Sunday, 28 April 2013

0 EPISODE 29

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                 My quarrel with the Film Board was never personal.  In behavior I was restrained, quiet, polite.  I didn't swear or use offensive language.  The difference was much more fundamental.  At that time the NFB took very seriously its maxim about showing Canada to Canadians. Imaginative treatment was allowed, but only within that framework, which was didactic.  Many production people had a teaching background, and certainly an instructive mentality.
        My films, by contrast, tended to be stories, dramas.  Instinctively I didn't seek to persuade, but to impress.  I tried to affect not people's knowledge, but their feelings.  My films were perhaps somewhat valued by the Board, but they were looked on with suspicion.
        A good many people made their life at the Board, and stayed, for better or worse, until retirement, until their pension.  But there was always a little turnover.  At the top some left for better opportunities, and a trickle of fresh young people was taken on.  One, who came soon after me, but stayed for many long years, was Roman Kroiter.  His first film was about a Polish switchman in Winnipeg who cleans streetcar tracks.  The switchman's musings are heard on the soundtrack.  That gave me an idea.
        If a character's thoughts were heard only in voice over, then an entire story seen from his or her mental, rather than physical, point of view, could be shot without sound. That meant a really skeletal crew, at the lowest possible cost.  As money was usually a major limiting factor in my films, that would considerably broaden my scope.  With my penchant for big ideas, in a few days I had visualized a film taking in, through stories, the whole of Canada.
        When I broached the idea, as yet formless, to Tom Daly he wasn't enthusiastic, but neither was he negative.  Research for it, to form the stories and pick the locations and the real people who would be my actors, would mean my travelling across Canada, which would take up an entire spring-to-fall season, in effect a whole year.  Yet, since I'd be alone, with no baggage to speak of, and using the cheapest public transportation, the expense would be minimal.  Daly at once approved. Perhaps only to be rid of me for that long.
        I envisaged a film spanning from sea to sea with ten stories, one for each province.  But I soon realized that provincial boundaries were pretty much arbitrary, that in themselves provinces only vaguely represented the country.  Canada was a mosaic of races, as the government kept proclaiming, so it would be much truer to base my stories on the major ethnic groups that made up the population.
       
        Starting in the east, with Newfoundland, I travelled on a small steamer up the Atlantic coast to Twillingate.  The floating, broken-up sea ice, moving with the tide, current and wind, had drifted out of the harbour just before we arrived and the small ship was able to dock safely.  Then, at a seaside house that boasted a wooden sign saying Hotel, I asked for the proprietor, Captain something or other (he had probably once captained a boat of some kind) so as to register, which turned out to be only a figure of speech.  I found the burly Captain outside at the back, half drunk, and trying to thaw out a bottle of beer.  He took me to a room with two narrow thin mattresses on the floor, one of which would be occupied by a sailor.  Indeed that night the sailor and I shared the room, and while he had two blankets and many rags that he heaped on himself, I had a thick, fur-lined, war-surplus coat that kept me from freezing.  Of course we slept in our clothes.
        By morning the sea ice had drifted in again and all boats in the harbour were trapped.  As no one was going anywhere, after a crude breakfast I decided to explore the island.  There was a hospital farther up the shore, and there I met its director, Dr. John Olds.  He was a tall handsome man with curly grey hair, a caring expression and a curt no-time-for-niceties manner.  When he heard where I'd slept he said No, you can't stay there.  You'll come to the house.  Thereafter, for the few days that I remained on Twillingate, I was lodged in the home, adjoining the hospital, of Dr. Olds.

