Super 8 Filmmaker John Porter, Toronto, Canada
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The first people 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 40s) groups of enthusiasts laid the basis for "alternative" cinema. In 1948 the Toronto Film Society began its monthly screenings of rare 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 1000, strict rules were followed to ensure perfect viewing conditions, and discussion groups were held afterward.
Throughout the 1950s and early 60s, when the society was guided by Dorothy and Oscar Burritt, programmes usually consisted of an hour of shorts before the feature and among those shorts were films by such artists as Marcel Duchamp, Louis 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 Theatre, the feature Kameradschaft (Pabst, Germany, 1931) was preceded by Maya Deren's At Land (USA, 1944) and A Study in Choreography For Camera (USA, 1945), and a discussion of the two films.
Later that year the Toronto and National Film Societies brought 61-year-old Hans Richter to Toronto for the Canadian premiere of his recent feature film Dreams That Money Can Buy (USA, 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 R.O.M. Theatre and an exhibit of Richter's personal collection of paintings was hung in the lobby. At the first screening Richter discussed "Aspects of the Experimental Film" with the audence. Later, at The University of Toronto's Department of Art and Archaeology, he lectured on "Art and the Experimental Film" to university and art school students. Dreams That Money Can Buy was previewed by Herbert Whittaker ("a new kind of film") in the daily Globe & Mail on October 27, and a subsequent interview with Richter in the October 31 Globe revealed that the Ontario Censors had cut out some nude scenes. The total attendance for the four screenings was 1,840.
On November 6, 1950 the Toronto and University of Toronto Film Societies brought Maya Deren to Toronto for a lecture-demonstration in the Women's Union Theatre (now the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse), 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 along with the feature La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (Dreyer, France, 1928).
Herbert Whittaker again wrote a review in the Globe, and the U. of T.'s newspaper The Varsity printed a cover article and photograph with an interview. University student Graeme Ferguson made a film parody of At Land called At Sea. Days later she appeared at the Montreal Cine-Club and the Canadian Film Institute's publication Canadian Film News carried an exclusive article by Deren entitled "The Poetic Film" in which she discusses the lack of acceptance of the medium, especially in the United States, and says, "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 her biggest Canadian fan, young experimental filmmaker Claude Jutra. In the same issue, George Patterson of the Toronto Film Society wrote in his article Maya Deren Comes to Town, "She was astounded to find we had been running her silent films at silent speed (they were shot at sound speed - J.P.), calling us 'long-suffering ones'.".
She developed some close friendships in Toronto and in September 1951 she returned to conduct a production workshop. For three weeks at the Queensway Studios, she directed 26 society members, 7 dancers and 2 choreographers on a film idea which she had confided to Dorothy Burritt in advance letters. "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 at Cartwright Hall in , 44 Devonshire Pl., University of Toronto, accompanied by three other Deren films. Douglas S. Wilson of the film society later wrote, "The film was completed, but Deren was not satisifed with it, and took it back to New York, and it is almost certainly lost. However, it served as a run through for Deren's The Very Eye of Night." which was to be her last completed film.
Although she was a controversial presence, her incredible energy and style impressed everyone. She left behind a league of friends, fans and "groupies" (taking only a few with her), and a lasting influence on the Canadian film community.
Written with assistance from the Explorations Programme, The Canada Council for the Arts,
When recounting Canada in the 1950s there seems to be one overriding feature - that of foreign influence, especially American. To this day there has never been room in Canada for a commercial feature film industry to develop but Hollywood did allow us a successful short film industry, usually contained within government agencies. One atypical example was the Canadian Cameo series (1932-1954) of 85 commercial shorts produced by Associated Screen News of Montreal. These were entertaining Hollywood-style documentaries and stories directed by Gordon Sparling, creatively photographed by Alfred Jaquemin and distributed internationally. Rhapsody in Two Languages (1934) was a "city symphony" about Montreal inspired by those popular experimental films from Europe and complete with optical effects, rapid cutting, negative images and a dizzying climax.
In the 1930s The Vancouver Film Society (VFS) was formed and like other such societies it held private screenings of foreign "art" films. Members rarely made films except the occasional message or joke film meant for the society. One wonderful exception to this rule was and, made by VFS members Dorothy Fowler and Margaret Roberts in the mid-1940s. Fowler had worked for the National Film Board (NFB) in Vancouver and obviously had seen Norman McLaren's work. This short 16mm film contains an array of experimental techniques - painting and scratching, negative and reversed images, chaotic camera movements, and holes punched in the frames which were then filled with other images. In the late 1940s Dorothy (Fowler) Burritt and husband Oscar moved to Toronto where they helped found the Toronto Film Society (TFS) which in its early years under her guidance would greatly influence local film artists by holding the only Toronto screenings (albeit private) of "art" films, and by sponsoring personal visits of established experimental film artists/apostles from New York such as Maya Deren and Hans Richter. (See The Funnel Newsletter, Nov/Dec 1983).
In 1950 Maya Deren presented her lecture-demonstration at the Royal Ontario Museum Theatre, including the screening of four of her films. The following year she returned to conduct a production workshop with TFS members, which involved two weeks of group meetings and then a "mad weekend" of round-the-clock shooting sessions at the Queensway Studios. Both visits were emotional, chaotic and largely frustrating for everyone because the naive Torontonians were incapable of understanding and appreciating her entire approach to film. Her film project Ensemble for Somnambulists couldn't have succeeded and after one token screening in Toronto she took it back to New York (to this day sitting in storage at Anthology Film Archives) and re-shot it later as The Very Eye of Night. She was an extremely eccentric and sensitive artist, a graceful and sensuous "cat-woman" (William Ronald) with terrific presence, who used her sex to communicate. Of the few Torontonians who appreciated her, most were men.
Norman McLaren was already an experienced experimental filmmaker when, in 1941, he arrived at the NFB in Ottawa from Britain via a two-year stay in New York where he associated with some underground filmmakers. He was hired at the NFB by John Grierson - a Briton who in the 1930s had been McLaren's employer at England's General Post Office Film Unit where filmmakers were given much freedom to experiment. Film technicians were almost non-existent in Canada in 1940 and Grierson, as first head of the NFB, proceeded to hire experienced Europeans and Americans like McLaren, but as founder of the animation department McLaren himself searched locally for young artists to train. His first employees were Rene Jodoin and Jean-Paul Ladouceur from Montreal's School of Fine Art. In 1943 he hired Ontario College of Art (OCA) alumni Grant Munro, Evelyn Lambart, Jim McKay and George Dunning.
With the same freedom to experiment on their own films that McLaren had received from Grierson, they all developed very personal styles. They trained themselves in movement by experimenting with jointed cut-outs which was very quick and cheap. Dunning, following McLaren's example of making the most of the least, applied this device with "immense imagination, freshness and vitality"' to his early films like Cadet Rousselle (1946) which "show an individual style, perhaps more strongly than any other of the NFB animators except McLaren" (2).
Some tenuous but interesting connections may be made between this particular technique and local film work. Of course the device dates back to the origins of cinema but its most accomplished practitioner was Germany's Lotte Reiniger whose silhouette films influenced Toronto artist Bryant Fryer to make several similar films in the late 1920's and early 30's. His films were never distributed and probably were not seen by other local artists. For ten years Reiniger had worked with Berthold Bartosch whose own style of experimental cut-out animation influenced Dunning's later work. Later in the mid-30s Reiniger worked at the GPO Film Unit when McLaren was there. In the 1950s Dunning and McKay would pass this technique on to Michael Snow and Graham Coughtry. At the NFB in the 1960s and 70s Evelyn Lambart developed a variation of the technique for a series of her own films, then in the 1970s Reiniger spent a year as guest artist at the NFB.
In 1950 Dunning and McKay moved back to Toronto and with business partner John Ross started their own company - Graphic Associates at 56 Grenville St. By the next year they had built their own studio in Kleinburg where Maya Deren visited and showed some of her films. All that McKay remembers about her is that she admired their cats.
At this time, due to heavy USA investment, Canada was the third fastest growing nation in the world. Toronto was "Boomtown, North America" but the expansion was qualitatively limited, problematic for the aspiring modern artist. The OCA provided sound basic education - but most teachers in the Drawing and Painting Department were Group of Seven adherents and didn't encourage experimentation. (Conspicuous exceptions were Fred Hagen and Jock Macdonald.) Thus, styles conceived in Europe and established in New York inspired the experimental artist. Commercial art offered good training and work - a traditional way of earning a living for the Canadian artist and seemingly an eternal fate. The annual juried exhibitions held by organizations like the Ontario Society of Artists, the R.C.A. and the Women's Committee of the Art Gallery of Toronto supplied the only venues for emerging talent. Accepted artists were required to pay an entry fee and matte and frame their own work. There were hardly any art patrons. There were only two commercial galleries - Roberts and Laing - and they were conservative. "The Toronto art world including film was at least fifty years behind. It was unbelievable! Here we were 600 miles from New York which was on fire with ideas but it might as well have been six million miles." (William Ronald)
One of the first to enter this void was Joyce Wieland. She and her sister lived on their own - perhaps prompting the strong sense of the independent woman which would carry her through future years in the male-dominated Canadian art scene. From early childhood she developed an interest in drawing and movies, influenced by American comics and frequent visits to the King's Playhouse cinema at Queen and Dovercourt to see exotic costume dramas like Buck Rogers, Snow White and The Charge of the Light Brigade (she hated the NFB animations). These interests manifested themselves in a fascination for her toy movie camera-projector and in her own comic strip creation, female superhero Agent X9. In the art course at Central Technical School in the mid-40s she was in heaven, a discovery of what art could be. Her teachers, such as Doris McCarthy, were mostly women. They would dare to play music in class and were acknowledged as being better than those at OCA. At the age of 16 she entered the barren landscape of the Toronto art world and after her initial cold exposure she settled into the secure job of graphic art at E, S & A Robinson. Its weekly drawing classes with live models helped her to endure for four years but there were 15 others there all wanting to be independent artists and with no place to go. "In 1950 I could walk with my girlfriend Mary from Broadview and Danforth to Keele St. and we wouldn't see anything. We made suicide pacts. We would say `This is life and this is what happens to you so we might as well jump off the bridge' (The Bloor Viaduct), and we were considering it because there was fuck-all! There was an art gallery and a few people but no feeling."
