Film Reviews Of Ladies And Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen; J. Pierpont Morgan: Emperor Of Wall Street; and A Film Biography Of Thomas Merton
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/16/14
I recently watched three biographical documentaries on interesting figures. These films were Ladies And Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen; J. Pierpont Morgan: Emperor Of Wall Street; and A Film Biography Of Thomas Merton.
In 1965, a Canadian television documentary on Canadian singer, songwriter, poet, and writer Leonard Cohen was produced and directed by Donald Brittain and Don Owen, and written by Brittain. It was 44 minutes long, filmed in black and white, and followed Cohen on a national tour of Canada, in 1964, along with several other poets, including Irving Layton. At this point in his career, Cohen was 30, and just a published writer. His career in music had not started. The film was called Ladies And Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen, and oddly opens with an interesting, if not particularly humorous, standup routine by Cohen.
The film is clearly a hagiography, and Cohen is clearly putting on airs for the camera. Nonetheless, there is a certain classical elegance to the presentation, although the poems Cohen is shown reciting, along with images, as well as in filmed poetry readings, is routinely terrible. Cohen simply is not a poet, but a songwriter, despite the film’s claim that he was Canada’s ‘best poet of his generation’0 ehat, did you expect to NOT see a cliché there? His verse has always been larded with banalities like ‘hard as stone,’ and ‘stony silence.’ And there are a few dozen more I could trot out from this film alone. Nonetheless, young Cohen, who resembles Dustin Hoffman, is engaging, even as his sciolism shows in interviews when asked about philosophical concepts he has little real understanding of.
But, Cohen does have rare moments of honesty, such as when he muses that the reason he started writing poetry was to pick up girls and make money. Of course, while he achieved the former with his verse, the latter only came with his music career, and Cohen became the de facto Bob Dylan of Canada.
The film ends on a meta note, with Brittain filming himself and Cohen watching earlier clips from the film, showing Cohen waking up in his underwear in a seedy Montreal motel, during a morning snowstorm. After some perfunctory remarks, designed to be used in the film, Cohen admits to Brittain that he was conning the director for most of the film, and that he enjoys watching the put on play out on celluloid.
While Ladies And Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen is not a great nor insightful documentary, it does have some historic import, and does show a time when poets, at least in our neighboring country to the north, were actually treated with some respect. For that, a mild recommendation.
A similar mild recommendation can be extended to the History Channel documentary on 19th Century financial robber baron and banker J.P. Morgan, founder of the Morgan banking empire. J. Pierpont Morgan: Emperor Of Wall Street, a 44 minute documentary from 1996, is an interesting, if fairly rote approach to the historic figure who several times came to the financial rescue of the nation, during fiscal crises, and ultimately spurred the government to take such power out of the hands of opportunists who simply plundered the national treasury, and put it into the hands of the independent Federal Reserve Board.
This color film, directed by Bill Harris, is a fairly bias free take on the man, although, given Morgan’s many questionable business tactics, it would have been far more cogent had the film shown Morgan’s darker side to reside more in his career aims, rather than his simply being a greedy adulterer, narcissist, and hedonist.
The film makes plain that Morgan came from wealth, and leveraged his name and connections to expand upon that wealth, and eventually pass the same advantages down to his son. We do learn of his charitable donations and interest in art and museums, but we learn little of the price thousands of American workers paid in the unscrupulous tactics Morgan and his ilk unleashed with their support of monopolies and trusts. The Gilded Age was, next to slavery, possibly the worst time for workers in American history, and Morgan was front and center amongst fellow robber barons like Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller in this heinous abuse of American workers. Morgan, incidentally, was the man who engineered the takeover of Carnegie Steel, and its merger with other steel companies, to form the first billion dollar corporation: U.S. Steel.
Fortunately for the country, one of Morgan’s great enablers, President William McKinley, was assassinated, which allowed the far more pragmatic and principled Theodore Roosevelt to ascend to the Presidency and put an end to the shenanigans of Morgan and his ilk- at least to the extent that they had previously been able to skew the system in their favor.
There are personal details that emerge, such as Morgan’s adoration of Napoleon Bonaparte, but the film is content to let these facts remain just trivia. Its main concern is Morgan the banker and monopolist, not Morgan the man. Nonetheless, it is overall, a well enough made documentary to serve as, at least, a decent primer into J.P. Morgan and his Gilded Age.
The final film of the trio under review is the best of the bunch- not because its subject matter is necessarily the best of the lot, but because it is the most fact filled and revelatory. That film is a 57 minute long color and black and white film, from 1984, titled Merton: A Film Biography Of Thomas Merton.
It follows the life and times of the French born Roman Catholic priest and monk, Thomas Merton, one of the first truly catholic Catholics, and a far better candidate for sainthood than the vile Mother Teresa. Born in 1915, and died in 1968, due to accidentally electrocuting himself in a shower in Thailand, after a controversial speech given on 12/10/68, which inevitably has led to claims that he was murdered, Merton was renowned for his philosophical writings and poetry, although, to be honest, his poetry was not much better than that of Leonard Cohen.
Having spent decades in a Trappist monastery in Kentucky, Merton’s writings and ideas of spirituality made him famous, and a target for more reactionary elements in and out of the Catholic Church. One of the most vocal anti-Vietnam War voices of the era, Merton often got into trouble with his own superiors. Nonetheless, his extensions of brotherhood to other religions, most notably to that of the Dalai Lama and Buddhism, was controversial. He was also an outspoken supporter of civil rights, and human rights, in general.
In his relatively brief life, Merton penned dozens of books on many subjects, and was a widely quoted figure of that era, along with writers and thinkers like Paul Goodman and Noam Chomsky. In his book No Man Is An Island, Merton wrote ‘We are all called by God to share in His life and in His Kingdom. Each one of us is called to a special place in the Kingdom. If we find that place we will be happy. If we do not find it, we can never be completely happy.’ The resonance such statements have with Buddhism are clear, and it is likely that had Merton lived, he would have become an increasing sore spot and thorn in the Vatican’s side.
Amongst the people who speak of Merton are the Dalai Lama, poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Ernesto Cardenal, and folk singer Joan Baez. Writer and director Paul Wilkes does a solid job, and the film is technically competent enough to leave the question out there of what might have been had Merton survived his Thailand trip. The film’s best moment is likely its revelation that Merton had a Rilkean ‘You must change your life’ moment while walking in a Louisville, Kentucky shopping district. Overall, a worthwhile film to watch.
None of these three films are anything that a viewer just has to watch, but the Merton documentary is easily the most rewarding of the tercet, in intellectual, historical, and artistic merit. Give it a try.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Salon website.]
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