        In 1932, John McKee Olds, a 26-year-old upper-class New Englander, from a prominent family in Windsor, Connecticut, who had attended a tony prep school, graduated from Yale, and received his medical degree at Johns Hopkins, along with a 1930 graduate of Johns Hopkins school for nurses, Elizabeth Arns, whom he had married that same day, set foot on a boat that would take them to the snowy north of Newfoundland, to Twillingate. They intended to stay for a year. There they would spend the rest of their lives.  Olds was there for forty years.
        Medical practice among the Indians, Eskimo and fishermen of northern Newfoundland and Labrador, who were desperately poor and undernourished, had already been pioneered by the British missionary doctor and remarkable surgeon (later Sir) Wilfred Grenfell.  But soon after John and Betty arrived at Twillingate the resident doctor, Charles Parsons, retired from the scene —  some say beset by alcohol, and in the middle of an operation — and young Olds had to take over.
        He went on to do every kind of surgery, devise a medical insurance scheme into which participants paid 44 cents a year, and which was probably the forerunner of today's public heath systems, devise cures for longstanding ailments, build up the hospital into a teaching facility, send a medical boat that visited patients in the remotest coves and bays, and make biological studies of seals and other local creatures.  He became an honoured legend in his own time.  In 1970 Newfoundland declared a province-wide Dr. Olds Day.  But Olds never had time or use for popular esteem.   He proved to be Wilfred Grenfell's greatest legacy.
       
        At Dr. Olds' table I ate both moose and whale meat, and there were many other firsts.  Meeting him was the highlight of my time in Newfoundland.
        However, my departure from Twilligate was hasty: Olds told me that the ice had shifted enough for the small steamer to leave at once, and that I'd better run down to the dock.  I got there just in time to board.  Others did too.  There was a uniformed Mountie on his way to investigate a suspicious death in one of the outports, as the little fishing settlements were called, and several young nurses on leave from the Twillingate hospital. The ship cleared the ice but ran into extremely rough seas.
        The boat pitched violently.  The Mountie became very seasick; he looked green, and sitting on a crate he kept his head bent over a pail. There were some wooden bunks with upturned sides, like shallow open boxes, into which the nurses climbed, but the rolling of the ship threatened to throw the girls out.  I took a bracing stand beside the waist-high bunk of the prettiest one, a really attractive, rosy-cheeked, cuddlesome female.  She said with a smile, invitingly, between rolls, C'mon, keep me in me bunk and if I hadn't been too shy, and had climbed in with her, and bundled her in my arms, I think no one else would have thought anything of it.
        This was rather confirmed during a short trip I took on Newfoundland's narrow-gauge railway.  On one seat there was a young couple, sitting up but sleeping.  He had his hand into the unbuttoned top of her dress, and she had her hand down the front of his trousers. People went up and down the aisle paying no attention. But neither Twillingate nor the couple on the train were typical enough.  I had to go farther south, nearly into Conception Bay, to the tip of the peninsula that forms its northern coast, to Bay de Verde, an outport devoted to cod fishing.  Though Bay de Verde faced the almost full brunt of the Atlantic, it could be reached by motor vehicle, over a stony path that served as a road.  There I found the fishermen who would play my characters.

Next:  The fatal mines

Sunday, 21 April 2013

1 EPISODE 28

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        My thoughts still on the work of painters, I went on to consider another kind of art. This time not of paint, but of words. I had encountered the poem Autobiographical by A.M. Klein. I thought it, and still regard it, the richest word music in Canadian poetry.

        Abraham Moses Klein grew up in the Jewish immigrant, working-class district of Montreal, which was often called a ghetto. He arrived there about 1912 as a three or four year old boy, his parents having fled the savage pogroms of Ratno, in Ukraine. His father was an orthodox Jew, and young Klein was steeped in biblical and Talmudic studies. He was expected to become a rabbi, but his fertile mind couldn't be contained by theology. He went on to study classics, political science, economics and law (the last in French, at the Université de Montréal), becoming a practising lawyer, writer, editor of the weekly paper The Canadian Jewish Chronicle and of other journals, and close friend of David Lewis (who was later the leader of the NDP: see Episode 20). And in the most personally-expressive sense, Klein became an outstanding poet.
        Like other poets who broke away from the tradition of earlier sentimental Canadian poetry, and began dealing with realistic current issues, Klein was associated with a group of poets that also included F.R. Scott, P.K. Page (Patricia Page, who, incidentally, later married Arthur Irwin, the Commissioner of the National Film Board, shortly before he became Canada's ambassador to Australia —see Episodes 11, 12 & 27), and Patrick Anderson. The future author Leon Edel associated with them. Irving Layton was a contemporary, and he was privately tutored by Klein so that Layton could pass his exams in Latin.  Klein married the girl who had long held his interest, his high school sweetheart, Bessie Kozlov, to whom he wrote gentle love poems; they had two sons and a daughter.
        When the children were young I visited A.M. Klein in his modest home in Montreal.  He had on the shelves of his extensive private library large volumes of the Bible in seven languages, in Latin, Greek, French and so on, and he could read and had read them all. He was very gracious. He took me to dinner at a Jewish restaurant on Saint-Laurent Boulevard, where we both had a five-course meal of delicious home-tasting food for less than five dollars. (It was 1954.) Though I was on expenses, Klein insisted on paying. He was more than kind in every other way as well. But he refused my request.

