Category: Documentary

Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love (UK-Canada 2019)

Marianne Ihlen and Leonard Cohen on Hydra with baby Axel

This is a ‘Nick Broomfield film’ – an auteurist announcement by a documentarist who appears in his own films and adopts, using Stella Bruzzi’s term, a ‘performative mode’ of documentary presentation. This rang alarm bells when I contemplated watching Marianne & Leonard, but I have watched two of Broomfield’s fiction features, Ghosts (UK 2006) and Battle for Haditha (2007), both of which are worth watching. Since I tend to insert myself into my blog posts, I can’t really complain about Broomfield. In any case he limits himself to three or four appearances only in this film.

If you don’t already know the story, SPOILERS beware!, the Canadian poet and tyro novelist Leonard Cohen met Marianne Ihlen, a young Norwegian mother with a small son from her first marriage, on the Greek island of Hydra in the early 1960s. The two lived together for a time in an expat community of writers, artists and musicians who all indulged in ‘free love’, retsina and various drugs of choice. Broomfield himself, aged 18, met Marianne and stayed with her while Leonard was away. Marianne was Cohen’s ‘muse’ and for several years they lived together for a few months at a time. In between times on Hydra, Leonard Cohen pursued his new career as a musician and rock star poet and slept with many women, having two children with one. Eventually Marianne lost hope that she could live with Leonard and they parted. Forty-odd years later, Marianne lay dying and Leonard sent her a letter of love, telling her he would join her soon. He died in 2016, three months after Marianne.

Marianne archive photo (on a visit to the UK?)

Broomfield has three main sources of material from which to fashion a documentary narrative. Leonard Cohen was a high profile, if poorly paid, poet in Canada from the late 1950s onwards and there is considerable TV and archive film material available. Once he became successful as a musician, coverage expanded considerably. Many of the friends on Hydra had super 8 cameras and, with still photographs, Broomfield could construct a visual narrative about both the Hydra community and aspects of Marianne’s life (some of this material he provided himself). ‘Witness’ interviews with various people close to both Leonard and Marianne comprise the third major source. The quality of archive footage varies considerably but some of the early stuff has survived well. It is skilfully edited by Marc Hoeferlin and presented in something close to 16:9. I didn’t really notice the cropping and nothing was ‘squashed’ or ‘squeezed’ that I could see (but the image below looks a bit dodgy). The narrative flows partly because of voiceovers taken from archive recordings of both Leonard and Marianne (who speaks in both English and Norwegian) and others remembering the period.

The problem for Broomfield is that the narrative promised by the title would make roughly a 45 minute film based on the material available. This documentary runs for over 100 minutes and the extra time is taken up largely with an exploration of Leonard Cohen’s career and a discussion of what he was doing, even when notionally still with Marianne. This has been one of the criticisms of the film with accusations that Marianne’s voice is overwhelmed by the material featuring Leonard. There is also a suggestion that Marianne’s memory has been exploited by Broomfield and that scenes at the end of the film featuring a very sick Marianne are intrusive. It is also likely that audiences wanting to know more about Cohen’s music and poetry may feel frustrated that the coverage of both is in a sense quite shallow.

Leonard as a young man in Montreal

I find it difficult to distance myself from my own emotional response to the archive footage. As a teenager I discovered the poetry and novels of Cohen and a few years later in the early 1970s I was a fan of the early albums – in the face of derision by many of my friends. I then lost touch with what Cohen was doing in the eighties and nineties before ‘re-discovering’ him in the last ten years of his life, partly through the use of his songs in films. There are several biographies of Cohen and I can recommend the one by Sylvie Simmons, I’m Your Man, The Life of Leonard Cohen (Vintage 2012). After the screening I looked for archive material on YouTube. I recommend the excellent National Film Board of Canada documentary Ladies and Gentlemen . . . Mr. Leonard Cohen (directed by Donald Brittain & Don Owen, 1965). If you check it out on the NFB’s YouTube channel, you can also find other fascinating Cohen material via YouTube’s algorithm. In fact you’ll soon realise that much of the footage in Marianne & Leonard is actually included in a range of other documentary films. The ‘extras’ in Broomfield’s film are some of the ‘home movie’ material, Broomfield’s own material and the interviews. Some of these are very entertaining, particularly Aviva Layton who was married to Irving Layton, the leading Canadian poet who was Leonard’s early mentor. Aviva deserves a film of her own.

