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CanFilm Five: Lost Dominion CanCult Programmer Paul Gordon

“CanFilm Five” is the Canuxploitation blog’s ongoing guest column, which brings together prominent filmmakers, bloggers, critics and programmers to discuss their most loved offbeat Canadian films.

One of the founders of Ottawa’s Lost Dominion Screening Collective, Paul Gordon (who we interviewed last year) is dedicated to bringing forgotten,  rarely-shown Canadian classics back to the big screen. A former projectionist at the Mayfair Theatre, Paul has helped put together three seasons of the Canadian Cult Revue, an ongoing series dedicated to the very same films we focus on at Canuxploitation. So far, this season of  the Canadian Cult Revue has featured Budge Crawley’s AMANITA PESTILENS and EDDIE THE SLEEPWALKING CANNIBAL. Next up is the early Canadian melodrama BACK TO GOD’S COUNTRY on December 11 with later screenings coming up of the classic kiddie matinee MYSTERY OF THE MILLION DOLLAR HOCKEY PUCK and BIG MEAT EATER.

For this edition of CanFilm Five, Paul looks at the five greatest Canadian films considered Missing In Action.

AMANITA PESTILENS, 1962
Directed by René Bonnière

This unusually compelling film is about one man’s obsession with creating “the perfect lawn.” Jacques Labrecque stars as champion lawn-grower Henri Martin, a man who struggles to balance the needs of his family with his own ambitions for horticultural achievement as he wages war against the insurgent mushrooms that threaten his immaculately manicured domain. The film manages the unusual feat of being both funny and suspenseful at the same time, treading a fine line of ominous hilarity perfectly conveyed by Labrecque. It feels somewhat as though Spanish surrealist master Luis Bunuel had wandered into the Montreal of the early 1960s and managed to tap into the cultural zeitgeist of discontent and change bubbling just under the surface of polite society.

Shot on location in Montreal and close to Ottawa at Harrington Lake in 1962 by director René Bonnière, AMANITA PESTILENS was the first fictional feature film produced by legendary Ottawa filmmaker F.R. “Budge” Crawley. It was also the first Canadian feature film produced in colour, and stands as the cinematic debut of Canadian acting queen Genevieve Bujold, who, in her role as rebellious daughter Sophie Martin, displays enough raw cinematic charisma to suggest that she was born for the movie screen.

The production has the added bonus of having captured images of La Belle Province at a time of great physical and social transformation. It contains numerous visual delights, including early 1960s fashion, wonderful old Montreal streetscapes, and the sight of shockingly new-looking highway interchanges. Special mention should go to Ottawa-based composer Larry Crossley for writing an excellent score, incorporating jazz, folk, and orchestral music, helping the film take on the scope of a much larger production.

Unfortunately, AMANITA PESTILENS never received a wide release. Festival screenings and the occasional TV appearance served to spread the legend, but the film has essentially been vault-bound for 50 years. We are proud to bring it back to the big screen, before it returns to dormancy like a mushroom spore waiting to re-emerge – hopefully sooner than the year 2062! Our screening is Nov. 27th at the Bytowne cinema in Ottawa. Film elements exists at Library and Archives Canada, including Interneg and optical neg so someday maybe a proper DVD or Blu-ray will be produced, currently this film is M.I.A.

CARRY ON, SERGEANT!, PA-202246001

CARRY ON, SERGEANT!, 1928
Directed by Bruce Bairnsfather

CARRY ON, SERGEANT! was shot at Trenton Studios in Ontario and in the surrounding countryside by British Director Bruce Bairnsfather, with legendary Canadian filmmaker Gordon Sparling working as his assistant director. With a budget of $500,000, it was the biggest-budget film produced in Canada up to that time. Much of that budget went to recreating WWI-era France, with sprawling sets and battlefield scenes featuring hundreds of extras.

The story follows a group of workers from Hamilton who join the army to fight in WWI, and the travails and temptations that befall them during the war. The film has excellent production values and presents a drama that may feel surprisingly modern to today’s audiences. Bairnsfather’s insistence on portraying the soldiers as flawed human beings resulted in some criticism from those who expected a straightforward glorification of Canada’s war effort. The main character has an affair with a French bar maid and dies on the battlefield. The veterans of the Great War were not impressed; in fact the whole subplot of the affair was edited out of the later version of the film.

