Marianne and Leonard: An Unconventional Love

Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love (2019)
Directed by Nick Broomfield
Roadside Attractions, 102 minutes, R (for drugs, brief nudity, sexual frankness)

What is love? Is it gazing into the eyes of another and seeing no others? Is it a fever that never breaks? Lifelong faithfulness? Continuous mutual commitment? A partnership of equals? Two horses pulling the same cart? Fireworks, roses, and chocolates?

If you think love is contained by any of the above, you might wish to steer clear of Marianne and Leonard, the new documentary about the relationship between Marianne Ihlen and Leonard Cohen. Theirs was an unconventional love that was more akin to the yearning of a poet for a muse that one doesn't always wish to find.

It began in 1960, when Cohen was an unknown writer fleeing Montreal's frigid winters for the sun-kissed Greek isle of Hydra. There he met Marianne Ihlen, an about-to-be divorced mother of a young son. Cohen was Jewish, dark, and brooding; she was Norwegian, blonde, and free-spirited. If you'd like to extrapolate this into a yin/yang sort of thing, you wouldn't be far from the mark.

This documentary is from director Nick Broomfield, who also gave us Kurt and Courtney (1998), so you know he doesn't shy from uncomfortable material. The relationship between Ihlen and Cohen was not always healthy or happy. If you know Cohen's song "So Long Marianne," you already know a lot about the arc of their time together and apart. The muse thing didn't always go as planned. Cohen's desire to be a Canadian lion of letters was dealt a rude blow when all but a few reviewers trashed Beautiful Losers, the novel he wrote on Hydra. One critic called it "verbal masturbation" and Canadians seldom talk like that! Even before this, though, Cohen exhibited symptoms consistent with bipolar disorder. When he was in Hydra, he thought he should be in Montreal; when in Montreal, his thoughts drifted to Hydra. His relationship with Ihlen was like this as well. He yearned deepest for Marianne when she was absent; when she went to him, fire turned to ice.

Retsina, drugs, and free love didn't help mood swings. Neither was faithful and Broomfield reminds us that he too was one of Marianne's lovers. One also gets the sense that Ihlen wasn't always a good mother. Still, it is fair to comment–as so many feminist historians have–that the Sixties' emphasis on free love was often a trap for women. The pill and sexual openness brought with them the expectation that women should yield to male desire. To put it another way, the veil of sexual mystery was lifted and revealed a wall of patriarchy.

It's also fair to observe that Cohen, even when depressed on Hydra, was a better person before his poetry and songs brought him fame. With it came egoism; as Cohen's star ascended, Ihlen's waned. Nonetheless, it never burned out completely, no matter who was with whom. Their love was genuine and literally followed them from Hydra to the grave. Though they had not been together for decades, Cohen pledged his love to Marianne as she lay dying and he was destined to follow three months later.

Bloomfield's film makes excellent use of available footage, especially that from Cohen's 1976 Bird on a Wire tour, where see him musing on Marianne when he's so high that his eyes look like two dark saucers tucked under his brow. We also see snippets from other interviews, including his surprisingly nonchalant response to leaving a Buddhist monastery after three years (1994-97) to discover he had been embezzled and is broke. His comeback was astounding, as was his reinvention in the early 21st century as a behatted, suited, cool septuagenarian who often looked–can you believe it–happy!

Alas, we have less of Marianne in the film. Though she gets top billing, the film should more accurately be called Leonard and a Dash of Marianne. She flits in and out of Cohen's orbit like a Nordic Tinkerbell. I longed to know what she thought of Cohen's other muse, Suzanne Elrod, or of his conquests of everyone from Joni Mitchell to Rebecca De Mornay. Did she care about his legion of one-night stands? One can't fault Bloomfield for not having material that doesn't exist, but a bit more critical analysis might have served to underscore the depth of the Ihlen/Cohen devotion to each other. Most of the talking heads, especially Judy Collins (wearing a horrifying wig!) address Cohen's magnetism and brilliance, not his melancholy. This isn't a hagiography, but it does sometimes lean in that direction.

Whatever its shortcomings, Marianne and Leonard is a film that makes you walk away feeling perplexed. It also sticks with you and, in my case, I liked it the more I (if I might) mused upon it. It is as I posed at the start of my review: a love story. It might not make you comfortable, but I have always maintained that a relationship only needs to make sense to those who are in it.

