Of Montreal

Nick Pinkerton on “1970s Canadian Independents”

Donald Shebib, Goin’ Down the Road, 1970, 35 mm, 90 minutes.

IN HIS NEWLY PUBLISHED AUTOBIOGRAPHY, Director’s Cut, the filmmaker Ted Kotcheff, a son of Toronto’s Cabbagetown slums, recalls his response to reading his friend Mordecai Richler’s novel The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravtiz for the first time, in the late 1950s, when the two Canadian expats were cohabiting in London. “‘Not only is this the best Canadian novel ever written,’ I declared, ‘but one day I am going back to Canada and make a film out of it.’ We then both laughed at the absurdity of the idea because, of course, there was no Canadian film industry whatsoever at this time.”

By the time that Kotcheff finally made his Duddy Kravitz movie in 1974, the Canadian film industry had well and truly burst into being, a process already underway when Richler was finishing his novel, as his hometown of Québec was becoming a hotbed of documentary activity in the “direct cinema” style. In fact, someone interested in these bumptious years of Canadian cinema’s adolescence and young adulthood could put together a pretty good curriculum from Anthology Film Archives programming over the past year. The 2016 survey “Québec Direct Cinema” was followed by a program of tax-shelter films produced under the auspices of the Capitol Cost Allowance (CCA), and now following hot on its heels is “1970s Canadian Independents,” a four-film sidebar of outsider movies that wear the impoverished circumstances of their production on their sleeves.

Documentary has been the cornerstone of Canadian cinema from the days of the stern Scotsman John Grierson at the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) through the blossoming of direct cinema, and the documentary impulse is a factor in all of AFA’s featured independents—both indulging it and defying the rules of the self-appointed guardians of nonfiction purity. Perhaps the best-known movie playing Anthology is Donald Shebib’s northern Neorealist work Goin’ Down the Road (1970), a simple story, simply, truthfully, and forcefully told. Pete and Joey (Doug McGrath and Paul Bradley), two guys from the rural Maritimes facing the far side of thirty who’ve never had a pot to piss in, jump in their junk-heap Impala and head to the land of opportunity that is Toronto. The city air briefly awakens Pete’s aspirations to gentility: He looks for white-collar work at first, and when his buddies are shoplifting Hank Snow LPs from the Country & Western section in the basement of an A&A’s record emporium, he’s upstairs ogling a high-class broad listening to Erik Satie. Joey, who doesn’t have any of Pete’s highfalutin hang-ups, knocks up a waitress, Beth (Jayne Eastwood), and marries her in a sodden, sloppy, and very touching wedding ceremony that feels fly-on-the-wall observed. As the boys move from the promise of spring to a winter of discontent, however, they find themselves in the same jam—ducking landlords, working the worst jobs in Ontario, and finally brawling with a beefy checkout boy in the parking lot of a Loblaws supermarket after an ill-conceived shoplifting heist.

Shebib had made documentaries for both the NFB and Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and his cameraman Richard Leiterman, shooting handheld on 16-mm reversal, likewise had a nonfiction background. A great deal of the film’s enduring power lies in the sense of veracity they give it—in the unpolished performances by actors whose faces bespeak the city miles of working-class wear and tear, and in the presentation of crap bowling-alley, car-wash, and bottling-plant gigs. Goin’ Down the Road was influential in style and, if the films in “Canadian Independents” are to be taken as a representative sample, subject matter, for each film in the series is concerned, to varying degrees, with male friendships and with not making it Pierre Trudeau’s Canada.

Frank Vitale, Montreal Main, 1974, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 88 minutes.

Larry Kent had been known for some years before the release of The Apprentice / Fleur Bleue (1971), identified in AFA’s catalogue notes as “arguably the first fully bilingual film to see commercial release in Canada.” I haven’t seen Kent’s student feature The Bitter Ash (1963) or High (1967), both apparently held to be groundbreaking efforts, but this story of Québécois layabout Jean-Pierre (Steve Fiset) lured into a life of larceny by his friend Dock (Jean-Pierre Cartier) while torn between a flighty Anglo model (Susan Sarandon) and his French separatist girlfriend (Céline Bernier) was a little too heavy on counterculture quirk to go down smooth. Fiset has the dark, horse-mouthed handsomeness of a young John Travolta, and Sarandon, in only her second screen role, makes an impression in a transparent, backlit peasant dress, but throughout Kent is over-reliant on low-hanging comic fruit like a priest smacking his lips while hearing of free-love escapades in confession. The seriocomic tone is more wobbly and uncertain than complex, right up to a miscalibrated tragic ending, and the political content seems decidedly glib and from an outsider’s perspective compared to something like Gilles Groulx’s Le Chat dans le sac (The Cat Out of the Bag, 1964).