Leonard Cohen was an extraordinary figure and the film certainly triggered all my responses to his genius and spirituality. But as Aviva says, he was both alluring to women and a terrible partner, but which great artist, writer or creative person isn’t both hugely attractive and seemingly hopeless about relationships? Marianne, as she comes across in the film, was a young woman who loved Leonard but felt out of place among the artistic community. She was damaged by her first abusive marriage and so was her son ‘little Axel’. The film also reveals other aspects of Marianne’s life which don’t show Leonard in a good light. Eventually Marianne returned to Norway and a job and a new and happy marriage. I was very emotionally engaged with the narrative, but whether that was because of the relationship between Marianne and Leonard or because of my own memories of Cohen’s songs I can’t say. I’ve seen several reviews of Broomfield’s film which seem most interested in criticising the 1960s culture on Hydra (which was certainly problematic for many of the expat artists) and denigrating Leonard Cohen because he slept with so many women and took so many drugs. For a more measured, but still negative, critical response, this Indiewire review is worth looking at. I can see all these criticisms but they don’t make me any less disposed to Leonard Cohen’s art.

If you are a Leonard Cohen fan, you will enjoy seeing the film on a big screen and it is still playing around the UK. You can find screenings through the official website. Since the BBC is a co-producer, it will no doubt appear on BBC4 at some point as well as on DVD.

D. A. Pennebaker, 1925 to 2019

D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus

Donn Abe Pennebaker died last Thursday. So we have lost another of the outstanding film-makers whose work, particularly in the 1960s, both changed and defined cinema.  His series of documentaries were both acclaimed and widely influential. The US Library of Congress selected several of his films for the National Register and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded him a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 2913.

The first film with which he was associated that I saw was Primary  (1960), made together with Robert Drew and Richard Leacock. This was a chronicle of a contest for the Democratic nomination for Presidential candidate between Hubert Humphrey and John F. Kennedy. There was intense interest in Britain, partly because of the importance of the USA, but also because Kennedy was seemingly a radical candidate for change. The film imbued the coverage of a Primary context with a freshness and élan that stood out. Years later I remember Richard Leacock describing a sequence of a haircut at the Barbers: possibly inconsequential but completely engaging. This was  a pioneer work in what became ‘Direct Cinema’. And Pennebaker was a key contributor in developing the lightweight camera and sound equipment that made immediate and often hand-held camera and sound possible.

In 1967 came Dont Look Back, combining observational cinema with the then young but musically charismatic Bob Dylan. The tour was famous for several reasons, including ‘treachery’. But the film bought a breath of life into the music documentary. Pennebaker later in life called his films ‘moments of record’ and this partly described the film. It was also equally applicable to the 1968 Monterey Pop. This, a record of a popular music festival with key stars of the period, was filmed by a crew of cameramen under Pennebaker’s direction. It stills stand out in what is now a crowded field. Its influence, like the Dylan film, is to be widely seen. Among those who have followed in the footsteps of the first is Martin Scorsese. One obituary remarked that the famous opening sequence of Dont Look Back, with Bob Dylan singing and presenting [not always in sync] his lyrics, was a pioneer of music videos. Very few of the latter have the panache of the Pennebaker original.

It was only in later years that I finally saw Daybreak Express (1953), presenting a New York elevated subway station with dazzling music from Duke Ellington. Pennebaker had a particular skill in working with popular music artists, which included Janis Joplin, John Lennon, The Who and David Bowie.

