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

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!

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 Pics

The Outfit

Any film with Mark Rylance in the lead will be a hit with me. This film, directed by Graham Moore, who wrote with script with Johnathan McClain, doesn’t disappoint (trailer).

Leonard (Rylance) insists on being called a cutter—the man who cuts the fabric for bespoke men’s suits—not a tailor, and trained on London’s Savile Row. But it’s the early 1950s and now he’s in Chicago, where most of his clients are involved in organized crime. Mable (Zoey Deutch) is his assistant, and most of the time the two of them are alone in his shop.

A succession of shady characters use a dropbox in Leonard’s workroom to stash payments and other messages, but he stays out of their business. As he says Mable, “If we only allowed angels to be customers, soon we’d have no customers at all.” When she starts dating the not-too-bright son of a mob boss in the midst of a deadly gang war, trouble invades the cutter’s quiet workroom, and Mable and Leonard may not escape. Clever and entertaining.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 85%; audiences: 92%.

The Rose Maker

This French comedy-drama, directed by Pierre Pinaud and written by him with Fadette Drouard and Philippe Le Guay, originated in 2020, but is now appearing in US theaters, with subtitles (trailer).

Eve (Catherine Frot) inherited a rose-growing business from her father and breeds beautiful new varieties. Despite her success, bankruptcy is imminent. She and her assistant Vera (Olivia Cote) need help, and where does Vera find people they can afford? Three people on work-release program from a local prison. They have no horticultural experience, but at least they come cheap. It’s a classic “against all odds” plot, but satisfying.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 94%; audiences: 92%.

Mothering Sunday

A super cast (Colin Firth, Olivia Coleman, Josh O’Connor) in a slight film (trailer) set in 1924, about three upper-class British families, two of whom lost sons in World War I. Firth’s character has retreated into bland platitudes, while Coleman, as his wife, is seething with unquenchable rage. The only son left to any of them (O’Connor) has a brief liaison with a maid (Odessa Young), and much of the story is from her perspective then and later, after she becomes a successful writer. It’s dripping with sadness, but the constant use of jump cuts in time and scene seem designed to mask the thinness of the story as translated to film. Directed by Eva Husson and written by Alice Birch, based on a novel by Graham Swift.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 77%; audiences: 60%.

Spies, Spies, Spies!

You might with justification believe that John le Carré’s death marked the end of sophisticated spy fiction. Three reasons to take heart.

First up, le Carré may be gone, but his work isn’t quite finished. While I enjoyed what at the time was termed his “last” espionage novel—Agent Running in the Field—the posthumously published, rather slender, novel Silverview is also worth a read. Both are expert at focusing your attention in one direction, while all along, the protagonist is engaged in a much bigger, much more complicated game. It’s that combination of spywork and grifter that I find so intriguing.

Over his career, le Carré had done such a convincing job of peopling the various sides in the Cold War and setting their minions against one another, that I for one wondered what he would write about after the breakup. I shouldn’t have worried. Not only were there many more books, but the Russian menace was apparently just on pause. Too bad he’s not still here to probe its current-day secrets. (You’ll recall that in The Russia House, set in the Gorbachev years, le Carré’s premise was that the Soviet military menace was not all it was cracked up to be. Fast-forward to 2022.)

Second, let me introduce you to a 21st century spy novelist who I believe is a potential heir to le Carré’s mantle as chronicler of the cynical, conflicted, mistake-prone and sometimes baffling and baffled espionage agent: author James Wolff. A member of the UK government for fifteen years, he writes under a pseudonym. His two books—2018’s Beside the Syrian Sea, and 2021’s How to Betray Your Country—are a different breed than the usual spy story, more complex, like the people he portrays.

In Wolff’s work, you have a strong sense that the context and actions of the characters are grounded in reality, as the agents are, too, flaws and all. As Wolff said in an interview with the Harrogate Festivals, “I don’t think that a book can be thrilling if the reader doesn’t believe that the characters are real.” No need to amp up the energy with over-the-top, implausible situations and confrontations. I’ve lost patience with authors struggling to pack in yet another far-fetched idea or action scene.

And third, finally, Apple TV has finally started showing its original production of Mick Herron’s Slow Horses, witty and quick-witted. As Apple describes it, the spy drama “follows a dysfunctional team of MI5 agents—and their obnoxious boss, the notorious Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman)—as they navigate the espionage world’s smoke and mirrors to defend England from sinister forces.” And Mick Jagger singing the theme song! What more can you ask? There are eight novels and three novellas in Herron’s series, so, fingers crossed, there will be lots of good watching ahead.

Hear the Beat — Those Dancing Feet!

Just when you think Big Dance Numbers have gone the way of the passenger pigeon, along came Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, the Academy Award-nominated (and commendable) new West Side Story, and the disappointing, but innovatively cast, Cyrano, all of which displayed innovative dance sequences. (I still get dizzy thinking of the dance/fight sequence in West Side Story, in which it seemed Tony or Riff—or both—would fall through the broken pier into the Hudson.)

