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Leonard Cohen on Tour, and a Long Night in Argentina

Mitchell Abidor
January 23, 2017

by Mitchell Abidor

Discussed in this essay: Bird on a Wire, a film by Tony Palmer, and The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis, a film directed by Andrea Testa and Francisco Márquez,

IN 1972, Leonard Cohen took his backup musicians on a twenty-city European tour (Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, despite their actual geographic locations, being considered in Europe, as they are in soccer). The tour was plagued by artistic and technical problems, all of which were documented by Tony Palmer, who filmed the events from start to finish.

Cohen was apparently unhappy with the results, and the film was not completed until 2010, and has never been released until now, when Bird on a Wire is showing at one of New York’s most essential cinemas, Film Forum.

Cohen, it seems, was primarily unhappy with Palmer’s film because he felt he came off as confrontational in some of his encounters with journalists, who descended upon him en masse everywhere he went. In fact, Bird on a Wire presents an image of Cohen as a man of warmth, integrity, and honesty, one with occasional foolish political ideas, but a man whom the viewer, undoubtedly a fan of the music, cannot but admire.

Contrary to Cohen’s opinion, even the most inane questions are taken seriously, and even answered with humor (“Do you practice Judaism?” “I never stop practicing.”). As anyone who is familiar with his life knows, he was a man who never lacked for female company, and we see him gallantly rebuffing fairly straightforward offers from beautiful women, to the bewilderment of the men in his entourage (and the women in question), but doing so with such grace that no offense was possible.

THE TOUR was plagued with sound problems, and Cohen devised two solutions. At one concert, he tells those who can’t hear him to come on stage, and even helps hoist them over the apron. And in Denmark (it looks like it was Denmark; none of the locations are noted, except for the penultimate disastrous concert in Tel Aviv, when orange-clad security roughed up the audience, the film crew, and even the musicians, and the final one in Jerusalem), he calmly listens backstage to the complaints of unhappy audience members, offers to refund them their money, and proceeds to take the money from his own pocket and compute and surrender the sum due.

Cohen was immensely self-critical, at one point mocking the audience for applauding the opening bars of a song, saying they couldn’t possibly recognize it, since all his songs began the same way, as “it’s the only chord I know.” At his final concert, in Jerusalem, he stops the concert in the middle, saying he hadn’t been able to rise off the ground (quoting the Kabbalah in support). Once backstage, he declares that it is unfair to himself and the audience to perform when he’s not able to give his all -- but he eventually decides (or is convinced) to go back on and does, indeed, rise off the ground, much to his and the audience’s delight.

In a sense, the film profits by having gone unreleased for forty-five years, as we gain perspective on Leonard Cohen and his songs. Ironically, though he was only a few years into his career as a singer when Bird on a Wire was made, he twice pleads for the right to escape his enslavement to his best-known songs, once improvising a tune to that effect, and another time lamenting that these songs, written for himself and whomever they were addressed to, have become songs he has no choice but to perform. He was sighing about this in 1972, and forty years later, on the perpetual tour of his final years, he continued to sing many of them still.

A FAR DIFFERENT note is struck in the Argentinian film The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis, directed by Andrea Testa and Francisco Márquez, based on the brilliant novel of the same name by Humberto Costantini, author as well of perhaps the great novel of the years of state terror, The Gods, the Little Guys and the Police (let it be said for the benefit of JC readers that, though Costantini sounds as Italian as can be, and is, he was an Italian Jew). The film will be shown as part of the Neighboring Scenes festival at that other essential place for film in New York, the Film Society of Lincoln Center, on January 28, and should not be missed.

The Long Night is the tale of a simple man, mid-level employee in a wholesale food company in Buenos Aires whose sole hunger is for a long-deferred promotion. A woman from his past -– his vaguely political student past -– tells him the names and address of two people who will be disappeared that night and tells him to save them. The entire drama of the film is that this non-political being, one who at the beginning of the film turns his face and that of his child from the police stopping someone on the street, finding himself forced to confront his personal responsibility in the face of the ambient horrors he is otherwise able to live through unscathed.

The film departs in a couple of points from the book, compressing and slightly confusing events, and changes the end of Costantini’s tale. Despite this, it is a moving description of the long dark night of an ordinary man’s soul, as he faces up to his obligations in the face of injustice. There is a lesson in that for all of us today.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is the recipient of a Hemingway Grant from the French Ministry of Culture for his translation of Emmanuel Bove’s A Raskolnikoff. His other new books include Voices of the Paris Commune and his collection of writings by and about the anarchist “propagandists of the deed,” Death to Bourgeois Society. His translations of the poetry of Benjamin Fondane can be found in the collection Cinepoems and Others, published by NYRB Poetry.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936 – 1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.