Produced as a silent film just as theatres were transitioning to sound, it had only a brief run at the box office before it was removed from circulation in January 1929. It fell into obscurity for many years before Gordon Sparling donated a print to Library and Archives Canada, resulting in a complete restoration of the film, but there has never been a DVD release for the general public. The Lost Dominion Screening Collective is currently working on a DVD release for early next year with a new musical score. Currently this film is M.I.A.

NANOOK TAXI, 1977
Directed by Edward Folger

Rarely-seen made-in-Iqaluit feature about a hunter from Cape Dorset who must adjust to town life when he takes a job driving cab in Iqaluit. Filmed in English and Inuktitut with a local cast led by the late actor, Joanasie Salomonie, NANOOK TAXI is an important landmark in northern filmmaking. The director Edward Folger grew up in the United States working with such filmmakers as George Lucas (as the Associate Producer for THX 1138 and several John Cassavetes films before moving to Canada). Ed currently lives in Ottawa and is still making film and short video art including art within the online world of Second Life. NANOOK TAXI should be considered the first Inuit-language feature film and a rare look at contemporary Inuit life. The original 16mm elements have been lost but luckily a 2” quad video tape survived which Ed made into a DVD which can be found on Amazon.com.

SKIP TRACER, 1978
Directed by Zale Dalen

Director Zale Dalen‘s feature film debut, SKIP TRACER was shot on location in Vancouver in the late 1970s. It’s a hardscrabble drama concerning a bill-collector attempting to regain past glory as “Man of the Year” at his firm by tracking down all his “skips” — people who have skipped out on paying their bills. Enthusiasts of this little-seen film insist that it is a lost classic, one of the best Canadian films produced in the past 40 years, and a stringent commentary on life as lived in the back-alleys and “mean streets” of our cities and also one of the best character arc in recent memory. The film got a VHS release under the title DEADLY BUSINESS back in the ’80s but since then is pretty much M.I.A other than a couple faded 16mm prints floating around.

MAN FROM GLENGARRY, 1922
Directed by Henry MacRae

Based on the 1901 book Man from Glengarry: A Tale of the Ottawa, this film adaptation focuses on two rival logging camps in the Ottawa valley. One is run by a Scotsman named Big “Mac” MacDonald and the other by godless renegade French Canadian Louis Lenior. When MacDonald is murdered by Lenoir in a bar fight, MacDonald’s son Ranald starts a blood feud. The result is a gang fight between logging camps climaxing on the massive log booms filling the entire width of the Ottawa River. The film’s love interest, Kate, tries to intervene by running out to the two men fighting while balancing on the logs, but falls into the water when the log boom is cut and is pushed down toward the rapids. This film was shot entirely on location in Ottawa and lumber camps of the valley and the stunts are truly dangerous, with the heroine running across wet logs in dress shoes! Unfortunately, this is truly a lost film–only two reels of six survive, one of which is so damaged from nitrate decay and water damage that it’s pretty much unwatchable. However, the other reel is still in good shape and shows some of the battle on the log booms. Please if anyone has old 35mm films rotting in their basement, garage, or attic please check and see if it’s the M.I.A. MAN FROM GLENGARRY!

  1. Robert says:

    CARRY ON , SERGEANT was on VHS at one point in time, as the Vancouver Public Library once had a copy in its possession (alas, no longer as it shed its entire tape inventory) and it was through that I saw the film eight to ten years ago. It is a big production but suffers from certain melodramatic aspects, and as pointed out it unfortunately was a silent film produced on the cusp of the sound era and that greatly diminished its potential audience. SKIP TRACER is indeed a terrific film, and considering the substantial acclaim it received both domestically as well as in other areas of the world (both through film festival appearances as well as standard distribution) it absolutely should deserve a better fate. The film was on tape under that stupid alternate title, and received airplay via broadcasters such as the CBC, Super Channel and Bravo – but it remains little seen today and would be a perfect candidate for a Criterion edition. Even more difficult to see is Dalen’s subsequent feature THE HOUNDS OF NOTRE DAME. Apart from a single CBC screening in the early 1980s I have not seen an appearance of the film anywhere since then.