On a chilly October night, a friend and I, like many other McGill students, journeyed to Mile End, retracing a familiar, undulating route up Clark.
But I was not journeying home, nor to get food, nor to go to a warehouse party, nor to get bagels. Instead, I was going to a screening of the long-lost 1974 Leonard Cohen documentary Bird on a Wire at the Mile End Chavurah, an event I had seen advertised on Facebook earlier that day. Given that it was Sukkot, the documentary was projected on the wall of the Chavurah’s sukkah. (For those unaware, Sukkot is a once-a-year Jewish holiday that is celebrated by building a sukkah – or wooden hut in which people generally eat and sleep in for the duration of the week – which represents the way Israelites had to live in exile after fleeing Egypt).
Stopping at a dep to get cheap red wine – the price of which could not be found, which resulted in the proprietors’ telephone call to someone who might know – we recalled our favourite songs by Leonard to pass the time. Mine: “Bird on the Wire,” “Chelsea Hotel no. 2” and “Un Canadien Errant.” Hers: “Hallelujah.”
In an alley between Clark and St. Laurent, the sukkah was hard to find. When we did finally find the entrance, we were greeted by members of the Chavurah (a Chavurah, by the way, is a community-based, egalitarian centre of Jewish learning which focuses both on the teaching of Jewish values). Before long, the projector was set up, guests trickled in, sat on transplanted kitchen chairs, and began to watch. The wind whipped the fabric walls of the sukkah, distorting the image at times, but adding to the overall experience.
Directed by Tony Palmer, the documentary follows Cohen on his 1972 World Tour through the UK, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, France, and Israel. When it debuted in London in May of 1974, Cohen was reportedly unsatisfied, spending six months in England re-editing the film himself. According to the Chavurah’s Facebook page, the re-edited version was shown just once before being lost. “Almost forty years later, director Tony Palmer painstakingly recreated Bird on a Wire from hundreds of decaying film reels found in rusting tins in a film vault.”
Bird on a Wire presents disorganized and technically fraught performances and an emotional Cohen, coming to understand his newfound fame and the pressure of recognition – as Cohen says in the movie, “success is survival.” By following the poet in this particularly stressful period of his life, the film portrays an obviously thoughtful and introspective artist in the context of a demanding tour with an equally demanding audience. The result is not an altogether flattering portrait of Cohen, although, perhaps, this is one of the artist’s biggest draws in the first place – a honest testimonial of his flaws despite a resounding belief in the power of family, life, and love.