        My vision of a film was to duplicate in images the wonderful word pictures of Autobiographical so as to create a kind of parallel, fused word-visual film-poem. I had even worked out in my mind how it could all be done on a small NFB budget.
        But the poem was part of Klein's novel The Second Scroll, and he said that taken out of context like that it would depict Montreal Jewry and the Jewish community in a way that had never existed. As a prominent person in the community, and a public figure, he felt he could not condone that.
        Oddly, Don Mulholland, the NFB's Director of Production (see Episodes 12, 13 & 27) was sympathetic to my idea. He told me to ask Klein to come and meet him, as perhaps official powers of persuasion might prevail. I half expected Klein to refuse, but when I mentioned it to him he agreed to go to Ottawa, shrugging and saying It's a summons from the Queen.
        Yet Mulholland got no further than I had. Klein said that as a poet he was flattered, but as a responsible person he had to say no. He was adamant and unmoved.
        But my idea of a film based on the poem hung on in the Film Board's program. In 1965 a film along similar lines was made by the NFB. It was produced by David Bairstow and directed by Richard Notkin. By that time I was long gone from the Board, and had nothing to do with that film. Nor was I informed about it. I have yet to see it.
        However, the concept of pictures married to words stayed in my mind. It developed into the theme of pictures married to music, that is, visuals as perfectly as possible synchronized to the melodies and defined notes of music. Later, initially for the CBC, and, because I needed the money, doing the filming myself with a borrowed Bolex, a spring-wound camera (except for six titles that were shot by the cinematographer Ken Poste, who used his own Arriflex camera), I made a series of seventy-five short films like that.  When the usually curt, critical person who reviewed films made for the CBC for technical shortcomings, saw my footage, he grunted You were wasted as a producer and director.  You should have been a cameraman.  No one had taught me; it was all from observation.  However, I have never handled a film camera since.
        Yet, at best, my concept for both the Autobiographical film and the later short films was a superficial playing with images and sounds, with none of the deep implications expressed directly and alluded to in Klein's writing and poetry. It would have been like a fly buzzing around a solid figure of great mind and artistry.
        The name Klein means, in both Yiddish and German, small.  It's a celestial joke.  A. M. Klein's thunderous, warm, tender poetic voice is like a lightning clap, an involved storm, a sunset.  In a country less indifferent to poetry than Canada, and if he hadn't been an immigrant and a Jew, there would be statues of him, streets and places named for him, and every schoolchild would know his verse.
        Although Klein is credited among scholars with having inspired younger writers like Leonard Cohen, who wrote some poems and a song to Klein, Mordecai Richler and Irving Layton, Klein's public acclaim, though well meant, has been scanty.  In 1948 he was granted the Governor General's award for poetry for The Rocking Chair and Other Poems, and in 1957 a medal for poetry was given him by the Royal Society of Canada. A prize in his name for poetry is now presented by the Quebec Writer's Federation.
        A fine biography of A.M. Klein, called Like One That Dreamed, written by Usher Caplan, was published in 1982. And much of Klein's works, including his short stories, have been edited by Zailig Pollock and others and issued by the University of Toronto Press.
        Although almost all people took Klein seriously, and he himself usually had an outwardly serious mien, and his poetic lyricism was supreme, he actually had a very robust sense of humour and a sharp wit. And he was fully aware of the absurdity in most things. Even when he was pronouncing on profound issues, you could catch, if you weren't otherwise overawed, a comic undertone.
        I can't and won't pretend that I knew Klein in any but a shallow way. But I did derive a great deal from his warm, witty, expansive, passionate personality and complex visionary mind. One small gesture on his part led, fifty years later, to a notable result. Once, when I was with him in his library, he pulled out a slim volume and thrust it at me, saying This is good. Read it! The book was David, by Duff Cooper, about the biblical King David.
        The thought germinated by that book slowly developed over five decades until it emerged in my own book, also called David. In it I pay tribute to Duff Cooper, but its origin was in that moment, more than a half-century ago, in the library of A.M. Klein.