The series does contain real revelation, however, in the little-screened collaborations of Frank Vitale, Allan Moyle, and Stephen Lack. Vitale will be at AFA presenting both his Montreal Main (1974) and Moyle’s The Rubber Gun (1977) alongside motormouthed muse and performer Lack, who appears in both films. Vitale, born in Jacksonville, Florida, first came to Montreal in the 1960s to study at McGill University, where he met collaborator Moyle. Today, Vitale is an instructor at New York’s School for the Visual Arts, while Moyle has tasted respectable mainstream success with the superlative Pump Up the Volume (1990), but in the ’70s they were both regulars of the wide-open, skeevy scene on Montreal’s Boulevard Saint Laurent. This is the backdrop of Montreal Main, written by Vitale, Moyle, and Lack, and starring all three. Frank (Vitale), a bearded introvert described early on as “the noisy silent type,” is a photographer who’s spent time in New York but who now follows his tow-headed partner in crime, Bozo (Moyle), around French Canada. Given that the boys hang out in an almost-entirely homosexual milieu, they begin to suspect the nature of their friendship, but a desultory experiment in mutual masturbation in the VW bus that they cruise around in puts any question to rest. After this, the deceptively cherubic Bozo returns to playing sick-fuck misogynistic head games with teenage hippies, and Frank’s attention turns to the beautiful long-haired twelve-year-old son (John Sutherland) of some friends, with whom he begins a disconcertingly close relationship whose true nature he seems afraid to guess, though there’s a long, telling glance at the nape of the boy’s neck during a daytrip up the Colline de la Croix—the cult of unbounded introspective self-exploration leading to a frightening precipice.

Frank Vitale, Montreal Main, 1974, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 88 minutes. John Sutherland.

Vitale collaborated again with Moyle on his 1976 East End Hustle—unrepresented at AFA, but certainly worth tracking down—before leaving Montreal and returning to shoot The Rubber Gun (1977), in which Moyle stars and narrates as a McGill sociology student drawn, for ostensibly studious reasons, into the orbit of an amateur artist and professional drug dealer who exemplifies the gift of gab and has a stockpile of amphetamines to keep the gifts coming. The drug dealer is played by Lack, later the (much more sedate) star of David Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981), who made his screen debut in Montreal Main, shooing an old chicken-hawk away from a young Sutherland at a penny arcade before proceeding to rat-a-tat off stream-of-consciousness poetry about “decadent street janitorial paranoia, standin’ here on the tiled urinal of Babylon.”

Lack is a snapping live-wire presence, and the Lack-Moyle-Vitale movies represent a nervous, tweaked-out energy absent from the comparatively lugubrious Goin’ Down the Road—a beer-drinkers’ downer cinema versus a pill-poppers’ uppers cinema, you might say. Studiously reporting on his drug buddies in The Rubber Gun, Moyle’s character describes them as “vitalized by drug use,” but the potential danger of that volatile vitality figures throughout these films, which altogether make up a portrait of Montreal in a moment of deceptively jittery “post-’60s stagnation,” which Vitale described in a 2009 interview: “The Main was populated with Greek and Portuguese immigrants. The shops were owned by former immigrants, the Jews, who had moved to the suburbs. To the east the predominate French culture insulated us from the real world. For a group of us Anglophone artists, who lived on practically no income, the Main was a timeless backwater of communal dinners, art openings and parties.” To this potent brew we can add the intersection of the underground art and criminal communities, as united in Lack’s Rubber Gun character. As a body of work, these Montreal street sketches are among the most dangerous, fearless Canadian films that I’ve seen––proof that stagnation can be remarkably fertile.

“1970s Canadian Independents” runs Thursday, March 9 through Sunday, March 12, at Anthology Film Archives in New York.