Leonard Cohen, Werner Herzog, and Me

There was a time, early in the Gutenberg era, when an avid reader would know every book in print. Unless it was a discredited stinker, you were reasonably expected to have read it. And there was a time, around the 1980s-90s, when a film lover could say that they have seen almost every significant film ever.

A crabby old cinephile I used to chat with at the Oak Street Cinema in Minneapolis around 2000 shocked me one day when he pointed out that, on account of home video, younger people had more thorough knowledge of film than his peers did. Waiting for the arrival of a new film by Louis Malle in the 60s was an event for film lovers, in no small part, because you either trekked out to a sterile film society type of theater or it was lost to you for a decade till it came back for a museum screening. People on the cusp of “middle age” now – we bristle at the phrase and refer to it as if it’s still in the future – grew up in the golden era of cinephilia in a sense, because we could see almost everything on home video while keeping on top of Zhang Yimou and all the great contemporary stuff.

First came the VHS gold rush, when companies converted their crappy prints of bona fide classics to fill the void, and then DVD: boxed sets, remastered editions, etc. In the film junky atmosphere, I would sometimes see a film, or even a double feature, on a Sunday (It didn’t hurt that it was easier to pay the rent in Minneapolis than in New York!), and then go home and finish watching the Kurosawa film I’d fallen asleep to the night before.

At some point, though, you give up! You can’t see everything. Not when the market is so … complete.

It surprised me today when a friend sent a link to a Herzog film I’d never seen before, Fata Morgana. As much as I love Herzog, there are holes in my knowledge of his work. 25-year-old me would have been ashamed. Now I find it marvelous that a gem I’ve never seen is waiting for me. I was doubly surprised to see all that Leonard Cohen in a film by the famous opera obsessive.

I love baiting my hip friends and telling them that Billy Joel has more good songs than Leonard Cohen does, just to watch them lose it. But I’d get just as feisty if somebody tried telling me that Spielberg is better than Herzog, so I guess I’d better cool it on that.


  1. No doubt you’re right that we “grew up in the golden era of cinephilia in a sense, because we could see almost everything on home video while keeping on top of Zhang Yimou and all the great contemporary stuff.” Then again, I was hungry to see all of it. Suddenly, as VCRs became more commonplace, I had access to legendary films that I’d only heard about.

    These days, all of those films are out there, in multiple formats, and if you’re lucky enough to live in a city like Minneapolis (or New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles), you can also still keep on top of Zhang Yimou, if you dare. Yet, based on the sparse attendance at most good movies (and, I’m guessing, even at the bad ones) along with the fact that nowadays a movie made in 1985 is as old as the classics from the ’50s that I used to seek out, many of my students not even caring to dip past that once magical date of the future “the year 2000,” I wonder: what era do we currently live in?

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