Leonard Cohen Interview on Q (CBC)

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Another Leonard Cohen post, he’s  been fairly prevelant in Canadian media these past few weeks, no doubt, because his tour that began  in May of last year has returned to his country of origin. This is a very compelling and thoughtful 40 minute interview done Jian Gomeshi, on the popular program Q. Cohen muses on love and death, focusing especially on his own mortality during the segment. It’s focused on his musical career above else, but touches into his poetry and novels. Also, for film fans, they discuss briefly the use (or overuse) of Hallelujah in our culture today, even mentioning Watchmen. Though Cohen admits it’s one of  my favourite songs, and seems to love most covers, admits that perhaps people should take a break from it for a while.

Aside from recommending  Leonard Cohen’s work, even for non-Canadians, Q is a show to watch/listen to in general. Once again CBC proves to be a great alternative to the mindless drivel found on most TV/radio. Lots of great shows to check out.

Agnes of God (Jewison, 1985)

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Instead of spending your hard earned money on Doubt, I recommend instead you rent Norman Jewison’s film, Agnes of God. This is a time of economic turmoil afterall, while one might ordinarily be able to sacrifice $10 on an average film based on a play that’s somewhat entertaining, I suggest you spend half that money (if not less) on renting a different film that explores the same themes with far more insight and cinematic prowess. Though also based on a play, and similarly dealing with a mystery and THE mystery of organized religion, Agnes of God defies it’s theatrical roots thanks to stunning cinematography that accentuates both the intimacy and alienation religion evokes in the modern world. The film does suffer from some of the same mistakes and problems as the aforementioned film, notably a sort of misguided centering on procedure rather than the “real” issues at hand. Perhaps I am too forgiving, because I am pulled into Agnes’ spell, and raising the questions is enough for me even without answers.

The film is set in Montreal, Quebec, during what I assume is the late 1970s/early 1980s. The film makes a point to emphasize the modernity of the situation to estrange the nuns further from what we know as the real world. It is essential that the audience understands the events, potential miracles of God, under the circumstances of secular life. The film is centered around the mystery of a strangled newborn, whose mother is young Agnes, a novice-nun. It quickly becomes apparent that she is not quite in her right mind, and her understanding of the events are blurred and twisted by her unusual perception of the world around her. Enter state assigned psychiatrist Dr. Martha Livingston (Jane Fonda, who seemed to have turned 71 yesterday), to evaluate whether Agnes is responsible for her actions. Everyone from the judge to the mother superior seem to want her to make her evaluation quickly and cleanly, as it’s pointed out that nobody wants to see a nun in prison, no matter what they may have done. This seems to go against her personal set of beliefs, though her own impartiality over the case is often brought up, as her own dealings with Catholicism are darkly tainted, even though she doesn’t like to admit it.

