Saturday, July 27, 2019

Words of Love, So Soft and Tender: On Nick Broomfield's Marianne & Leonard

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Roadside Attractions
(Nick Broomfield, USA, 2019, 
97 minutes)

"He was the poet for the quasi-depressed women of the era."
--Guitarist Ron Cornelius (Songs of Love and Hate, Songs from a Room)

Sounding very much like the hipper brother of extreme-wealth proponent Robin Leach, Nick Broomfield (Kurt & Courtney) narrates this affectionate, but not uncritical portrait of summer lovers Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ihlen, not just because it's the kind of thing he would do, but because he knew the subject of Cohen's "So Long, Marianne" personally. Leonard and Marianne contribute to the voice-over, too, from audio recordings they left behind (she died in the summer of 2016 and he died three months later).

Broomfield was 20 when he met Norwegian-born Marianne on the Greek island of Hydra in 1968 (her name was pronounced "Mah-ree-ah-nuh"). He credits the 32-year-old for encouraging his filmmaking--and for briefly taking him as a lover. In the film, Broomfield makes use of sun-blasted, soft-edged footage shot by his mentor D.A. Pennebaker in 1967.

Cohen arrived on the then-affordable island from Montreal in 1960. He was looking for a refuge to do some writing. When he and Marianne first met each other's eyes, that was it: a connection was made. He was happy to write a few pages a day, and she was happy to serve as his muse. "There was writing and lovemaking," she remembers. "It was absolutely fabulous."

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Roadside Attractions
Marianne had already married Axel
Jensen, a Norwegian author, and
had a son, also named Axel, be-
fore she met Leonard, who would
divide his time between Hydra and
Montreal. She supported him while
he worked on his second novel,
Beautiful Losers. The poor recep-
tion it received--Toronto's Globe & 
Mail described it as "verbal mas-
turbation" and The Toronto Star proclaimed it "the most revolting book ever written in Canada"--contributed to his breakdown.

If a breakdown can be considered a good thing, it turned out that way for Cohen when he switched his focus to songwriting. His friend, Judy Collins, who appears in the film, suggested that he put his own spin on "Suzanne" (it appears on 1966's In My Life), and they made their first public performance together the next year. A music star was born.

After his career took off, Cohen invited Marianne and Axel to join him in Montreal. It was a bit like the tragic ending of Frank Capra's The Lost Horizon in which the woman who is young and lovely in the land above the clouds shrivels and dies when she leaves it for the real world. Editor Aviva Layton, the ex-wife of poet Irving Layton, describes the arrangement as a disaster. Marianne and Leonard later shared a home in New York, by which time she had enrolled her troubled, tow-headed son in private school.

After eight years, Marianne was still in Leonard's life, but just barely. As he tells the audience at the Henderson State Hospital, he went from spending six months of the year with her to four to two and finally only two weeks (Cohen liked to play mental hospitals in recognition of his mother’s hospitalization). Marianne grew accustomed to sharing him with other women, like Janis Joplin. "It hurt me so much. It destroyed me," she laments. She wanted to have children with him, but he wasn't interested.

Before Leonard and Marianne drifted apart for good, he took up with Suzanne Elrod, no relation to the woman who inspired "Suzanne" (that was Suzanne Verdal), and they settled in Montreal. If Marianne felt helpless to bind Leonard to her, Aviva describes Suzanne as ruthless in her efforts to hang on to a man prone to extended disappearances--as long as seven years at one point. Even so, Marianne and Leonard would stay in touch, even after she returned to Oslo, just as Nick and Marianne would do.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Roadside Attractions
Broomfield proceeds through the ups and downs of Cohen's career, including the recording of "Hallelujah," one of the most frequently covered songs. According to John Lissauer, who produced nine of Cohen's records, when CBS CEO Walter Yetnikoff first heard it, he sniffed, "I don't like this at all." Yetnikoff's disappointment resulted in Lissauer's ouster. Consequently, he's never received any royalties from "Hallelujah." (Lissauer also produced the unreleased album Songs for Rebecca.) Cohen suffered plenty of money troubles of his own, due primarily to a financial manager who embezzled millions of dollars, most of which he wouldn't be able to recover, though he would refill his coffers through relentless touring...and
I'll always regret that I didn't get to attend that last round of shows.

In the end, Marianne and Leonard would return, not to each other, but to the memories of their youth. While she was dying, he sent her one of the most beautiful goodbye letters I've ever read, its poignancy enhanced by
the fact that the 82-year-old Cohen knew death was coming for him, too:

Dearest Marianne, I'm just a little behind you, close enough to take your hand. This old body has given up, just as yours has too, and the eviction notice is on its way any day now. I've never forgotten your love and your beauty. But you know that. I don't have to say any more. Safe travels old friend. See you down the road. Love and gratitude, Leonard

One of several songs inspired by Marianne, including "Bird on a Wire."

If Broomfield focuses more on Leonard than his lesser-known partner, that shouldn't be surprising (and those looking for more information about her, can always read Kari Hesthamar's 2017 book So Long, Marianne: A Love Story). Marianne was content to be his muse, rather than--or in addition to--an artist herself. When she returned to Oslo, she became a secretary, and worked in an administrative capacity throughout her career. The director honors the life she led. If anything, you sense that he prefers her to Leonard, not just because he knew her personally, but because she was the kinder, gentler half of the two. Cohen, on the other hand, was acutely aware of the fact that he could be moody and difficult, and he had his regrets, but Marianne helped him to become all of the things he was meant to be.

