Performance, persona & the construction of documentary identity.
While the necessary constructedness of documentary texts is difficult to contest, this scholarly focus on the nonfiction filmmaker's mediation of reality is nonetheless not without its drawbacks. Foremost amongst these, this concerted emphasis on the ways in which the acts of filming represent the 'real' has had the unfortunate side effect of contributing to a relative lack of attention to the ways in which the individuals who appear within nonfiction texts themselves participate in constructing the truths and meanings such texts offer up. Some writing on documentary film has begun to redress this imbalance, as scholars such as Thomas Waugh ("Acting"), Leger Grindon, Vinicius do Valle Navarro and Stella Bruzzi have argued persuasively in favor of viewing performance as a central component of non-fiction discourse. Bruzzi, for instance, takes issue with Renov's contention that documentaries are predicated on the desire to capture reality in a pure, unmediated form. Instead, she claims, it is better to recognize that "a documentary can never be the real world, that the camera can never capture life as it would have unraveled had it not interfered, and the results of this collision between apparatus and subject are what constitutes a documentary" (7). Nonfiction films, according to Bruzzi, are thus "performative acts whose truth comes into being only at the moment of filming" (7).
In shifting attention from the filmmaker's representation of the real to the way in which the interaction between documentarist and subject produce the truth that is documented, Bruzzi both acknowledges the necessary construction of documentaries and paves the way for a consideration of the communicative work of the individuals who populate such texts. Once we accept that nonfiction films are themselves performative, that they produce the 'truths' they document, individual subject performance likewise becomes a viable and significant area of focus, since the way in which people enact themselves for the camera is an important part of the documentary truth-production process. This seems particularly important to consider in relation to Renov's 'record, reveal, preserve' function. While filmic manipulation and mediation inevitably play a part in constructing nonfiction images of real world people and events, so too do the actions and reactions of the people embodying themselves (or, less frequently, others) onscreen. With this in mind, performance must be seen as a central element of nonfiction representation. This article will provide support for this position by demonstrating the significant role that performance plays in crafting textual personae in two documentaries focusing on Canadian poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen: Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen (Donald Brittain and Don Owen, Canada, 1965) and Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man (Lian Lunson, USA, 2006).
Underlying my argument is a definition of performance first advanced by Erving Goffman in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. A performance, in Goffman's terms, consists of "all the activity of an individual which occurs during a period marked by his [or her] continuous presence before a particular set of observers and which has some influence on the observers" (22). From this perspective, all documentary subjects can be seen as performers, insofar as they engage in activities that exert an impact on the meanings and effects of the texts in which they figure. By way of conscious or unconscious choices in terms of gesture, posture, facial expression, word choice, intonation, and the like, the individuals who appear in nonfiction texts, like their counterparts in fictional films and in the everyday encounters that Goffman studied, contribute significantly to observers' understandings of the situations and events at hand. As such, their actions demand attention alongside and in combination with other formal elements, such as editing and shot composition, that likewise exert an impact on viewers' understandings and experiences.
CONSTRUCTING LEONARD COHEN
Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen and Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man together provide an especially useful locus at which to examine some of the ways in which nonfiction performance participates in the creation and communication of documentary identities. Insofar as dissimilar self-presentational choices (framed by, filtered through and combined with other formal elements) build up a rather different image of the same individual in each of the two films, these documentaries illustrate the performer's role in nonfiction characterization in an especially pronounced fashion. Furthermore, Cohen's celebrity status makes these films useful sites at which to reconsider the relationship between performance and star persona, and--more specifically--to demonstrate the formative capacity of the former even within documentary texts wherein the latter is also operative.
Although Leonard Cohen's star image is a complex and variegated one, it has in many ways remained remarkably stable over the course of his fifty-plus years in the public eye. Despite the fact that Cohen has defined himself (and has been defined) variously as a poet, a novelist, a singer-songwriter, and a Buddhist monk, several themes re-occur throughout his work in all its forms, and also throughout the publicity materials, reviews, and other cultural texts that take him as their subject. These defining elements of the Cohen persona include: a marked lugubriousness which has led to monikers such as "The Godfather of Gloom" (de Lisle n.pag); considerable wit and an ironic sense of humor; a paradoxical personality that combines a range of apparently discrepant traits (including the comicality and gloominess referred to above); a Casanova reputation; a supposed capacity for visionary insight; and a desire for and/or attainment of modern-day sainthood.
Of course, as countless scholars of stardom might suggest, these oft-discussed elements of Cohen's celebrity persona exert a sizeable influence on our understanding of his documentary identity within Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen and Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man. We feel we know Cohen going into these films, and this foreknowledge frames and informs our understanding of the kind of 'plausible person' he embodies within the texts themselves. In fact, star discourse might be an especially compelling factor in guiding our perception of character in these films (and, indeed, in all documentaries involving famous personalities), insofar as it needn't compete with or be fitted to a secondary, fictional identity that the celebrity in question enacts.
