Cohen at The Big Chill

At 73, and with a career spanning four decades, how can Leonard Cohen possibly meet expectations? Q

Big Chill Blog - Sunday 3 August 2008

On Sunday, it's hard to think past the fact that the mythic Leonard Cohen, will be serenading the crowd
tonight. But there are plenty of other worthy acts vying for our attention on this final day of the festival, and we have to do something to bide the time. Saturday's bountiful sunshine has been kidnapped by a dirty swathe of cloud, not that this is going to faze Big Chill stalwart Norman Jay, whose Sunday lunch feel-good groove DJ set is a regular festival fixture.

After only 15 minutes on the Castle stage, it all feels a bit tired, and when Jay spins 'Love the Sunshine', despite the fact there clearly isn't any, the crowd's indifferent response is both surprising and embarrassing.

Hopefully this will force him to remember that you can't fake festival feeling, and that he will need to come up with a more imaginative set list if he's to remain King of the Decks next year. By contrast, it's impossible to feel grey watching Orchestra Baobab over on the Open Air stage. They layer Congolese rumba and bossanova beats, with a West African vocal style and haunting, bluesy guitar. On the dance numbers, finger-picked guitar passages and a time-perfect brass section makes for music to burn away the cloud.

It's easy to stick to the main festival stages but part of the Big Chill's appeal is that it offers more than just musical performance and five kinds of falafel. Over in the Words in Motion tent, "recovering brand addict" Neil Boorman is offering a timely answer to dealing with the credit crunch, and reads from his recent book which details how he ceremoniously burnt and battered all his branded possessions and TV to oblivion, in order to break his consumerist addiction.

He's an engaging reader, but unfortunately this kind of event only attracts the ready converts. (The brand bunnies are out on the plains supping Tiger beer in their Cath Kidston wellingtons). Boorman may appear logo-free, but he still looks as though he's stepped straight out of a Shoreditch Saturday night. And as he answers revellers' questions post-reading, he smokes a Marlboro Light, despite having related the moment he decided to give up consuming any labelled substance, tobacco included.

Back on the Open Air stage, the Imagined World are trying to warm the ever-dampening crowd with their 10-piece best of British folk collective. Led by Martin and Eliza Carthy, and featuring the Copper family sons, this is voice-quavering, fiddle-playing folk at its best.

The highlight is a modern reworking of a traditional song, 'Tam Lyn', which features Benjamin Zephaniah narrating the tale on video, to a drum and bass beat and flagrant violining from Eliza Carthy. It works brilliantly, and Imagined World turn out to be one of the unexpected festival highlights.

Only one more act before Mr Cohen - and it's a test of our love for Leonard that we stick it out to ensure a prime spot infront of the stage. The cloud has lifted, but Camille is the French bansheeing Bjork imitator up next, and as much as I try to appreciate her post-feminist dress over the head,'Why do you call me a slag' shrieking, it's pretty self-masturbatory stuff.

Camille is at her best when she and the rest of her collective leave off the teenage offence and switch to close-harmonied, high-energy beat-boxing. But forcing the audience to conspire with her mock-psychotic cabaret is the height of performative egotism, and she finishes the set with a gimmick which speaks volumes - turning her back to the audience to reveal a dress cut so low it reveals most of her bottom.

And so to the act we have not dared to anticipate. At 73, and with a career spanning four decades, how can Leonard Cohen possibly meet expectations? Quite simply, he doesn't. Instead, he surpasses them and proves himself a septagenarian dark saint, with an impossible sex appeal, and a humble sincerity of performance that makes him sound as though he bleeds and burns every word he sings.

Most of the favourites are there; 'Tower of Song', 'Suzanne', 'Goodbye, Marianne', 'That's no way to say goodbye', 'Dance me to the end of love', 'Bird on the Wire', and a soul-soaring version of 'Hallelujah' which has the unusually tuneful crowd serenading Cohen himself with the chorus.

His delivery of 'I'm your man' is so erotic, he could still have his pick of the female audience (and probably some of the male), irrespective of age. Cohen the man may have an ego, but Cohen the performer certainly doesn't. And it's this generosity, this willingness to share his capacity for rendering human experience in lyrical song that makes for an utterly spell-binding performance and the unquestionable highlight of the Big Chill.

Nichi Hodgson is a 25-year-old Yorkshire emigree working as an Editorial Assistant on an Arts Database. She freelances on arts, culture and gender issues

Nichi Hodgson is a writer and broadcaster specialising in sexual politics, censorship, and  human rights. Her first book, Bound To You, published by Hodder & Stoughton, is out now. She tweets @NichiHodgson.

