HALLELUJAH: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song

This eagerly awaited (by me!) documentary tells some of Leonard Cohen’s personal story and an awful lot about his most popular song and how it came to be (trailer). The film was produced and directed by Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine, and thankfully, a number of people interviewed and recorded Cohen through his long career—talking, singing, schmoozing—which gave the filmmakers a lot to work with. As a result, you hear Cohen talking about many personal and career issues over time, and you see how they are reflected in his journal entries, where he’s groping for the words that would turn into “Hallelujah.”

Over a period of years there were many false starts with these lyrics, and, ultimately, many versions, an estimated 150-180 verses altogether! Cohen’s deep spirituality was in part rooted in his Jewish background, but he also spent several years at a Zen Buddhist monastery in California. Lyrics written early on were quasi-religious “a secret chord that David played and it pleased the Lord.” At some point, he worked on more secular verses: “Baby, I’ve been here before. I’ve seen this room; I’ve walked this floor.”

When the producers of the movie Shrek wanted to include the song in a melancholic moment, co-director Vicky Jenson says she “took out all the naughty bits”—tying to kitchen chairs and the like.

Amazingly, in retrospect, Various Positions—the album that contained “Hallelujah,” along with other memorable songs, including “Dance Me”—was rejected by Columbia Records, which refused to issue it. The producers found a small record label to bring out some copies, though meanwhile (if I caught this right) it was a hit overseas.

When artists like Bob Dylan, John Cale, Jeff Buckley, and others began singing “Hallelujah,” the song rose and rose in popularity. Film of Cohen’s overseas concert tour demonstrate that love of this song is practically universal. Why? To me, it had broad and timeless appeal because it operates on so many levels. The words are mysterious and open to interpretation, which appeals to the mind; its mix of broken-hearted sadness and joy speaks to the heart; the hymnlike quality resonates with the spirit, and some of the references are frankly libidinal.

Most appropriately, though I was becoming a little tired of the repeated excerpts of the song from different performers, the film ends with KD Lang’s version at Cohen’s memorial concert. That one, I would gladly have heard more of. (Here she is, in different performance.)

You might think one song is a rather slender reed to rest an entire movie on, and you’d be right. More interesting than “Hallelujah” was Cohen himself, who seems like a person whom it would have been be both a joy and a privilege to know. The interviews with a still-gorgeous Judy Collins, John Lissauer, the first producer of “Hallelujah,” and Larry “Ratso” Sloman, a long-time Rolling Stone reporter who covered Cohen for decades, were fascinating. Bottom line: I’m glad I saw it!

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 87%; audiences: 95%.

More info:
The Leonard Cohen website
David Remnick’s 2019 profile in The New Yorker, “Leonard Cohen and the Divine Voice

Weekend movie pick: Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris

“She may be weary
Women do get weary
Wearing the same shabby dress …”

Count Mrs. Ava Harris (Lesley Manville), hard-working and underpaid London charwoman, among those weary women, envisioning something more uplifting than the “same shabby dress.” Cleaning the homes of her clients, she sees what couture has to offer and aspires to such loveliness for herself. I was more than a little doubtful about this film—it sounded much too fluffy for me, but . . . it was fun!

If you’ve seen previews for the movie, based on a novel by Paul Gallico, and directed by Anthony Fabian (trailer), you’ll have a pretty good idea of what happens, up to a point. Mrs. Harris’s husband died in World War II, which the military finally acknowledges some years later. The windfall of a delayed pension will let her travel to the Dior atelier in Paris and buy the dress of her dreams.

The uptight woman managing Dior (Isabelle Huppert) doesn’t want to give Ava the time of day, but the young people on staff take to her unassuming manner, and a gentleman offers himself as her companion for the viewing of the Dior’s tenth anniversary collection. You know she’s going to get a dress, some way or another, but how that’s accomplished is delightful.

A perfect, frothy, summer movie. And you get to see a lot of elegant dresses, something I thought The Phantom Thread (2017)(also with Lesley Manville as Daniel Day-Lewis’s sister) shortchanged, whereas PBS’s series The Collection did not. Don’t think too hard. Just sit back and enjoy.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 94%; audiences 93%.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Romance

No, I’m not talking about the scandals involving the Master of Suspense and his fraught relationships with women, I’m talking about Hitch’s love affair with the United States. As you probably recall, Hitchcock was born in England almost exactly 123 years ago (August 13, 1899) and did his early work in silent films and talkies there. From the start, he was a keen observer with diverse interests: art history and true crime; he had an intense fear of law enforcement; and he called himself an Americaphile. As soon as he had the chance to direct, he began making thrillers, and his film Blackmail (1929) was the first British talking picture.