But around this time there was a small loose community developing around the OCA and Gerrard ("Greenwich") Street Village, Toronto's provincial miniature bohemia. Michael Snow and Bob Cowan had been young rebels around their Rosedale and Kingsway neighbourhoods respectively. Their early interests were drawing (Snow's own comic strips were Slammer Samson and Aeroplane Ace, 1938) and music, which evolved into a passion for jazz while they were both attending Upper Canada College Preparatory School in the mid-40s. Movies were not prominent in their early lives. While at OCA from 1948 to 1952 they were increasingly drawn to New York culture. Cowan took Jock Macdonald's class trips to NYC and as Toronto Film Society members, he and friend William Ronald attended Maya Deren's 1950 lecture-demonstration. "I didn't understand what I was looking at and nobody else did. Everyone seemed to dislike what she was showing except me, but I couldn't defend her because I didn't know what I'd been through. She was hypnotizing, but positive" (Cowan). Other "beats" associated with this OCA/NYC/Jazz community were: Graham Coughtry, ex of the Montreal Museum School of Art and Design; Dennis Burton from Alberta and Pickering College, and whose father exposed him extensively to comics, jazz and all the most American-male pop culture; Gordon Rayner and Richard Williams, both from the art course at Northern Vocational School; Richard Gorman; Robert Markle; Don Owen; and others.
In 1951 ex-University of Toronto economics student Avrom Isaacs opened his Greenwich Art Shop on Hayter Street where he met these young artists and showed interest in their work. He hired Cowan in his shop and dared to display paintings by such unknown beginners as Snow and Coughtry in his window. Later in 1955 he was encouraged by these neglected artists to open his Greenwich Gallery at 736 Bay St. - Toronto's first avant-garde gallery. In no time he was responding to artists' requests to hold public poetry readings and later, mixed-media events. During these early years there were excursions to Buffalo's Albright-Knox Gallery to see New York abstract and action-paintings like deKoonings and Pollocks. There were long journeys to New York and even Europe - Cowan studied in Paris in 1952, and in 1953 Wieland, Snow and Coughtry were all travelling around Europe separately. Richard Williams, who had worked at Graphic Associates, moved to England (crossing over with Coughtry) to eventually become a world-recognized commercial animator.
There were all-night jam sessions and theoretical discussions laced with drinking. They were living in garrets and shared houses, and some were receiving their first public exposure. Although they wouldn't meet until 1955, Snow and Wieland were each included in separate society exhibitions at The Art Gallery of Toronto in 1952. In 1955 Bob Cowan and William Ronald moved to New York, Ronald staying briefly with Maya Deren, and Cowan attending talks with her. Snow and Coughtry had a much-publicized exhibition at the Hart House Gallery which was attended by George Dunning from Graphic Associates - now located at 21 Grenville St. Dunning was hiring young artists to train in animation just as McLaren had done, so he hired both artists, noticing that Snow's paintings were animation-related (e.g. - the Paul Klee influenced A Man With a Line, 1954) although Snow himself hadn't noticed and never even considered film until working at Graphic. Then Dunning hired Wieland (introducing her to the others for the first time) whose paintings were also film-related (sequential) but she knew it and she definitely was looking to work in film.
The new camera-operator at Graphic was Toronto-born Warren Collins who had diligently trained himself from early childhood in several film-related arts. He and his brother each had their own workshops in their Rosedale home and at age 7 he was building puppets and model theatres. His early film influences were similar to Wieland's - Disney's animated features, and musicals with extravagant sets and costumes. From age ten he was taking weekend and summer courses and jobs in acting and stage production. While at Malvern Collegiate he joined the after-school drawing and design course, and the photography club, using his own camera and home darkroom. After leaving school he worked at Ashley & Crippen Portrait Photographers where he first operated a movie camera shooting weddings. He joined the Toronto Film Society and in 1949 attended Hans Richter's experimental film screening and lecture. In 1951 he bought his own cherished 16mm movie camera and made a commissioned film Canoe Trip Diary for Taylor Statten Camps.
While working at Spence Caldwell he learned animation and in 1953 he made The Shaggy Bear, his first of many personal films which usually combine artistic techniques with Toronto art scene subject matter. This incredible puppet film is about a bear who visits a Les Fauves exhibition complete with Collins' miniature replicas of the Art Gallery of Toronto and famous art works. Collins introduced his Graphic Associates colleagues to personal filmmaking by filming their activities, casting them in his spoofs, and assisting their own productions. Some of his films were: Jazz Party at Mike Snow's (1954); Salada Tea Commercials (1955/56) starring Snow, Coughtry and Wieland; A Salt in the Park (1956) with Snow, Wieland and Cowan; OSA Opening Ceremonies (1956) with Snow, Wieland and Burton; and Joyce Wieland's Opening at Here & Now Gallery (1960). With Collins' camera, dining-room table and assistance, Snow made his first film A-Z (1956) an erotic animation using Paul Klee influenced cut-outs of furniture and dishes. Another Graphic employee who received help from Collins was George Gingrass who made several ambitious spoof films in the late 1950's starring his colleagues.
