through objects she has saved – photos, an urn, a dress her mother made her – and tells little stories about them. She visits her parents in New Jersey; she stands at the graves of Blake, Gregory Corso, Percy Bysshe Shelley and others; she goes to Jerusalem and reflects at the Western Wall. Her songs are free-form but somehow ancient sounding: dirges, jeremiads, prayers.

“She looks at this as a home movie,” Sebring said, “a home movie that’s also some kind of collaborative art piece.”

So instead of the usual punk-documentary mix of archival performance footage, talking head encomiums and wistful stills of the grungy exterior of CBGB, Sebring and Smith came up with a film that looks genuinely handmade, as funky (and occasionally as baffling) as movies of the family vacation. The archival cupboard was, in any event, relatively bare.

“We didn’t find a lot,” he said. “There was some footage of Patti on ‘The Mike Douglas Show,’ which she’d completely forgotten about. But we didn’t even use that, because it was too expensive.” They made do with the present: recent concerts and, in a handful of lovely instances, impromptu solo performances by Smith with her old acoustic guitar. There’s plenty of commemoration in this picture, but mercifully little nostalgia.

Sebring, who often disappeared from his professional life in advertising and fashion for months at a time in order to follow Smith around the world, said he felt he had “now done something of real historical significance,” something, by implication, that his commercial photography is not. Although he used some of his more familiar skills in making the movie (“Being a fashion photographer, I made sure she looked her best all the time”), he seems on the whole to have absorbed his subject’s lifelong aesthetic of diligent, unceasing wheel reinvention, her determination to remain, in every aspect of her art, an inspired amateur.

Smith’s brand of amateurishness is an article of faith for her, practically a mystical force, and its power can be hard to account for. Asked whether, after so many years of documenting Smith, he now missed filming her, Sebring replied, with a barely audible sigh: “Oh, I still do.” She calls, and he packs his camera. “She won’t let me go.”

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.

(c) 2008 International Herald Tribune. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.