Next:  A big idea.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

1 EPISODE 27

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The test print of Varley, turned out by Warner's, incorporated the changes they had made in colour and sound. I don't know if Gerry Graham had another negative reproduced from it, but soon there were regular release prints.

The first thing done was to arrange a private screening in the large theatre for the Director of the National Gallery, H. O. McCurry, who came with his wife. They had both known Fred Varley, and were still smiling over scurrilous tales about him even as they sat down and the room darkened. But when the lights went up again the eyes of both were wet.

Another private screening was held for the Film Commissioner, Arthur Irwin. I wasn't there, but it was reported to me that Irwin exclaimed Magnificent film! But oh, that ending! It was exhilarating, and bitterly comfortless, to me that Arthur Irwin, knowing nothing of the script or details of the film, was the one person, of all who saw it and commented, who was sensitive enough to understand its structure and detect that the ending was wrong.
Among the changes that Irwin introduced when he became Commissioner was that production people were no longer given incremental pay raises, but got a raise only for finished work. A typical monthly raise was $75 or $100, or more. I got my raise for Varley. It was $2.
Lou Applebaum was there when I opened the envelope, and he was incensed. It's not a raise he said but an insult! Don't take it lying down. Go and complain!
Subsequently I made an appointment with the Director of Production, Don Mulholland. He wasn't in the least apologetic. I won't pretend it's a raise he said. But you manage to get your own way around here, and you can't expect to do that and be rewarded for it too.
He went on lambasting Varley. I don't know what we're going to do with it he said. It doesn't fit into any of our categories, and so on and on. By the time he had finished berating me, and I was sort of creeping from his office rather like a beaten dog, and had reached the doorway, he said sharply Just one more thing! I turned to look at him. I want you to know, he said that personally I'm very proud to be associated with that film.
Entries into awards competitions and festivals were handled by the NFB Distribution Department. In Ottawa, it was housed in a separate building. There was very little communication between it and the production units. In our unit there was a rack of small square pigeonholes into which memos and mail, if any, were put. I usually didn't find anything in mine but routine notices.
But one day I saw, sticking away out, a large long roll of thick paper that had been pushed into my box. I thought What the hell is this? Nothing had been said. I wondered if it was some kind of disparaging prank. But I took it out and unrolled it. It was a handsome sepia certification of Varley from the Venice Festival, which had taken place Aug. 20 to Sept. 4, 1953.
It wouldn't have been sent, certainly not in that state, to me. Somebody higher up in Film Board production had received it. And the forceful shoving into my pigeonhole had been a gesture of derision. Even though Venice was then the most prestigious film festival in the world.
Something of a world of its own was the National Film Board. Though the filmmakers weren't really aware of it, Arthur Irwin was Chairman of an actual governing Board, made up of government-appointed members. One of them was Charles Band. I suspect, though I've never known for certain, that he had something to do with what followed.
The Board decided to hold a premiere of Varley. The International Cinema in Toronto was rented for a Sunday, and hundreds of invitations to the event were printed and mailed out. My parents received one. Some people from Ottawa went to it. Frederick Varley, and the lady who had become his companion, Mrs. Kathleen McKay, were there of course. (The name McKay reoccurs in these memoirs, but those people with the same name were all unrelated individuals.)
I heard of the premiere by phone from my mother. No one in the Board said anything to me about it, not before or afterwards. I was not invited. I wasn't there.
But its repercussions were widespread and lasting. All at once Varley became again a famous, and now sought-after, figure.  Maclean's magazine published a two-page spread about him. His next one-man show, at Roberts Gallery in Toronto, sold out before it officially opened. (He took the proceedings from it and for $9,000 bought Kathleen McKay a good used Cadillac.) The Canadian Post Office issued a stamp of his self-portrait. The Russian government invited him to tour the U.S.S.R., as part of a cultural exchange, and he went. A university gave him an honourary Doctorate. A street was named for him. And his home and studio with the McKays in Unionville (where he often, on the piano, passionately played Beethovan by ear) became an art shrine and teaching centre.
Fred Varley and her husband having preceded her, at her death Kathleen McKay willed the works Varley had left her, and her estate, then amounting to approximately $1.5 million, to the City Of Markham. Along with a host of enthusiastic supporters, who worked zealously, raised money and supported the project, the city opened, in May 1977, the Frederick Horseman Varley Art Gallery of Markham. Like the McKay-Varley home, now an art centre, the Gallery is on the Main Street of Unionville, which has become part of Markham. These developments happened almost entirely without my involvement. It was simply the Varley film that sparked them.
After the film I continued to see Fred, and gradually became a confidant. To me he imparted his innermost frustrations and disappointments. He wore his honours like a loose and unimportant cloak, letting others laud him for them, but he was always keenly aware of his own limitations. He bridled at the sometimes smothering attentions of Kathy McKay, who was a pixyish, girlish, charming, generous woman, fiercely protective of Varley's health, work and reputation, and with a shrewd head for finances, but he knew she was his mainstay. And Varley, like most people getting older, was impatient with the natural wear and tear of his ongoing years.
He confided to me once, gleefully, I've been drinking hard since I was nineteen. Many doctors have warned that it would kill me. And, you know, Allan, all those doctors are dead! It did kill him, finally. He died in September 1969, at age eighty-eight, from complications of alcohol poisoning.
Varley had a special feeling for women, as shown in his many portraits of them. He idealized them. They were virtually all mothers of life and sirens of enchantment. Perhaps such an attitude was basically a disservice, but women, young and old, thrilled in his presence.
It was a privilege to have known Fred Varley.