Rob Weir


Gunsmoke and Horseshit: How Mass Murder Became Boring

 Gilroy. El Paso. Dayton. Queue the tears. The roses. Hollow prayers. Teddy bears. Political doublespeak. And horseshit. Lots of horseshit. Almost as much horseshit as the tonnage of guns and ammo in the Misguided States of America.

Is there any point to writing about mass murder these days? It might sound callous, but mass murder has become mind numbingly boring. We know several things that surpass the likelihood of the sun rising: that not a damn thing will change and that tomorrow somewhere else will break out the tears, roses, prayers, and Teddy bears. And through their anguish, the survivors will have to endure the indignity of doublespeak and horseshit.

If Columbine didn't move the needle and if gun-toting monsters create forums and Websites claiming Sandy Hook was faked, you know that taking out a few Texans at Walmart or some angry white dude in Ohio –and aren't they always white dudes?–who slew his sister and anyone else in the way won't change things. Where will it be tomorrow? A ballpark? The White House? Disneyworld? Another synagogue? Another Sunday school class?  A mosque? Spin the wheel. Which state gets its 30 minutes of shame, blame, and infamy?

I'm sick of it. We all know the answer. It's what's it's always been. Take. Away. The guns. That's what they did in Scotland. That's what is happening in New Zealand. But we also know what will be said instead. Check your favorite phrase from the list below:

·      This was the action of a lone mentally deranged gunman.
·      If we had concealed carry laws, someone would have taken out the gunman.
·      The majority of gun owners are law-abiding and it's not fair to lump them with murders.
·      If we banned guns we wouldn't stop murders.
·      If you outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns. (Well, yeah!)
·      We don't want a nanny state.
·      The 2nd Amendment gives me the right to bear arms.
·      This is no time to politicize gun violence. (And when would be the time?)

Any one of these is child's play to demolish. Try to make it harder for mentally ill people to get guns and the N.R.A. throws a wobbly. Maybe we should just compile a list of all the deranged people in the nation and give each a small tactical nuclear weapon. Or would that be redundant? Do we even want to discuss why it's nearly always white men who are so bat shit crazy and why they think it's okay to take others with them down the exit ramp?

Hey Colorado, Ohio, and Texas are concealed carry states. What happened? Couldn't anyone get their gun out of the pants they were busy crapping? Concealed carry is an even bigger load of horseshit than the idea that armed teachers will protect students from angry white boys.

How can I chastise law-abiding gun owners? Easy: On both the levels of complicity and and of the greater public good. There are all manner of things we can't do because community good tops individual rights. Maybe you could safely operate a car at 100 mph. Try telling that to the cop who pulls you over. Maybe you can do a controlled burn of the woods behind your house. Then, again, maybe you can't. Hey, why not legalize heroin? Maybe your kid needs a beating. Don't try it in public and don't leave any marks. Who says you need auto insurance to be on the road? Yada, yada, yada… But the thing is, if you think guns are sacred you are complicit in an uncivil attack on the very ideals of public safety and the greater public good. You are saying, "My right matters more than the welfare of others."  

You are right that nothing can make us completely safe. But you don't have to be a math major to compute the odds. A run-around appeal to 100% safety just marks you as foolish, stupid, selfish, or all three. It's this simple: Nowhere else has mass shootings of this magnitude. There are many dangerous places in the world–Brazil, Syria, and certain provinces of Mexico–but for all of Trump's rage over criminal Mexicans, its 29,000 homicides aren't a patch on our 40,000. But even were ours lower, shouldn't we compare ourselves to the safest nations, not the least? 

As for the rest, yes it's time for a nanny state. We clearly cannot police ourselves. We can't even agree that no one needs a military assault rifle to shoot Bambi. So let the government step in. Get rid of all the guns. All of them. The Second Amendment does not impress me. It never meant what you thought it did anyhow, but we have the capacity to alter the Constitution so let's repeal the damn thing. You know, like we did the 18th. Change the Constitution. Like we did when we decided that slavery was not humane or that women should have the right to vote. The "original intent" of the Founders is just another bucket of horseshit for the pile. The Founders knew they weren't creating a perfect union or a perfect document. That's why they created provisos for changing the Constitution and it's why we've done so 27 times.