Marianne & Leonard is a lovely, touching film that never dares to suggest that a relationship that didn't follow the conventional romantic template doesn't deserve as much respect as those that do. We should all be so lucky to find something so beautiful and so true--even if it isn't meant to last.

Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love is playing at AMC Pacific Place II.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Filmmaker and Force of Nature Barbara Rubin: Angel of the New American Cinema

Barbara Rubin in her Warhol Screen Test
(Chuck Smith, USA, 2018, 78 minutes) 

"She looks like somebody decided to paint an angel."
--Village Voice critic and friend Amy Taubin on Barbara Rubin

If the New American Cinema of the 1960s was overwhelmingly male, one of its brightest lights was an 18-year-old woman. If you haven't heard of Barbara Rubin, it's probably because that light didn't burn for very long, and not because it didn't burn with an incandescent glow. In Chuck Smith's bittersweet profile, critics, filmmakers, friends, and family members pay tribute to Rubin's talent, energy, and startling lack of inhibition.

In high school, she did things her own way to the extent that her parents sent her away to a sanitarium, not so much because they thought she was mentally ill, but because they thought she was too wild. It didn't take and, upon her release, she continued to expand her consciousness through drugs.

Once she started to make short films, filmmaker Jonas Mekas, who had a column in The Village Voice, championed her work. In turn, she championed the work of Jack Smith, the director of 1963's Flaming Creatures. In 1965, she completed Christmas on Earth, an experimental, sexually graphic film featuring a woman painted black and another painted white. It was intended to be screened with two projectors, such that one film would play on top of the other. Critic J. Hoberman (The Dream Life: Movies, Media, And The Mythology Of The Sixties) describes it as "an acid freak-out."

Rubin, photographed by John "Hoppy" Hopkins, 1965
In his review of Rubin's sole film, Mekas proclaims that "angels have no shame," concluding that "Barbara Rubin is an angel."

Smith suggests that Mekas was infatuated with her, although it's unclear if they were ever romantically involved. Instead, she reserved her considerable affections for poet and provocateur Allen Ginsburg. The fact that he was in a relationship with fellow poet Peter Orlovsky doesn't appear to have put her off in any way. She even made a film about him, Allen for Allen, but the elements went missing somewhere along the way.

Rubin was also close to Andy Warhol who appreciated her film work as much as she appreciated his. Along with hundreds of other Factory denizens, he filmed her for his series of Screen Tests, though she didn't make the cut for 13 Most Beautiful... Songs for Andy Warhol Screen Tests, the same assemblage for which Luna's Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips composed the Velvet Underground-inspired score that they toured with in 2009 (I caught their very fine performance that year at the Seattle Art Museum).

Rubin's interest in music encompassed Bob Dylan and the Velvet Underground, both of whom she introduced to Warhol. By the mid-1960s, the former was already a star, but without Rubin, things might not have happened as quickly for the Velvets. Unfortunately, she got pushed to the margins at The Factory as Paul Morrissey, director of Flesh and other Warhol-produced features, asserted himself as its primary filmmaker--next to Warhol, of course. Rubin took a hint and split their scene.

Rubin ruffles Dylan's hair on Bringing It All Back Home
She then attempted to get a sequel going to Christmas on Earth. It would star the top musicians of the day, and she hoped to get Disney to bankroll it. At this point, it's hard to tell if she was delusional or desperate, because her proposed film seems even more unlikely than Jodorowsky's Dune, which was too ambitious to come to fruition and now lives on as a fascinating documentary about what might have been.

Instead of giving up in frustration, Rubin turned to Jewish mysticism. She also pursued a futile quest to wrest Ginsberg, with whom she hoped to have children, away from Orlovsky, who she dismissed as schizophrenic. Just when it seemed as if she couldn't have been more lost, she found Orthodox Judaism, and that was that. No more drugs, no more counterculture.

Surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, Rubin maintained her friendship with Dylan, at least while she was still living in New York, to discuss Kabbalah. He even attended her first wedding to a Hasidic gentleman.

McCarter Theater, Princeton, NJ, 1964 © Daniel Kramer
Notably, four Dylan songs appear on the soundtrack, all from The Bootleg Series, Vol. 12: The Cutting Edge 1965-1966. I can't imagine that it's cheap to include one Dylan song on a soundtrack, let alone four, so I would like to think that he did what he could to make them accessible to the filmmaker. The rest of the material, overseen by composer and music advisor Lee Ranaldo, is equally impressive, and includes tracks from the Velvets, Fran├žoise Hardy, and Ranaldo with the Master Musicians of Jajouka.

Rubin would eventually divorce, marry again, and settle down in rural France, where she had five children. Not to give too much away, but just as her new life was beginning, it came to a sudden, unhappy end. She began life as in the US as Barbara Rubin and ended it in Europe as Bracha Basha.

Since the entire film serves as a testament to her influence, there's no epilogue, and I suppose it wasn't necessary. Smith also eschews comments from her husband and children, so it's unclear how much they knew about the life she led in the 1960s. Now that this film exists, I hope they'll be able to embrace the non-secular person that she was before she left it all behind.

Barbara Rubin and the Exploding New York Underground opens at the Northwest Film Forum on Friday, July 26. Screen Test image from MUBI.