Jay Meehan: Documentaries that’ll stick to your ribs
January 31, 2019
More than once during the day, I comforted myself with the knowledge that for whatever reason, as a documentary film addict living in the mountains of Utah, I could always count on the Sundance Film Festival to feed my stoke. Premium television, as it turns out, also does its fare share.
Monday's films, one Sundance and the other HBO, filled the cultural appetite like oatmeal and brown rice often would during more bohemian times. As documentary fare, they were substantial and spoke to disparate aesthetic cravings. Each stuck to my ribs.
"Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love" the poignant story of Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ahlen, the Norwegian muse and lover he first took up with on the Greek isle of Hydra back in 1960, filled the midday hours quite nicely.
Both intimate and personal (I'm leaving that in there as, at the time the font hit the pavement, enough space existed between the modifiers-in-question to give it a semblance of validity), the film enveloped you in a mist not solely due to the Aegean Sea. Becoming invested in their life together was a given.
As documentary fare, they were substantial and spoke to disparate aesthetic cravings. Each stuck to my ribs.”
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The story proved to be a travelogue for both hemispheres of the brain with Montreal and New York getting their fair shares of screen time as Leonard's departures from and returns to Marianne's side punctuated their times — especially following Cohen's rise to fame. This includes some of his time at the monastery up in Big Bear.
His voice and his lyrical poetry, of course, played a large role ambiance-wise as it came and went overlaying the film footage. Visualizing his vocal cords as they vibrate has long been a surreal pastime. A now-unavailable chat room called cohencentric.com offered up a favorite description of those collective murmurs from writer Tim Robbins:
"It is a voice raked by the claws of Cupid, a voice rubbed raw by the philosopher's stone. A voice marinated in kirshwasser, sulfur, deer musk and snow; bandaged with sackcloth from a ruined monastery; warmed by the embers left down near the river after the gypsies have gone.
"It is a penitent's voice, a rabbinical voice, a crust of unleavened vocal toasts – spread with smoke and subversive wit. He has a voice like a carpet in an old hotel, like a bad itch on the hunchback of love. It is a voice meant for pronouncing the names of women – and cataloguing their sometimes hazardous charms. Nobody can say the word "naked" as nakedly as Cohen. He makes us see the markings where the pantyhose have been."
Speaking of words and the vernacular they rode in on, let us move on to the aforementioned HBO documentary "Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists." Gruffness as art has long massaged my sensibility and it would be difficult to imagine other purveyors of the form as gritty and charming as Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill.
Following them both from their Runyonesque beginnings as early street biographers of New York's colorful boroughs to success as wildly eccentric columnists during the tabloid era, this most excellent film satisfies on many levels.
The ménage à trois between passion, wit, and fine art journalism brings a romance to those mean streets you're unlikely to come across elsewhere. You're hanging out smoking cigars and slugging down whiskey with two legends of the trade in some of the most iconic watering holes of the asphalt jungle.
Breslin gives a gorgeous inside account of the working class by profiling the gravedigger who came in on a Sunday to excavate by shovel the resting place for John F. Kennedy.
His chilling correspondence with the "Son of Sam" serial killer also features the somewhat comic sidebar of Breslin acknowledging David Berkowitz's rather adroit use of the "semicolon." On the Hamill front for assigned reading is the column that appeared the day after 9/11 and a thousand others.
Although they didn't actually eschew formal education, Hamill stayed in high school until he was sixteen, it was their autodidactic self-education that shines through. It also gave each a written-word personality they doubtfully would have received at Columbia.
There comes across a coupling of insights and insults in their collective prose that would be difficult to locate elsewhere – at least with such high-end borough-synchronous flair. These cats knew their turf and could cut to the chase at will. Highly entertaining stuff!
Doc-heads rejoice! There is much to feed the "jones" out there. Wonderful filmmakers with wonderful fare. There remain many screenings. Grab a seat, sit in the dark, and dig.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social and political scenes for more than 40 years.
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