Ian Driscoll is the screenwriter of numerous gutter-level features and short films including the HARRY KNUCKLES series, JESUS CHRIST VAMPIRE HUNTER, THE DEAD SLEEP EASY, VAMPIRO: ANGEL, DEVIL, HERO and SMASH CUT. He has also worked as a story editor on a number of feature films, and makes (mercifully infrequent) appearances in front of the camera. Since 2008, Ian has been a partner in Ottawa’s oldest surviving cinema, the Mayfair Theatre, which has been voted Ottawa’s “best alternative to a multiplex movie theatre” three years running. You can read more of his writing on films, Canadian and otherwise, at The Cultural Gutter.
For this CanFilm Five, Ian presents his five favourite Canadian films (and a whole lot of honourable mentions!), in chronological order.
Gerald Potterton, 1965
One of Buster Keaton’s final starring roles, this cross-country travelogue is one of the greatest pleasures in the NFB catalogue. It opens in London, with Keaton standing on the Westminster Bridge, overlooking the Thames. He’s reading a newspaper, and in the paper is a full-page ad that reads: SEE CANADA NOW. Keaton promptly jumps off the bridge into the water, and, an edit later, emerges from the ocean on Canada’s east coast. He discovers an unattended railway speeder, and sets off for the Pacific.
Along the way, the film provides a rare glimpse of the Canada of 1965 (the rail line Keaton rides into Ottawa no longer exists, for example) — images that carry with them a powerful wave of false nostalgia.
The film reminds me of what I love about Buster Keaton — his tranquil death-defiance, the way he and the camera become a comedy duo, his dedication to jokes that serve the story, and his hat.
But it’s also very much about how we Canadians view ourselves, and our country. Our landscape is a parade of natural wonders, to be sure. But to anyone who lives here, and lives through our seasons, it’s also exactly what Keaton shows us: a succession of epic sight gags. (I’m pretty sure that you could read the film as a parable about the Canadian immigrant experience, too, especially with the images that bookend it. But that’s a bit highbrow for me.
Potterton also directed HEAVY METAL (not on my list) and an animated version of Leacock’s MY FINANCIAL CAREER (which, at under seven minutes, is probably essential viewing).
You can watch THE RAILRODDER in its entirety below or on the NFB website.
Peter Carter, 1972
Director Carter also helmed RITUALS (which I’ve written about here), as well as numerous episodes of “Wojeck,” which is a CBC TV series I’d really like to catch up on. (In a perfect world, I’d spend my days writing a fan-fiction novel about a case that takes the combined efforts of Wojeck, Kojack and Kolchak to solve. But I digress.)
I’ve only seen this salt-cod-neorealist dramedy once, when I worked at the Canadian Film Institute, but it made an impression. Gordon Pinsent (who also wrote the film, and the accompanying novelization) stars as Will Cole, the titular rowdy man — a 35-year-old Newfie paper mill worker who refuses to act his age, and lives by the motto: “Seduce it if it moves and drink it if it pours.”
He’s a spiritual cousin to the main characters in MY BLOODY VALENTINE, and his lack of responsibility/willingness to recognize authority leads to tragedy, much as it does in Mihalka’s film. In fact, there’s probably a good double bill to be had here — perhaps better than with GOIN’ DOWN THE ROAD, which is THE ROWDYMAN’s most obvious antecedent.
Read a great interview with director Peter Carter here. Best quote: “The toughest thing in shooting the picture was the goddamned winds. Sort of a about a thousand feet up in Newfoundland, the winds are always strong, so the clouds are moving like Jesus… It was arghhhhhhhh…”
If you don’t have time to watch the whole film, at least take a look at the below SCTV parody. (Bonus content: Magnum P.E.I.!)
David Cronenberg, 1975
As earlier CanFilm Five contributor Chris Alexander rightly pointed out, all of Cronenberg is in SHIVERS. It starts with a perfect Cronenberg premise — the inhabitants of a self-contained luxury apartment becoming infected with strain of parasite that is both sexually transmitted and an aphrodisiac.
But that’s just the beginning. In the course of its 87 minutes, SHIVERS delivers a crash-course (wordplay!) in Cronenberg. All the body horror is here. The conspiracies that aren’t theory. The institutes with hidden agendas. The Brutalist architecture. The McLuhan-esque gnostic pronunciations are here (“…disease is the love of two alien kinds of creatures for each other…”). SHIVERS has characters treading the thin line between rational civilization and primal urges. It has the identity crises and Cartesian mind/body schisms. It event predicts the windshield/prophylactic equation of CRASH. In fact, I doubt there’s a single film in Cronenberg’s cannon you can’t trace back to SHIVERS.
