Super 8 Filmmaker John Porter, Toronto, Canada
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Each generation thinks it’s invented the wheel. It’s human nature, and it’s as it should be. It keeps the world from becoming calcified. However, to paraphrase George Orwell, some wheels are more equal than others.
When I was interviewing filmmakers – Atom Egoyan, Patricia Rozema, Bruce McDonald, Peter Mettler, Ron Mann, Don McKellar, John Greyson – for a special issue of Take One called “Toronto’s (So-Called) New Wave” in 2002, I was struck by the fervor for do-it-yourself filmmaking that typified the attitude of the 1980s. Again, it is the rallying cry of today’s digital revolution. But before digital minicams and before Toronto’s new wave, with its experimental blend of film and video, there were the original do-it-yourselfers, Toronto’s (So-Called) Old Wave, if you will.
Two aspiring filmmakers from Toronto, David Cronenberg and Lorne Michaels, and one from Hamilton, Ontario, Ivan Reitman, were the original founding members of the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre, which celebrates its 40th anniversary in May 2007. They have achieved enormous celebrity and made huge contributions to North American cinema and popular culture over the intervening four decades. Today, David Cronenberg is indisputably one of the finest and most respected directors working in the business. Lorne Michaels is the legendary producer of Wayne’s World and Saturday Night Live, and Ivan (Ghostbusters) Reitman, with a long string of box-office hits, one of the richest and most influential producers in Hollywood. The original do-it-yourselfers have become major players in the Canadian and American filmmaking establishment.
Films came from elsewhere in Toronto in 1965. The previous generation of Toronto filmmakers – the likes of Norman Jewison, Ted Kotcheff and Arthur Hiller (who was born in Edmonton, but began his career in Toronto) – all made a living in the United States or England. No one could conceive of a filmmaking career in this country outside of Quebec or the NFB. Yet Toronto was a vibrant film town, with a large and educated cinema-going audience, the most diverse in the country, and an active experimental film culture. It was centred around the Issacs Gallery, just north of Bloor on east side of Yonge Street.
Winnipeg-born Avrom Issacs became a major player in the Toronto avant-garde art scene in its nascent years. His gallery was a social centre, sponsoring poetry readings, film festivals and the Artists’ Jazz Band. He would organize evening screenings for the underground filmmakers, with the films of Michael Snow, Joyce Wieland and Jack Chambers, and Jonas Mekas from New York City. Issacs was also well connected to the New York scene, and his screenings were an opportunity for the filmmakers to mix and mingle.
David Cronenberg shot his first short, the seven-minute, 16mm Transfer in 1966, and his second, From the Drain (14 minutes), in 1967. He performed most tasks on both films, and while definitely clever student films, they are little more than that. Cronenberg has described From the Drain like “a Samuel Beckett sketch,” as two men sit in a bathtub while a vine grows up through the drain and strangles one of them. In Transfer, two men talk and eat across a table in a snowy field and end up engaged in a duel in which they flap their neckties at one another.
“At the time there was great excitement about New York underground films,” he would later write in Cronenberg on Cronenberg. “You didn’t have to go to Hollywood; you didn’t have to carry someone else’s cans around for twenty years; you could just go out and make a fucking film…. I remember summer nights you’d stroll through various sections of the town that were hippified and you’d find people screening films on sheets strung up on store fronts, and people sitting on the sidewalk watching. It was very exciting. Your film could be one of those, and you were part of it.”
A second University of Toronto student, Iain Ewing, a good friend of Cronenberg’s, made his first’s short, Picaro, at his parents’ cottage in the Ottawa Valley in 1966. Robert Fothergill, then a graduate student at Massey College (University of Toronto) who had completed an M.A. at McMaster and was himself an aspiring filmmaking, called Picaro the most “beautifully shot, and the most sophisticated film of its time.” Ewing found distribution with the McMaster Film Board (MFB), which was structured along the lines of the Film Makers’ Co-operative in New York. It thought of itself as a distributor of alternative films through the circuit of university film societies. MFB members in 1966 included Peter Rowe, John Hofsess, Ivan Reitman and Daniel Goldberg, all barely in their twenties.
In the fall of 1966, Hofsess was let go as editor of McMaster’s literary Muse quarterly and kicked out of the MFB for various offenses. In fact, as it was pointed out by the Student Union, he was not even a registered student at McMaster. This didn’t stop him from attending the University of Toronto, where he wrote in The Varsity, the campus newspaper, in November 1966: “It is the aim of the MFB to produce and acquire films for distribution that not only show the developing talents of amateurs at work, but which contribute immediately to the film culture in Canada and beyond.”
Suddenly McMaster was the smut capital of Canada and making headlines across the province. Larry Zolf from CBC-TV arrived on campus to investigate the story. Needlessly to say the Student Union was not pleased, and Rowe was fired from the MFB. He was accused of going over budget and allowing Hofsess, a non-student in the first place, to make the film. At the time of his dismissal, Peter Rowe wrote the following in The Silhouette Review: “During December , the Film-makers Co-operative of Canada was born. The birth is both an offshoot and an amalgamation of the McMaster Film Board.”
Shortly after this bold declaration, Hofsess and Rowe landed back in Toronto where they hooked up with Willem Poolman, a corporate lawyer with good social connections who had a passion for film. (A few years later he would produce a film on the 1970 Festival Express cross-Canada rock concert, which was eventually released in 2004.) Poolman had it in the works to open Cinecity, an attractive alternative theatre at the corner of Yonge and Charles Street, formerly a Post Office, just up the road from Nat Taylor’s New Yorker. It opened for business April 1, 1967, and was operated by something Poolman called the New Cinema Club, which is how he got around paying union projectionists. Lorne Michaels was the Club’s secretary and publicist.