He had some familiar hits in Britain—The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), The Lady Vanishes (1938)—but the UK film industry was losing ground to Hollywood, so when David O. Selznick made a generous offer to bring him to California in 1939, Hitchcock jumped at the chance for bigger budgets, greater creativity, and better weather.

In Hollywood, Hitchcock had the chance to meld America’s promise and his own dark vision. The open spaces, the sunshine—these set up a contrast, a natural tension, with the nightmarish stories he wanted to tell, according to film historian Steven C. Smith, who talked about “Alfred Hitchcock’s America” in the New Plaza Cinema lecture series last week.

Selznick’s instincts were right. The first film Hitch made for him was Rebecca (1940), based on the Daphne du Maurier novel, and it won the Academy Award for Best Picture. (Ironically, Hitchcock himself never won a best director Oscar, despite five nominations.)

Rebecca, though, was set in Europe, and Hitchcock’s first film set in America was Saboteur (1942), when war panic and fear of German spies was high. I saw it for the first time a few months ago, and the climactic scenes atop the Statue of Liberty remain thrilling today. Smith revealed how the illusions were done (decades before CGI, of course), following a pattern Hitchcock perfected: extensive storyboarding, so that every shot was defined beforehand; a surprisingly small number of location shots; and as much filming as possible on a sound stage, where he and the special effects cameraman could control every element.

The limited wartime production budget for Hitchcock’s personal favorite film, Shadow of a Doubt (1943), meant fewer sets, and much of it was perforce shot on location in Santa Rosa, California. That small town (then only about 30,000 people) had to stand in for a generic, idyllic America. His scenes of actual mid-century New York (and New Jersey) captured for The Wrong Man (1956) are a valuable visual record of that era.

Many of the locations used in Vertigo (1958), filmed in and around San Francisco, still exist: the Mission Dolores, the Brocklebank Apartments, the Palace of the Legion of Honor, and, of course, the Golden Gate Bridge. The Mission San Juan Bautista where two important scenes occur still exists, but at the time the movie was filmed, the bell tower (from which falls occur) had already been demolished. Smith did a fascinating shot-by-shot analysis of the first fall scene, noting how each shot was filmed—alternating sound stage, miniature, on location, matte painting, combination matte painting and location, etc. (Any view including the “bell tower” is a matte painting.) Yet the artistry is so perfect, to the viewer the action appears seamless.

Perfection was a bit harder to achieve in the famous scene in North by Northwest (1959) in which Cary Grant is running across a field, while being buzzed by a crop duster. Supposedly this action occurred in northern Indiana, but the wide-angle shots were actually filmed in Bakersfield, and the scenes where he stumbles and hunkers in the dirt were shot on a sound stage, with a film of the airplane playing on a screen in the background. But, Smith said, the continuity director neglected to keep track of how much dirt Grant had on his suit from one shot to the next, so they had to do a lot of re-shooting. This is the movie that ends with the famous chase scene on Mt. Rushmore. The crew was allowed only two days at Mt. Rushmore to shoot still photos (no climbing!), which were used to recreate views of the monument. The rest was Hollywood magic. (An oddity I observed in the Mt. Rushmore footages was Eva Marie Saint wearing heels and carrying her handbag as she clambers around Thomas Jefferson’s nose.) In the previews for this film, Hitchcock looks at the audience and with tongue-in-cheek menace asks, “Have you had your vacation yet?”

Itʼs the realism of these sound stage creations that makes them so memorable and terrifying. Hitchcock believed that nightmares are very specific. Rear Window (1954)and Psycho (1960)—two of his scariest—were shot almost entirely at the studio. (It was years before I could take a shower without reliving Psycho.) For exteriors in The Birds (1963)(another contribution by Daphne de Maurier, a short story this time) Hitchcock chose Bodega Bay, not far from his home in Northern California, and well away from meddling studio executives.

As Smith pointed out, other films have made use of many of these same locations, but when we think of their star turns in the movies, Hitchcock’s films are the ones that come to mind.

Want more? Try these:

The DVD Alfred Hitchcock: The Ultimate Collection with “how they did it” material and interviews
Award-nominated biography: The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock
The Hitchcock Zone,” a website with more than 9000 images and, and, and!