Nonetheless, these two Cohen-centered texts demonstrate that star image only goes so far in the construction of documentary character. Despite the relative stability of Cohen's extratextual persona, the films generate markedly dissimilar portraits of him; each one activates, underlines, augments, and contributes to the perpetuation of different elements of the poet-songwriter's lore. In this respect, these documentaries provide strong support for Richard Dyer's claim that individual films necessarily emphasize and / or downplay particular elements of a star's image lexicon by means of a range of formal devices. "[F]rom the structured polysemy of the star's image," Dyer claims, "certain meanings are selected in accord with the overriding conception of the character in the film" (127). My argument, of course, is that performance plays a central role in this process. (2)
In Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen, for example, Cohen's documentary identity is tightly connected to one specific element of his celebrity persona: the complex and paradoxical personality that has led commentators to refer to him as "part wolf, part angel" (Huston, qtd. in de Lisle n.pag.). To be sure, the fact that popular writings have positioned Cohen consistently as an individual who--in Todd Gitlin's terms--"caresses paradoxes" and "spin[s] reversals" (98) does much to influence one's sense of him as a contradictory figure within this particular documentary. Performance, however, also contributes significantly to this characterization, helping--as Dyer puts it--"to foreground and minimize the image's traits appropriately" (127).
Across the film, Cohen is required to enact his own identity within a range of nonfiction contexts, and--in each of these domains--he mobilizes several cues that help to emphasize and flesh out his status as an individual of apparently antipodal sensibilities. In particular, Cohen appears within both traditional 'talking heads' interviews and enacted sequences in which he's seen 'going about his business' while a non-simultaneous voiceover plays on the soundtrack. Despite the fact that these conventional nonfiction situations constrain Cohen's self-presentational choices considerably (forcing him to respond to the guiding questions of the director in the former case, and to signify through visible means alone in the latter), they also provide him with a restricted space in which to demonstrate some of the contradictions in his character.
In one interview sequence, for instance, Cohen evokes his paradoxical inclinations by way of three common performance techniques: self-descriptive language, intonation and facial expression. Captured in a static medium close up as he discusses his trip to Cuba shortly before the Bay of Pigs Invasion, he claims, "the real truth is that I wanted to kill or be killed." A quick cut, however, immediately juxtaposes this emphatic self-description with a later moment from the interview, in which Cohen conveys an entirely different message. Here, he counters his own earlier comment unequivocally, stating, "no, no. I don't want to give the idea, as I've been giving in the past ten or fifteen minutes, that I'm completely obsessed with the idea of danger." By placing these two logically opposed comments immediately next to each other, the editing of the sequence evokes a sense of this documentary subject's paradoxical nature especially emphatically. Cohen himself, however, also contributes to this characterizing process by issuing the contradictory statements that the filmmakers appose. Finally, after a brief pause, he further augments this complex version of his personality without the aid of a cut, shifting gears once more by saying, "But I suppose I am. So it's just as well that I gave the idea away." By way of these multiple verbal reversals (enhanced in the first case by editing), Cohen helps to position himself as a figure of antonymous claims. He suggests that he is and that he is not obsessed with violence, and further intimates that he is both proud of and hesitant to admit to this uncertain fascination.
The nonverbal choices that Cohen makes in the course of articulating this continuously shifting description further emphasize the sense of its contradictoriness. As he issues his first claim about being captivated by the thought of physical harm, for instance, he constructs an image of self-assured confidence by frequently directing his unashamed gaze toward the off-screen interviewer. Furthermore, he uses a variety of gestural and paralinguistic cues to invest this statement with maximum dramatic force, leading Ira Nadel, for one, to assert that Cohen proclaims his attraction to death "with bravado" (51). Most tellingly in this respect, Cohen pauses for emphasis after saying, "the real truth is," and then underscores the morbidity of his subsequent words by using two of the intensifying facial punctuators discussed by Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen (70)--an eyebrow raise on "kill" and a widening of the eyes on "be killed." Finally, as he completes this rather ominous admission, Cohen leans forward slightly, and his eyes briefly take on the hard, penetrating quality commonly associated with anger (Ekman & Friesen 83). Combined with his falling intonation, which itself indicates a sense of certainty and finality, these postural and facial modifications help to make the statement seem particularly dark, compelling and deeply felt.
The subsequent cut, however, constructs a striking contrast in Cohen's non-verbal choices as surely as it underlines the discrepancies in his words. As he begins refuting his previous statement in the second shot of this segment, the poet-songwriter raises his voice to a much higher pitch, stutters slightly, and speaks more quickly than he had in advance of the edit. Moreover, he now spends much of his time looking downwards and away from the interviewer, as if slightly saddened, uncertain or ashamed. As a result of this dramatic change in his nonverbal choices, Cohen suddenly comes across as rather hesitant and unassuming, where he had previously appeared confident, irreverent and almost sadistic. As emphasized by the editing that places these two moments in immediate relation to each other, then, Cohen's shifting extra-linguistic behaviors create a compelling sense of his multifaceted and often antonymous personality.
The same is true of his performances in enacted scenes. In several of these sequences, for instance, Cohen augments the text's image of his clashing attributes by way of the relationship he cultivates with the camera. As Thomas Waugh has noted, documentary performers must routinely decide-in collaboration with or contravention of the filmmaker--whether to acknowledge their awareness of the camera (performing in a 'presentational' mode) or to deny that awareness (performing in a 'representational' mode) ("Acting" 68). Cohen's performance, however, blurs the boundaries between these apparently oppositional categories. For much of the film, he is seen wandering around Montreal in a process of what appears to be intense observation. While he never breaks with the representational convention established for such moments by overtly looking at the camera itself, his carriage and positioning nonetheless manifest a sense of conscious staginess that suggests he is presenting himself to be looked at even as busies himself with the act of looking. The moment at which he is first seen walking around a Montreal park provides a striking case in point.
