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Wednesday 18 December 2019

Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love, Documentary Film UK 2019, written and directed by Nick Broomfield, 8.5 out of 10

Supported by interesting and rarely seen archive material, filmmaker Nick Broomfield takes a sympathetic but not uncritical look at Marianne and Leonard’s lifelong love-story. New interviews Broomfield has made with contemporary friends of both are illuminating not only about the relationship but also in capturing the Zeitgeist of the sixties cultural avant-garde and their hangers-on. Not much music or poetry but an insightful and entertaining look at one aspect of the social history of the 1960/70 generation of English-speaking singers and poets.

The Greek Island of Hydra in the mid-1960s became a refuge for creative free spirits of the era and their groupies. Free thinking hetero- and bisexual women were freed of the risk of pregnancy by the invention of the contraceptive pill and had to decide what to do with this new-found freedom. For the intelligent women interested in intelligent and good-looking men it opened the pathway from friendship to naturally move on to sexual relations with lots of men. And good-looking interesting horny men (and their ugly uninteresting horny male entourage) quickly understood that they could benefit big-time. Hydra was an idyllic island for creative spirits of all kinds who were looking for a carefree inspiring social-life in which sex in all combinations and permutations was the natural continuation of friendship between men and women by other means.

The beautiful blond Marianne Ihlen from Norway joined the Hydra community in the early sixties as the wife of an increasingly abusive Norwegian writer. When the dark and attractive unknown Canadian author-to-be Leonard Cohen turns up on Hydra, he and Marianne who has a young child from her marriage, develop a strong emotional and sensual bond that, against all odds, will last a lifetime. This, of course, does not stop either of them from enjoying friendships with sexual benefits with other people they find attractive.

Supported by interesting and rarely seen archive material, filmmaker Nick Broomfield takes a sympathetic but not uncritical look at Marianne and Leonard’s lifelong love-story. Broomfield was himself a friend and therefore naturally also a sexual partner of Marianne. His special angle is to concentrate not so much on Leonard Cohen but give Marianne a lot of room in the story. Both Marianne and Leonard are now dead, but luckily there is archive material about life on Hydra and audiotapes on which Marianne speaks about her relationship with Leonard Cohen and more. And the new interviews Broomfield has made with contemporary friends of both are illuminating not only about the relationship but also in capturing the Zeitgeist of the sixties cultural avant-garde and their hangers-on. This is most accurately and entertainingly expressed in the interview of Aviva Layton the then-wife of Cohen’s poet friend Irving Layton. 

The truth is that the sexual freedom the contraceptive pill opened-up did not change the power relations between men and women. The main beneficiaries of that sexual revolution seemed to be men, the main victims of the perceived total freedom and its corollary of antiauthoritarian education were children, even when due to the miracles of “the pill” children were now wanted and the timing of their arrival could to some extent be scheduled.

Leonard Cohen, handsomely dark, talented and good-looking, with more than a touch of melancholia, became the heartthrob of intelligent, today one would say, sapiosexual women, that is women who find intelligence sexually attractive or arousing. Luckily, for him, in today’s hindsight, he did not attract and was not much interested in the youngest of groupies, but in more mature women between 25 and 45, including Marianne and Janis Joplin and countless others. Many women came on to him, at least one on camera with her boyfriend standing next to her listening in.

Cohen’s redeeming features are numerous: he was highly intelligent, self-aware, had a sense of humour, an instinctive and lasting moral compass and a brain that was surprisingly resistant up to his death in old age to long term excessive use of Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD).

Broomfield’s film is interesting for the archive materials and the interviews which tell a rich picture of part of a generation that enjoyed its newfound freedom, was peaceful and full of good intention, and whose selfishness was cloaked in a many-coloured coat of love, sex, poetry, and song.

There are hardly any musical numbers by Leonard Cohen to be heard, but this is an engaging, captivating portrait of the enduring relationship between a man and a woman in an era that was not conducive to enduring relationships. The fact that this relationship favoured Leonard Cohen, who with hindsight put himself first always while behaving more responsibly toward Marianne and her son than most males would have, does not detract from the fact that Marianne as his muse, managed in her own way to be the captain of her soul. Her son, like so many children who grew up on the pseudo-idyllic island of Hydra, was not so lucky. 