Next: Not paint, but words.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

0 EPISODE 26

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At this stage my duties weren't demanding; I had only to look at rushes (initial prints) and comment on the colour produced by Warner's lab. It had fine controls and could change almost any hue. And it was experimental. Warner Brother's lab occupied a complete building, across the street from the main lot, and when I wasn't busy I would go over and watch some shooting.

One of the films being shot, on an enormous set that encompassed a supposed South Sea island, was with Burt Lancaster and Virginia Mayo. She was quite a beautiful blonde, but on the set her make-up was greenish, so that she looked like a ghoul. I was particularly interested in this, and made a point of sitting in to see the rushes of that scene.
On the screen she was a lovely pink.
Even better than looking at her were the views from the Pacific Coast Highway, up which Marie and Jack Cooper drove me.  Another time they took me to the desert, to a spot between Los Angeles and Palm Springs, where they had a small cottage. It was a dusty, sandy little place, but Jack revelled in it. There he felt he could shed all the superficial glamour. It makes me long for my retirement he said. Then I'm going to devote myself wholly to music, anthropology and learning Hebrew! That appeared to take Marie for granted, but either she felt herself included or was indulgently letting Jack have his dreams.
Jack also introduced me to his sister, Mina Cooper.  She was married to her longtime sweetheart, the author H. Arthur Klein, with whom she had collaborated on many books.  Mina was a beautiful woman.  Not with especially beautiful features, but with a charm so grave, warm, soft and intimate that it was immediately captivating, and made her seem beautiful. She was also a poet, who had written some moving lines. Together, in company, we all went out, Jack and Marie, Arthur, Mina and I, and I remember Mina putting on a stole against the chill of the evening.  It was a perfectly ordinary thing for a woman to wear, and she was modest, even diffident, in her behavior, but as she wore it and carried herself she looked to me regal, queenly.
There were information-gossip papers that went weekly to all the studios and related offices, and into them Jack had inserted items about my being there. That quickly led to a call from the producers' association.
Virtually all filmmaking countries had a quota on American movies, except Canada. Yet it was Hollywood's best foreign market. Talk of a quota had arisen a number of times, but each time lobbyists, American or working for them, had managed to defeat the idea. Once it had been with the remaking of Rose-Marie, a Broadway musical. It had been filmed before, but this time it was done with Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, the latter playing a red-coated Mountie. And indeed their duet, Indian Love Call, became very popular and the signature song in both their careers. That movie was supposed to compensate by attracting tourists to Canada.
Whether there were again rumours of a quota, or they were just being cautious, the association people chose to regard me as a representative of the Canadian government. I told them I had no official status or any influence whatsoever, but it didn't deter them. They insisted on taking me to lunch and were as nice as could be, offering to do anything that would please me. I took advantage of that by getting them to open doors, and it seemed that no door in Hollywood was closed to them.