Here, Brittain and Owen create an initial sense of presentationalism by establishing a fixed, quasi-theatrical frame into which Cohen can insert himself as an object of our contemplation. A static, low angle shot of some wooded parkland is held for four seconds before Cohen enters--like a player taking the stage--at frame left. Cohen augments this stagy moment, however, by placing himself (surely at the filmmakers' behest) rather precisely within this pre-established composition. He enters the frame slowly, and pauses so that his body is both centered onscreen and bordered attractively by the arching branches of two large trees. He then proceeds to look slowly from right to left, squinting and pushing out his lower jaw in an almost exaggeratedly pensive expression. Nonetheless, even as he maintains this clearly arranged position, Cohen also partially upholds the ruse that he is simply observing the park around him by never explicitly acknowledging the camera to which his actions are so clearly keyed. By cultivating this complex balance of representationalism and presentationalism, Cohen (in combination with the directors who encouraged/allowed such a mixture of signs) constructs a moment that is at once a continuation of his diegetic activities and a clear pose for his extended audience. In so doing, he invests his textual character with yet another paradoxical attribute, rather obviously presenting himself as both subject and object, observer and observed.
In other enacted scenes, Cohen's contradictoriness is emphasized even further through his own co-present voiceover commentary. At such moments, Brittain and Owen again contribute to the construction of Cohen's documentary identity through filmic means, insofar as the process of adding non-simultaneous voiceover forces a relationship between visual and aural performance choices that were not initially conceived in propinquity. The relationships fostered by this filmmaker-governed process of juxtaposition, however, are nonetheless ultimately formed from the raw material of performance. When Cohen is seen conversing with other nighthawks in Ben's Diner, for instance, his voiceover narration invests his visible actions with a sense of complexity and inconsistency that they otherwise might not evoke. Filmed from behind in a medium long shot, he reclines comfortably as he sits at a table with three others, his arm slung loosely across the backrest of a chair. By these postural means, Cohen communicates a sense of repose even though his face cannot be seen and his (simultaneous) comments are inaudible. In fact, this impression of contented relaxation is maintained by Cohen's kinesic choices throughout the sequence. The camera follows him as he leaves the group and joins another man at a table nearby, for example, capturing his confident, ambling gait by virtue of its relatively great distance. Likewise, a subsequent cut in to a tight medium shot directs attention to Cohen's calm and apparently untroubled face, which quickly settles into a broad and contented smile.
Simultaneously, however, Cohen's self-description on the soundtrack gives his actions a more dark and laborious cast, characterizing this apparently unconcerned get together as "the first rebellious act a man can perform--refusing to sleep." He continues: "I'm going to protest the idea of sleep by turning night into day. I'm going to revel and drink and womanize all night, and this way I show time, death, the natural process of destruction, decay and regeneration, I show it all that ... I, man, triumph." In and of themselves, these words serve to connect opposites, conjoining leisure and effort, night and day, revels and rebellion. These contradictions are made all the more striking, though, by the contrast between Cohen's lyrical and emphatic delivery and the visible sense of casual pleasure he manifests concurrently onscreen. His round tones and rhythmic variations in tempo serve to underscore the seriousness of his exhortation, while his tendency to shift his pitch for, and/or pause before and after, words such as 'protest,' 'time,' and 'death' gives these heavy words particular emphasis. In this respect, Cohen's vocal performance accents struggle and seriousness, while his visible actions evoke a sense of halcyon repose. His antithetical personality is thus again betokened by his mediated performance in this documentary text.
Other performance contexts in which Cohen appears over the course of the film include synch sound enacted scenes, formal performances within the diegetic world, and a reflexive moment in which he's filmed viewing footage from the film itself. While each of these frameworks facilitates moments of performance that contribute to the construction of his paradoxical character, perhaps the clearest indication of this process can be seen in the famous self-reflexive scene at the film's end. (3) Here, Cohen is required to modulate his everyday self-presentation techniques in response to the extremely unusual task of watching himself construct a documentary performance. In addition to creating a novel and unfamiliar framework within which a documentary subject must enact his identity, however, this nonfiction context also literalizes--and affords Cohen the opportunity to make explicit--his status as both observer and observed.
On the one hand, Cohen's performance within the footage being viewed already contributes to the construction of this antonymic image. As in many of the enacted scenes throughout the film, he once again cultivates a mixture of presentationalism and representationalism in this case. He refrains from explicitly acknowledging the camera as he goes about bathing, but nonetheless professes his constant awareness of being viewed by writing 'Caveat Emptor'--a warning to the film viewer--on the bathroom wall. Simultaneously, though, the choices that Cohen makes as he views this already complex performance serve to draw out, underline, and add to its contradictions.
From the outset of the sequence, his commentary makes explicit his status as both watcher and watched. As footage from the documentary rolls on the image track, the very first words we hear Cohen speak in voiceover are: "it's a very privileged thing to be able to see yourself sleeping." Throughout the scene, in fact, Cohen's performance seems designed to emphasize that he is at once a viewer in the screening room and a viewed object in the film screened. Cuts away from the footage to close ups of the poet-songwriter's watching face suggest that he looks on at the film-within-the-film in fascination, his eyes unblinking, his mouth slightly agape and his head cocked contemplatively to one side. His near constant stream of talk likewise reinforces his position as an interpreting spectator, particularly when he states: "This is a situation which--for whatever the reason--a man has allowed a number of strangers into his bathroom." With this comment, Cohen points forcefully toward his status as an outside observer by utilizing the words "a man" in lieu of the personal pronoun "I." At the same time, however, the general thrust of this statement serves to highlight the rather invasive process of observation that a documentary subject endured in the process of filming, and, of course, one is always aware that the man in question is Cohen himself. In this respect, Cohen's performance suggests that he is engaged in a process of intense scrutiny that ultimately uncovers his own status as scrutinized object.