National Booklovers’ Day

bookshare, Flannery O'Connor, peacock
Bookshare box outside Flannery O’Connor’s girlhood home
with an adored peacock (photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

Touted as “a day for all those who love to read,” today is National Book Lovers Day! So many ways to celebrate: reading to a child, buying a rare book, reorganizing your bookshelves (might need more than one day for that), making a donation of books to your library, or reading something you wouldn’t ordinarily read (ok, I’m ordering Stephen Graham Jones’s My Heart is a Chainsaw right now!). Maybe I should finally paint the Little Free Library my daughter gave me three Christmases ago. Goodness knows, I could fill it! I took the above picture of the one outside Flannery O’Connor’s home in Savannah. Note the peacock on the side—she raised them.

Celebrate with a new five-star mystery thriller! I have just the book in mind: Architect of Courage by, well, me. Enjoy! Click here to order.

Broadway Babies

Two plays in two days hardly competes (except in price) with our five plays in four days sojourns at Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Shaw Festival. Still, last weekend we were on the go!

The room in our hotel near Penn Station was technically larger than the bed, as long as you crabbed along sideways. We didn’t plan to spend much time there, so hardly cared, until the middle of the night when . . .

Our first stop was the Museum of Arts and Design at 1 Columbus Circle. In its exhibits on now–“Garmenting” and art jewelry–some of the jewelry could technically be worn. The garments, probably not (see the teepee dress). Afterwards we had some time to kill so sat a while in Central Park. After several big inhales there, it’s possible we were stoned.

Off to our first play: Tracy Letts’s The Minutes! If you’ve ever sat through a public officials’ meeting that’s struggling to stay on track, you’ll totally get the humor in the play’s first hour. A new member of the Big Cherry City Council is trying to find out what happened at a meeting he missed and why a fellow-councilman has mysteriously been removed. No one wants to tell him. Once they do, the last 15 minutes could be from another play altogether. On the whole, it was entertaining, well acted, and we were glad we saw it. (Tracy Letts is in it.)

Lovely dinner at Trattoria Trecolori on 47th Street, very crowded with the pre-theater seating, but quieted as curtain time approached. Husband Neil has a broken toe, so we couldn’t walk to the restaurant and decided to grab a pedicab. We’d never ridden in one. I think he’s at the bank now trying to negotiate a second mortgage. We chalked it up to a nice “experience,” which, on such a lovely warm evening, it was.

Sunday morning, we saw the special Winslow Homer exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum. Really, really wonderful. Lots to like, including Maine seascapes you could drown in. As you probably know, he’s considered a greater artist with watercolor than with oils. On one occasion, he produced a watercolor, and when the buyer was told the price, he said, “But it only took you an hour to paint it!” “An hour to paint, a lifetime to learn how.” (Now you know my full repertoire of artists’ quips.)

Next up, the matinee of The Music Man with Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster. When the railway coach full of traveling salesmen appeared for the opening number, such an excited din arose, I thought I’d teleported to a high school football game somewhere in Texas. Then, when Hugh Jackman stood up at the rear of the train car, it was, wow, must be the championship game! Excellent singing, lively rendition of the score, choreography fresh and inventive, I liked the sets. The whole show is an exceedingly pleasant package.

During intermission, the drama continued in the long line for the men’s room. A belligerent man behind Neil complained loudly and incessantly, as if he were the only person who had to wait his turn. The usher tried to settle him down, but the man totally lost it. When Neil got back to our seats, he started to tell me about it, but I’d already heard the whole story from the two guys sitting behind us. Never a dull moment!

We topped all this off with a sushi dinner, made a 7:14 train. Arrived home, greeted by cats.

Paris on Film: A Cinematic Journey

In celebration of Bastille Day, New Plaza Cinema and film historian Max Alvarez presented a zoom program on Paris on Film: A Cinematic Journey. Paris has always been a sophisticated (presumably) and popular setting for movies, but over the years, much has changed.

In the early days, films with a Paris setting provided a tourist’s eye-view of a visit to Paris. Before the end of World War II, few Americans had been there, and movies, if they saw them, were their only guides on what to expect. In the early days, Paris scenes were all shot on back lots somewhere in California, but after the War, that was no longer tenable. People knew better.

Max himself visited France as a teenager, but because he’d seen quite a few real French movies, he did not feel “foreign,” and was very comfortable with the mores and behavior of the Parisians. Still, Hollywood had its point of view, and presented the City of Light much as a tourist might view it. Contrast Vincent Minelli’s musicals, An American in Paris (1951), shot almost entirely in California, with his later Gigi (1958), shot on location. Another director from that period, Stanley Donen, likewise shot Funny Face (1957), with Audrey Hepburn, Kay Thompson, and Fred Astaire in Paris.

