Blaze

Blaze

Blaze is the story of Blaze Foley, the stage name of country/folk performer Michael David Fuller of the ’70s and ’80s.

Blaze Foley was a real person, but the movie admits to being only “inspired by” his actual life and career, so I won’t judge it by how well or poorly it sticks to the facts. I mean, knowing that it’s a semi-true story about a real person probably does affect how I feel about it, but I’m going to write about it pretty much like if it were just any fictional story.

As far as that goes, though, I thought it was interesting that there was a note at the very end of the credits stating that the estate of Townes Van Zandt (the musician featured second most in this film) granted permission for the film to use Van Zandt’s music out of respect for Foley and Van Zandt’s friendship, but wanted it on the record that they did not endorse how the movie chose to depict its story. So evidently they felt some objectionable liberties were taken with the truth.

Sometimes I see a movie and I’m quite clear when it ends what I think of it, and I have a pretty good idea what I want to write about it. But this is one that I’ve been rolling around in my head ever since I saw it, struggling to decide just what I make of it and how to articulate that.

Let me start with a distinction: In terms of how much I enjoyed it while I was watching it, how engaged I was, whether as I watched it I was hoping that there was plenty more to come versus hoping that it would end soon, I think I would rank it below the middle of films I’ve seen. Maybe somewhere around the 35th to 40th percentile. Whereas in terms of how deeply it reached me emotionally, taken as a whole after it was over, I’d rank it quite high, probably somewhere north of the 80th percentile relative to all the films I’ve seen.

So I didn’t love it while I was watching it, but as I look back on it I can feel my fondness for it and my appreciation of it growing.

Maybe one reason it didn’t grab me right away is that I didn’t get a clear sense of what exactly it was trying to do. I didn’t know why I should care about this person and this story. From the very little bit I read about it before I saw it, I gathered that Foley is one of those “musicians’ musicians” who never hit it big and who few people in the general public would have heard of, but who people in the business recognize as someone special, someone influential, someone who certainly should have hit it big but instead is spoken of wistfully years or decades later in a “what might have been” fashion. Also that at least some of his problems were self-inflicted via drug and/or alcohol abuse.

And yeah, that’s all in there, but not in a straightforward, formulaic way. It’s like those are elements of the story rather than the point of the story. I feel like to describe it as the tragic tale of a musical genius who wasted great potential by not being able to stay away from the bottle fails to really capture more than a small fraction of the contents and feel of this movie.

In the end I think I’m glad it was more complex in presenting the man’s life, but it perhaps made it harder to settle into a rhythm as a viewer.

The structure is a little artsy for my tastes, but not objectionable in that respect in a big way. It’s not like it’s hard to keep track of what’s going on, though doing so takes a little more concentration than with the average movie.

The story jumps around in time and place among multiple major threads. One is Van Zandt and another friend and fellow musician—a younger guy—who sometimes played with Foley and Van Zandt reflecting on Foley’s life in an interview in a radio studio. Another is the development of Foley’s relationship with his girlfriend—and eventually at least briefly wife—Sybil and the early portion of his career. A third is the final 24 hours or so of his life, when he recorded a live album in a Texas bar and was soon thereafter shot and killed in a dispute with the doped up son of a friend of his.

One thing that stands out to me that’s excellent about this film is its realism. It feels like the dialogue, the facial expressions, the body language, the settings, everything, is done so impeccably well that you almost forget you’re watching actors in a movie and not real people. Not in the sense that it’s more like documentary footage of the 1980s or whatever, because the audio, the lighting, the camerawork, and all of that always feels like the highest level professionalism of a Hollywood movie. It’s way, way too smooth and polished to feel like home movies of the actual Blaze Foley or something like that—that’s not what I mean. I just mean that, more so than in most films, it all looks and sounds the way real people behave, rather than the way actors playing roles behave.