His performance choices in this sequence point toward a number of additional contradictions in his character as well. As he watches himself in the bathtub, for instance, Cohen's off-screen voice suggests that he finds this intensive observation of his private affairs both "sinister" and "flattering," accenting these discrepant words by a marked pause after each. Through this choice of language and paralinguistic emphasis, Cohen demonstrates the simultaneous resentment of and desire for public attention that David Boucher claims have marked the poet-songwriter's career (43).
In like fashion, Cohen's self-presentation within this unique context also implies that he sees his performance in the film as both constructed and illuminating, both 'false' and 'true.' On the one hand, his onscreen explanation of the decision to write 'Caveat Emptor' on the bathroom wall suggests that this documentary and his performance within it should be taken with a large grain of salt. By leaving this message, Cohen declares in close up, he wanted to warn viewers that the film "is not entirely devoid of the con." A quick zoom in to an even tighter shot of his laughing face subsequently gives this claim particular emphasis, encouraging spectators to view it as a key to Cohen's complex inner life and thereby suggesting forcefully that the poet-songwriter places little stock in the truth value of the film we've just observed.
Immediately following this account, however, a cut to another portion of the sequence once more reveals Cohen conveying a rather different message. As additional footage from the documentary plays onscreen, Cohen is again heard in voiceover, now stating pensively: "I look much more like a man than I thought. In fact, I think I've had a very, very ... mistaken conception about what style of man I was. I think the whole thing is changing now." His voice is soft and airy as he speaks, issuing forth in rather high-pitched, melodic cadences that construct an impression of thoughtful self-reflection. An ensuing cut to a close up of his face amplifies this sense of serious contemplation, suggesting that Cohen is again staring interestedly at the images of himself as he articulates this realization, his head tilted inquisitively to one side and his gaze fixed firmly in the direction of the film playing before him. Finally, another marked zoom in affords this moment special emphasis as well, highlighting Cohen's introspective expression (itself augmented by the momentary furrowing of his brow) and suggesting that this claim too provides special insight into his character. By combining these filmically-emphasized nonverbal markers of sincere reflection with a verbal statement that proclaims the instructiveness of the footage, Cohen complicates his earlier warning and intimates that his performance in the film is edifying even if it is put on. As such, in combination with the editing and cinematography, Cohen's performance again unites concepts that are traditionally viewed as antithetical (in this case, 'acting' and 'truth') and points toward their potential uselessness as oppositional descriptive categories.
In each of the performance contexts in which he appears, then, Cohen activates several of the tools available to nonfiction performers in a manner that makes the paradoxical aspect of his star image particularly salient. At the same time, other performing individuals also contribute to the construction of this contradictory documentary identity by way of a process that might be called altercasting. Sociologists and social psychologists generally use this term to refer to the way in which individuals attempt to characterize or 'place' one another during everyday encounters. (4) If we extend the sense of the term here to include the general way in which one's actions might speak to or 'cast' the identity of another, however, it is also broadly applicable to the majority of documentary texts. Given that most nonfiction films and television programs situate any given individual's self-presentational activities within what Audrey Levasseur calls "a web of other performances" (52), documentary characters are often shaped not only by the efforts of the individual embodying the identity in question, but also by the actions and activities of additional people appearing in the text (combined, of course, with any number of formal choices outside of performance).
In Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen, for example, several performers beyond Cohen himself contribute to the construction of the poet-songwriter's complex and intricate documentary identity. Perhaps the clearest example of this process can be found in the voiceover performance of director Donald Brittain. Throughout the film, Brittain proclaims and underlines the contradictions in Cohen's personality, using a traditional voice-of-God delivery that invests these inconsistent claims with considerable weight and credibility.
When the director describes Cohen's "typically unorthodox" days as a McGill student, for instance, his authoritative voiceover delivery both authenticates the inconsistent ideas of which he speaks and makes their inconsistency especially apparent. He states: "[Cohen] won election as president of the debating union, and then refused to call debates. He hated the concept of fraternities, but won election as president of a fraternity." By pausing between the opposed clauses of each of these statements and varying his intonation to emphasize the contradictions the statements describe, Brittain's vocal delivery here serves to render Cohen's unpredictable personality especially apparent. His pitch rises dramatically as he says "debating union," for instance, and then drops sharply on the word "debates," painting an aural contrast that highlights the incongruity of a non-debating debater in the process.
At the same time, however, the confident, unemotional nature of this vocal performance evokes a sense of omniscience that helps to make the incongruity under discussion seem plausible. Brittain utters these descriptions of Cohen's logically opposed actions at a moderate pace, his words uninterrupted by hesitations or non-lexical utterances that might evoke a sense of uncertainty, and his measured, round tones reminiscent of the polished male voices that Bill Nichols has called "a hallmark" of the "voice-of-God tradition" (Introduction 105). By marshaling these conventional paralinguistic markers of disinterestedness and authority, Brittain's voiceover performance here argues implicitly that Cohen's apparent contradictoriness is nonetheless an incontrovertible, undeniable fact.
