Now playing: Film bios
on Cohen and Morrison
Cinema du Parc presents some exceptional documentaries
By Byron Toben
As we slouch toward August, unsure if the Montreal World Film Festival will finally be terminated (more on that in a few weeks), we are pleased to see that the Cinema du Parc continues to book deserving new films, as well as classics.
Good examples are two documentaries now playing there. One, Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love, chronicles the long relationship of Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ihlen. The other, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, delves into the long career of the remarkable writer.
… we are pleased to see that the Cinema du Parc continues to book deserving new films, as well as classics.
The first, by famed documentarian Nick Bloomfield (who has controversial films about Lily Tomlin and Courtney Love to his credit) focuses on the Greek Island of Hydra in the early 1960s where Westmount-born Leonard resided for months at a time, while labouring over his first book, Beautiful Losers. He became friendly with Norwegian expat Marianne who became his muse. Twenty-year-old Nick was also there and became a lifelong friend to both. Hydra’s balmy weather and low cost of living had made it an international Bohemian destination.
The film also describes Cohen’s influence by Montreal poet Irving Layton.
While on a visit to New York, he met popular singer Judy Collins who championed his song Suzanne, which led to his second career as a singer/songwriter.
The doc also includes Cohen’s four-year stay at a Buddhist monastery in California, the loss of his personal savings to embezzlement and the restart of his career in his 70s.
A particularly touching scene is Mariann on her deathbed in Norway receiving Cohen’s telegram in July 2016 that, “I am not far behind you and close enough to hold your hand”. He passed away that December, at age 82.
The second, about the much-acclaimed Toni Morrison (still with us at age 88), is helmed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. It was featured at the 2019 Sundance film festival. It is much more comprehensive than two other attempts – a BBC1 television show in 2015 and a 2016 Oberlin college effort.
‘A particularly touching scene is Mariann on her deathbed in Norway receiving Cohen’s telegram in July 2016 that, “I am not far behind you and close enough to hold your hand”. He passed away that December, at age 82.’
Ms Morrison (born Chloe Wofford in Ohio) exhibits a fine sense of humour despite the dark messages in her eleven novels and nine non-fiction works. I hadn’t known that she also has written two plays. Some one should arrange at least a staged reading of them. Heck, if no on one else does it, I will!
I had actually contacted her back in September 2002 when I organized a memorial at the then Erskine and American church (now part of the Museum of Fine Arts) for the Canadian victims of the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in Manhattan.
She had written a poem, The Dead Of September 11, which she gave us permission to read in our evening of poetry and musical tributes.
The current documentary tracks her childhood in a racial tolerant city where she exhibited an interest in literature and drama. This led to university at Howard College in Washington, D.C. where her sheltered self was shocked to encounter wide spread discrimination in hotels, stores and restaurants. Her career started as a teacher and editor and eventually led to her writing novels of her own. Characters encountered along the way included Mohamed Ali, Angela Davis, Annie Liebowitz and Oprah Winfrey. Ms. Winfrey was especially helpful in featuring Ms. Morrison’s books on her own book club, as well as sponsoring (and acting in) a 1998 film of perhaps Morrison’s most highly regarded work Beloved.
Other works highlighted in this film include The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, Paradise and The Black Book.
Along the way, she has collected a Pulitzer, a Nobel, and a congressional medal of Honour.
I particularly enjoyed her admonition to young students NOT to write about what you know, “because you don’t know anything (yet) but to write what your imagination leads you to.”
Her combination of attention to the telling detail, the emotional effects and yes, even spiritualism and symbolism all combine in a unique fashion.
‘I particularly enjoyed her admonition to young students NOT to write about what you know, ‘because you don’t know anything (yet) but to write what your imagination leads you to.’ ‘
Viewers may wish to revisit my 2016 review of a film about another great Afro-American writer, Maya Angelou.
Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love and Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am continue at the Cinema Du Parc at least until July 18.
For information or possible further extensions: 514 281-1900
Feature images: frame from Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love, courtesy of Elevation Pictures
Byron Toben, a past president of The Montreal Press Club, has been WestmountMag.ca’s theatre reviewer since July 2015. Previously, he wrote for since terminated web sites Rover Arts and Charlebois Post, print weekly The Downtowner and print monthly The Senior Times. He also is an expert consultant on U.S. work permits for Canadians.