The musicals were a rather romantic and sweet take on Parisian life. But meanwhile, French and other European filmmakers were giving it a bit more of a cynical edge. In the late 1950s, the French “new wave” directors came to the fore. Generally, they filmed everything on location, preferring black and white. Their focus was not on the lovely French countryside, but on the bustle and grit of the cities, often with darker themes. Examples are: François Truffaut’s The Four Hundred Blows (1959), Jules et Jim (1960), and Jean-Luc Godard’s edgier crime drama Breathless (1960). Some of these filmmakers filmed real street-scenes with hidden cameras. The everyday people you see are exactly that.

Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci and his skilled cinematographer Vittorio Storaro made three increasingly dark films in Paris: The Conformist (1970), an anti-fascist tale that took advantage of the city’s famous “blue light”; Last Tango in Paris (1972) with Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider; and The Dreamers (2003), a violent film about political and sexual passions.

Alvarez says you can think of the films featuring Paris as reflecting “A Tale of Two Cities.” Most of them that come to the United States have “tidied up” and prettified Paris (Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is a current example.)

A few French films show the other side, the desolate, desperate banlieues, the suburbs peopled by immigrants and decrepit low-income housing. Director Mathieu Kassovitz’s Hate (below)is an example. Such films show that while Americans might want to think of Paris as a place not beset by the kinds of social conflicts that affect our country, that is a pleasant and inaccurate fiction.

Weekend Movie Pick: Elvis

You’ll hear a lot of divided opinion about this movie. When the Washington Post reviewer said watching it was like spending two hours inside a washing machine, I was uncertain, and while I sorta see what she meant in my opinion, it’s terrific!

There’s a lot in there(trailer). There’s some fast-cuts and jumping around in place and time, but it’s not difficult to follow. The film comes at you head-on, just like those times. The late 60s had the Civil Rights movement, men on the moon, the British invasion, the assassinations, the Vietnam War, Woodstock. A Lot Going On. Society was changing, and the film captures that upheaval.

I am a big devotee of the American Song Book—Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, all of them. But as much as I love their music, it doesn’t bowl me over with nostalgia the way the songs of my growing up do. And in this movie, you hear a lot of them.

It’s also fun seeing Tom Hanks be given the chance to stretch his acting chops. No surprise, he’s brilliant as the manipulative, self-serving Col. Tom Parker. Elvis desperately needed a business manager who was on his side, but he’s hardly the first creative talent to be ruthlessly taken advantage of. (Leonard Cohen and Al Pacino are two others who immediately come to mind.)

Director Baz Luhrmann shot the film in an interesting way. He gets very close in on Elvis (Austin Butler) and shoots his face in a dreamy, idealized way that you might associate with female film actors of the 1930s. In other shots, he leaves no doubt about what aspect of Elvis’s performances were the main draw. The energy that Butler brings to the role will leave you breathless. Olivia DeJonge as Priscilla is quite nice too.

Of course, in the end, it’s a sad tale. Unlike the many biopics of musicians who get hooked on drugs, then finally suffer through recovery to have a much longer career, Elvis (like Judy Garland) never got past it and died at 42.

If you’re looking for an authoritative biography, this isn’t it. If you’re looking for the complete story, this isn’t it (though, apparently, there IS a four-hour version rattling around). This is an artistic interpretation of a life, and, inevitably, choices were made. But if you’re looking to be reminded of the roots of rock-and-roll and to have some sympathy for a musical change-agent, see it and decide for yourself. Who wants to be persnickety when the sheer entertainment value is so high? The credits are pretty spectacular too.Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 78%; audiences: 94%.

What to Watch This Weekend

popcorn

Three recent-ish British films well worth the time. Our theaters keep teasing us with lots of enticing film previews, but they aren’t here yet!

Downton Abbey: A New Era

Has this popular franchise finally lost its luster? I was afraid so, but writer Julian Fellowes pulled it off once again (trailer). All the regulars are there, except for Mary’s husband. In the opening scene, Tom Branson marries a wealthy young woman, and she and her mother join the ensemble. Downton is being taken over by the cast and crew of a deep-pockets film company, under Mary’s supervision. To avoid this intrusion, most of the family travels to the South of France to visit the Dowager Countess’s unexpected legacy—a villa willed to her by a man she charmed decades previously, before her marriage to Lord Grantham. (Here’s hoping her legacy included funds for maintenance.) Quibbles aside, the costumes, manners, scenery, and pleasantness of it all are refreshing. Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 86%; audiences 97%.

