While I have more than a passing knowledge of most of the jazz canon from the 1950s to the 1980s, I never became much of a Chet Baker fan. While I listened to his work with Gerry Mulligan, there was something about the . . . well . . . the lyricism of much of his playing that didn’t appeal to me. Indeed, I always had something of an unearned snotty attitude about west coast jazz. Nonetheless, it was with some excitement that I went to see the “revival” of Let’s Get Lost, the 1988 Bruce Weber documentary. Evidently, in anticipation of a new print going to DVD for the first time this year, the film is making its rounds at art film houses, and it arrived in Nashville just this week.
My reactions to the film were wildly different than I had expected. I had read that the film provided a poignant portrait of Baker, counterposing images of Baker as a young James Dean with a trumpet with contemporary (1987) images of an older Baker, ragged from a lifetime overuse of speedballs and alcohol. While some question the veracity of the film’s narrative (i.e., the film makes it seem as if Baker’s life was in complete decline while, according to some accounts, his career was on something of a late upswing in the mid 80s), the accuracy of the narrative—hell, Baker himself--was the least of my concerns as I sat in the theater shaken by the awful physical transformation one sees between the young and older versions of him.
The documentary is composed of this: images and clips of the young and beautiful Chet Baker, with the soundtrack of his output at the time playing in the background while some of his contemporaries remember the period and tell the stories of Baker’s addictions, of his teeth being knocked out, of the ways he abandoned his children; contemporary interviews of former wives, children and band members; a number of scenes of Baker in 1987 hanging out with friends, attending the Cannes film festival and playing a few shows. The film ends with a notation informing the viewer the Baker died a year later when he fell out of the second floor window of a hotel with traces of cocaine and heroin in his blood.
What you see: the young beautiful king and the old, blistered, ragged, mumbling, near dead man left at the other end of a life of excess.
I have no idea how to express how horrified I was at the contrast between the two. It haunts me still.
Throughout my life, one of my guiding principles is that while we may have responsibilities to remain physically and mentally healthy if/while we have children to support, each one of us need not monitor every aspect of their life in order to have the longest life possible. Hence, if one wants to drink to excess, as long as one doesn’t hurt others in doing so, no problem. I’ve had the same philosophy about what one eats (eat all the chips and pork one wants!) and about one’s recreational activities (take the risk of rock climbing if one wishes).
Secondly, I’ve also attempted to hold true to the idea that we shouldn’t judge one another by, loosely, “looks.” One aspect of this philosophy is that I have held that I should not be concerned with how “old” someone looks. If your genes make you look older than “your age” (whatever that means), so be it. If your consumption choices “age” you, so be it. I’ll judge you on your behaviors, not on your looks.
So, again, what bothered me about this? In part, I feel certain it’s that the film gave me little time to watch the transition in Baker’s body/face/image take place. Rather than the 35 years of life which changed his appearance, I had a split second to watch him go from 20 to, in terms of appearance, 90. In part, I feel certain that it’s because I’m 45 now and am confronting my own aging on a daily basis when I look in the mirror.
Nonetheless, even if I offer these rather thin explanations, what still bothers me is that I wasn’t just slightly put off by the images but was chilled, disturbed, . . . frightened. Ultimately, I simply don’t know what to do with this concern: what does it mean that I feel less afraid of death than of the marks of aging? What is it about the prematurely decaying body that seems so much more frightening in some ways than death itself?