Consequently I got to see a good deal of what was going on. I saw that though it was on a much grander scale, it was essentially no different from what we at the Film Board were doing, apart from make-up. The Hollywood make-up departments were a whole other world. They had plaster casts of the faces of all their star performers, and could alter appearances radically. All we had ever done was to use some pancake cream and maybe a little powder, if that. Of course, at the Board, make-up, like miniatures, was frowned upon. We really knew nothing about it.
There were armed guards, with open holsters, in booths at all entrances to Warner's main lot. An entrance for individuals was just across from the lab building. The commissary (cafeteria) was in the main lot, and I sometimes went there for lunch. It always had a mixed crowd, technicians and administrative people, writers, actors and actresses, some partly in costume. The food was appetizing and the price moderate. One day there was a different guard at that gate who wouldn't let me in. I told him who I was, but I didn't have a formal pass and he was unmoved. I persisted, but he put his hand on the butt of his revolver and said threateningly Get lost!
I went back to the lab building and phoned Warner's office, asking for the assistant who had given me his card. A gruff male voice answered and wanted to know what for. I explained, and he said Go back there. I did, and when the same guard saw me coming he bowed low with such a sweeping theatrical gesture of inviting me in that I was certain he was going to kick me in the pants, or inflict something more violent. I stopped out of range and said hesitantly Is it... all right?
He said warmly Oh yes, sir. Mr. Warner just called!
With the lab work completed, my film, with its effects, voices and music, was moved to the rerecording theatre. Situated on the main lot, this was a fully-equipped theatre of a capacity that might be found in a medium-sized city. The mixing console, of dark polished wood, was at the back and ran across the entire width of the theatre. There were a great many more pots (the controls by which sounds can be affected) and places for a number of mixers, but basically everything was the same as in our humble theatre at the Board. That theatre, however, run by Clarke Daprato, was our largest and our pride.
The mix was easily accomplished and took only a few hours. The lab then made a print with a sound track. It was called the test print, but in effect was a final print because all alterations had already been made. The screening of it took place in the lab theatre, which itself was not small, and for it I invited some people who had been kind to me in the studios. Jack came, and must have announced it too, for I hadn't met most of the people who arrived. With the lab technicians there was an audience of about twenty-five.
I was standing at the back, watching the screening, and on the whole enjoying it. But I was disconsolate about the ending and inwardly cringed at it. I cursed myself for having been so daunted and foolishly flattered by Lou and Clarke. After the showing Jack was the first out of his seat. He came up smiling and said You're quite an artist!
His meaning was clear, but I wasn't ready to accept it. I said You mean Varley.
No, he replied. You.
Then three men I didn't know approached. Their faces were friendly. One said Nice film. I thanked him. We, he said are on the Academy Awards Committee. Why don't you enter it, and we'll give it an Award.
I said What do you mean, give it? Don't you vote?
Oh sure he said. But when we see a film that deserves it, we organize a claque.
When I got back I told Tom Daly about this. He listened in silence. Nothing was ever said to me about it. Probably the high-ups didn't want to encourage me.

Next: The premiere