As all of the preceding examples indicate, Cohen and his fellow performers play a considerable role in determining the version of the poet's character advanced within Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen. While knowledge of Cohen's star image might predispose viewers to read him as a paradoxical figure within the film, the individuals who appear onscreen nevertheless make a range of verbal and nonverbal choices that activate, emphasize and augment this particular facet of the Cohen lore. As such, these performance choices--though not entirely autonomous or all-powerful--should not be overlooked.
This sense of the necessity of considering the performer's role in the construction of character becomes particularly clear when one compares the version of Cohen's documentary identity advanced by Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen with that put forth in Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man. Whereas the 1965 film casts its title character as a contradictory, trickster-like figure, Lian Lunson's more recent text downplays these paradoxical tendencies and instead portrays Cohen as a specific kind of modern-day saint. Because this shift in characterization is achieved at least partially through performance, it ultimately demonstrates the way in which changes in the documentary subject's work can foreground different aspects of the same, abiding image text.
Like his antithetical personality, Cohen's obsession with saintliness has been an oft discussed, enduring aspect of his star persona. Several Cohen critics note the way in which many of his writings advocate a process of sanctification through self-abnegation, (5) for instance, while others argue that Cohen himself has attempted to achieve this kind of martyrdom outside of his work. (6) By continually drawing and redrawing a connection between the poet-songwriter and beatific self-sacrifice, the popular discourse surrounding this nonfiction subject might make viewers especially likely to attend to any canonical threads of his character presented in Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man. Nonetheless, star text alone is not sufficient to determine this characterization. Given the multiple meanings that have been attached to Cohen over the years, spectators are predisposed to a range of possible, overlapping interpretations of his textual identity in this film. Ultimately, it is elements of the text itself--including performance--that render the self-sacrificial facet of Cohen's image particularly salient.
Indeed, several aspects of Leonard Coheir. I'm Your Man contribute to the apotheosizing of its title character. The opening credit sequence, for instance, mobilizes a number of devices that cast Cohen as a larger than life, rather mystical presence willing to abandon himself for some higher cause. The very first shot--a close up of a bust of a Dionysus-like figure--immediately evokes a sense of transcendence that is subsequently attached to Cohen himself by way of a printed title. The coming film, this title suggests, documents a concert in which a group of artists gathered "to pay tribute to the great Leonard Cohen" (emphasis added). This sense of Cohen's superlative status is further underlined on the soundtrack by the lyrics of his song "Waiting for the Miracle." We hear Cohen intone: "Baby I've been waiting /I've been waiting night and day/I didn't see the time/I waited half my life away/There were lots of invitations /I know you sent me some/But I was waiting for the miracle, for the miracle to come." Again, these words position Cohen as an individual willing to forsake his average existence in the pursuit of something thaumaturgic.
Two further factors also contribute emphatically to this opening sequence's mounting image of exceptional self-sacrifice. Following the introduction of the performers participating in the tribute concert, Lunson lingers on a silhouette of Cohen's profile, manipulating the image so that the songwriter's shadowy form disappears, reappears and moves erratically around the frame. At the same time, she accompanies this preternatural and somewhat depersonalizing image with an aural montage that emphasizes Cohen's willingness to sacrifice his personality for others. We hear Cohen repeat, "I'm your man" three times, before rapidly edited, overlapping segments of his speech list some of the forms he's assumed as part of earning this designation. He says: "If you want a boxer ... poet ... if you want a driver ... singer ... I was known as a monk, as a ladies' man ... writer ... father figure." Part way through this list, Lunson fades to a black and white photograph of Cohen, zooming in to an extreme close up of his penetrating and inscrutable eyes. His voice on the soundtrack then repeats "I'm your man" a fourth time, and the film's title appears onscreen. This complex combination of images and sounds does much to underline a conception of Cohen as a shifting, saintly figure who abdicates his own worldly identity in the service of others. This sequence, then, along with the title it introduces, establishes the film's vision of Cohen, in Walter Mosley's words, as "the man who is for us" (n. pag.).
This pre-title segment also begins to indicate the way in which performance serves as part of the textual machinery emphasizing the saintly thread of Cohen's image. It is Cohen's previously recorded words, after all, which Lunson arranges into the aural montage of identity-abandonment at the close of the credits, and his deep, gravelly rendition of "Waiting for the Miracle" that makes the suffering hinted at in the lyrics particularly pointed at the outset. In this respect, the opening credits foretell the remainder of the film, in which performance plays an especially important role in fixing Cohen's documentary identity. While certain non-performative devices that figure in the pre-title sequence (such as the use of shadowy silhouettes and iconic photos of Cohen) return throughout I'm Your Man, it is the mediated performance choices of the various participants that contribute most strongly to the film's beatification of its central character.
Cohen himself, for instance, largely appears within the familiar context of the 'talking heads' interview, once again making a range of self-presentational choices that contribute to the construction of his documentary identity. Most obviously in this regard, he consistently deploys small-scale kinesic and paralinguistic cues that are well captured in the synch sound, medium close and close up shots that Lunson uses to render his interviews, each of which help to generate a sense that he is amenable to self-effacement. Compared to his varied and often effusive interview statements in Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen, Cohen's self-presentation in Lunson's film is always quiet, cool and restrained; he maintains what reviewer Robert Denerstein calls the "unflappable demeanor of Star Trek's Mr. Spock" (8D). Whatever the reasons behind this method (be they guardedness, humility, or accident), its ultimate effect is a sense of willful self-erasure of the sort that Cohen himself equates with sainthood in his writings.