When caught up in procedure and law, the film loses ground, though thankfully these sequences are brief and the film allows the audience to become as entrapped by questions of faith as she does. The mystery is really secondary, though consistently hanging over our heads. The question of why this happened, rather than how becomes far more important as we come to understand the sacrifice of living in a convent, perhaps even more so in a modern world. The film raises the question of modern saints and modern miracles, and the Mother Superior seems resigned to the idea they no longer exist. Much like No Country for Old Men, the film questions the idea that perhaps they never did. That life is as bleak now as it was 200 years ago, but history and perceptions twist and turn along the way. The same as the perception of innocence, a trait that is often used to describe Agnes, which is just as skewed and unfounded as that of miracles and sainthood. The film handles these words and semantics in a light handed way, but it’s important to realise how important they are in dealings of faith. The rules and understandings hang on a thread, on words that no longer are used or have multiple understandings. Meanings are lost with languages, and nothing is as it seems. That doesn’t mean there is no beauty in the world however, but perhaps that is my own objection and problems with religion at work. Do we need miracles to confirm faith? Can’t the miracle of existence, and the spontaneity of non-creation based life be incredible and mystifying. This unveils perhaps the biggest squandered opportunity of the film, and the writers/filmmakers failure to acknowledge the only true miracle of the film.
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I think it all stems back to the relegation of womanhood and the prophesied guilt of female sexuality. It’s not addressed in full, but certainly it’s brought up. The mother superior’s speech about how menstruation isn’t wrong, as well as Agnes’ explaining “good babies” and “bad babies”. The film is centered entirely on women, and their own interactions with the church and life. The issue of the mortal body as well becomes an obvious issue, and it’s really one of the most fascinating aspects of the Catholic faith. The idea of stigmata, virgin birth, the burning heart, fasting, mutiliation and suffering are so beyond my conception of spirituality that I cannot help being taken in by their meaning and implication. The real questions and issues became especially apparent for me while reading Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers, and the story an Algonquin Saint, Catherine Tekakwitha, and her interpretation of the impermanence and physical sacrifice of the body. Her extremes really opened my eyes (and in a way, soul) to the real implications of faith in the Bible. I was not repulsed though certainly puzzled, and my reaction is similar in the case of Agnes of God. Like Cohen’s work, it seems especially concerned with the mortal body in context of female sexuality. The inclusion of apparent stigmata complicates the film even more, creating even more ambiguity than before. There is perhaps a sort of psychosis involved, a grand reflection of the mind and heart on the body but the questions are left unanswered. Even before her pregnancy, Agnes is clearly obsessed with the nature of her body, claming to being too fat for heaven and God. The Mother Superior sees it as a moment of vanity, and a misunderstanding of the scriptures at first, but there is something more at work. Agnes declares “suffering is beautiful”, a line that sticks with me above all others. The line is so perplexing and… for lack of a better word, innocent. It sums up my understanding of the “beautiful” aspects of religion, as well as the ones that continue to obsess me. I don’t see myself ever subscribing to any faith, at least nothing organized, but I find the motifs of Catholicism especially are so in tune with my daily obsessions and ponderings. I treat them less as an issue of spiritual faith, but psychological and moral. I wonder if I’ll ever truly understand the meaning of life, or more simply, the role of blood. Something about blood is just so occupying and pervading. If ever I could be so obsessed and troubled by something intimate, it’s blood; all it’s implications and interpreted meanings just boggle my mind. It has me under hypnosis, blood is life, but it is so impermanent and it has no mind or will.

I feel like I’ve come to no real conclusions in terms of Agnes of God, only that it perplexes me in the same way most religion does. The film raises more questions than it answers, this is true, but isn’t that the very nature of religion, theology and morality? It’s never a world of black and white, and even things we have complete faith in are subject to the uncertainty of humanity. Even if God exists, the subject of free wills alienates us from it (I don’t like the idea that God would be a he). We are essentially lost in a sea of nothing, only able to connect with each other, and even then we cannot help making mistakes and failing even those we love. Some argue that God is love, and Agnes argues that she loves everyone. Did she love her child? It doesn’t seem so, the reasons are cryptic and deeply entranced in great psychological suffering. Livinstone’s own trauma’s, though hardly as extreme as Agnes’, do reveal a common bond between us as her own pain prevents her from connecting to others, just as Agnes’ prevents her from connecting to reality. Her own evolution as a human being places her in the role of a mother, and one wonders if God could ever really be a father. We all have issues with the idea of motherhood (even the word itself) and the film, briefly touches on these complicated familial roles. Religion itself seems to rob womanhood of true motherhood, as we are a) all born as sinners and b) the only non-sinful birth, Jesus, is devoid of all female sexuality because of Mary’s virginity. I don’t think the film goes to blame religion for the uncertainty and sinful associations people have with motherhood, but it certainly raises the question. The idea, at the very least, weighs heavily on Agnes’ mind who believes she is wrong, she is a mistake and so is her child. Her naivety is troubling, both inspiring and frightening, and to those who are fast to judge those who are faithful though characters like the Mother Superior, there is presented the idea of how important right state of mind, and morality come into play. None of the characters are perfect, and even in judgement they are not judged by the lens of the character. They are allowed to be human, ugly and beautiful all at once… they’re all suffering, but not in the way Agnes understands the concept. Humanity is suffering, and it unfortunately becomes a matter of having faith… though, I’m hardly suggesting it has to be faith in a God or religion. Just some kind of acceptance and belief in ones self, or some possibility, or some other person.
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Album of the Week: New Skin for Old Ceremony, Leonard Cohen

