Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada #3

Frank Cole

Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel):

Frank Cole: A Life Remembered

For me, September is a month of melancholy and elation. It is that time of year when all Canadians in the film business turn their attention over to the Toronto International Film Festival. Veterans of the event spend 10 days alternating between darkened cinemas, with quick forays outside for much-needed cigarettes and scrounging as much free food and drink at endless parties. We stand in lobbies, trading thoughts on what we’ve just seen, but the most hardened wags are seldom listening to each other, instead looking for that brief lull in the conversation to jump in and spew out their own words of wisdom, which, of course, are equally consumed in one ear and out the other by everyone else in the pack, desperately waiting for that hallowed juncture to jump in and do the same. We’ll all have the same complaints – year in and year out: the festival is just a cheap junket for the studios, the festival is too big, the festival used to be friendlier, the general public are a bloody nuisance with their unwieldy backpacks slamming into us as we jump lines with an air of self-importance. And yet, we’re all still there: it’s easy to avoid the junket atmosphere if one is writing for publications that care little for puff pieces on Hollywood stars, the festival – as big as it is – still offers an opportunity to see just as many movies, if not more, friendliness is in the eye of the beholder and the general public are just ultimately a necessary evil we can all avoid by just seeing movies in the secret press and industry screenings, the festival within the festival. Things really don’t change. And personally, I cannot imagine being anywhere else at this time of year. I’ve been attending the Toronto Festival for 23 years now and while there are three other great festivals in Canada this time of year (the glorious, down-home laid-back Vancouver, the European-flavoured celebration of all cinema not American at Serge Losique’s World Festival in Montreal, and the utter cutting-edge madness of Montreal’s Nouveau Cinema, still led by the stylishly irascible Claude Chamberlan), it is Toronto that finally holds my happiest and saddest memories. The best moment was being at the Toronto Festival when a truly new wave of English-Canadian cinema was burgeoning, and my thoughts at this time always gravitate to Frank Cole and first experiencing his pure cinema, his pure obsessive originality and perhaps most importantly, his genius. Genius is hard to come by and certainly hard to describe, but you know it when you see it. And in 1988, I experienced genius in all its splendour at the Toronto Film Festival – in Frank Cole’s first feature film A Life. It’s those things you don’t forget that keep the bar high, and Frank set the bar to stratospheric heights.

* * *

Frank Cole, an Ottawa-based Canadian filmmaker, crossed the Sahara Desert on foot from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. This feat of endurance earned him a permanent home in the Guinness Book of World Records. Cole’s final journey to the vast, inhospitable land led to a permanent resting place at the Michigan Cryonics Institute in Detroit. As per his last will and testament, Frank Cole’s remains were cryogenically preserved.

Cole believed death was a disease that needed to be cured and though he is no longer with us in a traditional sense (as in, alive), I sincerely hope and pray that wherever he is, he still believes it.

He was happy to admit to people that his sojourns across the infinite grains of sand terrified him to no end, and what eventually killed him was what he feared the most. His last challenge was to cross the Sahara again, from the Atlantic to the Red Sea and back again – a return journey by camel. He never made it. Not long after first setting out from Ber, he was severely beaten, robbed of all his possessions, tied to a desert shrub and left for dead by bandits.

Frank Cole left this world, leaving us to wonder what miracles of cinema he had yet to create, what tricks he had up his sleeve to cheat death. His legacy will be forever enshrined in the work he did create. He left us with two shorts (A Documentary and The Mountenays) and two features (A Life and Life without Death).

On the basis of these works, Frank Cole might well be one of Canada’s (and for that matter, all of cinema’s) most important filmmakers.

Upon the world premiere of A Life in 1988 at the Toronto International Film Festival, known more brashly in those halcyon days as ‘The Festival of Festivals’, I sensed from the opening few minutes that it was never going to let go. Nothing, and I mean nothing, could have prepared me for such an astounding, eye-popping and gut-churning experience. Its grip upon me held throughout the course of the festival, then for weeks, then months, then years afterwards. Now, as I write this re-assessment almost 25 years later, all I can think about is the opening paragraph of what is no doubt the most influential film review of Pauline Kael’s career. On October 28, 1972, the first few sentences of this legendary review declared the following:

‘Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris was presented for the first time on the closing night of the New York Film Festival, October 14, 1972: that date should become a landmark in movie history comparable to May 29, 1913 — the night Le Sacre du Printemps was first performed – in music history. There was no riot, and no one threw anything at the screen, but I think it’s fair to say that the audience was in a state of shock, because Last Tango in Paris has the same kind of hypnotic excitement as the Sacre, the same primitive force, and the same thrusting, jabbing eroticism.’

In retrospect, I only wish I had been able to muster something similar when first reviewing Cole’s picture in 1988. Then again, I was hardly Pauline Kael – not even a burgeoning one.

At the time, I was just shy of my 30th year on this planet and though I had been toiling in the trenches of film reviewing, journalism, exhibition and distribution, I was a relative newcomer to actually making movies, and as such was quite overwhelmed with the promise Canada’s relatively young industry held and how I might, in some small way, contemplate being a part of it.

This, more than anything, influenced my approach to reviewing Cole’s extraordinary picture since cool shit was starting to really happen in Canadian cinema. Reviewing A Life as a prairie-based correspondent for the now defunct, but by Canadian standards, legendary trade magazine Cinema Canada, I wanted to shout to the rooftops that Cole’s picture was leading the charge, but when I read the piece now, I think I fell rather short of that lofty goal. In fact, it was a rather unattainable one since I was right in the middle of what could only be contextualised in retrospect. It was, however, a good old college try.

