doc talk | peter keough

Doc Talk: Endless love, film school confidential, kind of a drag

A photo of Marianne Ihlen and Leonard Cohen in the film “Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love.”
A photo of Marianne Ihlen and Leonard Cohen in the film “Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love.”Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Nobody sang about broken hearts and suicidal gloom like Leonard Cohen, who died in 2016, at 82, a few months after the death, at 81, of his lover, friend, and muse, Marianne Ihlen.

They met on the Greek island of Hydra in 1960, which is where filmmaker Nick Broomfield met them and, as he says in his documentary “Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love,” “fell in love with their relationship.”

Hydra, as some interviewees who survived the experience describe it, was paradisal and sybaritic, a placid, seething haven for artists. It offered freedom and madness, and few relationships survived it. Tumultuous and ever-abiding, that of Cohen and Ihlen did. He left the island after a few years and released his first album, “The Songs of Leonard Cohen,” in 1967. One of those songs, “So Long, Marianne,” was about Ihlen, as was “Bird on a Wire,” from his second album, “Songs from a Room,” in 1969. For years Cohen would return to Hydra for several months and leave again. Even after both married other people in the 1970s they never lost touch.

In addition to rare archival footage, the film features fascinating interviews with friends and colleagues. Cohen sideman Ron Cornelius recalls their sleepless months on tour fueled by drugs and sex when Cohen would often take the stage stoned on downers or high on acid, as was the case when they played in front of 660,000 people at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970. In a clip of Cohen’s performance there he introduces the song “Farewell, Marianne,” looks into the crowd, and says, “I hope she’s here. Marianne?”


Nearly 50 years later Cohen learned that Ihlen was dying. He sent her a farewell note. “I’ve never forgotten your love and your beauty,” he wrote. “But you know that. I don’t have to say any more. Safe travels old friend. See you down the road.”


“Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love” opens on July 12 at Kendall Square and West Newton.

The future of cinema

“You will learn more by walking from Canada to Guatemala,” Werner Herzog once said, “than you will ever learn in film school.” Nevertheless every year hundreds of students apply for acceptance in La Fémis, in Paris, one of the most prestigious film schools in the world. Only 40 are chosen. Judging from the process of selection observed in Claire Simon’s documentary “The Competition,” they might have been better off choosing Herzog’s alternative.

Young, ingenuous, and often inarticulate, the fledgling directors, screenwriters, producers and others pour through the school’s gate and undergo a daunting series of tests, auditions, and interviews with professionals that goes on for several days. Though accomplished in their fields, these arbiters deciding the applicants’ fate seem to rely less on acumen than on personal taste and prejudices in making their decisions, and sometimes on the personal attractiveness of the candidates.

Simon cuts from an interviews with starry-eyed and sometimes tongue-tied young hopefuls to the judges’ discussions immediately afterwards; and sometimes I had to ask myself, did they see the same filmmaker that I did? The scores they put up vary wildly, with different candidates dismissed or accepted for contradictory reasons, until one judge points out the inconsistency in their criteria. As often happens in such juried selection processes, the pleasant, inoffensive median candidates, those nobody hated but nobody particularly liked, usually end up being chosen, insuring a cinematic future of competent mediocrity.


Like Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries about institutions such as “At Berkeley” (2013) Simon’s film starts slowly with seemingly disconnected, uncommented-on scenes that are subtly edited together and coalesce into an illuminating, mosaic-like portrait. If Simon herself had applied to La Fémis, would she have gotten in?

“The Competition” screens at the Museum of Fine Arts as part of its Boston French Film Festival on July 12 at 3 p.m. and July 13 at 1:30 p.m.

Go to www.mfa.org/programs/series/the-boston-french-film-festival.

Hair apparent

The attendance may not have rivaled that of the 1969 Woodstock festival, but the first Wigstock celebration, in 1984, made up for the sparse crowd with its spontaneity, audacity, and exuberance. In Chris Moukarbel’s documentary “Wig,” drag queen Lady Bunny recalls how she and a few friends left the Pyramid Club in New York’s East Village at dawn feeling no pain. They were exhilarated despite the specter of AIDS and the growing backlash against the gay pride movement. Coming upon Tompkins Square Park they decided to put on an extemporaneous drag show in the band shell. Passersby gathered, cheered them on, and Wigstock was born, a joyous end-of-summer celebration that became an annual Labor Day event through 2001, then 9/11 darkened the mood and the cost of living made New York unaffordable for those on the fringe.

“Wig” focuses on Lady Bunny as she reminisces about the days back in the 1990s when Wigstock was at its peak. Now she’s not comfortable with some of the changes in the transgender community. She feels it has lost its edge, becoming mainstream and succumbing to social media. “I think we’re all scrolling on Instagram,” she says. “I don’t need to be in a community with somebody who’s profile picture is a cat.”


Nonetheless, when she and gay icon Neil Patrick Harris revive Wigstock in the summer of 2018 they welcomed younger performers such as Willam, (who can be seen in “A Star is Born,”) and Kevin Aviance (who blithely recalls being the victim of a gay-bashing in 2006). The two generations join in a rooftop revel that is a raucous, raunchy, and glamorous reminder of the days when wearing wigs and gowns was considered a subversive act.

“Wig” can be seen on HBO and is available on HBO On Demand, HBO NOW, HBO GO and partners’ streaming platforms.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.