Super 8 Filmmaker John Porter, Toronto, Canada
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It was like a reunion of long-lost twins, except one of them was a ghost, seen by many. Catherine, an only chlld, was reunited in 1999 with a beautiful, feature-length, 16mm, colour home movie of herself growing up in Toronto in the 1940's. It was carefully made by her father, and included many scenes of her mother who died when Catherine was 16. It was then forgotten and, after her father died, lost for 45 years. Some Toronto film artists discovered it and brought it to a packed, public screening, and in the process found Catherine herself.
In Toronto, sometime in the 1980s or 1990s, a collector (whom I shall call Mr. X) bought the six reels of film at a house contents sale, the location of which he later forgot. He gave them to friend and fellow collector Martin Heath, the proprietor of , an "underground" cinema often used by Pleasure Dome Artists' Film Exhibition Group. A few years later Heath viewed the films with film collector Polly Perverse who was also involved with CineCycle and Pleasure Dome. They were so impressed by the films that they organized a public screening at CineCycle with Pleasure Dome.
The films lovingly and expertly document Catherine's growth from her infancy to her teens, and include spectacular scenes of the 1939 Royal Visit, steam trains and famous Canadian landmarks and attractions, when colour film was new. They are especially beautiful because although quite old, they are pristine "reversal" or "camera-stock" rolls with no negative or copies. Like a fine painting, they are best seen in their original state, without copying. But to protect them, the originals should be projected as little as possible, so this was publisized as a once-only screening of the original The Catherine Films.
But whose film was it? Who was the family? Were any of them still living in Toronto, and could they be located before the public screening? Labels on the film cans indicated only that they lived in Toronto in the 1940s and that their daughter's name was Catherine. The film's content gave few other clues, but Catherine's residential street looked familiar and in one of Toronto's nicer neighbourhoods. Heath began by tracking down Mr. X who provided no new clues to the film's origin, but after hearing of the public screening he angrily demanded that Heath return the film. Heath and Perverse feared that he might bury it again, or sell it to be cut up, so they not only kept it but secured it from possible seizure by Mr. X.
A month before the screening Pleasure Dome hired me to make some still photographs from the film ("frame blow-ups") for publicity use. I had seen the Pleasure Dome poster which did not say that Catherine was unknown to them. I assumed, as others did, that she was an associate of Pleasure Dome who had offered the film for public exhibition, which didn't excite me. But when I saw the video copy of the film I too realized its importance, and when I heard about the mystery I became obsessed with finding Catherine's street, and maybe Catherine.
I have lived in Toronto for 50 years, working as a photographer, filmmaker, letter-carrier and bicycle courier, and I have made a study of Toronto's history and streets, so I know the city well. I once made a film for Pleasure Dome, which was shown at CineCycle, titled On the Street Where She Lived. It recalled my adolescent bicycle ride in search of a girl's distant street uptown. So I was disappointed that my friends at CineCycle and Pleasure Dome never asked for my help in their search for Catherine, especially before they advertised the public screening, out of respect for Catherine who may still be living in Toronto and want some say in how, or if, the film is shown and advertised.
Pleasure Dome needed only a few frame blow-ups for publicity, but I shot 64 to document the film more, in case it was seized by Mr. X, and to aid my search. The film contained only two exterior shots of Catherine's house, and they were just of the front porch with no house number visible. Her street was densely treed so only one winter scene showed some of the surrounding houses clearly. In some shots there were street signs, but in the distance and out of focus. As I was carefully inspecting each frame of a scene of Catherine rollerskating, I was thrilled to discover a few frames with a Toronto Transit bus passing at the end of Catherine's street in the distance. It had been missed by all of us who had viewed the film at normal speed, but now looking at each frame seperately with a magnifier in my hand, the bus' distinctive crimson and gold colours, used in those early years of my own childhood, leapt out at me.
I now knew that Catherine's street ended perpendicularly to a 1940s bus route. From scenes showing the sun's shadows in different seasons I determined in which direction her street ran. I also observed that the last block of her street was unusually short. At the Toronto Archives I got a photocopy of a 1940s bus route map which I redrew onto another photocopy of a 1940s city street map from my own collection. By examining my custom map I determined that there were only two streets in all of Toronto that matched my three clues, and those streets were close to my own childhood neighbourhood. As I rode my bicycle uptown, knowing I would be seeing Catherine's street, I felt déjà vu. I was replaying that adolescent bicycle trip (further uptown) in search of another girl's street, but this time I was heading toward my childhood neighbourhood instead of away from it. I was arriving full circle.
With my frame blow-ups in hand I recognized Catherine's street. I identified her house by matching the unique stones of the front porch. The man living there now was fascinated by my story and said that Catherine had visited four years earlier to see her childhood home. Fortunately she had sent him a thankyou note and he had kept it, because her last name was different than when her family lived in this house, so I couldn't have found her through the 1940s City Directories.
He called her and gave her my number, and when she called me suddenly three days later, I was overcome and speechless. I had found her in one week, with two weeks left before the screening. She remembered the films but could only guess how they ended up in a house contents sale. Her father had remarried and moved to another house in Toronto. He was out-lived by his second wife, whose family sold the house after she died and may have missed the names scribbled in pencil on the cans.
Catherine viewed a video copy of the film and permitted the screening to go ahead, although she felt uncomfortable about the public exposure. For that and unrelated reasons she chose not to attend. I felt that the Pleasure Dome poster and a short review in NOW Weekly (using one of my frame blow-ups) made undue reference to "class". They described Catherine's family as "wealthy", "privileged", "elite" and "WASP", but made little or no mention of her father's exceptional filmmaking.
At the screening, CineCycle asked me to guard the entrance against Mr. X. It was packed with more than 100 people including one of Catherine's sons, as well as the man now living in the house and his three little daughters. The film was shown silent, and the audience was very respectful, with no walk-outs.
But Mr. X snuck in after it started. When it ended he threatened to charge Heath with theft if he didn't get the film back. He called the police, who came and listened to both sides of the story, but nobody mentioned Catherine's rights to the film. When I tried to, the police told me I was out of line. They wouldn't intervene and told Mr. X and Heath to settle it themselves or in civil court. It was not a criminal matter. We haven't heard from Mr. X since, but believe that Catherine holds the copyright to the film.
Due to her business travels we didn't meet Catherine in person until a month after the screening. She is determined to keep the film from Mr. X, and has agreed with CineCycle's plan to deposit the original with an archives and to provide her with good video copies. Later we organized a private screening at CineCycle for her and many of her family and friends, some of whom were in the film and whom she hadn't seen in years. She was reunited with them and with the original film, which they all watched for the first time in 45 years.
Written with assistance from Polly Perverse, and permission from Catherine.