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How The Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme brought humanity to horror

In memory of a great movie man - and a generous soul. 

Professional distance is important as a journalist. I’ll always be grateful to the editor who told me, as I set off to interview a musical hero, “He’s not your friend; he doesn’t want to be your friend; he’s never going to be your friend.” The funny thing about the films of Jonathan Demme, who has died aged 73, was that they felt like the work of a pal. That was his special gift—not only to tell stories dynamically but to do so with an emotional joy and directness that spoke to a common humanity. This may not be immediately apparent if his biggest hit, The Silence of the Lambs, is the only movie of his that you’ve seen, though even that was intensely humane in a way that its imitators never were.

Demme welcomed you in. In his best movies, such as Melvin and Howard, about the brief, unlikely friendship between a Utah milkman and Howard Hughes, or the screwball thriller Something Wild, which was two-thirds riotous and one-third hair-raisingly scary, you felt you were being invited into some gleeful shindig. The characters might have been people he’d run into, whom he was certain you would find every bit as enchanting as he did, and the soundtrack was littered with these bouncing tunes he’d heard and that he simply couldn’t wait to share with you. The sets and costumes had a thrown-together, thrift-shop feel; you could base an entire fancy-dress party around the garish outfits and hairdos from his delicious Mafia comedy Married to the Mob, while some of the most eye-catching effects in his Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense are achieved with only a springy household lamp and an imaginative use of light and shadow.

Beneath the bristling, bustling surface of each film was an innate curiosity about people. It is obvious in pictures like Citizens Band, his 1977 comedy about CB radio users, and the stormy but sweet-natured family drama Rachel Getting Married, but let’s take that more challenging example of The Silence of the Lambs, which showed how his generous spirit could infuse even the dankest chambers of genre cinema. Thomas Harris, on whose novel the picture was based, had a fairly cut-and-dried approach to issues of good and evil. Demme was more flexible, which is what made him such an interesting choice of director for that material, as opposed to blood-and-thunder merchants like Ridley Scott (who made the sequel, Hannibal) or Brett Ratner (who directed Red Dragon, based on the same source material as the first Hannibal Lecter film, Manhunter).

Demme began from the starting-point that everyone is human, which is how he and the screenwriter Ted Tally and the actor Ted Levine came to shape the portrayal of the killer Jame Gumb, aka Buffalo Bill. Demme described Gumb not as a bad guy but as a “bad guy who is, in fact, a terribly damaged guy whose life has been a disaster”. No wonder he was upset when the film was accused of homophobia despite the fact that he had gone to great lengths to explain in the movie that Gumb is not gay. “The film very clearly says that Jame Gumb spends his life altering himself to escape from the terrible fact of who he is, and how he’s been abused,” he explained. “So it makes sense that if he’s heterosexual, he’ll try being homosexual, and vice versa. But people heard the line about him having a male lover, and saw him looking effeminate, which was enough for some audiences. But I knew in my heart of hearts that Gumb wasn’t gay, so I was happy that the film opened the door on discussing negative portrayals. I welcomed that other viewpoint.”

He was averse to using violence in his films without also showing that it had consequences — what is his greatest movie, Something Wild, if not a demonstration of that very point? “In Something Wild, I was trying to show that if you behave violently, you will taste violence,” he said in 1988. “And I feel there are definite signals in the first half of the movie that the characters had better straighten up or else.” The shots fired by Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) at the end of The Silence of the Lambs are not gratuitous or exciting; they really count. “There’s nothing to cheer about when someone is shot dead,” he said. At the end of The Truth About Charlie, his unloved Nouvelle Vague-tinged remake of Charade, he has the hero (Mark Wahlberg) implore everyone to put down their guns. And at the climax of his 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate, the weight of the entire film rests on a single bullet. “To whatever extent the glamorisation of gun violence helps in some way in my country to continue the acceptance of guns, I want to remove myself from that equation,” he said. 

There were many reasons to love Jonathan Demme, not least the movies themselves and the fact that he was a sweet and generous soul. (The L.A. Times critic Justin Chang tweeted that he told Demme: “‘Y’know, you’re really nice!’ I couldn’t help it. He really, really was.” I said something similar as I presented him with my Stop Making Sense DVD—professional distance be damned—and asked him to sign it. He wrote: “Keep on rockin’”.) I can think of one more reason to love him. His family has requested that any donations be made in his name to the charity Americans for Immigrant Justice, which is just another sign that we need Demme more than ever just at the very moment that we have lost him.

 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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