Independent Filmmaking in Ontario by Ian Birnie

Arriving at a definition of Ontario filmmaking involes the location and analysis of an identity crisis-a crisis largely on the part of the analyst and rarely, if ever, on the part of the subject. Are we, as Ontarians, quintessentially deferential, even evasive, about imposing a characteristic mien on our independent cinema? Is it even fair to expect that a prolific decade of filmmaking, dispersed as it is among single efforts and isolated careers, would provoke a clear line of distinguishing features?


Our critics have an easier time: technically limited, enervated, mundane, grey.. why go on? To our credit, there is no shortage of replies. A visually elegant, witty film like Joyce Wieland’s Catfood caused critic Manny Farber to evoke Manet in the face of her silver, white and red composition. Two films as different as Spinning (Wyndam Wise and Richard choichet) and Sonauto (John Bertram) draw a large measure of their effect from a careful attention to visual tone: the former’s inky black field in which the spinner spins, the hard day-glo flashes of colour through which the latter drives. Who could fail to notice the acute sense of design in Kim Ondaatje’s Patchwork Quilts, or the rich flush from sepia to colour at the beginning of Deepa Saltzman’s At 99? Lorne Marin’s sensitive and complex use of superimposition in Second Impressions is, in a minor key, as integral a marriage of technology to meaning as is he exhilarating virtuosity of Michael Snow’s three-dimensional landscape film La Region Centrale.


Still, it must be admitted that colour and technique are not, on the whole, the characteristic attributes of Ontario filmmaking. It is more accurate to point t the modest of our filmmaking-to its home-made qualities. Critic Bob Fothergill observed that in the early independent features of commercial filmmakers like Don Owen, Don Shebib and Clarke Mackey, the same concentration on routine actions and “flat daylight realism” gave rise to the same objections. These films are powerful precisely because they do not depend upon outsized personalities or kinaesthetic editing for their impact. They take their feel and their look from the ordinary lives they chronicle.


Ontario films deal with what is at hand, and they do so directly and rather purposefully. The extravagant camera movement that marks Snow’s Wavelength, for example, or Yonge Street (Jim Anderson), or even House Movie (Rick Hancox) is not so much lyric as deterministic; the camera, though curious, has somewhere to go, and is content to move forwad without prejudice to the reality beyond its own set course. This sense of being in a world in which the familiar exists to be rediscovered and re-experienced, comes through in the best of these “home movies”`—virtually an Ontario genre. Films like House Movie and Second Impressions “permanently deepen commonplace, immediate experience” and define a concept of home in purely subjective  terms. Greg Curnoe and Keith Lock-and others-have made interesting films directly involving their friends, the former’s Souesto detals London, Ontario, in a progression of personal events from 1947 to 1969, the lattersEverything Everywhere Again Alive, catches communal life in Northern Ontario in a succession of documentary fragments. She is Away by Bruce Elder evokes absence through elliptical continuity, and loneliness through the repeitton of several archetypal images. Both Joyce Wieland and Michael Snow have built bodies of highly formal cinema from the stuff of home movies: the “kitchen table/sink” in Table-Top Dolly, Dripping Water, Catfood, Watersark, and parts of Rameau’s Nephew, or the “painter’s studio” in Wavelength and A Casing Shelved.


Some of the best Ontario documentaries-Patchwork Quilts, Lyle Leffler, Last of the Medicine Men, At 99 and Campaign (Robert Fathergill) qualify as home movies for their emphasis on the communal and the familial. Ultimately a bit dull, they accept without challenge the social milieu and middle-class assumptions of their subjects. Despite an intriguing handful of films, Ontario filmmakers who attempt a critique of their culture often as not emerge ambivalent and self-conscious. In My Friend Vince, filmmaker David Rothberg’s aggressive comeraderie with a petty thief fails to bridge the gulf with little more than shop talk and ego, while Richard Rowberry’s interview with his parents, in The Three of Us, seems determined to provoke a generation gap that just won’t emerge. Attempts to deal wit the ironies of Italian immigrant life in Toronto from within or without have not succeeded: Peter Rowe’s Good Friday in Little Italy makes some points through editing but his juxtaposition of billiard halls and religious pageants is no surprise to a culture clearly thriving on contradictions. Franco, Salvatore Greco’s ambitious Italian-language short fiction film, provides a successful dramatization of the conflicts within a new Canadian home, but fails to give their resolution any social or psychological impact.


Looking over the Ontario films in the catalogue of the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre, one is struck by the recurrent emphasis on what Jim Anderson calls “the immediate subject matter.” Despite the abstract terminology and the musical analogies, one returns to a cinema that takes its environment at face value. This fundamental aspect of Ontario filmmaking emerges directly in films which attempt to heighten the physical world without betraying it. Dave Anderson catches some of the inherent irony in his own description of Big Wave as an “unashamedly lyric look at a plastic tarpaulin covering a vast salt pile” while Neal Livingston’s Aura-Gone, a single shot of the reflections in the glass façade of a hospital, draws a quote from critic Nathalie Edwards—“reminiscent of being left waiting in the car when one was a child”—that may be the essence of Ontario pragmatism and the sine qua non of the ‘home movie.’


Originally published in Cinema Canada Summer 1977, p. 47