Monday, November 24, 2008

Vintage Canadian Cinema

The Calgary Cinematheque hosted an outstanding film series this past weekend -- Pushing Boundaries: Independent Canadian Cinema of the Sixties & Seventies. The four films shown were:

A Married Couple (1969, Director Allan King)
High (1967, Director Larry Kent)
Montreal Main (1972, Director Frank Vitale)
Rubber Gun (1977, Director Allan Moyle)

The series was hosted and moderated by film critic Geoff Pevere, in the presence of all the four directors. There was a brief introduction both by Geoff and the film director in question before each screening and a very informative Q & A session afterwards. I would have loved to attend all four films but thankfully I managed to catch two of the groundbreaking masterpieces.

A Marriage in collapse

A Married Couple is an excellent case study of the difficulties a relationship poses for couples sharing the same living space. By observing the lives of a married couple, we can see the struggles and compromises that take place when two people share the same space and how things can start to go wrong. Even though the material is isolated to just one couple in late 1960's Toronto, the genius of Allan King has ensured that the topics displayed on screen can apply to virtually any marriage over the last few decades.

In making the film, Allan sought out couples whose marriage was in trouble but as he mentioned in the Q & A session afterwards, most of the couples he found were "boring". It so happened that the couple Allan was staying with (Billy Edwards and his wife Antoinette) agreed to allow themselves to be filmed so as to save their marriage. Allan was never in the room because he felt his presence would have influenced the couple, so he left his cameraman Richard Leiterman and soundman Christian Wangler with the couple and their 3 year old son, Bogart, for about ten weeks of filming. In the end, they collected more than 70 hours of footage and Allan worked with the editor after each day's shoot. The end result is a brilliant piece of verite film-making. No acting or fake emotions but raw feelings of anger, hurt and disappointment. Allan called this film an "actuality" as opposed to reality film-making.

It is such a complex matter when two people decide to share their lives under one roof as demonstrated by how small arguments can spiral into a full blown war. Of course, most small arguments are never about one issue. Each argument is an accumulation of past incidents and events. An example in the film illustrates this problem when Antoinette mentions to Billy that she is fed up with him leaving his shoes lying around the house. The argument that results shows that the real problem is not about the shoes but about each person not taking share of their daily responsibilities.

Allan King felt that the movie was a two way projector where even the audience projected their feelings onto the screen. In an initial Toronto screening, some audience members identified with Billy while others sided with Antoinette. Allan mentioned a particular example from the film that caused a differing perception in the audience. In one argument, Billy pushes Antoinette out of the house and slams the door. Allan mentioned that some people were sure they saw Billy hit Antoinette but that was not the case. In reality, he was afraid of her and when he pushed her out, he had a worried look on his face as quickly tried to slam the door lest she retaliate back. It was clear from the footage in the film, before and after the scene, that Antoinette was the stronger of the two and it was Billy who was more afraid of her.

Overall, a true gem of a film! Incredible!!!!

Rating: 10/10

Verite again, but on the streets of Montreal

Frank Vitale's Montreal Main is a living breathing work of art. As Frank mentioned, he didn't have a script with dialogues but just had a framework of the story with some scenes outlined; he knew how he wanted the scenes framed and shot, something that interested him more than coming up with the dialogues. Frank's friends and the other actors improvised the dialogues for a film that was shot on and off, sometimes shooting only a scene per day, for about 15 days. In order to get funding for the film, Frank shot most of the movie on video as a demo. Only after the movie got some money ($25,000 CAD) was the beautiful original score added and a 16 mm camera used to re-shoot the film.

In terms of a story, the film follows Frank (played by Frank Vitale), Bozo (Allan Moyle) and their friends around on their daily exploits in Montreal. The key cinematic thread involves Frank's attraction to a teenage boy (Johnny), whom he befriends and hangs out with. The friendship causes problems not only among Frank's circle of friends but also with Johnny's parents. While nothing sexual is depicted regarding their friendship, the film tests the boundaries of society's acceptance of relationships.

The film takes place in a vibrant energetic English speaking art community in Montreal. Frank and Allan Moyle were part of the community and Allan even made a sequel (Rubber Gun which followed Montreal Main's screening) using the same characters. As the community consisted of various artists (painters, writers), it is natural that Montreal Main has an artistic feel to it and flows along beautifully. There are some amazing camera shots in the film with a very open yet poetic ending shot which features faces of customers at a hot dog/arcade shop.

The Q & A session was particularly enriching as both Frank and Allan expressed differing reactions on seeing the film again and looking back at its creation. Allan felt the movie's topic gave him the creeps while Frank talked about the emotional aspects of the film, citing how now as a father he has trouble seeing the character Frank abandon Johnny in the film near the end. The open ending can either be seen as hopeful in that Johnny is ok or can be taken to mean that Johnny is lost forever.

Rating: 9/10


Canadian Cinema hardly has a cinematic presence in this country. It is hard to believe that are many countries like Canada where local films struggle to get distribution and theatrical releases. So it was particularly refreshing to see that despite the near invisible presence, Canadian cinema in the past produced such amazing films. Frank Vitale mentioned that he has been surprised to see that Montreal Main has been getting a revival in the past 2-3 years with even a DVD release out in the market. I really hope that more Canadian gems can be found and atleast released on DVD. Great cinema is always welcome!


fv said...

Good job. I like your review,

frank vitale

Sachin said...

Wow. Thanks :) I am honored.

I wish I could have conjured up some words to capture the beauty of your film but I want to watch the film on DVD and properly look at my favourite sequences again. Example: The scene where Frank goes through the wallet/purse at the party was one of my fav sequences because the camera does not show Frank's face and we have to guess his intentions by observing his hands.

Overall, thank you for making such a beautiful film. I am glad it is recently re-surfacing so people can discover it.