Perhaps the clearest example of this process comes during the sequence in which Cohen speaks of his decision to enter a Buddhist monastery. As is frequently the case in this film, Lunson here chooses to frame her poet-subject in an intimate close up as he speaks, "pulling in"--as Chris Knight puts it--"so tightly on Cohen's craggy features that his slightest move threatens to slide one side of his face out of focus" (B1). Insofar as loss of focus rarely becomes a pronounced problem, however, this shot set-up serves to accentuate how little Cohen actually does move across this interview. It thus works in combination with this performer's general physical stasis to construct a sense of tranquil, almost ethereal calm. At the same time, this tight framing--in combination with the synch sound used for the sequence--foregrounds and focuses attention on Cohen's muted facial expressions and quietly soothing baritone voice, allowing them too to contribute to the process of characterizing the poet-songwriter as a serene and self-sacrificial figure.
As he begins to recount the story of what attracted him to the monastery, for instance, Cohen's pitch modulates only slightly, and his voice never rises above a breathy, battered purr that suggests a transcendent calm after the storm. Likewise, his face betrays only minor shifts in emotion, remaining relatively neutral but for a few self-deprecating smiles and punctuating eyebrow flashes that momentarily lighten his impassive visage and create an impression similar to that evoked by his gnarled, but relaxed voice. In this manner, Cohen's self-presentation hints at the hardships he has endured, but refuses to allow them to become central. Instead, the dominant message constructed by his performance choices is one of stoic self-control.
The theme of self-sacrifice for a higher cause--to which Cohen's self-effacing manner only hints--is then taken up more explicitly in his verbal self-presentation as the sequence progresses. Two passages of his recounted story seem especially noteworthy in this regard. In the first, Cohen proclaims, "If Roshi [Cohen's Zen master] had been a ... uh, you know, professor of physics in Heidelberg, you know, I would have learned German and moved to Heidelberg. I just felt that there was something that Roshi had to show me." Soon after, he continues:
And so [Roshi] became a part of my life and a, and a ... a deep friend--in the real sense of friendship. Someone who really cared about, uh ... or didn't care, I'm not quite sure which it is--who deeply didn't care about who I was, and therefore, who I was began to wither, and um, the less I was of who I was, the better I felt.
With these words, Cohen articulates his propensity for self-expunction in no uncertain terms. His first sentences aver his willingness to shift and/or cede his identity in search of something greater than himself, while the second passage builds toward a final affirmation of self-abnegation. His extra-linguistic choices simultaneously help to emphasize this verbal endorsement of self-sacrifice, drawing particular attention to key markers of identity abandonment. Cohen pauses markedly both before and after he says "wither," for instance, setting this word that most clearly evokes the fading of his worldly personality off from the others that surround it. He further underscores this important term by looking up toward the off-screen interviewer, raising his eyebrows, and nodding slightly as he utters it. Cohen's slight nonverbal modulations--themselves underlined by the tight close up in which they appear--thus help to emphasize his willing desertion of selfhood both by inflecting this explicit claim to relinquished identity and by remaining generally understated and subdued.
If Cohen's interview performances position him as a modest individual open to abrogating his own personality, other moments in the film indicate his saintliness even more emphatically. Talking heads interviews with a variety of musicians who count Cohen amongst their influences, for instance, allow several other individuals to contribute to his documentary identity by way of altercasting. In most cases, these additional participants discuss Cohen with a reverence that positions the songwriter as an object of worship. Perhaps the most compelling indication of Cohen's saintly potential, however, is to be found in the tribute concert performances that are woven throughout the film.
This is perhaps a surprising contention, insofar as the filmic recording of formalized diegetic performances creates a performance context that can limit documentary subjects' expressive potential. Daniel Eagan points to some of the challenges of concert film performance in his discussion of I'm Your Man. He writes:
Most concert films follow familiar formulas, and this one is no exception. Songs are captured by two or three cameras stationed far away from the stage and usually above eye level.... It's a method that makes it difficult to become engaged with the performers, unless like Bono they project enough personality to fill an arena. In what's also become a genre trope, Lunson cuts away from performances for explanatory comments from Cohen and others, a strategy that distracts attention from the songs and the musicians (107).
In spite of these difficulties, a variety of the performers in I'm Your Man manage (Bono-like, in Eagan's terms) to articulate unique and vibrant personalities of their own through their interpretations of Cohen's songs. At the same time, rather than merely distracting from the songs as Eagan suggests, the process of cutting between the concert performances and Cohen's self-deprecating interviews creates a strong and suggestive bond between the two. In particular, the striking interpretations of Cohen's music generate a clear picture of one higher cause that the songwriter's willful self-suppression serves: Cohen's work, it appears, provides a means for others to construct and convey their own identities.
