Blaze is most interesting, perhaps ONLY interesting, when contextualized within Ethan Hawke’s topsy-turvy career.
The narrative structure of this, his directorial debut (at least for a fiction feature; no one should forget his first foray behind the camera, the documentary Seymour: An Introduction) reflects the shape his oeuvre continues to take: all over the place. Placing this unusual jaunt into Hawke’s increasingly-unusual resume almost demands respect from anyone who appreciates roving artists, as he clearly does: Seymour and the titular Blaze Foley here, a forgotten country music vagabond, both march to the beat of their own drums (literally).
But this meta-narrative doesn’t magically transform Blaze into a particularly satisfying movie on almost any other level, displaying all the hallmarks of a rookie filmmaker, with convoluted dramaturgy on the page and mis-en-scene on the screen. Take the dialogue, which basically micro-represents Blaze’s macro problems: profundity lost amidst distracted, and thus distracting, execution. It’s spoken word transparently striving to be poetic, forcibly, not forcefully.
The whole movie’s just a mirage of words, images and music floating in the trivial ether in front of you, without penetrating your being, and yours it. There’s a superficiality to the style that dulls the potential of its meaningful effect, even though it’s justified by how this aesthetic connects to Foley’s counter-culture approach to everything in his life, and life itself. In a case of content dictating form, Blaze’s starkly and proudly independent nature, and the fragmentary and fragmented state of his existence(s), should of course be captured in an equally-independent biopic, but Hawke refuses to self-censure this scattershot focus, another trademark of newcomers.
This merging of style and substance would’ve worked if the subject was wider known — think Todd Haynes’ treatment of Bob Dylan in I’m Not There. But since most aren’t familiar with Blaze Foley, us country music philistines can’t help but spend too much of the duration simply trying to figure out this man’s life, which is conveyed so abstractly here as to be confusing for anyone without a Wikipedia understanding of his timeline; it’s tough to communicate commentary through the depiction of events when those unknown events are so obscured by the depictions. Though Hawke imbues the construction of his film with Blaze’s wayward ways, some conventional peace would’ve made the frenetic experimentalism a bit more palatable in juxtaposition.
It’s admittedly a tricky line to toe, for the effectiveness of such abstract expression is even more subjective than most art. And Blaze’s rudimentary mechanics still boast the indelible spirit of youthful exuberance regarding perpetual invention. Like A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s rude mechanicals, there’s an unavoidable charm in amateur sincerity, even if it often results in sincere amateurishness.
Blaze is a rather fitting symbol of Hawke’s entire artistic trajectory: a fascinating whole comprised of parts wildly-disparate to a multitude of degrees, including their quality; this latest outing would fall on the more dispirited end of that spectrum.
And yet, though the discernment of peers like Leonardo DiCaprio is often hailed as superior, I tend to support artists willing to take risks in unforeseen directions. Good luck defining Hawke’s legacy; its boundlessness cannot be reduced to a succinct description. He’s a renaissance man, even if his choices don’t always return dividends. But at least he’s not afraid to keep making such choices, tipping his toes into all types of bodies of water. For years he was scorned by the masses, who always prefer to be able to pigeonhole their favorites into easily-predictable, and thus reliable, roles.
I refuse to participate in such ignorant bashing.
Even when he veers onto inadvisable roads, I will never disparage his disregard for sticking to a consistent, and thus commercial, path; he should keep forging his own trails, even if they periodically lead him astray.
Ethan Hawke is an artistic Icarus, and this time, Blaze is the sun.