Poolman also operated Film Canada, a small distribution company that specialized in European art-house films and 16mm prints. He wanted to show the films of Jonas Mekas and the New York underground scene, but Mekas wouldn’t deal with a so-called commercial distributor, so it became in Poolman’s interest to support the fledgling “Film-makers Co-operative of Canada.”
By now Hofsess was in New York, schmoozing with Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd. Poolman turned to Rowe and Hofsess, who had credibility, and eventually Mekas relented and allowed his films to be screened at Cinethon, an ambitious multimedia event that took place at Cinecity over fours days in June 1967. Fothergill and Michaels helped Poolman pull it together; Av Issacs, Harold Town, Wendy Michener, Allan King and other notables were on the festival committee; and Joyce Wieland designed Expanded Cinema for the lobby space, involving stroboscopic lights, slide projectors and portable movie projectors.
Fothergill later recalled: “I was responsible for programming. But Poolman intervened constantly, flinging money in all directions and getting mightily ripped off in the process. Half the New York film community came up to Toronto at his expense, and wandered the streets stoned to the eyeballs. But the festival itself was something of a landmark. Hundreds of movies were screened.” (source: Canadian Journal of Film Studies)
David Cronenberg wrote in Cronenberg on Cronenberg: “I particularly remember the Cinethon: an all-night marathon screening of underground films. You’d come out at three in the morning and have croissants and coffee [and] go back in and see a few more and stumble out in the dawn. And then you’d go back in and see another five hours’ worth. It was fabulous. Transfer was among them.”
As was Hofsess’s incomplete Palace of Pleasure, shown on two screens simultaneously. Some of the local critics were not as impressed. Urjo Kareda wrote in The Globe and Mail, June 1967: “The final section included Transfer, a pathetic effort by Toronto’s David Cronenberg. Horribly acted and scarcely directed, it didn’t have the decency to be original: it was stolen from a Nichols and May sketch.”
Rowe and Hofsess left the running of the Film-makers Co-operative of Canada to others soon after the original announcement was made. Fothergill, who was already teaching in the York University English department, took over and effectively kept it going during its formative years. He wrote an account of these days in the Canadian Journal of Film Studies in 1994: “The founding meeting of the Canadian Filmmakers’ Distribution Centre (or CFDC; it acquired the middle M only later, when the federal government set up the Canadian Film Development Corporation) took place May 1967. The location was my living room in a little apartment at 80 Lowther Avenue. The four founding directors were: myself, David Cronenberg, Jim Plaxton – at the time working for Film Canada, now a leading Toronto theatrical designer – and Lorne Michaels.” Cronenberg recalls a slightly different lineup in Cronenberg on Cronenberg: “…Bob Fothergill, Iain Ewing, Ivan Reitman and I started the Toronto Film Co-op.”
My inclination is to go with Fothergill’s lineup as it has the advantage of precision, location and date, and Cronenberg’s version has the disadvantage of the imprecise name, a common error that has passed down to this day as the CFMDC struggled to carve out an identity. The Toronto Filmmakers Co-op did not come into being until another fours years later, in 1971. Patricia Murphy, the McMaster student from bedroom scene in Palace of Pleasure, ran the third-floor walkup office at 719 Yonge Street, just up the road from Cinecity, and Poolman paid the rent. Then Clara Mayer, who was an actress and Iain Ewing’s girlfriend, took over the day-to-day operations and oversaw the move into Room 204 at Rochdale College in 1968 shortly after the controversial alternative college opened in the spring of that year.
Patrick Lee was at the London Film School in the late 1960s, and went to work for Westminster Films, on Gerrard Street East – Don Haldane’s production company – when he returned to Toronto. He was the film coordinator of something called “Renaissance ‘71,” a student arts festival. The film festival was held at the Medical Science Building (University of Toronto), and that’s where Lee met Sandra Gathercole, who became a friend. Shortly thereafter, the pair publicly announced the first meeting of the Toronto Filmmaker’s Co-op (TFC), March 9, 1971, at the offices of the CFMDC in Rochdale College.
Lee told The Globe and Mail in May 1971: “The members of this co-operative are probably the first Canadians in history to decide right from their teens or early twenties to spend the rest of their lives making films. It happens in Europe and the United States, of course, because their movie industries have been around for a long time. But where would a kid with ideas about making films ever go in Canada? Nowhere much. That’s why we decided to start the co-operative.”
The TFC quickly became the focus of activity of the Toronto independent film scene, although it technically remained an adjunct of the CFMDC, which was incorporated as a nonprofit organization in 1972. Fothergill, Kirwan Cox and Jim Murphy (who sadly died just recently) signed the incorporation papers; the bylaws, however, were not passed until 1977, leading to a great deal of confusion down the road when the TFC came to a messy end in 1978.
Sandra Gathercole and Kirwan Cox became the driving force behind the TFC and turned it into an effective lobbying organization, forming the Council of Canadian Filmmakers in 1973 when the TFC hooked up with ACTRA, DGC and other organizations to lobby the federal government for exhibition quotas for Canadian features. Michael Snow and Av Issacs joined the board of the CFMDC. They lent gravitas and continuity to the organization, and they continued to support it through difficult years and many moves. Currently, it is located at #119, 401 Richmond Street West in Toronto.
The films by Snow, and those of Joyce Wieland, Jack Chambers, Mike Hoolboom, Bruce Elder, Phil Hoffman, Rick Hancox, and many hundred others, are distributed by the CFMDC to this day. Rental information can be obtained from www.cfmdc.org.