Film historian Max Alvarez recently hosted a program on “filming the dance,” and how that has changed over the decades. When films acquired sound, the studios made a lot of quickie musicals to take advantage of the new technology, and persuade audiences they were the new thing. These films weren’t always good. But the studios had made a big investment in converting movie houses and equipment to accommodate sound, and they were determined to recoup. As a result, in 1929, the studios produced 50 musicals and in 1930, an astonishing 78! You’ll recall that the Gene Kelly movie, Singin’ in the Rain, is about the difficulties of the conversion to sound, and Max says it’s pretty accurate. (That movie is having its 70th anniversary this year.)

After the initial blitz of so-so products, movie makers became more discriminating about the form. In Hollywood’s “Golden Age,” the studio system was in full sway, and not only actors and directors, but songwriters and choreographers also had studio contracts. This made musicals economical to produce. Of course, early producers remained a little nervous about musicals. For one of his films, Darryl Zanuck put all the musical numbers at the end, so he could lop them off if audiences didn’t respond. Finally, the success of 42nd Street (1933) did a lot to assuage their nerves. Treat yourself with this Busby Berkeley number from the show. Glorious! Thrilling! Unforgettable!

For a time, the orchestra played, the singers sang, and dancers danced. Big soundproofed boxes had to be built around the cameras to dampen their noise. Today, none of that happens simultaneously, of course, as songs and music are recorded separately. Photographing dance sequences is almost a lost art, Alvarez says, because directors don’t trust audiences to follow the action, so they do a lot of quick cuts. It’s lively, but all the editing sacrifices something. Gene Kelly maintained that the use of a lot of fast cutting was simply to camouflage bad choreography. Even the sound of “those dancing feet” is added in post-production. There aren’t any taps on their shoes. Sorry.

The Irish on Film

In past St. Patrick’s Day posts I’ve talked about some of my favorite books set in Ireland or with strongly Irish characters (See those here and here.) Here are a few of my favorite movies about that story-laden land, old and new. Is it because there are more stories there, or because the Irish are such good story-tellers? Cannot say.

Belfast

Kenneth Branagh’s highly personal elegy to his home town in 1969, at the beginning of “The Troubles” certainly deserves its Academy Award Best Picture nomination (trailer). It captures the joy of childhood, as well as the anxieties of the adults in a Protestant family, where the neighborhood around them is devolving into religious violence. What a nine-year-old boy thinks of as adventure, his parents see as is mortal danger. Outstanding, should-have-been-nominated performances by Caitriona Balfe as the mother and Jamie Dornan as the father, Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds as the grandparents, and Jude Hill as the sunny boy.

Brooklyn

Remember Brooklyn? The 2015 film written by Nick Hornby about a young Irish immigrant , Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) in the 1950s (trailer). It’s an effective meditation on how all immigrants feel they have a foot in two places, that they are or could be living two entirely different lives. Compound that in Eilis’s case that the trip across the ocean coincides with growing up and starting her own life. Lots o  disruption for one spunky gal.

In the Name of the Father

Go back in time thirty years for this one, released in 1993 (trailer). Daniel Day-Lewis, in one of his awe-inspiring star turns, plays Belfast petty thief and general layabout Gerry Conlon. Falsely imprisoned on charges he participated in an IRA bombing, he’s in jail for fifteen years before the dogged efforts of the lawyer for his father, also falsely imprisoned, provides any hope of release. Pete Postlethwaite plays his father, and Emma Thompson the lawyer. Though fiction, the story is “inspired by true events.”

2022 AA Nominees: Live-Action Shorts

Academy Award, Oscar

Last weekend, our local movie theater showed this year’s Academy Award-nominated Live-Action Shorts. These do tend to be rather depressing, and this year’s nominees were no exception. Even so, we put ourselves through this, year after year, to see what talented filmmakers from around the world will come up with. Two are available for streaming using the links provided; otherwise, trailers are available.

You’ll have trouble believing this, but the most feel-good story was an end-of-life story from Denmark (which tells you something about the others). In “On My Mind,” a man (played by Rasmus Hammerich) wanders into a bar early one morning and seems determined to get drunk. He notices a karaoke machine and wants the sympathetic bartender (Camilla Bendix) to cue up “Always on My Mind” so he can sing it, and she can record it, for his dying wife. Alas, the bar-owner (Ole Boisen) is determined to complete work on his taxes, without distraction. Discussion ensues.

The satirical U.S. entry, “Please Hold,” (trailer) anticipates a future when law enforcement, incarceration, and legal aid are handled by drones and automated systems. The hero, a young Latino man (played by Erick Lopez) is arrested apparently for no reason and desperate to explain his plight to a human who can get him out of it. The film has quite a few funny bits, but overall it seems a cautionary tale of corporate technologists run amok. Kafka would love it.

