Sunday 24 February 2013

Ladies and Gentlemen... Mr Leonard Cohen (1965)

Though Leonard Cohen is now known as a singer-songwriter, this documentary was made two years before he'd released his first record.  Here we see Leonard Cohen the poet, the novelist, the stand-up comic.  He plays a harmonica at one point, and is briefly seen playing some chords on a guitar, but these are momentary novelties.

Appropriately, when I first saw this documentary at university in 2004, I hadn't heard any of Cohen's albums.  I'd heard a few of his songs, as the neighbour who showed me the film always had Leonard Cohen songs blaring from his open door, and his classic 'Hallelujah' was especially unescapable in those days, wherever you went.  I was very taken with the short film and with the charisma of its lead, and it only took me seven years to get around to listening to his music.  This week, having a far clearer, and rather different understanding of the man and his career to what I had in 2004, I revisited the documentary and found it excellent.

The young Cohen signs a book of his poems for a fan

Leonard Cohen knows he's somebody special.  That makes him sound arrogant, and perhaps he is, but for the most part it's just a confidence in the worth of his art, in the quality of his poetry, and in the fact that a documentary made about him at this young age will some day be a work of historical significance.  Since he's become both famous and highly influential since then, I'd say he's been vindicated in this high self-esteem.  The narrator speaks with the same confidence, as if this film was intended as much as an advert for the merit of Canadian culture as a documentary in search of the truth.

'His talent has been saluted by the international press.  Canadian critics have called him the finest poet of his generation.  He himself has said he has chosen a path that is infinitely wide and without direction.  This, he says, is a very good path for someone who moves in the funny way that he does'.   It's a pity Cohen now has such a reputation as miserable and depressing, as his sense of humour is apparent throughout the film, as it is through his records.  When he stands on stage to tell a story he remains deadpan while his audience roar with laughter.  When he's in more intimate surroundings, he can hardly contain his giggles at mild whimsies.

We get a good showing of Cohen in action.  He delivers a number of poems, none directly to camera: some are given to live audiences; one in a recording studio, where the camera observes him from within the booth, and then from the mixing desk; some, we have only the audio over shots of Cohen travelling or socialising.  In an especially 1960s sequence (for this is a very mid-60s film), we see him interviewed by men in suits, who struggle to understand his youthful idiosyncrasy, his irony, his claims to be apolitical.  Away from the interviewer, he talks more candidly about the questions he was asked and the answers he would and wouldn't give.

A highlight: Leonard Cohen takes a postmodern bath

At the end of the film Cohen is shown some of the footage and interviewed about seeing himself on the screen.  These five minutes are my favourite part, and the reason this short feature stuck in my mind for a decade.  There's a shot of him asleep in bed, and he talks about how privileged he is to see himself asleep.  He then points out that, of course, he isn't seeing himself asleep, only himself pretending to sleep, as this was faked for the cameras.

Continuing this theme, we see Leonard Cohen in the bath.  He sits, bathing himself for a while, but eventually picks up a pen and writes 'caveat emptor' on the wall.  'Let the buyer beware'.  He's asked why he wrote this, and explains that he's warning the audience: what we're seeing isn't Leonard Cohen privately bathing, it's Leonard Cohen observed by a camera, pretending to be alone.  It's a brilliant illustration, a moment of postmodernism which comes back to me quite often.  Watching documentaries of any kind, but especially reality TV of the Apprentice mould is intriguing when you remind yourself that the subjects are surrounded by cameras, and any action, any emotion they show is given in the knowledge that it may be broadcast.  With very few exceptions, we never see people going about their daily lives, and the reality we're given is all constructed for us.  Leonard Cohen knows this, and knows how to play us.  No wonder he got so famous.

It's way expensive for 45 minutes.  Borrow my copy instead.  And listen to some Cohen music, why doncha?  There's an affordable box-set of most of his studio albums, and they make a magnificent guide through the latter third of the 20th Century

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