Aug 23, 2017

PBS Goes Off Beat

Photo courtesy Off Beat Cinema's Facebook page

Last night, WNED, Buffalo's PBS affiliate had a touch of the "off beat", as their broadcast of the documentary Birth of the Living Dead was presented by Off Beat Cinema's Constance McEwen Caldwell and Jeffrey Roberts, in character, as their OBC personalities, The Mysterious Zelda, and Cinematic Theologian Theodore. Their appearance was especially a delight for Southern Ontario viewers, who have been deprived of their weekly Off Beat Cinema fix since 2012.

The long-running late-night series Off Beat Cinema first began on WKBW (Buffalo's ABC affiliate), in 1993. Every week, the beatniks from the Hungry Ear Café would introduce a way-gone B-movie. This show continued to be a fresh antidote for discerning viewers of late night television, as after-hours programming was being overrun by infomercials instead of movies. It represented what the late-night viewing experience used to be, and should be like. In July of 2012, the show moved to Buffalo's MeTV-affiliate, WBBZ-TV, where our favourite hepcats would continue to preach the good word. Sadly, WBBZ has remained unavailable in Southern Ontario, which comprised a generous portion of their viewing audience at WKBW.

The appearance of Zelda and Theodore on WNED was a welcome surprise for Southern Ontario viewers, in more ways than one. The program wasn't even listed in our television guide. It instead had the documentary Fit To Be King, followed by The Nightly Business Report, in that time slot. I only discovered moments beforehand that the program was airing, thanks to Constance's Facebook post, and despite what the guide said, took a gamble and hit "record". Upon reviewing the tape later, happily, Zelda and Theodore did air in our borough.

The decision to broadcast Birth of the Living Dead, the 2013 documentary about the making of the horror classic, Night of the Living Dead (a film that broke all the rules and made new ones), was a fitting way to eulogize its director, George A. Romero, who passed away last month. But for loyal OBC viewers, this film was also apropos, since Off Beat Cinema's first episode on Saturday, October 30, 1993, (just before Halloween) featured Night of the Living Dead. The Hungry Ear gang has continued to show that film every October since. Therefore, it was nice to see OBC members Zelda and Theodore talk about the film which launched the show (gasp!) over twenty years ago.

I wasn't able to sit down and watch the program last night, but hope to view it very soon. It will seem like catching up with old friends. Now as then, OBC continues to be a surrogate friend over the TV waves.

Aug 6, 2017

Last Night last night

It must be summer when CBC fills up its Saturday night schedule with Canadian movies instead of Hockey Night in Canada.  I’ve been enjoying their summer series The Filmmakers, in which each week, Johanna Schneller conducts a half-hour interview with panelists and the director of the film that airs after each show. Last night’s instalment was with Don McKellar and his 1998 film Last Night which he wrote, directed and had the lead role.

Last Night was Canada’s entry in the ten-film 2000 Vu Par series, in which each film (produced in different parts of the globe) envisioned how the world was going to change once the clock hit midnight on January 1, 2000. Other contributing nations included Taiwan (Tsai Ming-liang’s The Hole), Mali (Abderrahmane Sissako’s Life On Earth), even the good old US of A (Hal Hartley’s The Book of Life). These were produced in the midst of the global panic over Y2K, and many of the resulting films were as low key as Y2K ended up being.

Before we continue, I should tell a story about the first time I saw Last Night. It was at The Royal Cinema one weeknight in January of 1999- yes, that time when Toronto was literally buried in snow, and Mayor Mel called in the army. We were still digging ourselves out of the white stuff the night of that screening. Indeed, after the movie, I hopped onto the College Streetcar to come home, only to find that it couldn’t get up the street. Thanks to shovelled snow pile head high on the curb, cars were forced to park further out onto the street, often blocking the streetcar from continuing on its track! As a result, to get us going, passengers would go out and push cars out of the way! How Canadian! Imagine experiencing this after seeing a movie where people are upturning automobiles and streetcars!

Assuredly, some of last night’s dialogue prior to the screening involved the movie's distinct "Canadian-ness", with its tone of frustration (few of the characters succeed in doing what they want for their last night on earth), and settling for less (which is a microcosm of Canadian film production in general), and the unexpected humour of it all. Indeed, upon seeing Last Night again for the first time in 17 years, I was reminded how much it was a “who’s who” of Canuck cinema. In addition to McKellar himself, the ensemble cast included such familiar Canadian faces as Sandra Oh, Sarah Polley, Callum Keith Rennie, David Cronenberg, Arsinee Khanjian, Charmion King, Robin Gammell, Genevieve Bujold, and Tracy Wright. Even Jackie Burroughs, Francois Girard and Bruce McDonald show up in “squint to see them” cameos!

Frustration was also an unfortunate by-product of the viewing experience last night. It looked like we were watching the film through a shot glass. I’m no expert on formats (especially in relation to upgrading materials made before the high def revolution), but to my eyes it resembled an ill-advised attempt at bumping a standard def transfer to high def, instead of doing a proper scan from the source material. Come on, CBC co-produced this film initially- they must have better elements than this!

