Saturday, June 28, 2008

Chet’s Zeitgeist

When introducing his Chet Baker documentary Let’s Get Lost at the MoMA last night, director Bruce Weber described the trumpeter-vocalist as a “character.” However, someone can be both a character and a crummy human being. Lost actually screened as part of a retrospective tribute to the Zeitgeist Films, the independent distributor, not the Jazz Score series, but the timing is fortuitous now that the MoMA attracting more jazz patrons to its screenings.

As a film, Lost is undeniably impressive. Weber has a keen eye for dramatic images and Jeff Preiss’s cinematography is starkly effective. The problem is the subject. Deep in a Dream, James Gavin’s biography of Baker, paints a picture of an abusive junkie, who happened to occasionally play jazz. Weber’s treatment is not nearly as harsh, but there is no camouflaging the toll Baker’s habit wrecked on his body. Some in the audience audibly gasped on hearing the emaciated trumpeter was fifty-seven at the time of filming. (He would be dead at fifty-eight.)

Weber might consider Baker a character, but it is difficult to understand why. We only see a flicker of light behind his eyes when Halema (wife #2) is mentioned, but it is quickly extinguished. The Chet Baker of Lost seems like an empty shell, onto which his wives and girlfriends (and maybe even Weber) projected what they wanted to see.

Baker recorded some magical sessions for Dick Bock’s Pacific Jazz label. However, his later discography is very “hit-or-miss,” reflecting the corrosive influence of his habit and the resulting frequent need of a quick buck. Arguably, his greatest talent was for squandering his gifts and exploiting those closest to him.

This is the second time I have seen Lost on the big screen in just over one year. While my response remains mixed, I enjoyed it more last night, probably because greater time has passed since reading Gavin. Again, this reaction is all about the problematic Baker and not the film itself. Lost is an iconic jazz documentary that has permanently shaped how Baker is remembered, both as the withered death’s head of the 1980’s and the La Dolce Vita-like Italian movie footage that Weber uses as the film’s inspired conclusion. It is worth seeing Lost if you have the opportunity, but how you might feel about Baker afterward, I can make no guarantees.