Do not expect a celebration of Leonard Cohen the poet and singer. Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love is the successful presentation of the social context of Cohen’s life and times; as such one does not have to be a fan of Leonard Cohen to enjoy this entertaining and insightful look at a piece of social history from the last third of the 20th century. Entertaining and insightful with some funny and moving moments.

Sunday 8 December 2019

Human Nature, Documentary Film 2019, co-written with Regina Sobell and directed by Adam Bolt, 10* out of 10

The award-winning Human Nature is a spellbinding, entertaining, informative and moving natural science documentary about the recently discovered revolutionary CRISPR technique for targeted changes to the genes in the DNA the building block of all living things on earth. The implications are probably as far-reaching as any technology ever invented. Bolt shows through his protagonists who present CRISPR in their own words that not the subject but also the scientists dealing with it can be funny, witty, wise and moving. 

Nature or nurture is a question we ask ourselves when it comes to many human traits good or bad. To change nature is an evolutionary process taking generations, while with nurture we may such traits of individuals in their lifetime by education and upbringing at least if we get there when the individual is young. CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats and is pronounced “crisper”; it is a natural method bacteria have developed through evolution and used for millions of years to make themselves immune against known viruses which attack them, has the potential to turn the preceding statement on its head.

Beautifully filmed, and lucidly written by Oscar-winning director Adam Bolt and Regina Sobell, Human Nature explains in some depths the CRISPR technique and its use for targeted changes of the DNA, the building block of all living cells. As one of the highly articulate witty and engaging scientists participating in this film says: “This is going to get quite technical, but good technical” and indeed it does: there are excellent illustrations of the technical aspect of what laypersons should understand about CRISPR. And there are prize-winning scientists from top universities speaking enthusiastically about their discovery which will probably as much of an impact on our societies' future as the internet and Artificial Intelligence combined. Indeed, combined with the internet and artificial intelligence CRISPR provides us with the most profound and precise way in which we can intervene in nature at the molecular level. These scientists, some of the most important one’s young women, are articulate, witty entertaining. Jill Banfield my major contribution to science which will probably the one on my tombstone “The person who over coffee in the Berkley Free Speech Movement CafĂ© told Jennifer Doudna about an article on CRISPR she had seen in the scientific Journal”. One of the amusing aspects of its discovery is that it happened when the Yoghurt-culture-provider Danisco needed to address a problem with the Yoghurt culture bacteria it was selling to its yogurt-producing clients.

For the most part, these scientists are also thoughtful and concerned about using CRISPR carefully and responsibly in a complex and interconnected natural world. 

We also hear from a resilient and articulate youth with severe sickle cell anaemia, who now has a chance to be cured of the frequently painful disease that would cut his life short. There are some thoughtful remarks as he reflects on his life so far and on what makes him the person he is. 

And Adam Bolt also shows us business people emanating from elite universities and providing gene-editing services and working on revolutionary research for profit with great drive creativity. They are visibly having an enormous amount of fun but with the potential to get society and nature into serious trouble. The ambition of recreating the ancient woolly mammoth from antediluvian skeletons does evoke some of the more frightening scenes of the dystopic Jurassic Park.

Nature is not human, but it is human nature to want to harness nature for human wants and needs. When people do this, they are often necessarily unaware of all the consequences. We interfere in nature at our peril and create serious problems if we are not extremely careful and sometimes even when we are. 

Thanks to its clarity and its carefully chosen protagonists, Human Nature is an excellent, informative entertaining and indeed spellbinding film. The personalities of its protagonists are encapsulated in the way they speak about themselves, their work and their lives. And there is some great archive material. While the film mainly adopts a carefully optimistic stance, the dystopic potential for the future does seeps through now and again, not least when Vladimir Putin speaks to young Russians about CRISPR's potential for warfare. 

The title Human Nature contains a double meaning which is a factual statement and a warning in one. Will our human nature allow us to recognize that human interventions into the delicate interconnected system of nature can have unforeseeably dangerous consequences for the future of all living beings? 

Go see this film, if you want to learn about CRISPR and the important women and men behind it. Human Nature gives you a fascinating and entertaining introduction into the state of play of this most important of technologies. You can’t ask for much more from a natural science documentary.