The free-for-all activity at Graphic was fun and inspirational but not business-like. Jim McKay had left in 1955 complaining of Toronto's lab facilities and before long founded his own company - Film Design which to this day he runs at 299 Queen St. West. In 1956 Wieland and others were fired for fooling around too much, leaving Snow (as head of animation) and Gingrass just before the company folded. Dunning moved to England to establish another company which became famous for producing The Beatles' cartoon TV series and Yellow Submarine. His own surrealist works include The Wardrobe (1959), The Flying Man (1962), The Apple (1962), and Canada is My Piano, a triple-screen cartoon for Expo '67. The CBC Graphics Department purchased all the equipment and hired Collins at the same time, where he remains today. Coughtry had already been hired there and along with Dennis Burton stayed several years and helped to earn the department international recognition for innovative animation. Conversely, Coughtry's paintings reflected his pre-cinema style of animation. The only film of his which he has saved is Unk (1959), a two minute cut-out animation.
Through the late 1950s around Isaacs Gallery and a few other emerging adventurous galleries, these painters were kept quite busy producing, exhibiting and performing their ground-breaking work. Around 1958 Gordon Rayner was starting a family in Rosedale and he bought an 8mm camera for home movies. This was his first film work and as a visual artist he naturally began experimenting with the aesthetics of black and white (more expensive than colour), minimal lighting, graininess and contrast. One example was Jekyll & Hyde starring himself with self-applied make-up. He built a simple animation stand to film his paintings. In the early 1960s, with a 16mm camera, he shot 20 hours of footage toward a feature film Enjoy It and then Be Sure It's Out starring John O'Keefe and Nobuo Kubota. Much of his film stock and processing was obtained from CBC donations and The Canada Council's first film grant (1960) which was awarded to Rayner after he lobbied against their neglect of film art. In 1966, posing as the press, he shot a film of the Rolling Stones in their Maple Leaf Gardens dressing room. In 1967 an undetermined amount of his footage and equipment was lost in a studio fire, which discouraged him from further film work.
In 1959 Wieland and Collins bought her first camera (a used 16mm) and they shot her first film (other than some painting-on-film and cut-out experiments done while at Graphic). Dog Story is a couple of hours of footage about the variety of pet dogs, but after editing one short sequence they realized that they couldn't agree on an approach and the film remains unedited in Collins' possession. In 1960 during her solo exhibition at Dorothy Cameron's Here and Now Gallery, Wieland organized what may be Toronto's first public screening of personal films by local artists. It included films by Graphic artists and Michel Lambeth, and it was reviewed by Robert Fulford.
Around this time Wieland and Snow were making frequent and extended visits to New York, staying with friends such as Bob Cowan. Snow was beginning his Walking Woman series and experimenting with photo-documentation, and consequently was planning a Walking Woman film. New York acquaintance Ben Park financed Snow's first attempt at this but Park grew dissatisfied and repossessed the unedited footage, except for a very short sequence with Wieland and Marcel Duchamp which Park gave to Snow. They eventually moved to New York in 1962 just when the underground film community there was exploding. Cowan had already been an active part of it, attending and projecting at seminal screenings. About 1961 he had begun making his own films, some with William Ronald or the infamous Kuchar Brothers, and he also performed in several Kuchar films. His early films - Rooftops, Child, Drumwaters, Mythos, Solo, and Go Out With Anyone Because They May Have Interesting Friends - were Regular 8mm which was a crude and frustrating medium for someone so serious about soundtracks and dense imagery, so he switched to 16mm and doesn't show the 8mm's.
From 1963 to 1965 Wieland shot her own series of 8mm films - Larry's Recent Behaviour, Peggy's Blue Skylight, Patriotism and Watersark. In 1964 Snow produced New York Eye and Ear Control (16mm) which was his second Walking Woman film (completed this time) and which caused uproars among seasoned audiences at initial screenings in New York and Toronto. Again, their paintings, etc. were film-related (e.g. - Wieland's Four Films, 1963, oil on canvas, and Snow's entire Walking Woman series which is like a snapshot repeated thousands of times, often in sequence).
Back in Toronto, which Cowan, Snow and Wieland would visit frequently, there had been several "Neo-Dada" shows including happenings, film installations and other mixed-media. In 1964 on Coughtry's suggestion, Isaacs had Collins organize two public screenings of artists' films, mostly Canadian, including those of Dunning, Snow, Wieland, Collins, Gingrass, Coughtry, Cowan, Arthur Lipsett, George Manupelli, Al Sens, Louis DeNiverville, Carlos Marchiori, and others. Held in February and November, these repeated screenings were extremely popular and received much press coverage. Obviously artistic film activity in Toronto was exploding right along with New York. Within the next few years various forms of independent film production, distribution and exhibition would be permanently established in Ontario and Canada.
In the 1950s, a small, loose community comprised Toronto's first generation of contemporary film artists (see Toronto Artists Discovering Film, 1950s, Vanguard, Summer 1984). In the 1960s, the main trend in film activity was towards consolidation. Artists began forming their own organizations for collective production, distribution, promotion and exhibition. Elsewhere in Ontario distinct groups emerged and organized.
