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Monday, 3 May 2021

From Hydra to Montreal to the West of Ireland: Following the Typewriter Trail

Matt Bissonnette’s latest film, Death of a Ladies’ Man, is coming to Canberra later in the month and friends have already alerted me to the poster, which features a Torpedo 18 portable typewriter. Quite why the Torpedo is on the poster I do not know, because the only typewriter I have spotted in the trailers is one of those Glasgow-made post-war Remington 5s. Which seems a shame, since the Leonard Cohen-laden soundtrack surely deserves a pistachio green Olivetti Lettera 22, just like the one Cohen himself so treasured. But no, it’s a Remington, and therein lies perhaps a hint to the inspiration for the screenplay for Death of a Ladies’ Man, which Bissonnette wrote himself.

It’s well known that Bissonnette is an avid fan of the late, great Cohen, who he calls “the patron saint of Montreal”, and Bissonnette frequently uses the literary or musical work of Cohen as a thematic motif in his movies. Death of a Ladies’ Man is obviously no exception, since it takes its title from the 1977 studio album by Cohen, produced and co-written by the not-so-fondly remembered Phil Spector. Bissonnette’s first feature, 2002’s Looking for Leonard, has a heroine who spends most of her time reading Cohen's novel Beautiful Losers while entertaining fantasies of meeting and running off with Cohen to lead a more fulfilling and interesting life. Sounds a bit like Bissonnette himself. The film also intersperses clips from the 1965 documentary Ladies and Gentlemen, Leonard Cohen, acknowledging Cohen as a kind of sublime spirit floating through the movie’s sordid events. Later Bissonnette movies, Passenger Side (2009) and, of course, Death of a Ladies' Man, use Cohen's music in their soundtracks. The latter has seven Cohen songs, including Bird on the Wire and Hallelujah.

Winnipeg Free Press film reviewer Randall King is well aware of Bissonnette’s Cohen fixation and wrote about Death of a Ladies' Man under the headline, “Laughing in the face of death: Humour, absurdity bring a light touch to bleak, Cohen-inspired Irish-Canadian drama.” In another article, headed “Drama draws on spirit of ‘patron saint of Montreal’”, King wrote that “The career of filmmaker Matthew Bissonnette has two throughlines”, the first of which is Cohen. “Bissonnette was raised in the west end of Montreal and has always felt a strong connection to the urbane fellow Montrealer …”

Death of a Ladies' Man went into commercial release in Canada in theatres and on video on demand platforms last  March 12. It has been described as a “dramedy” (goodness, how I hate that word). Irish actor Gabriel Byrne plays the “ladies’ man”, Samuel O’Shea, almost a stage-Irishism, as is O’Shea’s habitual hard-drinking and womanising. O’Shea is a McGill University poetry professor who starts suffering from weird hallucinations, which lead to his diagnosis with an inoperable brain tumour. O’Shea must confront his mortality and make peace with his family (taking advice from his long-gone father). The dead-Dad chats occur after O’Shea retreats to a family cottage in a remote coastal part of Ireland, where he begins work (with his Remington 5) on the great novel he always meant to write. The theme of O’Shea being a man in search of himself may well offer a clue as to the storyline’s roots.

If Bissonnette is indeed as hardcore a Cohen addict as we are led to believe, he will doubtless know about Cohen’s days on the Greek island of Hydra – after all, those were the days of Marianne Jensen (So Long, Marianne). This was in March 1960, when a then 25-year-old Cohen befriended the Australian writer George Johnston (above) and Johnston’s wife, fellow writer Charmian Clift (below). Cohen found his Australian hosts “drank more than other people … and they got sick more”. Johnston was very much the ladies’ man, his affair with Clift, 11 years his junior, being one of the reasons he left Melbourne in 1946.

More to the point, though – as Bissonnette might have found if he worked his way through the Cohen-Johnston connection - was Johnston’s 1964 opus, My Brother Jack. This was written “In near desperation to get the mistakes of his life into focus … In it, David Meredith conducts a search not merely for his own ‘mistakes’, but for his whole past, to map it, to explain it, and to find meaning in it, much in the mode of contemporary existentialist fiction.” Sound familiar? Yes, it’s almost exactly the theme of Bissonnette’s Death of a Ladies' Man, in different settings. After all, the movie is about “Life, death, mortality, love, relationships, family, reality, a hockey ballet, Frankenstein's monster, it's all here.” And tell me, what portable typewriter did Johnston and Clift use? A Glasgow-made post-war Remington 5, of course, identical to the one Gabriel Byrne as Samuel O’Shea uses in his Irish hideaway in Death of a Ladies' Man.

(Incidentally, Samuel O’Shea’s dead father is played by Brian Gleeson, son of Brendan Gleeson, who you may remember from the scene in 2014's Calvary, when he talks to “The Writer” (M. Emmet Walsh), sitting at a Royal portable, an Irish-American writing the great novel he always meant to write, in the wilds of Ireland’s Atlantic Coast. Sound familiar? The Brendan Gleeson character calls the typewriter “an affection”. It may well prove to be in Death of a Ladies' Man too. We’ll see.


Johnpyyc said...

Morning Robert:

Great Blog, complicated, but enjoyable.


Ron Yates said...

I am enjoying your posts about typewriters and those who have (and are using them). I spent about 20 years of my life as a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune covering war and mayhem from Vietnam to Latin America. During most of that time, I carried an Olivetti Lettera 32. It never failed me and I took it to some pretty awful places and abused it in all kinds of situations. About a year ago I posted about it on my blog. Here is a short link to the post. I thought you might find it interesting. Cheers! Ron Yates