With broader distribution on DVD through KOCH Vision, the first wave of NFB documentaries makes it's re-branded debut, after being previously available on the Winstar imprint.
Replicating the same content - feature plus three shorts - Ladies and Gentlemen... Mr. Leonard Cohen is a vintage 1965 fly-on-the-wall doc from directors Donald Brittain and Don Owen. With Cohen's words and Don Douglas' peppy jazz score, the camera follows the poet during a short stay in Montreal as he visits his mum, spends time with friends, gives a lecture at a Montreal university, signs a collection of his work in a bookstore, records a poetry album, frequents old late night hangouts and, during the film's final reel, watches himself during a screening of the film's footage.
While straightforward and briskly paced, Cohen is revealed as a fascinating entity with a ridiculously modest persona; he's quite aware of his humble, insatiably curious comportment, and with his monotone voice, he delivers a pair of hysterically funny monologues to a university audience: visiting a friend in a loony-bin, and a poetic expression of being in Cuba during the Revolution.
Brittain's narration is also imbued with an amusing level of benevolent curiosity, and his onscreen questioning often yields replies that extract the loopy thinker in Cohen; he's a poet, a singer, and an elegant writer, plus a celebrator of absurdist thought. Clips from childhood home movies are punctuated by Cohen reading a poem, in which he scolds his uncles and father for walking too close to the camera, and 'entering into blurdom.'
The doc's finale is also rather unique because it shows how much home video and instant playback on our TVs and computer screens have spoiled us, and quashed the surprise element; that's why Cohen's intriguing gaze at seeing footage of himself - sleeping, bathing, and shaving - in a screening room is such a unique moment in the human-technological evolutionary relationship: his eyes and comments show an innocence in seeing oneself without any decorum that can only be experienced once in a lifetime, and we've largely been-there and done-that from a much earlier age.
Versatile and a bit arty, it's evident why Cohen's words and personality make him such a likeable and admirable guy, and his appearance on a TV panel with fellow poet Irving Layton also shows a contemporary artist lauded by a more genteel media, before film and music stars became fodder for our current obsessions, and became de facto representations of culture in garish and kinetic contemporary montages. You just don't see two poets wittily talking shop on network TV anymore (unabashed nationalists like Pierre Berton are just as rare); today, culture's often marginalized to specialty cable channels, and Brittain's time capsule is much more than a visit to Cohen's small world.
To beef up the disc's content are a quartet of shorts tied to Cohen himself: "I'm You're Man" (1996), from director Rosylyn Schwartz, is an animated collage of mounties and thematic cutouts set to a synth-heavy Cohen song; in "Poen" (1967) director Josef Reeve sets Cohen's "Beautiful Losers" poem to Gilliam-styled animations; Paul Hecht reads "A Kite is a Victim," as brilliant colours from children's crayons and pencils animate the saga of a kite; and "Angel" (1966) has a silhouetted Cohen gallivanting in a park with a winged woman, and their dog.
The latter, written and directed by Derek May, is the most stylistically intriguing for its pop-art graphics - stark, high-contrast black and white images set to natural sounds and voices, plus music by Cohen, as performed by The Stormy Clovers - with the trio eventually retiring home after their romp among the trees, and exchanging a set of polka-dot wings.
What's also important about bringing these films back into wide circulation is that it gives Canadians a chance to see a kind of cultural pre-history; current news and docs generally deal with our recent past, whereas these snapshots of life from the fifties and sixties evidence a society with sometimes wholly different cultural roots, and how a new generation would transform and push the country's art and identity to an international scale.
© 2006 Mark R. Hasan