He also worked with Jean-Luc Godard, possibly still the most important film-maker in Western Cinema. However, Godard not being the easiest of collaborators no joint work appeared.

Pennebaker continued to film important aspect of political and cultural life. The 1979 Town Bloody Hall set in New York bought together a panel of feminists with the writer Norman Mailer. He had distinctive views on women’s liberation with some of the problematic male values. The debate is fascinating and offered illumination on the wider US political culture, a discourse that is sometimes seems baffling in Britain.

The 1993 War Room, filmed with Chris Hegedus, returned to political campaigning and that of the future US President Bill Clinton. Like the earlier Primary this both offered a portrait of lesser known aspects of Presidential campaigns and offered revealing portraits of the team aiming for the White House.

Pennebaker made some 40 odd films, all in some sense documentaries. They were not always easy to see in a Britain with a very limited distribution world. Presumably now, with the new emphasis on documentary, they would appear more regularly. They would certainly provide object lessons in how to present observational cinema in both an intelligent and absorbing manner. Many are studies of popular music and it culture. But there are the political studies and portraits of other aspects of US Culture. He was one of the key chroniclers of the four decades of the USA at the end of the C20th. Some of the TV channels are already revisiting his classic films. Let us home that some of these will also appear in cinemas in Britain.

Now on Release: Varda by Agnès (Varda par Agnès, France 2019)

Agnès Varda revisiting locations for Vagabond (1985)

Keith reviewed this film at Berlin earlier this year. Here are my thoughts on the film now in UK cinemas.

Agnès Varda’s last film opened locally with a ‘seniors’ morning screening. I wonder if many of those in the audience were watching their first Varda screening. All seemed to enjoy the show so Agnès judged her delivery well. She died earlier this year just a couple of months short of her 91st birthday, but as this film demonstrates she had lost none of her creative powers starting her tenth decade. In this personal statement about her own work she addresses us directly as part of the audience seated in several different auditoria. The film is an illustrated lecture taking us through nearly 70 years of work as a photographer, filmmaker and finally ‘visual artist’ (an English term she endorses). It isn’t a straightforward chronology. She jumps around a little but as far as I can see she covers all of her feature films and most of the shorts. The only disappointment for me was the short sequence on her photography (which preceded her first film in 1954) which comes towards the end of the film. I’d of liked to know a little more about this and how it informed her filmmaking. Her talk began with a statement about her three key ideas about filmmaking – here is how she describes them in the Press Notes:

INSPIRATION is why you make a film. The motivations, ideas, circumstances and happenstance that spark a desire and you set to work to make a film.

CREATION is how you make the film. What means do you use? What structure? Alone or not alone? In colour or not in colour? Creation is a job.

The third word is SHARING. You don’t make films to watch them alone, you make films to show them. An empty cinema: a filmmaker’s nightmare!

People are at the heart of my work. Real people. That’s how I’ve always referred to the people I film in cities or the countryside.

This gives you a good idea of how she set about ‘creating’ her story. In fact she made a statement at the Berlin press show when the film was screened saying that this film would now do her talking for her as personal appearances were becoming tiring. Varda’s presentation lasts nearly two hours and I could have taken double the time listening to her commentary and watching the clips. I’ve seen around half of her 23 features and now I feel more encouraged to seek out the shorter films, especially the earlier ones in California. The key to appreciating Varda is to tune in to her own fascination with the world and what she can do with her camera. Varda was true to the idea of the artisanal artist-filmmaker. She remains the definition of an auteur, developing her own company Ciné-Tamaris which has retained control of her films (and those of Jacques Demy and others) and re-released them on restored digital versions. She’s kept much of her filmmaking literally ‘in house’ with various production roles for her daughter Rosalie Varda and son Mathieu Demy and partnerships with a series of actors and crews. One of those who appears in this film is Sandrine Bonnaire, who reveals just how hard she was pushed as a 17 year-old in the lead role for Vagabond.