In 1960 Dorothy Cameron's Here and Now Gallery opened its second season with Joyce Wieland's first solo exhibition and the preview night featured Toronto's first public screening of artist's films, complete with popcorn, and organized by Wieland. Gordon Rayner received the Canada Council's first film grant and Julius Kohanyi began making films. Kohanyi was an early independent creator in Toronto of documentaries, usually about art and artistically done. He had hitch-hiked to Hollywood in the early 1950s and studied film briefly at U. of Southern California, but returned to Toronto and bought his own Bolex 16mm camera. He has made many successful independent films but more importantly he has actively taught, encouraged and promoted other local filmmakers. He remembers screening his first film at a Toronto coffee house ("Unheard of then ... the first time.").
This coffee house was probably the Bohemian Embassy which was a unique outlet and meeting place for artists of all kinds, in fact it could qualify as Toronto's first artist-run gallery. It was opened in 1960 by a group of CBC writers (mainly Don Cullen, Peter Oomen and Ted Morris) in the small third floor hayloft of an ex-livery stable at 7 St. Nicholas Lane. Its out-of-the-way location and rustic atmosphere made it ideal for Toronto's dark-clothed, disaffiliated beatniks from the Gerrard Street Village, as well as the curiosity-seekers. Several artists such as Richard Gorman and those CBC writers lived around the corner in apartments above Yonge Street stores, north of Wellesley Street. The Embassy was open six nights a week until the early morning and featured folk, chamber and jazz music, poetry readings, plays and revues, art exhibits, happenings and film screenings. Memberships were 25 cents and admission was $1. The Toronto police were so suspicious of such a place that they immediately began a campaign of harassment highlighted by a farcical court trial.
In 1962 Michael Snow and Joyce Wieland moved to New York where they became actively involved in the New American Cinema Group which greatly influenced international film activity. Maya Deren had begun public screenings of avant-garde films at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village and Amos Vogel continued them there under the name Cinema 16 (1947-63). His Cinema 16 Film Library (1950-66) was the first distribution set-up in North America for avant-garde film. In 1955 New York filmmaker Jonas Mekas started Film Culture magazine and in 1960 he organized all independent filmmakers into the New American Cinema Group which rejected censorship and planned co-operative financing and distribution. "We don't want false, polished, slick films - we prefer them rough, unpolished but alive!"
In 1962 Mekas and the others organized the Film-makers' Co-operative which distributed all films submitted to it, and then they began the famous Monday night screenings at the Charles Theatre on New York's Lower East Side. Soon after, they founded the Film-makers' Cinematheque. Toronto artist Bob Cowan, living in New York since 1955, was often the projectionist at these early screenings. Besides the filmmakers' showcases, films were distributed to university film societies, coffee houses, art centres and midnight cinemas. In Europe the London Film-makers' Co-operative followed and the Brussels Experimental Film Competition began at the 1958 World's Fair. At the third Brussels competition in 1963/64, Mekas opened a European tour of New American Cinema which attracted unbelievable publicity and caused several student riots. Included was Jack Smith's horrifying and abrasive Flaming Creatures (1962/63) which was banned by the Brussels screening committee.
One aspect of the New American Cinemas was "expanded cinema" - film as environment. Probably the first "underground" use of multiple projection was Kenneth Anger' s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954) shown on three screens in 1958. Stan VanDerBeek's Move-Movies (1965) used two fixed projectors and five portable ones. Andy Warhol's first multiple projection was The Exploding Plastic Inevitable (1966) but the most successful of all underground films was his 3-hour, two-screen Chelsea Girls (1966) which established its reputation during a long run at a mid-Manhattan cinema. Projectionist Bob Cowan was allowed by Warhol to choose and vary at his whim, the combinations of image and soundtrack. "I was using all kinds of lenses and filters. I made it wide screen and put little films inside it. I had three projectors to work with so every night it was different. I got so used to the two soundtracks, I could have them talk back and forth from screen to screen." Light shows, happenings and performance art were first used by experimental music and poetry groups such as Vortex Concerts (1957-59) in San Francisco, Fluxus in New York, and the Once group from Ann Arbor with George Manupelli and Robert Ashley which performed in Toronto in 1963. Expanded cinema was closely tied to the entire beatnik liberation involving sex, hallucinogenic drugs and psychedelic simulations.
All of this activity did not go unnoticed in Toronto and it was mostly the literary community which passed the word. The Isaacs Gallery had held readings by local and American writers since it opened in 1956, but in 1960 the Bohemian Embassy became the most active meeting place for writers and other artists. Victor Coleman first got involved by reading at the Embassy but later became one of ten part-owners and began organizing weekly literary and discussion evenings. He audited classes at nearby Buffalo University and Bard College where he met "heavy duty" American writers such as P. Adams Sitney and Robert Kelly who were intimately involved with the Fluxus and New American Cinema groups. The Book Cellar at Bay and Bloor Streets sold magazines such as Jonas Mekas' Film Culture, Lightworks from Rochester, and Robert Kelly's Matter which published Stan Brakhage's writings on how to make films. The Bohemian Embassy attempted at least two happenings in the mid-1960s. The very early one in January 1963 was staged for CBC-TV but failed because no one had seen one before and they didn't know what they were doing. More successful was the 24th of May Campbell's Soup Celebration organized by Coleman and his American-writer friend Thomas Jackrell at the same time as Warhol's first Toronto exhibition and visit (at the Gerrald Morris Gallery in April, 1965). It was a rare occasion when all the Embassy people worked on a show together.
