Ladies and Gentlemen … The 1964 Version Of Leonard Cohen

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In anticipation of the Canadian leg of the Leonard Cohen World Tour 2009,  CBC Radio 2 and the National Film Board of Canada are offering  Ladies and Gentlemen…Mr. Leonard Cohen for online viewing.1

Two Caveats

The first caveat is about Ladies and Gentlemen…Mr. Leonard Cohen: I find the film an unimpressive puff piece by a nationalized film agency nominating and promoting  a national cultural hero.

The second caveat is about the first caveat: I may be the only Leonard Cohen fan who isn’t impressed by Ladies and Gentlemen…Mr. Leonard Cohen.

These excerpts from LeonardCohenForum are representative:

The film is a wonderful look at the young Cohen before his success as a musician/song-writer. The wit and the Chesire Cat-like grin are in full evidence as are many of the ideas which have provided the foundation for his work.

Amazing! I just sat and watched this for 44 minutes. Very interesting.

I too just watched the whole thing. Fascinating.

Because of such accolades bestowed by individuals whose judgment and taste I respect, I have reversed my original decision to forgo posting the film. Given the responses from Cohen fans thus far, it seems a safe bet that if you like Leonard Cohen and if you don’t go by the blogonym, DrHGuy, you’ll enjoy watching Ladies and Gentlemen…Mr. Leonard Cohen.

The Content

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The NFB site describes the black and white documentary as “A fitting tribute to a Canadian legend,” (which, by the way,  would seem to endorse my perspective) going on to report that

Ladies and Gentlemen…Mr. Leonard Cohen paints an informal portrait of the legendary Montreal poet, novelist and songwriter both onstage and off.

The film is a collection of clearly staged casual scenes interspersed with fragments of Cohen poetry readings, talks, and interviews. He does sing and play guitar a bit, but the presentation focuses on him as a poet – because in 1964, when filming took place,  and 1965, when film was released, Cohen was a poet with three volumes of his work already published2 and, to a lesser extent, a novelist.3 His adult career as a singer-songwriter would not begin until 1967.

I would hold, in fact, that the value of this film lies in its emphasis on Cohen as a successful poet long before he wrote about Suzanne feeding him tea and oranges, a difficult concept for those of us who are late arrivals to the Cohen enlightenment (a group which includes anyone who began listening to his music in the past 20 years or so).

It may also be helpful to understand before seeing the movie that the “informal” descriptor used in the NFB blurb is not synonymous with “spontaneous.”  Both the subject of  Ladies and Gentlemen…Mr. Leonard Cohen and the film itself are deeply and unrelentingly self-conscious.

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I suspect that my discomfort with Ladies and Gentlemen…Mr. Leonard Cohen derives from cynically and perhaps unfairly equating  this self-consciousness with pretentiousness in the service of promotion. I can’t resist the notion that this is less a documentary that a NFB infomercial for the New And Improved Young Canadian Poet.4

On the other hand, the films includes significant biographical information about Cohen, including views of his family’s neighborhood and his other haunts in Toronto, a brief interlude with Irving Layton, and, of course, a chance to watch Leonard Cohen as a young man (AKA, the twin to Dustin Hoffman phase) reading his poetry to entranced crowds, answering questions in a televised interview, eating at a popular restaurant, and taking a bath.

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And it also includes Cohen talking about as well as reciting poetry, chatting with his colleagues, expounding on women and sex,5 relaxing (self-consciously) with friends, and discussing the film with the filmmakers (a black hole of self-consciousness).

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Heck, you may as well watch it now.6

Ladies and Gentlemen…Mr. Leonard Cohen

  1. The documentary has been and continues to be available on YouTube and other sites. The NFB Screening Room version provides higher quality viewing. []
  2. Let Us Compare Mythologies, The Spice-Box of Earth, and Flowers for Hitler []
  3. His first novel, The Favourite Game was published in 1963 []
  4. I also can’t resist the notion that it would not be difficult to create a farcical parody that would parallel the structure of Ladies and Gentlemen…Mr. Leonard Cohen but spotlight another individual, one pursuing a less impressive line of work. Yep, I’m thinking The NFB presents Ladies and Gentlemen…DrHGuy. []
  5. He comes down forthrightly in favor of both []
  6. The film can also be seen at the NFB site: Ladies and Gentlemen…Mr. Leonard Cohen []

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