Varda on a beach of île de Nourmoutier, a location for several of her films

I would have liked to have seen a bit more about Varda’s marriage to Jacques Demy and how these two, in some ways very different, creative people bounced ideas off each other. She does discuss her documentary biopic Jacquot de Nantes (1991) made when Demy was very ill, but not the two documentaries she made after his death. The two were in California together during the 1960s but made very different films there.

Venice Biennale 2003:
“This triptych is in celebration of the world’s most modest vegetable: the potato. On the central screen: heart shaped potatoes breathe. They are old wizened crumpled potatoes but that have sprout. On the side screens, variations of sprouts. Roots, blossoms. On the floor, 700 kg potatoes.“

Varda adapted to the possibilities of new technologies and embraced the use of digital cameras. Varda by Agnès is presented in two parts so that the early career is ‘analogue’ and the later career is ‘digital’. The split is also one of 20th and 21st century practice. The revelation for me was the ‘installation’ work in the second period when Varda became a visual artist. I wish now that I’d made more effort in 2018 to get to the Liverpool Biennial where there was a photographic exhibition, a new installation and a season of her films. As far as I can see this is the only time that Varda was received in the UK as a ‘visual artist’ and we might never get to see some of the intriguing installations glimpsed in Varda by Agnès such as Patatutopia from 2003 or the Cinema Shacks she built from old cans of her celluloid films in 2013.

“My nostalgia for 35mm cinema turned into a recycling whim…
I build shacks with the waste reels of my movies. Tossed aside because no longer screened, the silver stock of the composite print itself becomes a shack. I build them on a metal structure and we carefully chose the images at eyesight level.
The last one made from a print of my film HAPPINESS is a greenhouse full of sunflowers.”

Agnès Varda was one of the great filmmakers, photographers and visual artists of the last 70 years. We will be lucky to see her like again. All I can do is to urge you to see this hugely enjoyable current release and to dig out any DVDs or VODs from her catalogue that you can find. There are some posts you might find interesting on this blog.

Diego Maradona (UK 2019)

Maradona has media attention at San Paolo in Napoli

This is the third documentary biopic by Asif Kapadia following Senna (UK 2010) and Amy (UK 2015). It certainly matches the brilliance of those two earlier films. Kapadia, editor Chris King and music composer Antonio Pinto have again excelled themselves in creating a compelling narrative from found footage (mostly from the subject’s own archive) and audio interviews. I don’t think, however, that the three subjects are necessarily comparable. Certainly they each had careers with stellar periods and a strong emotional bond with fans but although they were both South American sporting legends, Ayrton Senna and Diego Maradona came from different backgrounds and the impulses behind the endings of their careers were quite different. Amy Winehouse was in some ways equally troubled by her attempts to deal with success and her emotional life as was Maradona but the music industry of the 2000s provides a different context to football in the 1980s.

Maradona, World Cup winner in Mexico 1986

If you don’t know the Maradona story, the film is mainly concerned with the period Diego Maradona spent as a footballer at Napoli between 1984 and 1991. He was 23 when he signed for Napoli after two seasons at Barcelona and 30 when he left Napoli. There is some coverage of his childhood and early career and a brief coda about what happened when he left Napoli. The focus on this period also includes his appearances with the Argentinian national team which won the the 1986 World Cup in Mexico and were beaten finalists in ‘Italia 90’ – West Germany were the opponents on each occasion.

Asif Kapadia is a football fan according to his tweets about supporting Liverpool. Yet one of the odd points about his Maradona film is that, despite a lot of footage from games featuring Napoli and Argentina, the film does not explore football itself in the way that Senna seemed to me to be partly ‘about’ motor racing. However, I did find the football match footage fascinating. Maradona made goals for other players that were deceptively simple but often scored goals himself that seemed to be magical in the way he bent the ball. The primary focus of the film is the footballer’s psychological profile which is outlined here by his personal trainer at Napoli.