The Isaacs Gallery held repeated screenings twice in 1964, and every screening was sold out. The programme on February 12, 13, 19 and 20 contained 20 Canadian 16mm films running a total of 2.5 hours. The programme on November 9, 10, 11 and 12 was shorter but more varied. There were 3 pieces by George Manupelli of Ann Arbor's Once group, including Five Short Films which were very minimal for the time (white shapes on black leader), and December 1962: A Film for Hooded Projector which had a soundtrack but no projected light. There were 3 sound-striped 8mm films: one by Joyce Wieland; one by Bob Cowan (his first home-town screening); and Little Walk (4 min.) by Michael Snow which until now has never been mentioned in any of his biographies or filmographies. It was projected onto a white Walking Woman sculpture and it was his only 8mm film until his segment of a Funnel group film in 1982.
At Isaac's annual Elves' Art exhibit in December 1964, playful artist Richard Gorman projected a 16mm Mobius loop. In March 1965 the Junior Women's Committee of the Art Gallery of Toronto staged a massive Happening there. 1500 people: made junk sculptures with Dennis Burton, Richard Gorman and Gordon Rayner; helped Harold Towne produce a giant mural; danced to The Incredible Artists Jazz Band; and viewed experimental films including a film shot during the happening by circulating cameramen. When the bars ran out of liquor everyone left.
In April, 1964 Michael Snow's New York Eye and Ear Control premiered at the second Ten Centuries Concert (which had helped finance the film) in the University of Toronto's Edward Johnson Building. After a pre-screening the organizers considered cancelling the film but they went ahead with the screening and during its first few minutes 300 of the 400 viewers walked out. "300 Flee Far-Out Film" announced the Toronto Star. Most people had objected to the chance jazz score but New York's underground audiences were much more volatile in those days. When Snow's film was shown later at the Film-makers' Cinematheque along with a new Andy Warhol film, the Warhol crowd threw pellets at the Snow film, but Warhol liked it.
In London, Ontario - another wealthy city with a very active and independent cultural life - painters were beginning to experiment with various media including film. John Chambers, Keewatin Dewdney, Boyce Emley, Greg Curnoe, John Patterson and John Straiton all began making films in 1964/65. Straiton's 8mm Portrait of Lydia won best animation and best amateur film at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival.
It seems that the summer of 1965 belonged to Richard Gorman. All three daily newspapers in Toronto carried articles about his painting on film. He began by making a collage from old 16mm silent movies, then he painted out parts of each frame with black. Then he switched to 35mm blank film. "It has everything on it - painting on the frames in colour, punching holes in the film, and stamping it with a rubber stamp. I've done about three months of work, at 18 hours a day, on film", and he produced original soundtracks. "I want to create a whole environment using 4-track sound and film and slide projectors on all the walls, so that the audience becomes enveloped in it." He hoped to present it at Expo '67 but the Bohemian Embassy on August 29 was as far as it got. He called it The War of the Worlds and it was shown on the last of a three night group series. It utilized four projectors, electronic music and a "set" of movie screens including a kinetic, mobile-like screen, and a "cubistic" screen made up of several white boxes stuck together at odd angles. "It's going to be a MOVIE movie show."
Peter Churchill, then manager of the Embassy, remembers it as his favourite programme there. "It was spectacular. The audience was so caught up in it that when it finished they demolished the whole screening apparatus, which was a fitting celebration." Churchill's next favourite programme was the Make-Your-Own-Film Night with a dozen projectors, some splicers, and black, clear and found film to work with. "It was incredible! The place was jammed and I had to ask everyone to leave at 5 a.m."
In the fall of 1965 Elizabeth and Victor Coleman organized seven weekly screenings of New American Cinema at the Embassy titled Cinema Seven (after 7 St. Nicholas Lane). The first night, November 4, was to include Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures and the Toronto Telegram picked up the story. "Underground Sex Film Set For Showing Here - Flaming Creatures Sear Censor's Wings". The article detailed the film's recent history of bannings and arrests, and described it as a transvestite/homosexual film featuring nudity and rape. Censor O.J. Silverthorne stated that university and private club (e.g. - the Embassy) screenings of 16mm films escape his jurisdiction unscathed. "The only threat facing the Embassy is the police" (who had charged Dorothy Cameron for her Eros '65 art exhibit earlier that year). Before the screening the entire series sold out. The morality squad and all the press were there but the film didn't arrive from New York on time. Coleman replaced it with New York Eye and Ear Control which he borrowed from Av Isaacs at the last minute. This time the audience didn't flee and they didn't ask for their money back.
Flaming Creatures was promised for the following week but when it finally arrived and the Embassy people pre-screened it, most of them agreed that it shouldn't be shown. "To me it was an utter piece of trash. It wasn't pornographic, just nonsensical, childish, with no redeeming social value." (Peter Churchill). Victor Coleman, however, voted to show the film and felt that the negative response was "largely homophobia" and claimed the film was art. Also, a planned screening of the controversial film Chant d'Amour (Jean Genet, 1950) was cancelled, but the series continued with programmes of Marie Menken films, Norman McLaren films, Toronto films, Kiss (Andy Warhol, 1964) and Dog Star Man (Stan Brakhage, 1959-64). Also in November 1965, Av Isaacs' monthly Mixed Media Concerts began with repeated screenings of New York Eye and Ear Control and Michael Snow's performance Right Reader which formed the basis for his film Short Shave (1965), and which was produced for Mekas' New Cinema Festival One in New York where the term "expanded cinema" was first used.
In 1966 Toronto painter William Ronald, back after 10 years in New York, hosted a weekly CBC-TV programme on the arts called Umbrella. For his interview with Marcel Duchamp he commissioned Bob Cowan to produce a film introduction called The Essence of Marcel Duchamp. For one of his last episodes, when his audience had grown bigger than that of Canadian football, he commissioned the Kuchar Brothers to make a film. Mosholu Holiday stars Mr. and Mrs. Ronald who went back to New York for the shoot, and who already had lots of experience in Bob Cowan's films. The Kuchars made one of their rare trips out of New York, bringing only toothbrush and toothpaste in a paper bag, to come to Toronto and appear on Umbrella with their film.
By late 1966 film activity in the Toronto vicinity was accelerating so much that it becomes almost impossible to trace all productions, screenings and writings. The next generation of independent filmmakers was coming from schools. Torontonian Don Shebib produced four short films from 1961 to 1964 while studying film at UCLA. Seul ou avec d'autres (1962) was a feature produced at the University of Montreal by Denis Heroux, Denys Arcand and Stephanie Venne. Larry Kent at the University of British Columbia produced features, Bitter Ash (1963) and Sweet Substitute (1964), which were usually banned. David Sector made Winter Kept Us Warm (1965) with a cast and crew from Ryerson Polytechnic Institute and the University of Toronto. These films weren't really experimental films but were quite radical by being low-budget, independent features which received relatively wide distribution through university film societies and even some commercial cinemas. They helped inspire filmmaking elsewhere.
At McMaster University in Hamilton there was a student / Bohemian / art community which generated a lot of cultural activity, including visiting American artists. John Hofsess was a "genius" drop-in or non-student who was 10 years older than the others and who possessed manic ambition and resourcefulness. He formed the student union's McMaster Film Board (MFB) with student newspaper film critic Peter Rowe as president. Although they were totally naive about how to make films ("It's a miracle we got an image"), they were familiar with the New American Cinema and their first completed production, Redpath 25 (1966), was a genuine underground experimental film with sexual obsessions, psychedelic imagery and multiple projection. It received great acclaim wherever it was shown.
Most unusual for any experimental filmmaker was Hofsess' Hollywood style of using crews (Rowe was cameraman) and running up huge bills and charging them to any organization which might not object, which always got him into hot water. He immediately managed to get screenings of MFB films in Europe and in New York at the Film-makers Cinematheque and at the Museum of Modern Art. He wrote a five-part series of full page articles about independent filmmaking in the University of Toronto student newspaper, entitled Revolution in Canadian Film. Patricia Murphy was organizing underground film screenings at McMaster, and an annual Arts Festival, probably with Hofsess' help. Her second festival in November 1966 featured Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable with the Velvet Underground and his film Vinyl shown double screen. (Rowe's first MFB film was Buffalo Airport Visions inspired by Nico when he picked her up at the Buffalo Airport and drove her to Toronto.) The festival also held a screening of American underground films including Relativity (Ed Emshwiller), Cosmic Ray (Bruce Conner), Ray Gun Virus (Paul Sharits), The Brig (Jonus Mekas) and Bridges-Go-Round (Shirley Clarke).
The University of Toronto also had a Film Production Club and in the summer of 1966 Bob Fothergill and Sam Gupta made Oddballs, Glen McCauley made This, and David Cronenberg made Transfer and From the Drain, all of which were short derivatives of mainstream filmmaking. At York University Michael Hirsh made The Greeks Had a Word for It, Lynette and the Hammock, and Chinese Ball Game, which generally were more experimental (he was from New York). Through a November 4th screening at the U. of T. organized by McCauley, all these filmmakers discovered one another and by December they had planned the Film-makers' Co-operative of Canada modelled after the Film-makers' Co-op in New York, accepting all films submitted to it. It later became the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre. Its first directors were Bob Fothergill and Iain Ewing (who had worked at the U. of T. with Cronenberg and Secter, and whose own first film was Picaro -1967). Clara Mayer was the manager. The plan was to operate as a collective with elections and a board of directors but few people ever got involved and managers changed frequently. "It was just a distribution centre. I never took it too seriously myself. I gravitate towards where there's some action in terms of production." (Peter Rowe).
