Sunday, November 16, 2008

76. Australian director Lian Lunson’s charming documentary “Leonard Cohen: I am Your Man” (2005) (USA): The singer, not just the song

I confess to be a die hard fan of Leonard Cohen, Canada’s Bob Dylan, poet, novelist, ladies man, thinker and singer. He is alive and 74 years young while a new generation vibes to the music of Shrek (2001) without much of a clue to the tiered meanings of the Cohen song Hallelujah sung in the film or who wrote it.

In the early Seventies, during my college years, I became his fan when I was introduced to Cohen’s poetry and music captured by the Robert Altman film McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971). Decades later Cohen continues to be globally adored by musicians, women and fans in equal measure. It is not surprising therefore that Australian actor/director Mel Gibson helped co-produce this charming documentary directed by a young lady Ms Lian Lunson, a film in which musicians like Bono lavish praises on this man with a “golden voice.”

For those who have not heard the original Cohen renditions—beware, the film has only two songs sung by Cohen himself—one during the credits and one towards the end with Bono. The rest of the songs sung in the film are free-wheeling interpretations of Cohen’s songs by other singers, all Cohen’s fans themselves, which are not comparable to the magnetism exuded by the original rendering by Cohen.

Predictably the director Ms Lian Lunson faced brickbats from Leonard Cohen fans who expected the old man himself to sing his own songs—not realizing that his voice has aged though not like fine wine. However, Ms Lunson won the Dorothy Arzner Directors Award at the 2006 Women in Film Crystal Awards for this film. (For those who have not heard of Arzner, she was one of the first women to direct films in Hollywood.) The film is a combination of songs and interviews but what makes the film a delight is the mature editing, which will perhaps be lost on viewers not paying adequate attention to the words of the songs. Ultimately the film is less about the songs and more about the man as the title of the film suggests. (I am your man is, of course, one of the titles of a popular song he wrote and sang.)

Now why would a documentary film of this nature be remarkable? A part of the film’s inherent strength comes from Cohen’s learned inward-looking observations captured by the fine interview/monologues. My favorite one in the film was Cohen, a Jew and later a Buddhist monk (for a short while) stating “There is a beautiful moment in the Bhagavad Gita. Arjuna, the general. The great general. He's standing in his chariot. And all the chariots are readied for war. And across the valley, he sees his opponents. And there he sees not just uncles and aunts and cousins, he sees gurus, he sees teachers that have taught him; and you know how the Indians revere that relationship. He sees them. And Krishna, one of the expressions of the deity, says to him, "you'll never untangle the circumstances that brought you to this moment. You're a warrior. Arise now, mighty warrior. With the full understanding, that they've already been killed, and so have you. This is just a play. This is my will. You're caught up in the circumstances that I determine for you. That you did not determine for yourself. So, arise, you're a noble warrior. Embrace your destiny, your fate, and stand up and do your duty."

Who is the real Leonard Cohen? The documentary opens the viewer’s eyes by following this conversation to his famous song “If it be your will” sung by Antony Hegarty:

If it be Your Will
From this broken hill
I will sing to you
From this broken hill
All your praises they shall ring
If it be your will
To let me sing.

The Arjuna and Cohen parallels make the song even more interesting than it would have been otherwise.

The sensitive view-points of Leonard Cohen, the metaphysical thinker, can be glimpsed in the film where another of his songs is sung:

Ah the wars they will be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
bought and sold and bought again
the dove is never free.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in
which is followed by his spoken comment: “Sometimes, when you no longer see yourself as the hero of your own drama, expecting victory after victory, and you understand deeply that this is not paradise... somehow we're, especially the privileged ones that we are, we somehow embrace the notion that this veil of tears, that it's perfectible, that you're going to get it all straight. I've found that things became a lot easier when I no longer expected to win.”

Ms Lunson, the director of the film, would cut from the middle of a song to a shot of Cohen peering nostalgically with an enigmatic wry smile between red bead curtains while the song continues

I was born like this
I had no choice
I was born with the gift of a golden voice
And twenty-seven angels from the Great Beyond
They tied me to this table right here
In the Tower of Song

Some viewers would be annoyed but this is a thinking person’s documentary to be enjoyed keeping in perspective the mental state of the man who wrote that string of words while jostling with likes of Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol and a host of off-beat intellectuals of the Sixties and Seventies. At that time his poetry was more important for him than his music. Here’s a film that can be enjoyed to glimpse the thoughts of a great talented mind gifted with a golden voice that could barely “carry a tune” by his own admission. Here's a film where Cohen's enigmatic wry smile says a thousand words. Here’s a film that can be enjoyed beyond the songs even though my favorite Cohen song Democracy is not included in the Lunson film which I viewed as Barack Obama won his Presidential race. The words of the Cohen song Democracy seem to be hauntingly appropriate for the historical moment:

"It ain’t coming to us European style:
Concentration camp behind a smile.
It ain’t coming from the east,
With its temporary feast,
As Count Dracula comes
Strolling down the aisle...
Democracy is coming to USA."