Diego with his parents

The personal trainer tells us that Diego the young man is vulnerable because of his insecurities. He is a family man close to his mother and a likeable person. Maradona the footballer, bought for the then record transfer fee of $6.9 million in 1984 is, by contrast, constructed to survive in top class football. He develops a carapace to protect himself and his skills. ‘Maradona’ is a much more troubling character who looks for diversions in the wrong places when he is not training and playing. The narrative of his life then becomes the story of how ‘Maradona’ becomes almost a God in Naples before destroying himself and almost destroying Diego. Kapadia called his film ‘Diego Maradona’ – both names – whereas the earlier films, ‘Senna’ and ‘Amy’, used only one.

As in the other films, the archive footage tells the story through the edit, with ‘witness’ interviews played in audio over the archive material. I don’t think anyone is interviewed on screen by Kapadia or his team, though there are several archive interviews. The film flows because of the brilliance of the editing decisions, both what to include and how to cut it, and the music. It runs for 130 minutes and though some have suggested the match footage could be shortened, most football fans will want to see all of it – partly because we are offered different viewpoints than was usual for 1980s TV coverage. Because most of the footage is from video recordings or 8mm film the disparity between 35mm film and video is not so pronounced. The two World Cup finals and a later Argentinian TV interview from 2004 stand out in terms of higher definition. I assume that the video material has been cropped in many cases but I was so taken up with the pace of the narrative that I didn’t notice any changes of aspect ratio or obvious cropping.

One other difference in this Kapadia film is the importance of Napoli as a location, but also as a ‘character’ in the story. I hadn’t realised just how much Napoli was seen as an underperforming club in Serie A before Maradona’s arrival or how much the North-South divide mattered in Italian football. Napoli’s stadium, San Paolo was finally completed in 1959 but when Maradona is first introduced to fans at the stadium in 1984 I was struck by the long walk to the pitch from the bowels of the stadium with high walls over which the crowds could see Maradona emerging on the pitch. I was reminded of gladiators entering the arena in Roman times. Later, when Maradona reached his highest status with the fans, murals began to appear  claiming him as the modern manifestation of San Gennaro, Naples’ patron saint.

What most intrigued me was the inclusion of two or three soundbites in which Maradona is referred to (in the subtitles) as “this black kid from a poor neighbourhood”. Kapadia clearly chose these clips but the format doesn’t really allow any discussion of the implication that some of Maradona’s problems come from the prejudice that his family faced in Argentina and elsewhere. I was reminded of the not dissimilar case of Luis Suaréz who has been a highly successful South American player in European football for over ten years, but like Maradona he has also been embroiled in various controversial incidents (all on the field). In 2011 as a Liverpool player Suaréz was banned for eight matches and fined for using racist language in an altercation with Patrice Evra. Suaréz did not accept the charge, claiming that the use of terms for ‘black’ in Latin America was different to that in Europe. There is a long tradition of South American players signing for clubs in Spain and Italy, but in the 1980s the film suggests that Maradona still felt an outsider.

Asif Kapadia does include the moment when Maradona became notorious in England with the ‘hand of God’ goal in Mexico – but also scored one of the greatest World Cup goals. The link is made to the Malvinas War which I’m sure was a worrying time for Argentinians as well as for those of us in the UK who didn’t support Thatcher’s war. I noted that the footage of the game in Mexico revealed some horrendous English fouls as the players sought in vain to negate Maradona’s influence on the game.

Maradona celebrates with his daughter, Dalma(?)

Overall, although I really enjoyed the film and I recommend it highly, I’m wondering now if there is enough worthwhile material to make a longer documentary serial for TV. I’d like to know more about football culture and institutions in Italy, Argentina and worldwide in the 1980s and I’d also like a little more about ‘Diego’ as well as about Maradona.