“It’s true that all the men you knew were dealers / Who said they were through with dealing / Every time you gave them shelter” – Leonard Cohen, “The Stranger Song”
Many of the great songwriters like to evoke forms of narrativity within the potent imagery of their lyrics. One immediately thinks of Bob Dylan — especially his comic, quasi-Biblical parables like “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” or “Black Diamond Bay,” mythic story-songs which never become fully novelistic but retain a kind of literary approach to character and incident — or even John Prine, who liked to switch between distinct strains of character subjectivity in modernist works like “Donald and Lydia.” Few songwriters, though, seem to evoke cinematic visions in the way Leonard Cohen does. Perhaps this is because Cohen’s lyricism is as ravishing as it is mysterious: he often evokes crystalline images without explaining how they relate, so that the logic may become hazy, but the piercing light of the dream remains crystal clear. A Cohen song inaugurates a kind of imaginative collaboration with the listener.
Take for example “Master Song,” a classic track from Cohen’s debut LP Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967). Here, Cohen personifies the act of artistic creation as a kind of bewitching master-figure: “And now I hear your master sing / You kneel for him to come / His body is a golden string / That your body is hanging from.” The rhetorical emphasis on a kind of master-servant or master-prisoner relationship within the realm of “song” or art feels emotionally robust and even downright scary in its implications, yet Cohen’s poetics are sufficiently steeped in ambiguity to the extent that one might listen to this song countless times and still be unable to comprehend precisely the nature of the relationship between these three figures (“I” the narrator, “you” the listener, and a third, the master of the title). Because the figures that populate Cohen’s songs are closer to essences or specters than fully formed characters, and because the nature of their relationships remain beguilingly imprecise, Cohen’s songs become experiential performances, shifting like chameleons when played in different environments or conditions. Perhaps this slippery immateriality may begin to account for the attraction that many filmmakers have felt toward Cohen’s music.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller is Robert Altman’s 1971 revisionist western about the last gasps of the old West at the hands of encroaching capital. In the opening title sequence of this opium dream of a western, Warren Beatty’s McCabe, clad in an enormous fur coat, rides slowly and somnambulantly into a makeshift, halfway constructed town as Cohen’s “The Stranger Song” plays on the soundtrack. It isn’t merely that Altman seems to have arrived at cinematic imagery which feels like a wonderful illustration of the lyrics; more importantly, Cohen allows the track to acquire a kind of porous quality within the film’s audio. One hears diegetic noises such as the wind blowing, leaves rustling, and rain gently falling within this landscape as the song plays, so that Cohen’s music becomes interactive with the audiovisual environments of Altman’s film on multiple levels. This aural porousness strikes me as a good fit for Cohen’s music in particular, given the haziness that pervades the anti-logic of his imagery.
In the same year that Altman and Cohen were collaborating on McCabe, the great German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder used several of the same Cohen songs to slightly different ends in his ragged and incendiary Beware of a Holy Whore (1971). As tensions rise between members of a film crew holed up in a villa during a doomed production, Fassbinder and his photographer Michael Ballhaus dispassionately survey the destruction through stately, circular camera movements around the room, anchored by Cohen’s music. The Songs of Leonard Cohen album becomes a diegetic source here via a record that various characters play and dance to. Whereas McCabe sees Cohen’s music being used to evoke a kind of mythic past, here it becomes a signpost of modernity – a means of locating the characters’ volatility within a bohemian and counter-cultural milieu.
The meanings and resonance of Cohen’s music will once again be explored on screen in a new documentary, Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song (2022), which seeks to discuss Cohen’s legacy within and through his signature song of the same name. This is not, I should mention, the first documentary portrait of Cohen; Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen (Donald Brittain, Don Owen, 1965), a 45-minute cinèma vérité piece filmed for Canadian TV when Cohen was still working as a poet and comic in Montreal, is available for free on YouTube and very much worth seeing. The new documentary, which screens at IU Cinema on December 2, represents an opportunity to revisit the majestic sadness, comic humanism, and beautiful poetry of this great musician’s work in a theater with a terrific sound system.
IU Cinema screened McCabe & Mrs. Miller in February 2017 to commemorate the death of Leonard Cohen in November of 2016.
Jack Miller enjoys the films of Howard Hawks, Jacques Tourneur and John Ford. He graduated from Indiana University with a BA in English, and currently resides in Chicago. He also enjoys listening to country and disco music.