Being Leonard Cohen

Pub date April 19, 2011
SectionFilm Features

SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL “Is this what you wanted/ To live in a house that is haunted/ By the ghost of you and me?”

Likewise, try as its makers might, the specter of Leonard Cohen looms over the short films by Alex Da Corte, Christian Holstad, and the other artists who try their hand at making 11 new pieces inspired by the 11 tracks comprising New Skin for the Old Ceremony, the 1974 long-player that some consider the songwriter’s most sublime.

There’s no need to breathe life into these tunes, dusted off under the spotlight once more, now that Cohen has been touring his way back to financial solvency. Instead, these shorts — roving from the abstract (Theo Angell’s “video-quilted” Field Commander Cohen) to the narrative (Grouper videographer-collaborator Weston Curry’s barfly-populated Lover Lover Lover) — seemingly hope to engage with the songs themselves with at times thought-provoking, at moments banal results. Courageous, considering these still vital-sounding odes to the flesh and the spirit—songs like “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” and “Who by Fire” simultaneously revel in the tangle of carnal sheets, the bruises of the urban battlefield, and the graceful act of transcending the fires of desire.

The artist-filmmakers got their chance to take on this longing via the singer-songwriter’s daughter, videographer Lorca Cohen, and Hammer Museum programs coordinator Darin Klein, a onetime regular in the SF art-book arts-zine scene and a close friend of Lorca (who recently had a baby daughter with kindred Canadian folk scion Rufus Wainwright, cousin of Anna McGarrigle’s offspring, Sylvan and Lily Lanken, whose whimsical, paper cutout-riddled video for “There Is a War” appears in New Skin). Apparently it’s all in the family — with Lorca urging her father’s publishing company, Unified Hearts, to allow the entire LP’s songs to be used, after initially curating a few shorts.

Co-curator Klein enlisted such artists as Brent Green, Weston Curry, Kelly Sears, and experimental music duo Lucky Dragons. “The amazing thing is that we really got 11 different flavors of filmmaking,” he says from L.A. “That was superexciting and watching them come in, one by one, was like getting presents in the mail for a couple weeks.”

Shining a light directly on a fresh-faced, 30-ish Cohen is Donald Brittain’s and Don Owen’s 1965 documentary, Ladies and Gentlemen … Mr. Leonard Cohen, which screens alongside New Skin. Short, sharp, sweet — and surprisingly snark-ish — Brittain’s voice tussles with Cohen’s, taking quick jabs at what the filmmaker sees as inconsistencies from the already acclaimed poet-novelist, only then emerging as a songwriter: “[Cohen] is fascinated by the violence of the Mediterranean, but has developed a strong dislike for meat,” the narrator notes, in one instance, with amusement and an audibly cocked eyebrow.

Weaving in home movies of the poet as a young pup, Ladies and Gentlemen trails Cohen closely as he pretends to sleep, write, and bathe in his $3-a-night hotel room (“A man has invited a group of strangers to observe him cleaning his body,” muses Cohen later, watching the footage on camera in a proto-meta moment. “I find it sinister, and of course, I find it flattering”), tosses the I Ching at a house party and takes to the stage, mixing poetry with wryly comic spoken word. The bop horn blasts, Cohen’s discomfortingly close resemblance to Dustin Hoffman and the noirishly glamorous B&W camerawork add up to pure beat-era pleasure, as thoughtful and jazzed on life as its subject, as ruminative and passionate as a John Cassavetes clip — and still unaware of the many songs from so many hotel rooms still to come. 


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