"First we killed the Lord and then we stole the blues.
This gutter people always in the news,
But who really gets to laugh behind the black man’s back
When he makes his little crack about the Jews?
Who really gets to profit and who really gets to pay?
Who really rides the slavery ship right into Charleston Bay?
Democracy is coming to the U.S. A. "

It would not be fair to criticize Ms Lunson for leaving out any Cohen song as she was essentially filming a concert in Australia (the Gibson connection?) devoted to Cohen’s music and editing (Mike Cahill) that footage into her Cohen interview. What this documentary reveals is the power of juxtaposing connected filmed materials, switching from color to black-and-white with felicity, where the total effect exceeded the sum of the film’s parts symbiotically. Ms Lunson deserved her award as she captured the brilliance and the humility of Cohen the man leaping over the lilt of the rendition of his songs.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

75. French director François Truffaut’s film “Tirez sur le pianiste (Shoot the Piano Player)” (1960):”What you did yesterday stays with you today”

François Truffaut is often considered to be one of the finest French directors of cinema as he along with Godard and Chabrol are credited with the French New Wave. Shoot the Piano Player is arguably one of his finest works. There are two basic ways to approach Truffaut’s cinema—his choice of subjects and the way he dealt with those subjects.

Truffaut had a gift for spotting interesting literature in pulp fiction—that too from distant lands—and turning them into remarkable works of cinema. Shoot the Piano Player was based on an American pulp novel called “Down There” by David Goodis. (Others include Cornell Woolrich’s novels that were the basis of the Truffaut films Mississippi Mermaid and The Bride wore Black and another of Ray Bradbury that metamorphosed into the Truffaut film Fahrenheit 451). This gift of spotting gems from pulp fiction actually helped the struggling authors. After the success of the film Shoot the Piano Player, the noir fiction writer’s book “Down There” was republished as Shoot the Piano Player, a rare example of how cinema affects literature in a positive way.

Truffaut grew up relishing Hollywood noir films of the Forties and Fifties—films in black and white, populated with cigarette smoking heroes having dark personal histories, with a penchant for wry humor often winning their personal wars at the end of the film. Truffaut transposed the ingredients of American noir film into a French setting in Shoot the Piano Player. The dour-faced Charles Aznavour replaced the typical cigarette smoking, tough-talking Humphrey Bogart of the Hollywood with goons (“heavies”), brawls, deaths, investigating cops and lonely good-looking women thrown in good measure to spice-up the viewer’s appetite.

What did Truffaut find attractive in Goodis’ work? The wonderful line from Goodis’ novel “What you did yesterday stays with you today” essentially captures the essence of many Truffaut films (right up to his later films such as The Woman Next Door). Truffaut was probably attracted to the theme of loyalty that pervades the Goodis story: loyalty to one’s family (the four odd brothers sticking together), loyalty to wife/husband in true love, and loyalty to the café even when owners and colleagues change. There is nothing American or French about it—it is universal. My guess is that Truffaut found the sudden rise and downfall of an individual at the peak of success that the Greeks called “hubris” appealing. Goodis provided Truffaut with three types of women: one that would go to any extent to prove her love for her husband (Therese), one that would seek out the ideal mate for her with a resolute purpose (Lena), and finally one seeks a mate that provides friendship, physical and moral (Clarisse).

After spotting the interesting story, Truffaut the director paints the story with humor and pathos. When a goon says a blatant lie and swears on his mother’s life that it is true—the quaint Truffaut, with typical French humor, shows his mother collapsing and dying, even though the woman has no role to speak of in the story. When a bad café owner, Plynie, is discussed in conversation, three separate telescopic images of the character are shown simultaneously. Finally Plynie correctly surmises that the piano playing hero Charlie is “scared”, the hero is initially stumped, reflects on the charge and then admits “I am scared.”

The film’s contribution from Truffaut and cameraman Raoul Coutard cannot be downplayed. The camera zooming in on Charlie’s attempts to hold the hands of Lena provides humor and a moving intimacy for a viewer with a character that few directors have achieved. Finally, the closing shot of the pianist playing the instrument staring blankly at the camera, underlines the signature of Truffaut analyzing characters in his film dispassionately (He repeats this again as the closing shot of his later film The Story of Adele H). Truffaut and Coutard achieve a rare technique, inviting the viewer to analyze characters during the film’s run time. The silent gaze of Charlie partly hidden sitting behind a small piano at the camera captures the essence of the entire film, "What you did yesterday stays with you today.” The tortoise hides in his shell. Here the shell is the piano. Even a talented and good person is caged by external circumstances, basically because he is scared of facing a larger reality.

What Truffaut, Chabrol and Godard achieved beyond the technique of their film making was their ability to invite the viewer to look at anxieties and fears of the lead characters. Truffaut unlike Chabrol and Godard would inject comedy, when the viewer least expects it. For instance, as Charlie completes an internalized monologue that the viewer hears on the soundtrack about his brother, Charlie suddenly speaks two words "Bon chance!" (Good luck) while he continues to play the piano. This was probably the reason why Truffaut was more popular among the three afore-mentioned directors.

Many consider the film to be near flawless cinema, but here’s a film where a windshield of a car splashed by milk becomes sparkling clean a few moments later defying logic! Many critics consider Shoot the Piano Player to be basically Truffaut’s work but it is truly a product of a great team—Truffaut, Goodis, Coutard and Aznavour, each contributing to the film’s appeal. However, for me, The Story of Adele H. is superior cinema and arguably Truffaut's most powerful work.