Super 8 Filmmaker John Porter, Toronto, Canada



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Maya Deren in Toronto, 1950 & 1951
a digested excerpt from
A History of Experimental Film in Toronto
by John Porter, The Funnel Newsletter, Nov-Dec 1983

The first organizations to consistently support the personal, artistic use of cinema were the film societies, cine-clubs and critical journals. At various times and places (France in the 1920s, Vancouver in the 1930s, New York and Toronto in the late 1940s) groups of enthusiasts laid the foundations for an "alternative" cinema. In 1948 the Toronto Film Society began its monthly screenings of rare 35mm and 16mm, foreign, local, silent and experimental films. Run entirely on volunteer labour, these private screenings were held in large commercial theatres, accompanied by lengthy programme notes. Attendance averaged between 500 and 1,000, strict rules were followed to ensure perfect viewing conditions, and discussions were held afterward.

Through to the early 1960s, when the society was guided by Dorothy and Oscar Burritt, programmes usually consisted of a feature film preceded by an hour of shorts by artists like Marcel Duchamp, Luis Bunuel, Hans Richter, Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, Ed Emshwiller, Stan Vanderbeek, Robert Breer and many more.
On April 25, 1949 in the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) Theatre, the feature Kameradschaft (Pabst, Germany, 1931) was preceded by Maya Deren's At Land (1944) and A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945), and a discussion of the two shorts.


Later in 1949 the Toronto Film Society and the National Film Society brought 61-year-old Hans Richter to Toronto with his feature film Dreams That Money Can Buy (1944-46) which he had made in collaboration with Leger, Ernst, Man Ray, Duchamp, Calder, etc. The screenings were on October 31, November 2, 11 and 12 in the ROM Theatre and an exhibit of Richter's paintings from his personal collection was hung in the lobby.

At his first screening Richter discussed Aspects of the Experimental Film. Later at the University of Toronto's Department of Art and Archaeology, he lectured on Art and the Experimental Film. Dreams That Money Can Buy was previewed in the daily Globe & Mail (Oct. 27) by Herbert Whittaker ("a new kind of film") and a subsequent interview with Richter in the Globe & Mail (Oct. 31) revealed that the Ontario Censor Board had cut out some nude scenes. The total attendance of the 4 screenings was 1,840.

On November 6, 1950 the Toronto Film Society and the University of Toronto Film Society brought Maya Deren to Toronto for a lecture and screening of her 16mm films in the Women's Union Theatre, 79 St. George St. She showed Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945), Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946) and Meditation on Violence (1948). Her only other film at the time, At Land (1944) had been screened the previous week before the feature film La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (Carl Dreyer, France, 1928).


Herbert Whittaker again wrote a review in the Globe, and the U. of T.'s weekly student newspaper The Varsity printed a cover article incuding a photograph and interview with Deren. U. of T. student and Toronto Film Society member Graeme Ferguson made a film parody of At Land titled At Sea. Days later she appeared at the Montreal Cine-Club. The Canadian Film Institute's publication Canadian Film News carried an exclusive article by Deren titled The Poetic Film in which she discussed the lack of acceptance of the genre, especially in the USA, and said "I was struck by the soundness and poise (for want of a better word) of the Canadian attitude towards the poetic film". The article was accompanied by a caricature of her drawn by a big fan, young experimental filmmaker Claude Jutra. In the same issue Graeme Ferguson wrote in his article Maya Deren Comes to Town, "She was astounded to find we had been running her silent films at silent speed, calling us 'long-suffering ones'." (They were shot at the faster, sound speed.)

She made some close friends in Toronto and returned in September 1951 to conduct a production workshop for the Toronto Film Society. For three weeks at the Queensway Studios she directed 26 members, 7 dancers and 2 choreographers on a film project she had described in advance letters to Dorothy Burritt.


"I have fixed on an idea for a dance film which would be a companion piece to Choreography for Camera - namely the celestial ballet. However the idea which I have in mind seems at the moment to call for being shot entirely in the negative. That is, it would be a pas-de-deux for somnambules. This night idea, the inverse, negative of a day dance, feels good to me although I have not thought out all the details. Hope we can line up at least one, preferably two cameras, besides my own Bolex and Filmo (high speed). I am quite excited about this film. I think it can be a honey. All the film instincts that I have not been able to act upon in the past few years are surging to the surface in one vast rush and that, I think, will make for a good film."

On October 5 Ensemble for Somnambulists premiered in Cartwright Hall, St. Hilda's College, 44 Devonshire Place, University of Toronto, accompanied by three other Deren films. Film Society member Douglas S. Wilson later wrote "The film was completed but Deren was not satisfied with it and took it back to New York" where it is stored at Anthology Film Archives. Its Toronto public screening may have been its only one. However it served as a rehearsal for The Very Eye of Night, her last completed film.

Although she was a controversial presence, her incredible energy and style impressed everyone. She created a league of friends, fans and "groupies" in Toronto (taking some with her) and a lasting influence on the Canadian film community.

Written with assistance from the Explorations Programme, The Canada Council for the Arts,
and Helen Arthurs, Research Librarian, Toronto Film Society.

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