“Alu Kachuu (Take and Run),” Switzerland’s entry (trailer), filmed in beautiful Kyrgyzstan, is the story of limited opportunities for women, made even more limited by forced marriage. Alina Turdumamatova plays the unwilling bride. Beautiful costumes! This film was shown last, and we were already so down in the dumps from two others that our mood colored reaction to this film, but it was excellent.

The Polish and UK entries (“The Dress” (trailer) and “The Long Goodbye,” respectively) were too depressing to revisit. Sorry.

Touring James Dean’s Home Town

Taking a trip to central Indiana? Consider a detour to the two-stoplight town of Fairmount, Indiana, boyhood home of actor James Dean. Maybe he’s not the household name he was fifty or sixty years ago, but even younger generations know about—or through the magic of video streaming—have seen the three movies where he had a leading role: East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant.

It was near the end of the Giant filming that he had the car crash that killed him at age 24. Filming of Giant was still under way when Dean died, which devastated his co-star and friend, Elizabeth Taylor, a year younger than he was.

Fairmount hasn’t forgotten him. When we visited in mid-September, the town was gearing up for the annual James Dean festival. Although he graduated from high school in Fairmount, he soon relocated to California attended Santa Monica City College and UCLA, majoring in theater, then to New York and the Actors Studio. The James Dean Gallery (a private museum in town) shows clips from the several dozen live television dramas where he had small parts. He also appeared on Broadway.

A certain amount of mythology grows up around someone who dies so young, so tragically, and many people believe he wrecked his car by driving way too fast. Not exactly true. Late afternoon, Friday, September 30, 1955, he was driving his new rear-engine Porsche Spyder to a race to be held the next day. In the car with him was his mechanic. Yes, he was driving about ten miles over the speed limit, but who hasn’t? A 1950 Ford Custom Coupe in the approaching lane turned left just in front of him. Dean was killed. The mechanic was thrown clear and survived.

Sedans in those days were not the aluminum and plastic vehicles we have today. Steel, baby. One and a half tons of it. Engine in the front, of course. The Porsche never had a chance.

You can visit the Gallery, see the farm where he grew up, the cemetery where he’s buried, and other modest sites, all in and around Fairmount, 70 miles north of Indianapolis. Take the country roads. One reason we went is because James Dean is my sixth cousin, with our common ancestors being our 5th great-grandfather. I had the list of intervening generations with me and asked the historian at the museum whether it looked right to him. “Those are all familiar names,” he said. A certified genealogist wouldn’t be satisfied, but I am!

Weekend Movie Pick: The Card Counter

OK, the new movie from writer-director Paul Schrader isn’t for everyone, but you can drastically increase it’s watchability if you shut your eyes during the rather brief flashbacks to the main character’s Iraq War experience (trailer). We all know terrible things were done in that faraway war, and this movie is grounded by their longlasting and inter-generational effects on two American soldiers (one already a suicide).

Most of the film, starring a brilliantly low-key Oscar Isaac as William Tell (a pseudonym he’s adopted that has numerous connotations), a modest-stakes card sharp who stays in the game by never betting too much or past the point when his consistent wins might rouse casino security’s suspicions. He’s served time in federal prison and, he says, “that’s where I learned to count cards.”

Tell is a loner, traveling from casino to casino. (The film was mostly shot in Biloxi, Mississippi; casinos look pretty much the same inside.) He’s approached by two people—Cirk, pronounced Kirk, a young man (Tye Sheridan) who knows about Tell’s war experience and La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) who helps card players get financial backing for the big tournaments. At first, he turns them both down.

Cirk wants Tell’s help in assassinating one of the masterminds behind the torture of Iraqis. His target (Willem Dafoe) now runs a lucrative security consulting business. Tell refuses, seeing this quest as a good way for Cirk to ruin his life. He invites the young man to tag along with him in his travels, believing that if he can get enough money together to pay Cirk’s college loan debt and allow him to finish his education, he’ll be diverted from his current destructive path. A little life experience may help too. To acquire sufficient cash, he needs help from La Linda.

The other gamblers—dressed in the stars and stripes, wearing cowboy hats, and other distinctive garb—contrast with Tell’s shades-of-gray wardrobe. Likewise, the casinos’ garish rainbow of light is the opposite of the stark interiors of Tell’s motel rooms. He removes all the pictures and (in a Christo moment) wraps everything, even the legs of furniture, in a cocoon of white cloth. Is this a belated attempt to make things clean? Nights, Tell is too disciplined to party. He writes in his journal, attempting to explain or even expiate the past, knowing it is impossible. You get his words in voiceover, and while they aren’t memorable, they are essential. To him, and to you.

This is a movie about regret in different forms. Cirk’s regret that his father was so damaged and is lost to him and Tell’s that he can’t forgive himself. It’s also a movie about the fragility of hope—the hope the characters have for each other, and the hope all gamblers clutch to their hearts.Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 85% ; audiences: 46%. (Put me in that group!)