Even so, I’m glad that this series exists. Seriously, if CBC doesn’t do it, who will? I was a loyal viewer of their Cinema Canada series, airing on Thursday or Friday nights throughout the 1990s, which presented homegrown films new and vintage. And because this was CBC, more people had the chance to see them: it was a refreshing alternative to the constricted distribution system which hijacks our cinema from being seen by the people who want it. But Last Night’s presentation was an unfortunate reminder of the difficulty to see Canadian films made even in the 1980s or 1990s. Why is it that most of our cinema can only be seen in squiggly VHS dubs (either taped from TV -when CanCon legislation would be honoured by airing films instead of Cash Cab reruns- or from their fleeting appearances on home video labels)? We’re only talking about stuff that’s 20 to 30 years old!

I guess the presentation and preservation of our film heritage is much like our citizenship and the characters of Last Night: we’re used to making compromises, accustomed to settling for less, and too polite to do anything about it.

May 10, 2017

Secluded Cinema: CHANGE OF HEART

I've been reading Dennis Bartok and Jeff Joseph's fascinating book, A Thousand Cuts: The Bizarre Underground World of Collectors and Dealers Who Saved the Movies. One passage that especially struck a chord was about the late filmmaker Curtis Harrington, who "recalled in detail seeing a nitrate print at Paramount Studios of the now-lost 1929 Josef von Sternberg silent film The Case of Lena Smith, while writing his monograph in the late 1940s on the great filmmaker. The movie had vanished, but it still existed, however faintly, in the reflection of Curtis's aged eyes.."

This made me ponder if in this age, where we live under the illusion that we're always a click away from viewing just about every movie ever made, can we also be in the precarious position of solely relying on one's memory of a film that has similarly disappeared in our lifetimes? The answer is undoubtedly 'yes'.

In the 139th attempt to re-ignite this blog, Secluded Cinema will be a regular feature (renamed from the older, more loquacious semi-regular column, Hard To Find Films I'm Seeking This Week) which will highlight films that (as far I know) have dropped from view. It is unlikely that many of the movies to be discussed here are lost per se, just simply unavailable in any format for public access. But if these words raise awareness of an elusive title, and prompt people to get those movies out to whoever wants to see them, then they will have succeeded.

One could feasibly fill this column with nothing but Canadian titles. (The next two Secluded Cinema columns will also be Canadian movies. I'm in a patriotic mood after all, since it's our 150 this year!) What permeates our community that after fledgling theatrical dates and sporadic plays on television, people are just content to leave their work collecting dust in attics, basements and film vaults? Does our distribution system or filmmaking practice incite such negativity in people that they'd prefer to avoid further hurt by just letting work remain buried, out of the hands of future generations who might want it?

Cue director Don Shebib's film, Change of Heart. The film played a week theatrically in Toronto during the spring of 1993,  received sporadic air dates on Moviepix and Bravo as late as 2000, and then has seemingly dropped from view. I don't believe it ever had a domestic video release. In the 120-plus years of cinema history, 17 years is not that long a time. It seems baffling that such a comparatively young picture from the VCR age is so elusive. 

Unlike most of the titles you will see in this column, I actually saw this one back in the day, on Bravo, when they generously broadcast Canadian films... many of which are now similarly, frustratingly, difficult to see in any format.  This unpretentious little fable, written by Terence Hefernan, developed from a story by him and Shebib, features a young girl (Sarah Campbell) who wins the lottery, and then hires her hustler cousin (Jeremy Ratchford), who certainly needs the money, to help find her biological father, and keep her out of a foster home.  I'm no angel sometimes. l'll admit that my initial reaction to this movie was rather hostile. Maybe it was a bad day, but when I think back, I now perceive my criticisms to be the film's virtues.

The film felt twenty years older, in part for its low-key tone, and its docu-style cinematography by Shebib's regular cameraman, the late great Richard Leiterman. But now, I wish more contemporary films were like that. After screenings of over a thousand other films since, however, this movie has remained in my mind, for its revelation in the final act, and the sad poetry in the last line: "Let's go have a cheeseburger." One could say that after all this time, this movie has continued to haunt me, while others since have faded from memory.

Change of Heart may not be one of the director's major works, but it is sadly an example of the infuriating difficulty in seeing films even by Canada's most celebrated filmmakers. In recent years, I've re-acquainted myself with several other Don Shebib pictures. His subtlety, efficiency and economic storytelling is exactly the kind of cinema we need more of today. Check those T-120s in your closet. It's time to bring this film back. I'll even settle for a Youtube link.

Right and Below: scans from The Toronto Star in 1993, featuring Rob Salem's review of Change of Heart, Jamie Kastner's interview with its director, and a sadly prophetic piece by Susan Kastner about the film's disappearance from screens.


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