Related to that, none of the women are distractingly movie star level beautiful, because in real life it’s unlikely they would have been. Often you’ll see a film about working class people, or criminals, or denizens of dive bars or whatever, and up pops the Goddess Scarlett Johansson or some such sex symbol type looking totally out of place (not that I’m complaining). It’s not that everyone in the movie is unattractive, but they’re all, at most, “regular woman” level attractive.

As I say, the movie didn’t fully draw me in the whole way, but looking back on it there are certain scenes or certain aspects of it that particularly impressed me or had a significant emotional impact on me. I’ll mention just a few.

In the early days of their relationship, Blaze and Sybil are provided a place to live for free by a friend. It’s a tree house out in the woods. The movie dwells on this period enough to establish it as an idyllic time of young love.

I think this is particularly well done. Again, it didn’t feel like movie-cliché love, but more like real life. Everything about the way they look at each other, the smiles, the scenes where they are in various states of casual dishevelment and partial dress, the way they routinely are instinctively in physical contact including in non-sexual situations as if drawn together magnetically—it’s really good at depicting that memory-creating magic of having reached a certain level of mutual comfort and appreciation with a new, special person that will stick with you forever as the time in your life when you were truly happiest.

You wouldn’t necessarily expect these characters to have great chemistry. One’s a cowboy-hatted good ol’ boy with a Texas drawl, and one’s a very Jewish looking and sounding woman. But you know seeing them together during this time that whether they stay together for life or eventually break up, they’ll each always see the other as the great love of their life.

Maybe as powerful as anything in the movie to me was when Blaze and Sybil, accompanied by Blaze’s sister, visit Blaze’s father.

The father had been an abusive alcoholic to his kids, while also playing an important positive role in their lives (for example, by commencing their lifelong love of music by including them in a family band that performed at church and such), which is not uncommon and can be especially emotionally complex for a child—even after the child becomes an adult—to sort through and make peace with. Now, though, his mind is gone. Whether due to dementia or other mental illness or the drugs used to treat it, he sits with a blank smile and a complete lack of emotional highs and lows, speaking little beyond “Have you got a cigarette?” to everyone who enters the room (the fact that it never results in anyone giving him a cigarette has no visible effect on him nor dissuades him from repeating his request with monotonous regularity), and seemingly having at most a vague notion of who these people are who are speaking to him.

As the sister mutters to this utterly pitiful figure, “It’s hard to believe I was ever afraid of you.”

I think the pathos of the father struck me even more because the character is played by Kris Kristofferson, someone from roughly the same musical tradition and time period upon whom I would assume the life and music of Foley had a profound emotional impact in real life.

Another moment that maybe didn’t reach that level of emotional meaning or intensity for me but to which I’ll at least give an honorable mention occurs very early in the film, in the scene in which Blaze and Sybil meet.

Blaze happens to be doing some kind of construction work in a building where Sybil, an aspiring actress, is rehearsing a monologue. The extended speech she reads is from a woman asserting that love is experienced very differently by men and women. Men, it contends, because they have jobs outside the home and many other outlets for their talents, many other opportunities to achieve or to make some positive difference in the world, value love as a sort of soothing respite from the responsibility of making a difference. Women, mostly lacking such outlets beyond their personal relationships, are more apt to put their all into being good to their man, improving him, facilitating his living up to his potential. Hence the common inclination of women to gravitate toward flawed men, men in need of assistance to grow up and flourish. If you pick instead a guy who has already got it all together and would do fine even without you, then what can you really accomplish?

Clearly times have changed enormously in recent decades, and whatever truth such a sociological observation had long ago (and something so simplistic was certainly never true as an absolute) it has perhaps 20% that much truth today, when women have nearly the opportunities to prove themselves and accomplish things “out in the world” as men do. Further, I would want to amend it to include “nurturing” relationships in general beyond just marriage or a romantic relationship. Women also traditionally have had the opportunity to excel at child raising, caring for the sick and elderly, etc., which are relationships where the other party is even more in need of assistance and support than is the typical flawed guy.

But it’s an interesting claim nonetheless, with some—albeit lessening as social reality evolves—insight to it.