I’ve always liked Leonard Cohen. Being a fellow Montrealer, for a long time I liked him just “because”. Then when I started expanding my music taste in my teens, I’d be listening to Jeff Buckley and notice that the song had been written by none other than Mr. Cohen. Then in my last year of high school, I remember a teacher asking us to write a short essay on the following question: “Is Margaret Atwood Canada’s greatest writer”. No offence to Atwood, but I’ve never liked her prose, especially not in poetry (though I do enjoy Alias Grace)… so I argued that she wasn’t, even though I personally had a difficult time finding an alternative. I suggested both Roch Carrier and Mordecai Richler, because I felt that their work represented a far more vast representation of the “Canadian experience”. Looking back, I think selfishly, I clung to them as compatriots who shared my experience. Though Carrier was not born in Montreal, his writing on the lives of the Quebecois always felt more at home than anything that Atwood had written. There was also a sort of sentimental attachment to his children’s story, The Hockey Sweater, that was a staple for most Canadian childhoods, mine included. I’m also sure, Richler’s own children’s books played a big part in my appreciation for his work. I never suggested Cohen, though, I think if I were to go back, he would be my choice, no questions asked.

Earlier this year, I started listening to his music. I got my hands on his entire discography, and almost listened to it album cover to album cover. I was simply blown away, beyond a simple reflection of the so-called “Canadian experience”, which is still elusive as Canadians don’t seem to agree on who they are, it was a profound exploration of human relationships. With his songs he transcends any kind of nationalistic pride, or attainability. They simply exist, an often mournful cry for companionship and understanding, with brief, but full portraits of happiness and love. Though there are a few songs I’m not particularly fond of, every single album has at least a handful of songs that are able to touch or excite me in some way.

Though, it changes on almost a day to day basis, today I’ve settled upon “New Skin for the Old Ceremony”, as my favourite of his albums. There are personal reasons involved, as several of these songs remind me of people I care about, but also have served as inspiration for some of my recent work that I’m proud of (a rare feat indeed). Two songs in particular that never fail to move me are “Take this Longing” and “I Tried to Leave You“. Both are bittersweet, the first about an encounter between two lovers, possibly for the last time. While the other, about someone who can’t seem to leave, the reasoning is almost painfully obvious, but I don’t think love is ever obvious, which makes it so tragic. His songs all seem to have a natural appreciation and I’d even say, understanding, of women. Though most of his work seems to be about the struggle of human interaction, he has a unique sense of the individual. Even when a character or person seems elusive, there is always a marvel or magic to them, that reminds me of life in a wonderful way. I know my mother doesn’t really like Cohen because she finds his work depressing and, she is even known to say “Listening to him is enough to drive anyone to suicide”. Though I can’t deny the aching heartbreak and confusion that seems to pervade his work, something about it is calming and hopeful. I think in a lot of his work, even what we understand as “simple” emotions like happiness or sadness is complicated by unease and insecurity, and I relate to that in a way that makes me feel a lot better about the world around me.

This entry, more than anything else, was spurred by my reading of his novel “Beautiful Losers”. I’m almost finished, and it’s been a very long time, if not a lifetime since I’ve been so excited and moved by a novel. Experimental and raw, it is still very reflective and calculated. For a moment it reminds me of the work of the beat poets, especially Kerouac’s On the Road, but subdued and more introspective. It’s an exploration of relationships and interaction, history and the self. It typifies Canadian literature, without being obvious or clear. It’s a search for identity, and warmth. The protagonist working to survive each day, his best friend F living a life too big for any man is crushed by his own spirit and the unnamed narrator’s wife, who is doomed from the onset, unable to connect with a world that has already cut her short. Wildly explorative, sensual and experimental, the book is one of those rare pieces of art that seems to hit a stride of consciousness that replicates the logic of thoughts and dreams. It’s just free. Assuming I like it as much once I finish it (just a few more pages to go!), it might very well be my favourite novel.

That’s all I have to say about Leonard Cohen for now, I also just want to mention another Canadian song writing great I’ve been listening to a lot lately, Gordon Lightfoot. Take a listen.