July 30, 2006

"The sort of movie that plays best when you stumble across it on cable."

I'm clicking through the Rotten Tomatoes reviews of "Leonard Cohen -- I'm Your Man," and this "Short Takes" one by Elizabeth Weitzman of The Daily News sounds apt:
The possibilities inherent in Cohen's complex life and work are extensive, which may be why [director Lian] Lunson never gets a handle on either. Extended scenes from a tribute concert featuring artists like Rufus Wainwright are interspersed with gushing compliments from Bono, and neither is half as interesting as the curiously brief interviews with Cohen himself. Offering both too little material and too much, the movie leaves us in the bizarre position of understanding its subject no better by the end than we did at the beginning.
There is some great singing in this film, and the songs are exactly what you'd want to put in front of a great singer. But Lunson simply doesn't have any documentarian panache. I get the feeling he was way too excited about the fact that he got Bono to stand in front of a door and babble about Leonard Cohen. I feel sorry for Bono -- not really, why feel sorry for Bono?! -- who quite rationally could have assumed that somewhere in the verbiage there would be a few cool phrases and these would be plucked out by the editor and it would be perfect. Instead, they ran with all the footage.

Check it out, it's Bono! He's still standing in front of that brown door! He's still got those wraparound glasses on. He's still murmuring about Leonard!
Okay, let's go watch Rufus emote charmingly around Leonard-lyrics. And now... Oh! It's Bono! And that richly paneled door! And he thinks Leonard is truly sublime.

The filmmaker must have loved the idea of Cohen as an enigma. To this end, Buddhism is used heavily. Don't Buddhists ever get sick of the use of their religion to create an aura of depth and mystery around a Western celebrity? We see a lot of shots of Leonard sitting next to a fat gnome of a monk. Hey, he's a Buddhist monk. You're supposed to be automatically impressed. He doesn't have to say a damned thing interesting about Buddhism or anything else. You're supposed to just get it. Ooh, he's a fat monk! He must be full of profound wisdom. And there's Leonard sitting right next to him.

I would have liked more substance, less abstract effusion. There was a nice sequence in there about "Suzanne," accompanied by some of Cohen's drawings. Suzanne was his friend's wife, and she really did live by the river. "And she feeds you tea and oranges/That come all the way from China." Yeah, she really did serve tea that had little bits of oranges in it. Oh, all these years, I've been eating a whole orange with my tea and thinking "Suzanne." But here's Leonard, and he's saying Suzanne's tea had the oranges in it. It was Constant Comment tea, he says. (It comes all the way from Connecticut, I note.)

What's so cool about the song "Suzanne" is that it has all the concrete detail surrounding the enigmatic character and the religious mysteries. River, boats, tea, oranges, rags, feathers, honey, garbage, flowers, seaweed...

Nothing against Cohen, but the filmmaker lacked the art to make a real documentary film. It would have made a great TV show to stumble across on cable. If you want to get a sense of what a real film would be, watch "Crumb" again.

11 comments:

Meade said...

"It comes all the way from Connecticut" made the coffee I was drinking come all the way out of my nose.

peter hoh said...

Well, I was trying to decide between seeing that movie and cleaning out my basement this afternoon. I guess my wife will be happy that I decided to stay home.

Ann Althouse said...

If you're in a mellow mood and want to listen to the music but don't expect much of a movie, it's fine.

reno said...

I agree with you Ann.

Impacted Wisdom Truth said...

"Crumb" was a great documentary, and here is another one worth checking out: Theremin.

This documentary is about the man that invented the musical instrument that bears his name.

ignacio said...

Your remarks about Buddhists and by extension Buddhism made me smile.

Ann Althouse said...

Impacted: Yes, "Theremin" has my seal of approval.

Henry said...

I think Cohen should have done like Bill Murray in The Razor's Edge and healed someone's migraines. That would have been buddhistically impressive.

Maybe it's just me, but could Rufus Wainwright just lip sync? He has no range and no enunciation. He's the king of the mumble.

Ann Althouse said...

I like Rufus. I saw his dad in concert shortly after Rufus was born. He sang a song about watching his wife breastfeed the baby and then joining in on the second breast! Seriously, breastfeeding. That was the song. It made quite an impression.

Henry said...

Loudon Wainwright is a different story. Good voice. Very funny song writer. I had a casette recording of one of his live concerts that I wore out a while ago.

Here's a song Loudon Wainwright wrote for Bob Dylan (motorcycle wreck reference included):

Hey, Bob Dylan, I wrote you a song.
Today is your birthday if I'm not wrong.
If I'm not mistaken you're fifty today,
How are you doin', Bob? What do you say?

Well, it musta been about '62,
I heard you on record, and you were brand-new.
An' some had some doubts about the way you sang,
But the truth came through and loudly rang.
Yeah, you were hipper than Mitch Miller,
And Johnny Mathis, put together.

So I got some boots, a harmonica rack,
A D-21, an' I was on the right track.
But I didn't start writing until '68,
It was too damn daunting, you were too great.
I won a whole lot of Bob Dylan imitation contests, though -- huh [DYLAN IMITATION]

Yeah, times were a-changin',
You brought it all home --
"Blonde On Blonde", "Like a Rolling Stone" .
The real world is crazy, you were deranged,
An' when you went electric, why, everything changed --
A shock to the system.

Had a commission at yer motorcycle wreck --
Holed up in Woodstock, with a broken neck.
The labels were signin' up guys with guitars, Out to make millions, lookin' for stars.
Well, I figured it was time to make my move --
Songs from the West Chester County Delta country.

Yeah, I got a deal , and so did John Prine, Steve Forbert and Springsteen, all in a line.
They were lookin' for you, signin' up others,
We were "new Bob Dylans" -- your dumb-ass kid brothers.
Well, we still get together every week at Bruce's house --
Why, he's got quite a spread, I tell ya -- it's a twelve-step program.

Well, but we were just us and of course you were you,
"John Wesley Harding" sure sounded new.
And then "Nashville Skyline" was even newer,
'Blood On the Tracks', an' the ringin' got truer.
Let's see -- there was another one in there somewhere...oh, I got it, I got it -- "Self Portrait" --
Well, it was an interesting effort.

Yeah, had to stop listening, times were too tough,
Me bein' the new me was hard enough.
You keep right on changin' like you always do,
An' what's best is the old stuff still all sounds new..

Yeah, today is your birthday -- have a great one, Bob!
Bein' the new you is one hell of a job.
My kid cranked up her boom-box to almost grown
When I heard you screamin' [DYLAN IMITATION]
From her room [DYLAN IMITATION] --
"Everybody must get stoned."
Thanks a lot, Bob -- happy birthday, Bob.

Scott said...

I totally agree with you about Bono. I was just writing about this the other day:

http://scottgordon.typepad.com/atrandom/2006/07/im_down_here_in.html