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Believe In Your Country: RIP Stompin’ Tom

We were saddened to hear of the passing of Stompin’ Tom Connors, a true Canadian legend, yesterday. Tom was a pillar of the Canadian music scene for over 50 years, infusing hundreds of songs across dozens of country music LP releases with a fierce patriotism that connected with people in a way that his Canadian contemporaries like Hank Snow, Wilf Carter, Don Messer and even Ronnie Hawkins could not. But Tom also has a unique connection to Canadian film, having starred in the first concert film–made by the man who devised the character of Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS, no less–and playing a central role in developing common narratives that continue to be weaved through movies produced across the country.

These days, it may be tempting to dismiss Tom and his boot stompin’, city name droppin’ songbook as a novelty act, but know this–Tom was no joke, an honest to goodness country music shit kicker who saw every corner of this country. Getting his start as an itinerant performer who played small bars and venues across Canada (not unlike Donnelly Rhodes’ fictional country band in THE HARD PART BEGINS), it was surely these gigs that gave Tom the idea to pepper his setlist of traditional tunes with a series of songs devoted to the places he played, such as “Tilsonburg,” “Road To Thunder Bay,” “Movin’ On To Rouyn”, “Isle Of Newfoundland,” and “Okanagan Okee.” You may think “Sudbury Saturday Night” is a cute song, but imagine seeing Tom perform the song one Saturday in 1971, in a cramped, beer-soaked Sudbury watering hole crammed with rowdy miners.

But more than just offering his own musical panorama of Canada, Tom also gave maple leaf-waving audiences a nostalgia for home at a time when Canadians were leaving rural areas and heading off to seek their fortune in larger cities, as so heartwrenchingly rendered in films like GOIN’ DOWN THE ROAD. Songs including “My Home Town”, “My Home By The Fraser”, “Take Me Back To Old Alberta” and “To It and At It” were wistful reminders of the rural places that rapt listeners came from. Though Tom never got a much-deserved soundtrack spot in a dramatic feature (despite seeming to have a spiritual kin), it’s appropriate that SCTV’s GOIN’ DOWN THE ROAD parody prominently featured “To It and At It.” However, Tom did it one better–he managed to star in his own Canadian film.

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In the midst of trying to break into the Anglophone market, Montreal shlock studio Cinepix commissioned a film to capture Tom at perhaps the height of his musical talents. ACROSS THIS LAND WITH STOMPIN’ TOM CONNORS is a production with few frills. Aside from footage of Tom belting out his biggest hits at the time (later released on the live double-LP pictured above), there’s some shots of the audience and a few decidedly Canadian cutaways to give the proceedings some visual interest. But ACROSS THIS LAND is still essential for a few reasons, and not just that incredible poster artwork. For one, it was the only feature directed by John C.W. Saxton, a University of Toronto professor who hovered around the fringes of Canada’s exploitation film scene, having created the sadistic grindhouse queen Ilsa and later collaborating on the scripts for undeniable Canxuxploitation classics like CLASS OF 1984, BLACKOUT and HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME. And it’s also a wonderful time capsule of Stompin’ Tom and the real power of his music that may have been lost in recent years as he shifted from certified guitar plucker into a role as an unofficial ambassador and national icon. Finally, ACROSS THIS LAND features a great vintage look at Toronto’s legendary music venue The Horseshoe Tavern, complete with western decor on stage, which may surprise younger concert-goers more familiar with the bar’s current iteration.

Watch ACROSS THIS LAND WITH STOMPIN’ TOM CONNORS in its entirety:

So here’s to you Tom. I hope you finally got your pot of gold.

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RIP Ernest Borgnine

Canuxplotiation was saddened to learn of the death of Ernest Borgnine this past weekend. Although the always respectable Mr. Borgnine was well known for his high profile roles in some of cinema history’s greatest classics, he was also incredibly prolific. Little surprise then that, like many of his contemporaries, he made his way north of the border during the tax shelter frenzy of the late 1970s to appear in a handful of Canadian genre films. Though far from his most celebrated roles, Canuxploitation will always remember Mr. Borgnine in two of the better Canadian films of the period–Harvey Hart’s gun paranoia parable SHOOT (1976) and the violent crime thriller SUNDAY IN THE COUNTRY (1974). And, um, he appeared in underwater sci-fi spectacle THE NEPTUNE FACTOR (1973) too.

 

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John Dunning Fêted at TFCA Awards Gala

It was a long time coming. During the Toronto Film Critics Association’s 15th annual gala awards earlier this week, Cinepix’s John Dunning was given the Clyde Gilmour Award, recognizing his lifetime achievement for contributions to Canadian film. The honour was actually announced last spring, and in the months since then, Dunning–ailing since a 2006 bicycle crash–unfortunately passed away. In his place, John’s son Greg accepted the posthumous award from his father’s friend and acolyte, David Cronenberg.

As part of the  presentation (and, I guess, a service to those TFCA members not fully unaware of Dunning’s legacy) the gala projected a five-minute compilation of Cinepix’s greatest moments, edited by Blue Sunshine co-founder David Bertrand. It’s recommended viewing for seasoned fans and newcomers alike, an exhilarating look at some of the highlights of Dunning’s five decade career in Canadian filmmaking. Unfortunately, since embedding that video is forbidden (boo!), here’s a clip that’s not quite as fun but still worth checking out–Cronenberg’s speech at the gala.

Update (1/14/12): Dave got us permission to embed the video here–thanks to him and the TFCA!

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John Dunning (1927-2011)

I received word last night that Cinépix co-founder John Dunning passed away earlier this week. John, 84, was in a bad bicycle accident in 2006 and unfortunately never fully recovered from his injuries.

Through Cinépix, John and his partner André Link were instrumental in changing the film landscape in Canada. Distributors, initially, they moved into production in 1968 with Valerie, the prototypical French-Canadian sexploitation effort. A smash success, it launched a cottage industry of what Variety dubbed “Maple Syrup Porn.”

In the 1970s John and André moved into English production and horror, bringing on board fledgling producers Ivan Reitman and Don Carmody. They mentored countless producers and directors and even helped launch the career of David Cronenberg when they took a chance and allowed him to direct a script he had written, SHIVERS. The 1980s saw them hitch their train to the slasher boom, creating some indisputable all-time classics of the genre—HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME and MY BLOODY VALENTINE.

In all, John helped produce more than 60 Canadian films in the last four decades, almost all of which were firmly in the canuxploitation arena. Even in his late 70s he kept his own office at Lionsgate in Montreal, apparently shuffling around the halls in a pair of slippers and still coming up with new ideas. Even after his accident, John may was still as active as ever, even announcing plans for a VALENTINE sequel last April.

If there’s any small comfort, it’s that John was around to see the accolades that have recently poured in for his life’s work over the years. He picked up a 1993 Genie award for Outstanding Contributions to the Canadian Film Industry and was inducted into the Canadian Film and Television Hall of Fame in 2007.  This past June he received the Toronto Film Critics Association’s Clyde Gilmour Award and a Lifetime Acheivement at Fantasia that I was honoured to be a part of.

I never met John in person, but talked to him several times on the phone for a 2005 article I wrote. He was very forthcoming and a pleasure to talk to, even if at first he seemed a little wary of the purpose of my piece—I remember reassuring him several times that I was a fan of his work and wanted to celebrate Cinépix’s contributions. You can check out the entirety of my interview with John Dunning and his partner, Andre Link, “Sin and Sovereignty: The Curious Rise of Cinépix Inc.” online; it was originally published in (the now defunct) Take One Film and Television in Canada in March 2005.

Also see John’s obits in The Hollywood Reporter and Variety.

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RIP: Bob Clark

Yesterday, on April 4, 2007 we received the upsetting news that veteran director and Canuxploitation favourite Bob Clark and his son Ariel Hanrath-Clark were killed at 2:30 AM on the Pacific Coast Highway, when their vehicle was struck head-on by an SUV driven by an alledgedly drunk driver.

As you may know, I had the opoprtunity to interview Bob on two separate occasions in the past few years, and found him to be a warm, and thoroughly engaging personality. He really did seem to enjoy reminiscing about his past work, and loved to talk about his proudest achievement–working with Arthur Miller on the little-seen cable movie The American Clock

Though he “officially” retired from filmmaking after he 1990’s Loose Cannons, he couldn’t keep away from the camera. It’s true that many of his later movies were done for the money, but he still very much subscribed to the “one for them, one for me” theory of commerical filmmaking–even at 67, he had several films in pre-production when I spoke to him last October, and was extremely excited about his update of Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things.

I’m only glad that he was able to experience a resurgence in popularity in the last three or four years from more and more fans discovering his influential 1970s classics on DVD.

He will be missed.