In a self-indulgent essay, art critic Barry Hearst takes issue with his favourite film critic’s musings on Leonard Cohen but admires his cojones.

It takes a certain amount of self-confidence to be a critic, passing judgement on people the plebs consider more talented than yourself. Drinking heavily was the only thing that got me through years of theatre criticism. I would belt back a bottle of scotch, write in a drunken fury, file copy while I was still half-pissed and then wake up wondering why the likes of David Williamson had left abusive messages on my answering machine.

I doubt that’s the technique Crikey film critic Luke Buckmaster uses. His writing is too clear, his insight too sharp. He probably just has a huge set of balls.

Though I think Buckmaster has overreached in this recent appraisal of Cohen’s Hallelujah. Australia’s preeminent movie reviewer makes the mistake of not just interpreting the song, but interpreting everyone else’s interpretation of the song. He has the chutzpah to claim that it’s one of the most widely misunderstood songs in history but that he has unravelled its mystery. Like I said, HUGE BALLS.

Buckmaster riffs on the song’s appearance in Shrek before getting to the crux of his argument: people sing the song too well. “When you hear singers perform Hallelujah as beautifully as they possibly can, the song’s complexities tend to get smoothed out… That is not to say it cannot be, or is not, beautiful. But the beauty is complicated and bathed in sadness.”

He cites Jeff Buckley as an offender on this front, despite that singer’s version being mired in melancholy – just ask the dumped teenage girls who turn it up loud and sob into their pillows. Perhaps inspired by Cohen, Buckmaster gets busy with Biblical metaphors. “Buckley’s voice, truly a gift from the gods, majestically sang the song as a parcel passed down from the heavens.” How a voice sings a song as a parcel is beyond me but it is interesting imagery.

“Bitter irony flows like an ocean through [Cohen’s] writing, connecting the various inlets,” Buckmaster tells us. “You could hear some of it in Cohen’s deep, salty, penetrating voice.”

Oceans don’t flow but they are deep and salty, as Cohen’s voice is described, which probably makes this a clever line from Buckmaster. Regardless of the occasional creative metaphor, his piece is thought provoking as it picks apart Hallelujah and makes you look at the song anew. For mine, what most covers miss is Cohen’s dry wit rather than – as Buckmaster believes – “bittersweet meanings evoked by Cohen”.

A highlight of Buckmaster’s criticism comes when he reveals to the hitherto ignorant reader, “The song’s impact arises not from reading it line by line, per se, but line to line. It works like cinematic juxtaposition. Each line is an image, and meaning is formed not from a single image but a combination of two or more.”

Using the language of film criticism to convey the much more ancient concept of narrative, which was invented the day after language, is an interesting gambit. I’ll say it again: Buckmaster has balls.

Maybe he’s talking about films because he’s working his way back to Shrek, forgotten since the article’s opening. Buckmaster posits that the depth of meaning in Cohen’s lyrics comes from the breaks between lines. “Shrek and his mates, I dare say, didn’t quite get to the bottom of it,” he writes. “Having said that, turns out the film’s co-director may have actually comprehended what he was working with – perhaps more so than those angelic-sounding cover artists.”

Some people might read Buckmaster’s concession that an accomplished director understands Cohen as a little condescending, and the implication that successful singers don’t comprehend Hallelujah with the insight he does as a touch arrogant. To them I say, “Balls.”

Photo by Gaëtan Grivel used under this license