The Duke

You’ll enjoy this comedy about a man whose single-mindedness repeatedly gets him into trouble with the authorities, directed by Roger Michell and written by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman (based on a true story)(trailer). To the exasperation of his wife (Helen Mirren), Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent) is so focused on aiding elderly veterans that he neglects his family responsibilities. He steals a famous painting, hoping to hold it for ransom that would be used to help poor people. He’s caught and put on trial. Lots of chuckles here, and you can’t go wrong with Mirren and Broadbent. Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 97%; audiences 86%.

Operation Mincemeat

Operation Mincemeat, which was directed by John Madden and written by Michelle Ashford, is based on a nonfiction book by Ben Macintyre (trailer) It recounts the story of the key piece of the Allies’ massive effort to convince the Germans that Greece, not Sicily, was their invasion target in the Mediterranean. A corpse is given a back story and a set of fake papers and set adrift to come ashore in Spain. Will the papers get to  the German operatives in Madrid? Will they believe the fake story or recognize it as disinformation? This deception is led by military planners Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) and Charles Cholmondeley ( Matthew Macfadyen). The film tries hard to maintain the tension, but knowing how the plot turns out, deflates that balloon somewhat. One fun aspect was the important role of Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn)—then a Lieutenant Commander as assistant to the Director of the Naval Intelligence Division. in the office typing away on what he says is “a spy novel.” I’m not convinced the romantic elements are factual, but that’s filmmakers for you. Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 84%; audiences 64%.

No Escape

And, to show that you can’t get away from Downton Abbey, the cast of Operation Mincemeat includes Penelope Wilton, who plays Isobel Crawley Merton in Downton. Matthew Good, who played Henry Talbot (Mary’s absent husband) in Downton plays Kempton Bunton’s barrister in The Duke..

How True is True Crime?

In the current issue of Wired, cultural commentator Virginia Heffernan writes about her long relationship with the true-crime tale The Staircase and its seemingly endless, Escher-like iterations.

It first came to her attention in 2005 in the form of a six-hour documentary, recorded on a set of DVDs. True-crime was less of a thing on television then, yet she found the The Staircase “among the most captivating films I’ve ever seen.” It won numerous awards, including a Peabody. And, it was produced by a French filmmaker with the prescient name, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade. Not quite Holmes, but a worthy investigator nonetheless.

The Staircase recounts a 2001 case from Durham, North Carolina, in which war-novelist Michael Peterson was tried and convicted for the grisly murder of his wife Kathleen. He claimed she died falling down a staircase, but the authorities didn’t buy it. They were convinced he had bludgeoned her to death and charged him with murder. An argument over Peterson’s bisexuality triggered the assault, they said.

The jury convicted him, and he received a life sentence, but in 2011, the verdict was overturned. (A prosecution witness had lied.) In 2017, awaiting a new trial, Peterson entered an Alford plea in which he accepted a charge of voluntary manslaughter, was sentenced to time served, and walked away a free man.

Since that time, there seems the repackaging possibilities have proliferated. In 2012, de Lestrade updated his original documentary with coverage of Peterson’s second trial (Rotten Tomatoes has no critics’ rating, though one wrote “Appalls in its presentation of the sheer incompetence of one ‘expert,’” while audiences rated it 75%). In 2018, it came to ABC as a 10-episode documentary, with more new material (Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 94%; audiences 82%), and in May 2022, HBO Max aired a fictionalized miniseries, The Staircase, by Antonio Campos, starring Colin Firth and Toni Collette (Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 92%; audiences 77%).

And this probably isn’t a complete list. At this point, where does reality lie? As Hefffernen says, “documentaries are filled with staged stuff, and fiction films use real names, real plot points, and often real dialog drawn from court records.” Poor Kathleen Peterson seems a bit lost.

De Lestrade criticizes the recent film for suggesting his team was biased in favor of Peterson, when through its several iterations, his Staircase attempted to leave its viewers uncertain as to the husband’s guilt. However, “taking sides” may be an artifact of de Lestrade’s decision to tell the story from the point of view of Peterson and his legal team.

As true-crime television and documentaries proliferate, and podcasts gain in listenership, it may become harder to separate fact from fiction. Without taking sides on this key problem, Heffernen concedes these hybrid genres have “lived in the flicker of truth and poetry.”

A Sizzling Summer

Video of some spectacular fireworks linked here to start your holiday weekend. Though this year a celebration seems less appropriate than using the occasion reflect on what July 4 is really all about. Perhaps that’s always true. Have a hotdog for me.