In an interview with Michael Harris, Cohen once claimed, "Almost all my songs can be sung any way. They can be sung as tough songs or as gentle songs or as contemplative songs or as courting songs" (46). In I'm Your Man, the numerous individuals interpreting Cohen's work lend credence to this claim. These performers provide startlingly different renditions of some of Cohen's best-known pieces, cleaving the songs from Cohen's specific temperament, and revealing the work's capacity to serve as a vehicle for a range of personalities and sensibilities. As Sean P. Means points out, the performances run the gamut from "Nick Cave's lounge-lizard renditions of 'Suzanne' and 'I'm Your Man'" to "Rufus Wainwright's soulful versions of 'Chelsea Hotel No. 2' and 'Hallelujah'" (n. pag). Kerry Gold likewise notes that the film showcases "Antony's quavering falsetto turning [']If It Be Your Willj'j into pure angelic soul," and Jarvis Cocker "imprinting a western-themed ['] I Can't Forgetf'j with his own mistakable [sic] arch delivery" (C3). "Whatever the approach"--Ty Burr adds--"the songs are sturdy enough to support it" (D8). Together, these comments begin to illustrate the way in which I'm Your Man's tribute performances position Cohen's work as a template for the expression of unique and varied identities.
In his version of "Everybody Knows," for instance, Rufus Wainwright inflects Cohen's melody and lyrics in a manner that creates a strong image of his (Wainwright's) own stylish, sardonic personality. Captured from a variety of perspectives by Lunson's zooming, handheld camera, Wainwright dances and sways as he sings, amplifying what Michael Sragow calls "the gleeful doomsday irony" latent in the lyrics (n. pag.). Lunson's camera frames him in a medium long shot as he sings the dark lines "Everybody knows that the war is over / Everybody knows that the good guys lost," for instance, thereby allowing viewers to observe several means by which this performer invests these sinister words with a sense of his own ostentatiously mordant personality. The moderate focal length reveals both Wainwright's jaunty and rhythmic hip movements, for example, as well as the sly smile on his face and the knowing glint in his eye.
Throughout the song, Wainwright also makes a number of paralinguistic choices that further this image of ironic wit, playfully shifting the volume, breathiness and tone of his voice in a manner that belies the seriousness of the lyrics he sings. He rolls his 'r' dramatically as he begins the final word of the line "the rich get rich," for instance, producing an exaggerated, rather comical growl. Later, he raises his voice into a light and breathy register (modifying Cohen's melody to some degree) as he sings the supremely heavy lyric, "everybody knows that the plague is coming." As a result all of these choices, Wainwright finally suggests--in Walter Mosley's words--that he "revel[s] in the cruelty of the lyrics" (n. pag.). Through his unique interpretation of Cohen's work, he constructs an image of himself as a man who indeed "knows" of the world's evils and injustices, but who has learned to cope with misfortune through sarcasm and flair. His performance thus credits Cohen indirectly with a sense of generosity and benevolence, demonstrating the way in which the singer-songwriter's music can serve, and help to create, others' identities.
A dissolve to a brief shot of Cohen himself part way through the song further amplifies this characterizing process by immediately conjoining Wainwright's performance to the composer who enabled it. Framed in another tight close up, Cohen declares, "The Wainwrights are bringing my work to life. I really appreciate that," before another dissolve returns us to the musical number at hand. By editing in this brief comment from Cohen himself, Lunson effectively reminds us that the song through which Wainwright here expresses himself is indeed Cohen's work. At the same time, this brief inclusion constructs a striking contrast between Wainwright's flashy and colorful performance and Cohen's typical self-restraint. The poet-songwriter's modesty is again betokened by the way in which he credits others for invigorating his writings, while his unmoving posture and characteristically quiet and gravelly voice make Wainwright's nasal intonations and broad movements appear all the more vibrant in comparison. Interestingly, Cohen's face also becomes slightly more animated than usual as he makes this comment about others interpreting his work, breaking out into a broad, extended smile that suggests more genuine emotion than he has displayed for much of the film. In the context of the Wainwright performance with which Lunson surrounds it, this slight shift in Cohen's nonverbal presentation intimates that the songwriter's greatest joy consists of providing others with templates for their own self-expression. Editing and performance thus again work together in this concert sequence to construct a sense of Cohen's generous, self-abnegating personality.
This characterization becomes especially clear in the film's final moments, wherein Cohen appears for the first time outside of the interviews that have been woven throughout the text. Joined by U2, he now engages in a formalized performance staged solely for Lunson's camera, singing his haunting ballad "Tower of Song." Just as the diegetic concert appearances impinged upon the performance choices of the individuals appearing within them, so too does this new context place a range of restrictions on Cohen's self-presentational choices. He must also activate performance techniques within a heightened, stylized context, and construct his current self-image in relation to pre-formulated, well-known lyrics and notes. Unlike the concert performers, though, Cohen is permitted to direct his performance specifically at the absent film audience, who comprise his only spectators at this moment (outside of the film crew and the other performers who surround him).
While, in theory, this shift to a single audience ought to allow Cohen to convey a more vivid and detailed version of himself to the documentary spectator in this moment than is possible for the divided tribute concert performer, he nonetheless maintains the restrained, self-sacrificing performance style that he has called upon throughout the film's interviews. As a result, he constructs what Dennis King calls "a calm, transcendent, understated moment" that is "oddly subdued but nevertheless stirring" (D3). Cohen's face, generally captured in close- or medium close ups, remains set in an impassive mask for the majority of the song, and he passes up on the chance to connect with and communicate to his viewers through gaze. Instead of addressing the camera directly, he alternates between a heavy-lidded stare aimed somewhere in the distance above the camera, and self-deprecating, downward glances at his microphone. At the same time, Cohen's insistently low and gravelly singing voice extends the image of stoic self-control achieved by his paralinguistic techniques in the interview segments. Its rough, weathered quality points toward the adversity that Cohen has suffered, while its unmodulating quietness and calm downplays this suffering and suggests that he bears his burdens with almost superhuman composure. Unlike Wainwright and many of the other performers featured in the tribute concert, who use Cohen's songs as a basis for demonstrating vibrant, individual personalities, Cohen himself interprets his work in a manner that deemphasizes his worldly character traits and casts him as a relatively neutral, serene presence. In the process, he again illustrates his self-sacrificial tendencies, creating a controlled and temperate version of his work which makes the personalities indicated in others' more dramatic renditions seem all the more dynamic by comparison.