I'd like to politicize the hell out of guns. Declare the NRA a terrorist organization. After all, white males have killed more Americans than Al Qaida ever did. Suspend Mitch McConnell over a fiery spit until he reveals how he's been bought and sold by the gun lobby. Make pro-gun Bernie Sanders feel the heat as well.

Of course, none of this will happen. The roses, Teddy bears, and tombstone industry will continue to thrive. But shall we? Or will the methane of all the horseshit raise the global temperature, melt the ice caps, and wash us away in a Biblical-style flood? Don't bet against the Last American firing his AK-47 into the sky before he sinks to perdition. 


Her Smell a Mess that Sometimes Intrigues

Her Smell (2018/19)
Directed by Alex Ross Perry
Gunpowder and Sky, 135 minutes, R (language, drug use, adult situations)

The most accurate way to describe Her Smell is to call it a mess. It's often an intriguing and interesting mess, but it is nonetheless a shambles of a film kept together by music and decent acting.

It's the waning days of punk rock, but the female trio Something She can still command a good-sized audience through the charisma of lead singer and guitarist Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss). That is, when she's not too stoned, pissed off, psychotic, or all three to arrive on time, if at all. She's become an addicted flake who pays more attention to her charlatan shaman Ya-ema (Eka Darville) than to band mates Ali (Gayle Rankin) and Mari (Agyness Deyn). Nor does she give a damn that her tempestuous and  behavior is bankrupting her manager Howard (Eric Stoltz) and breaking the heart of her mother Ania (Virginia Madsen). To top it off, she has an infant daughter, Tama, to her ex-husband Danny (Dan Stevens), formerly known as "Dirtbag Danny" but now trying to find stability via sobriety, a new wife, and acting as Tama's only sane caregiver.

Think of Becky as a wigged out self-destructive prima donna. She gets away with a lot because she's the kind of electric personality who can show up two hours late for a gig, sing a song or two, toss her guitar onto the stage, strut off into the wings, and listen to the wild applause of adoring acolytes. Yeah, this kind of shit went down a storm during punk rock's heyday! Then tastes changed, audiences began to notice that their heroes and sheroes were seriously screwed up, and that a lot of them were terrible musicians. The last isn't true of Becky or her band, but when a drugged out Becky commanders a studio where Howard hopes to record a new band, even she notices that The Akergirls have a sweeter, more melodic sound that—in her words—is "what young people are listening to." (Cara Delevigne is a "member" of the Akergirls.) In other words, there are increasingly fewer reasons to put up with Becky.

This is a film about addiction, ego, and wicked bad behavior. It's not structured enough to be a slice of musical history and, at times, it hardly seems structured at all. This is partly deliberate and partially a result of a hodgepodge script. Director Alex Ross Perry opts for a cinéma vérité approach that is effectively jarring in spotlighting how an addicted person's world is a manic series of scattershot bang-bang disconnected episodes that never cohere. Becky's tantrums and narcissism sometimes reminded me of Madonna's Truth or Dare, though Madonna would never be as unorchestrated as Becky. If you're not prepared for this kind of filmmaking, much of Her Smell might seem like anime with live actors. Objectively, it is hard to watch at times, though overall I think the shaky camera documentary approach lent an air of verisimilitude.

In films such as this, though, you know that resolutions are limited: early death, getting clean, or hovering between addiction and sobriety. Was it a mistake to interject a backstory of a daughter? I'd yield to anyone who accused Perry of stitching into a rough-edged film elements of sentimentality and conventionality. One could certainly argue that this is a forced fit. There are also parts that are just plain dumb, especially those involving Becky's shaman. Okay, there are some weird mystics out there, but this character is badly developed and seems more of a cartoon than someone anybody would follow.

Moss is pretty good as Becky, even when she seems to be channeling Courtney Love. Deyn and Rankin are also solid as her band mates. They strike the right balance between concern and screw-you anger toward Becky. Moss provides her own voice in some of the songs–though the band Bully did much of the soundtrack–and though Moss probably won't headline a club near you, she's credible as a snarling punk rocker. She also does a sensitive piano-backed cover of Bryan Adams' "Heaven." We're not talking Lady Gaga here, but Moss is certainly proving that her chops and range are broad and diverse.

Is this movie worth a look? If you can get past the fact that there are more holes in the script than in Becky Something's stage fishnet stockings, yes. But take me to heart. Overall the film is a bit like DYI punk rock. That is to say that at times it's pure shite, but when it rings true, Her Smell rocks you.  

Rob Weir