But more importantly, SHIVERS never stops being entertaining. I think that’s something Cronenberg doesn’t get enough credit for. His films are full of challenging, unsettling ideas, but he rarely lets the ideas get in the way of the story. And in SHIVERS, the story moves faster than a flesh-eating virus.
This is also the film that introduced me to the spooky eroticism of Lynn Lowry (I think I saw this before I discovered THE CRAZIES). Even before sex-craze sweeps the apartment building, Lowry manages to make the act of disrobing intimidating. It’s probably a cliché to say there’s no such thing as safe sex in a Cronenberg film, but Lowry embodies scary sexuality in a way not even Marilyn Chambers manages in RABID — which is saying something.
THE DEVIL AT YOUR HEELS
Robert Fortier, 1981
If there’s anything more beautiful than a car in flight, it’s a rocket-car in flight.
Fortier’s stunning, nail-biting documentary covers five years in the life of stunt-driver Ken “The Mad Canadian” Carter, as he pursues his dream of jumping a rocket-propelled car one mile across the St. Lawrence seaway from Morrisburg, Ontario to the United States (no passport needed back then).
This is one of those stories you have to see to believe. It’s incredibly personal and yet epic — both in terms of what Carter is trying to achieve, and the span of time the film covers. Just when you think you’ve seen this overweight anti-athlete overcome every obstacle you can imagine — finally finishing his giant ramp, finally getting his fuel tanks to stop exploding, finally learning (just two weeks before the jump) how to drive a rocket car — the screen goes black. And a title comes up. And you realize you’re only on year two of his five-year quest.
The film takes a turn for the meta as Carter tries to raise funds for, and media interest in, his stunt. He finds backers in Hollywood, but they want to produce a film about Carter’s training regimen to promote the event. He doesn’t have a training regimen (in fact, he can barely fit into the cockpit of the rocket car), but that doesn’t stop them from staging one, complete with scenes of Carter paddling a kayak in the Rideau Canal. It turns out he’s afraid of water.
Meanwhile, ABC’s Wide World of Sports takes, and loses, interest in the project, and Evel Knievel pronounces the jump “suicide.” But Carter perseveres, and eventually the jump does happen — although not as he intends.
I’ve made the pilgrimage to Morrisburg. You can still see the remains of his ramp, and daytime-drinking locals still tell tales of Ken Carter. You’ll tell people about this film over quarts, too. Trust me.
Watch the full film below:
Don McKellar, 1998
Don McKellar’s vision of the end of the world is a very Canadian apocalypse. You know it’s the end of the world because there’s trash on the streets and the TTC is no longer reliable (insert Rob Ford joke here).
Released the same year as ARMAGEDDON and DEEP IMPACT, McKellar’s film is a national identity away from those films, even if they do all share a premise. LAST NIGHT doesn’t dwell on the why of the end of the world. It doesn’t indulge in histrionics. Instead, it’s bureaucratic, practical and heartbreakingly poetic — which might be a pretty good encapsulation of the character of Canadian cinema.
The film starts at 6:00 p.m. on the last day on Earth and runs until midnight, at which point the world ends. The only real clue as to what’s causing the Armageddon is the fact that it’s broad daylight the entire time — a touch that is as subtle as it is eerie. As an independent filmmaker, I also appreciate that touch because it allowed McKellar and crew to avoid night shoots and film using natural light. How terribly, practically Canadian.
None of which is to say the film is short on emotion. The movie’s final moments, set to Pete Seeger’s cover of “Guantanamera,” put my chest in a vice, even as Seeger unlocks the story with his translation of the song’s lyrics: “the streams of the mountains please me more than the sea.”
But for me, it’s the scene in which Don McKellar and Callum Keith Rennie say goodbye for the last time (“See you.” “No, you won’t.”) that really gets me. For my money, it’s one of the most moving moments in all of Canadian cinema.
Other notables, in no particular order: LEOLO, JESUS OF MONTREAL, DEATH WEEKEND, THE SILENT PARTNER, STRANGE SHADOWS IN AN EMPTY ROOM, TWIN DRAGON ENCOUNTER, DRAGON HUNT, THE ADJUSTER, all other David Cronenberg titles (minus M. BUTTERFLY and A DANGEROUS METHOD), SPLICE, CRIME WAVE, C.R.A.Z.Y., CAREFUL, AWAY FROM HER, NEIGHBOURS, LOG DRIVER’S WALTZ, STARLIFE, THE GATE, THE GATE II, MY BLOODY VALENTINE, BLACK CHRISTMAS, HIT MAN, COMIC BOOK CONFIDENTIAL, PONTYPOOL, THE DOG WHO STOPPED THE WAR, RIP: A REMIX MANIFESTO, OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN.