Film Review #133: Key Canadian Films by Women
2007 – Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre
Artist on Fire: The Work of Joyce Wieland (1987, Kay Armatage, 54 min.)
Kisses (1976, Betty Ferguson, 55 min.)
P4W: Prison for Women (1981, Janis Cole & Holly Dale, 82 min.)
Low Visibility (1984, Patricia Gruben 84 min.)
Looking straight into the camera, her own face alight with enthusiasm, the artist and filmmaker Joyce Wieland – who had confided only a few moments before that as a child she drew pictures of naked women for neighborhood boys because they’d pay her a nickel each – recalls the excitement of one project from the early 1980s and how, “In the middle of drawing something, I’d say, “Wait’ll they see this!”
These and other infectious moments make it unsurprising that Armatage borrowed the title of a 1983 painting by Wieland for her film, just as Jane Lind did for her biography of Wieland in 2001. Introduced to the breadth of Wieland’s work – besides extensive clips from the films, oil paintings, water colors, drawings, quilts and mixed-media constructions – by way of this captivating documentary, it’s hard to imagine one can’t order up the films straight away by a quick jump on-line to Netflix. Alas, one cannot – not her feature fiction film about the French/English tensions in Canadian identity, The Far Shore (1976), which Armatage writes about in the first chapter of George Melnyk’s new Great Canadian Film Directors, nor any of Wieland’s shorts, or indeed any of the four films in this set – and chances are that vast armadas of movie lovers don’t know they exist at all. In choosing Armatage’s film as the centerpiece of this important four-disc set, the CFMDC has wisely and strategically provided the kind of inviting overview that might jumpstart a revival beyond Canada too.
This four-disc set presents feature-length experimental works produced by Canadian women filmmakers from the mid-1970s through the late 1980s. Besides the portrait of Wieland, an obvious choice, there’s a found-footage compilation of the history of movie kissing, a cinéma vérité doc about Canada’s only maximum security prison for women in 1981, and a haunting narrative suspense feature from the founder of Vancouver’s Praxis, the screenwriting institute modeled on her own experience at Sundance. But in even broader context, because Wieland particularly worked across art forms and is well known in Canada – in some quarters perhaps more for her visual arts than her films – besides shedding light on that period of women’s filmmaking in Canada, this set links with parallel developments of the same period in the US when women’s visual arts were exploding – a period now being systematically observed and celebrated by major museum shows in the US such as the traveling WACK! show in Los Angeles and Washington, and the Brooklyn Museum’s permanent installation of Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party along with its Global Feminisms exhibit by younger women artists. The latter especially comes full circle back to Wieland’s ease in working across art forms with its high concentration of video and film works. Meanwhile, the 18th annual St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival – just held in mid-October in Newfoundland – culled a five-day program of 80 films from over 500 entries.
Kay Armatage has herself been a senior programmer since 1983 at the Toronto’s International Film Festival, where she lives and writes prolifically about Canada’s women filmmakers, teaches cinema studies and between 1975-87 made seven well-received documentary and experimental narrative films that concluded with the award-winning Artist on Fire. This kind of long-term familiarity with Toronto’s film scene has especially infused and informed Artist on Fire. Wieland was mostly based in Toronto except for the decade (1963-73) that she and her husband and sometime collaborator, filmmaker and sculptor Michael Snow (Wavelength), spent in New York City. As a painter, Wieland held her first solo show in 1960 at the Issacs Gallery, a space often devoted to screening evenings for avant-garde Toronto filmmakers. This moment also gave rise in 1967 to the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre (CFMDC) itself – founded by young filmmakers including David Cronenberg, producer Lorne Michaels (Wayne’s World, Saturday Night Live), Ivan Reitman and others – now celebrating its own 40th anniversary.
Wieland made nine films, eight of them shorts that experimentally linked and extended her visual arts work, focusing on Canadian identity, ecology, feminism and sexuality. Rat Life and Diet in North American (1968) focused on Vietnam-era US draft dodgers seeking refuge in Canada from a symbol-laden giant cat. Reason Over Passion (1969) explored her admiration for Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and what his presence meant for the nation. In Dripping Water (1969) she collaborated with Michael Snow and in 1984’s A and B in Ontario with avant-garde filmmaker Hollis Frampton. Armatage draws from a variety of archival interviews with Wieland, footage of her at home and in her studio, in conversation, at work and facing a camera, clips of her films and paintings and quilts. Armatage also provides extensive voice-over commentary and discussion from Michael Snow, The Far Shore’s producer Judy Steed, and art historian Dennis Reid, an expert on both Michael Snow and Canadian nationalist landscape painter Thom Thomson, one inspiration for The Far Shore.
In 1976, Wieland used this feature-length film to present a narrative melodrama of deep woods romance between married, French-speaking Quebec native Eulalie (Céline Lomez) and English-speaking Tom McLeod (Frank Moore), loosely based on painter Thom Thomson (who had mysteriously disappeared in the northern Ontario wilderness). Because Armatage has written in detail elsewhere about this film, it’s possible now to match many clips from The Far Shore that she uses in Artist on Fire. But it’s likely that when she made the film in 1987, she assumed a familiarity with Wieland’s then only 11-year-old film among audiences. Now, despite the film’s engaging style and its wealth of accessible detail about Wieland’s fine arts work, many of the references to The Far Shore especially are obscure without aid or the chance to actually watch that film. Although the CFMDC maintains an inventory of Wieland’s films, they remain hard to come by in the US.
In producing this set, the CFMDC has provided written background for each film that highlights each film as an example of a style from that period, background on filmmaker and subject, and suggested further reading and viewing, but these are rather more skewed to film theory than will be helpful for many new, more general viewers.
Betty Ferguson’s 1976 collage, Kisses, collects clips of an extraordinary range of kisses from silent movies and later mainstream narrative film, newsreels and vintage television series. Ferguson noted that the censorship of Hollywood films under the Hayes Code (1930-66) meant that kissing came to stand for more explicit and sexual acts, though well before the 30s - even in the earliest days of the moving image - there was already a preoccupation with kissing as a subject. “Found footage” remains very much a part of experimental filmmaking today, as ever serving to comment on how ideology attaches to visual images by severing them from their original context and comparing them with similar images. Just as Wieland often worked in fabric, intentionally collapsing the distinction between high art and women’s craft, Ferguson hand-painted and tinted each print of Kisses in order to directly touch each, likening the film to a quilt in describing the images as “patchwork” and the tinting as “embroidery.”
In some ways an exhaustive catalogue, Kisses systematically “lists” examples of types of kisses – on hands, resisted kisses, aborted or interrupted kisses, baby kissing, kisses on the cheek, congratulations, kisses between manly comrades, variations on Sleeping Beauty, passion past and well, more recent, deadly kisses, debauched kisses, making out at the movies, operatic kisses, kisses on the way to the guillotine and devout oaths sworn on the good steel of pistols and swords. A good deal of humor arises from rapid juxtaposition of clips in some spots, and Ferguson provides more extended clips elsewhere – for example, a long (and quite tense) sequence of Lillian Gish as a tragic heroine almost swept away on an ice floe over some wintry falls. Elsewhere she pulls a 1956 dream sequence from the George Reeves Superman TV series in which Lois Lane imagines her marriage to the Man of Steel.
Having met in film school in 1975, Janis Cole and Holy Dale formed their Toronto-based production company, Spectrum Films, in the early 1980s. P4W: Prison for Women (1981) was a key early feature length documentary, subscribing to direct cinema’s insistence on hand-held cameras, small crews, natural light, and the absence of the filmmaker’s own voice as narrator. Cole and Dale have specialized in films about people who are marginalized – their 1984 Hookers on Davie portrays Vancouver sex workers, for example – and in allowing them to tell their own stories.
Broadcast nationally in Canada on the CBC, P4W won the 1982 Canadian Genie for best documentary, profiling Bev, Janise and Debbie (a couple being split by the release of one partner who sentence is almost up), Maggie (acquitted of killing one abusive husband during an alcoholic blackout, she is serving time for a second murder under similar circumstances), and the red-robed Susie (“I was known to be kinky,” she says of the still-hazy murder of a transvestite roommate). P4W features remarkable and still riveting extended sequences of intimate conversation among these and other inmates at the Kingston Women’s Prison in Ontario – about their relationships, their attempts to stay connected with their children, how their time has piled up, and the affectionate banter among them as well as the toll prison life takes. Two women who seem too young to be out of junior high school appear briefly several times, offering opinions on the fairness of the system, each casually bearing grids of fresh cuts, scars and pinched, hand-done tattoos up and down both arms.
Finally, Patricia Gruben’s Low Visibility (1984) was her first feature-length narrative film, which has been followed by further suspense dramas Deep Sleep (1990) and Ley Lines (1993). A Texan who migrated to Canada in 1973, Gruben settled in Vancouver a decade later and in 1986 co-founded Praxis, a twice-yearly screenwriting institute for Canadians housed in Simon Fraser University and modeled on the Sundance Institute that Gruben attended while making Low Visibility.
This story begins inside the frigid wilderness mountains and forests of Vancouver’s Manning Park as a man stumbles wildly along a deserted snowy roadside in dawn light. Two women drive by and decide not to stop as he might be dangerous. Taken to a Vancouver hospital, this nameless man (Larry Lillo) appears amnesiac and unable to speak except in explosive profanities. The combined will, technologies and methods of reporters, police and various doctors fail to uncover his story. The more casual and irreverent nurses, who nickname him Mr. Bones, and a psychic called in to channel events, have more success. Low Visibility is certainly about cerebral concerns that Gruben has developed in all her films – the importance of context and geography specifically in acting upon and defining self, the dubious efficacy of language, the pervasive and oppressive nature of media, and the scant possibilities for contact. Low Visibility is based upon an actual reported incident of a wilderness plane crash after which some survivors ate the remains of those who died in the crash, even though, as the police officer informs Mr. Bones late in this story, “the road was right there.” So when one doctor asks Mr. Bones – absurdly, it’s plain – to use plastic pieces to “make a face” from a child’s Mr. Potato Head set, and Mr. Bones smashes the plastic pieces into his dinner plate, this seems nonsensical and resistant, until we learn that another passenger's flesh – perhaps a pregnant woman who “was going to die anyway” – may have been what sustained him. The sequences during which voices from the crash faintly intrude upon the psychic’s imagining of the frigid, blue wilderness from a plane are a radical and haunting stylistic departure from the flat footage inside the hospital room and the blurry monitor installed to watch Mr. Bones from above.
In observance of CFMDC’s 40th anniversary, except for the Armatage film, these will have public screening in Toronto during a week over the end of November and early December, along with some others, notably David Secter’s Winter Kept Us Warm (1965), Canada’s first gay feature-length film. For those of us who can’t make those screenings, this set signals a growing interest and availability of some enduring Canadian work.
This review appears in today’s Stylusmagazine.com. Key Canadian Works by Women is available either as a four-disc set or by separate title, for sale on newly mastered DVD and for rental and exhibition on newly struck 16 mm, from the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre in Toronto, www.cfmdc.org. Earlier issues of Kay Armatage’s Artist on Fire also available from Women Make Movies in New York City and Patricia Gruben’s Low Visibility (as well as her short, Sifted Evidence) from Canyon Cinema in San Francisco.