Around this time John Hofsess discovered, through Hirsh, Willem Poolman who shared some qualities and interests with Hofsess. Poolman was the eager and idealistic founder/director of Film Canada Ltd. at 1 Charles Street East, which distributed foreign and Quebec "art" films. He was equally willing to spend a lot of money on his interest and he was very interested in underground films. He became a loyal patron, helping to finance Hofsess' Black Zero (1967), the sequel to Redpath 25 (the two combined were called Palace of Pleasure). And Poolman helped finance many other independent films in the years to come. He helped to finance the rental of space on the third floor of 719 Yonge Street (just up the street) for the Film-makers' Co-op.
Film Canada Ltd. had obtained many films for distribution but there were few places in Toronto and Canada to rent them so it took a 10-year lease on the old post office across Charles Street and with $200,000 converted it into Cinecity - the best independent cinema in the city, with seating for 300, air-conditioning, stereo sound and the latest 35mm and 16mm projection equipment. Willem Poolman envisaged it as a Centre for the Cinematic Arts with editing, screening, library and lounge facilities for independent filmmakers. Clyde Gilmour called it the "Swinging Cathedral of the New Cinema". It came fairly close to that in its short life, with filmmakers passing through regularly, using the facilities to work on films.
Besides the daily commercial "art" cinema, a New Cinema Club was planned with weekly private screenings of underground films. To initiate this, Willem Poolman went to California, and he sent Bob Fothergill to New York to contract films and filmmakers for a marathon weekend festival. Filmmakers were offered travel expenses, room and board, and film rentals, and the festival became extremely expensive. But it may forever remain the biggest event of its kind in Toronto. Cinethon featured underground films non-stop from the evening of Thursday, June 15 to midnight Saturday, June 17, 1967. Visiting filmmakers included Kenneth Anger, George and Mike Kuchar, Shirley Clarke, Ed Emshwiller, and Robert Nelson, many of them meeting for the first time. A good portion of the New American Cinema catalogue was screened and just about every local film available. Joyce Wieland presented a three screen, expanded cinema version of her film Bill's Hat. There were so many films that the Censor Board gave blanket approval to everything not shown to them. The house was constantly packed, even in the early mornings.
In May, 1967 the Film-makers' Co-op had published its first catalogue - two stapled pages - containing 17 local films, most of them the student films mentioned earlier. After Cinethon many American films remained with either the Co-op or Film Canada, depending on how the filmmaker wanted their film handled. Screenings of experimental films continued quite regularly from this point on, in the Toronto vicinity and throughout Canada. Weekly Saturday midnight screenings began at Cinecity with films such as Chelsea Girls and Stan Brakhage's 4-hour Art of Vision (1961-65) presented in person by Jonas Mekas, and they continued year round until 1971 when Budge Crawley took over Film Canada and let all the underground films go. Even the Art Gallery of Ontario got into the act. On three nights in November 1967 it presented an expanded version of Joyce Wieland's Expanded Cinema Bill's Hat, and in late 1968 it held a national competition - Canadian Artists' 68 - in three categories: painting, sculpture and film. It received 126 film entries and exhibited 20 of them selected by Jonas Mekas. Four of them won $1,500 prizes: Wavelength (Michael Snow, 1967); Slow Run (Larry Kardish, 1968); R34 (John Chambers, 1967); and Maltese Cross Movement (Keewatin Dewdney, 1968).
International distribution and exhibition of Canadian independent films continued and the Co-op catalogue expanded. The London, Ontario artists formed their own Cinema 16 (1966) and independent distribution co-op representing some twenty local filmmakers. A new Canadian bi-monthly film magazine Take One began in late 1966 and carried a regular column by Bob Cowan from New York on experimental film. And there was a great number of new filmmakers still emerging, many of them forming the Toronto Filmmakers Co-op, a production centre, in 1971. Among them, for example, were Jim Anderson, Keith Lock and Whitney Smith who all won prizes at the 10th Muse International Student Film Festival in Amsterdam, October 1969. Anderson's Scream of a Butterfly won both first prize in its category, and the Gand Prix of the whole festival.
"Take Two: Toronto Filmmakers
A wonderful, special, film event last Monday at Ryerson
University, Toronto, where I studied Film Production 1969-1974. Current
students of my filmmaker friend Izabella Pruska-Oldenof organized a free
public screening of rare 16mm films by TORONTO FILMMAKERS 1965-1972, with
six of the filmmakers present for a panel discussion, and an exhibition
of film ephemera of the time. There were two different screenings and
a catered intermission, so it was a 4-hour event.
Some of the "TAKE TWO" event curators and organizers in their ephemera exhibition in the gallery. L-R: students Chelsea Keen, Alex Jokinen, Tj Alston, and Professor Izabella Pruska-Oldenof. Absent: Bing Wang, Stacey Turner. (Photo by John Porter)
ROBERT FOTHERGILL and BRUCE ELDER discuss Robert's original copy of the "CINETHON" underground film festival poster designed by Roger Hunt in 1967. (Photo by John Porter)
THE "TAKE TWO" PANEL, L-R: Chelsea Keen, Keith Lock, Betty Ferguson, Michael Snow, Raphael Bendahan, Richard J. Hancox, Robert Fothergill. (Photo by John Porter)
Chelsea Keen introduced the evening to a packed room! (Photo by John Porter)
Toronto Artists' Film Activity 1949-1969