As a result of this combination of performance choices, Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man ultimately positions its central character as a close approximation of the kind of saintly figure that Cohen himself espoused in Beautiful Losers. As Desmond Pacey suggests, "'I' becomes a saint at the end of the novel because by exiling himself to the wilderness he has purged himself of pride and selfishness and made of himself an empty vessel into which divine love can pour" (22). Likewise, in I'm Your Man, Cohen's self-deprecating performance strips his documentary identity down to a most basic level, while the work of the individuals appearing in the tribute concert fill this shell with the love of other human--as opposed to divine--agents. This characterization surely picks up on threads of Cohen's longstanding star image; indeed, the above reference to Pacey's 1967 article makes clear that similar ideas have been circulating around Cohen and his work for some time. For this version of Cohen to be mobilized and made central in I'm Your Man, however, particular formal choices--including the actions and activities of performers--are required.
In addition to indicating the important way in which performance interacts with star text and other formal elements in determining documentary identity, I'm Your Man also makes clear the general expectation of mimetic characterization in nonfiction texts. As described by James Phelan in relation to novel writing, mimetic characterization involves investing a character with particular attributes and dimensions that work toward establishing an impression of that personage as a plausible, 'lifelike' human being (11). Several of the reviewers discussing I'm Your Man reveal their desire for precisely this brand of characterization, criticizing the film for failing to provide any clear insight into Cohen's mundane, personal characteristics. For many authors, that is, the emptied out, saintly Leonard Cohen offered up by the text strains the limits of plausibility too much. Bruce Westbrook faults the film's "gushy testimonials," for example, finally suggesting that "this botched biopic leaves us asking, 'And which man is that?"' (45). (7) Such comments underscore rightly that the film is less interested in Cohen's day-to-day personality than it is in his iconic status. In casting this characterological focus as a problem, however, they underline the unspoken understanding that documentary characters need to resemble real-world personages, for whom, supposedly, mundane concerns of personality are central.
But should documentary characters be restricted to this rigorously mimetic level? If 'Leonard Cohen' does serve as an idea, or a concept, or an icon for real-world individuals such as the other performers featured in this film, might it not be valid for a documentary text to present him in such abstract terms? Insofar as it raises such questions, Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man provides a particularly interesting example of the documentary impulse to record, reveal or preserve. It fulfills the typical, mimetic function of nonfiction characterization, creating an image of a retiring, self-sacrificial Leonard Cohen that we might not believe, but can nonetheless accept as a human possibility. At the same time, in its movement towards depersonalizing Cohen and treating him as an abstract vessel, the film begins to point toward the possibility of constructing and preserving non-mimetic identities via documentary film. In this manner, I'm Your Man corroborates Bill Nichols' sense that nonfiction films can both refer "to the historical body of a social actor" and effect a "transformation of the body through the iconography of the heroic or mythic" ("History, Myth and Narrative" 10). It also underlines one fact that Nichols overlooks: the performative labor of a film's subjects contributes to the construction of documentary identities on both the mimetic and the non-mimetic levels.
Like Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen, then, Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man does much to corroborate Stella Bruzzi's view of documentaries as necessarily and unapologetically performative. While, as Renov would surely note, directorial choices play a significant part in shaping the images of the real life person that the films present, so too do the actions of the individuals onscreen contribute importantly to constructing the realities being recorded and revealed in each text. In this respect, the films emphasize that performance choices are an integral component of nonfiction discourse, and suggest that such choices demand further scrutiny than they have heretofore received in documentary scholarship. In addition to reflecting and respecting more fully the complete set of formal elements at play in nonfiction filmmaking, such attention also stands to generate new and significant in sights about individual documentaries and the 'truths' they both construct and preserve.
An earlier version of this essay was included in my doctoral dissertation: Marquis, Elizabeth. 'Just act naturally': A poetics of documentary performance. Diss. University of Toronto, 2009.
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(1) See, for example, Comolli; Corner; Trinh; Nichols (Representing); Plantinga.
(2) On the one hand, this is not a controversial supposition. Dyer emphasized years ago that stars contribute to the construction of character though both their images and their performative labor (126). Subsequent scholars, however, have tended to overlook the way in which star acting signifies, focusing instead on the way in which persona influences the perception of character. Indeed, even studies that purport to take up the interplay of image and acting often discuss performance in general terms only. See, for example, Ellis. Other work which treats star performance tends to focus on the type of acting characteristic of either individual stars or of star performers in general, rather than examining the way in which performance choices of whatever style help to construct character. See, for example: Geraghty; Hollinger.
(3) For other discussions of this scene, see, for example: Nadel (69), and Waugh (Romance 54-55).
(4) See, for example, Malone (101).
(5) For examples, see: Pacey (18), and Gnarowski (6).
(6) Snider (59), and Clarkson (25) make this argument, for instance.
(7) Similar criticisms can be found in Anderson (SW26), and Lewis (68).
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