It also obviously applies to the subsequent Blaze-Sybil relationship. Indeed, perhaps too obviously. This is one of the few arguable filmmaking missteps in Blaze, stating this theme a little too crudely and simply. Still, I found it worth pondering.

So in the end, what do I make of Blaze Foley (the movie version at least; again, I’m largely refraining from addressing how closely the film matches reality)?

Clearly the people in his life thought he was someone extraordinary, for his music (I think for his lyrics, his poetry; I don’t think he was considered some virtuoso guitarist or anything), for his being a good dude to party with, but perhaps most of all for some kind of spiritual essence people sensed in him. Van Zandt sees him as a musical genius but also almost like some sort of Buddha. He, the younger musician with him for the radio interview, certainly Sybil, and probably others, each experienced Foley a little differently but each knew he touched their lives in a deep way such that they would never be the same again.

To me, he was an artist who was always true to his art. I wouldn’t say he feared or sought to avoid commercial success so as not to be corrupted by it—I’m sure he liked money, liked having fans, etc.—but he was pretty close to indifferent to it. Like, he’ll accept it if it’s there, but he’s just going to keep doing his music his way regardless.

This is nicely illustrated by an interesting sequence depicting I suppose the closest he came to the “big time.” I’m thinking of two bookend scenes in particular.

In the first, Foley is approached by some young entrepreneur types who tell him that they have come into some money, that they are convinced of his talent and potential, and that they are here to bankroll his career to get it off the ground properly—make his first studio record, arrange a tour, etc.

He gives them a “Where do I sign?” response, but it’s with a wry smile indicating that this has about as much importance to him as if someone had offered to buy him a beer.

Then a short time later we see the denouement of this particular business arrangement. The three businessmen angrily confront Foley in the midst of his partying in a hotel with Van Zandt and others, and inform him that he has ruined them, that they are returning home to file for bankruptcy, that any connection between them and him is hereby severed. (We don’t know everything that happened to blow things up like this, but we see enough to infer roughly. Foley’s alcoholism and drug abuse, and his obstinate refusal to bend to other people’s wishes when it comes to his art, has caused him to conflict with studio people, owners of the live venues where he plays, and audiences. And no doubt the management of the hotels in which he has stayed as well. He has been unprofessional and unreliable.) They conclude by informing him that the one thing that gives them satisfaction is the knowledge that while they’ll ultimately bounce back from this defeat, he’ll always remember it as the time he threw away his one and only shot at success.

And basically he responds with that same smile, as if to say, “It’s all the same to me.” Whether it happens to propel him upward on a certain occasion or downward, he’s going to be himself, write and perform the music that comes from his heart, appreciate and have a good old time with his friends, and not worry about tomorrow. That’s the only “success” he is committed to.

There’s an emotional depth to Foley. I kind of want to say—even though these things don’t seem like they’d be compatible—that it’s both the case that he feels sincere and significant pain, self-doubt, and regret (over losing Sybil, certainly), and that indeed this fuels his music, and yet at the same time that he lives his life with a certain contentment. You feel like he accepts his limitations, those flaws like alcoholism that mostly stem from his childhood or his genes, that  he’s not going to deny or turn away from the damage they can cause to himself and those who are dear to him, but that he’s also not going to let any of that crush his spirit.

At one point he tells Sybil that confidence isn’t a matter of thinking or knowing that you’re good enough at something. It’s a matter of realizing that there was an infinite or near infinite amount of time before you were born that you didn’t exist, that there will be an infinite or near infinite amount of time after you die that you won’t exist, and that therefore the way you live your life should always be informed by the realization that it occupies the tiniest, tiniest, miraculous sliver of time in between. Like, however aware you are that you maybe didn’t get dealt such a great hand, just remember how wondrous it is that you are at the table at all.

I feel like there’s considerably more that spoke to me in this film that I’m not able to articulate well enough to include here. But the upshot is that while I wasn’t as fully into this movie as I am some, in the end I liked Foley, and I liked Blaze.

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