By this point, French Canada had several new waves (and continues to do so) and on the English side, David Cronenberg, Donald Shebib, Don Owen, Phillip Borsos and Zale Dalen had made some striking inroads at earlier junctures, but nothing like our Québécois confrères. The fact of the matter is that French Canada was extremely proud and protectionist about its truly distinct society. English Canada was also distinct, but in much subtler ways – especially given the physical proximity to America and the common bond of the English language. In fairness, however, the differences weren’t that subtle. Those of us in the Dominion spoke the Queen’s English as opposed to the bastardised, drawling, mush-mouthed, inbred American English and even our more working-class vernacular had more in common with the clipped, pointed and musical English spoken by our aboriginal brothers (or, for that matter, the joual-tinged English of the Québécois of Montreal’s East End).

But 1988 felt different. Something decidedly new and exciting was happening in the few book-ending years leading up to and following the year Frank’s feature premiered. Even veteran David Cronenberg was on the cusp of a new phase with Dead Ringers.

In the early 90s, German filmmaker Alexander Bohr was so taken with what was beginning to happen in late-80s English Canadian cinema that he produced and directed a ZDF documentary about the phenomenon. It was titled, appropriately enough, Strangers in their Own Land. This, more than anything, typified much of the art and culture in the Dominion of Canada – especially among tail-end baby boomers and Gen-X-ers.

A rag-tag group of late-20-early-30-something whippersnappers, they had little use for the status quo (Canadian-in-name-only dramatic series and movies of the week aimed at international, but primarily American audiences) and absolutely no desire to be part of dour National Film Board of Canada documentaries about children with learning disabilities who had finally found teachers they could really relate to. Most definitely, they were not going to take the path demanded on the side of traditional Canadian government financiers who were looking for product that would develop an industrial base, which led to too many expensive, overblown, dull-as-dishwater glorified television movies masquerading as features.

Strangers in their own land, indeed!

At this time, English Canada yielded (or was yielding) work by the new, young iconoclasts; Patricia Rozema’s I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, John Paizs’s Crime Wave, A Winter Tan by the five-director collective of Jackie Burroughs, Louise Clark, John Frizzell, John Walker and Aerlyn Weissman, Atom Egoyan’s Next of Kin and Family Viewing, Guy Maddin’s Tales from the Gimli Hospital, Bill McGillivray’s Life Classes, Peter Mettler’s Scissere and The Top of His Head, Anne Wheeler’s Loyalties, Bruno Lazaro Pacheco’s The Traveller, Brian Stockton and Gerald Saul’s Wheat Soup, Greg Hanec’s Downtime, Bruce McDonald’s Roadkill, and numerous cutting-edge short films like John Martins-Manteiga’s The Mario Lanza Story, Alan Zweig’s Stealing Images, Francis Damberger’s Road to Yorkton, Nik Sheehan’s No Sad Songs, Lorne Bailey’s The Milkman Cometh and Richard Kerr’s Last Days of Contrition.

And then there was Frank Cole.

Frank was definitely a stranger in his own land. The son of a Canadian diplomat, Frank spent many of his formative years in locales far more exotic than Ottawa. Brooding, handsome, intelligent and creative – he began with the still image and eventually, under the mentorship of Peter Wintonick (Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media), he turned to cinema.

The Dominion of Canada seems the perfect place for a stranger in one’s own land to thrive as an artist. The sheer physical vastness of the country has any number of regions that are as infinite, desolate and awe-inspiring as the desert that beckoned Frank Cole. With the majority of the Dominion’s population congregated within 100 kilometres of the border between Canada and the United States, the rest of the country is almost exclusively wilderness. The frozen tundra of the North West Territories, the barrenness of the Rock, the unending and oldest mountain range in the world within the Shield, the flat, Ocean-like properties of terra firma on the Prairies and the seemingly infinite glaciers and towering heights of the Rocky Mountains all might suggest that Frank didn’t necessarily need to leave Canada to find danger and desolation, but so goes the cliché: the grass is always greener on the other side.

That said, Canada has always inspired a ‘grass is always greener’ frame of mind in many of its best and brightest. Published in 1977, the late Charles Taylor’s brilliant book Six Journeys: A Canadian Pattern, presents a series of biographical essays on extraordinary Canadians who ‘followed a lonely path in search of a more sustaining vision’ than Canada could ever offer them, in spite of the fact that Canada’s ‘Calvinist rigidity’ might well have been the defining influence upon their work as artists and/or as political figures. Taylor’s book surely might well have considered Frank Cole as a seventh subject had it been revised at a later juncture.

Taylor’s introduction to his book declares the following: ‘More than most people, Canadians are prejudiced in favour of the ordinary – we honour all those pioneering virtues which impose restraint and engender mediocrity. Revolutions produce heroes: it is one reason why the Americans have had such an abundance of exemplary figures. But we lack a revolution, and our rebellions are notable mainly for their ineptitude.’ I cannot argue at all with Taylor’s assertion that the Dominion of Canada seems obsessed with the ordinary – this is often a reigning feature of so much of Canadian cinema, television and literature – but where I might part company with Taylor (ever so slightly and in a quietly Canadian manner) is in the notion of Canadian revolutions being infused with ‘ineptitude’. While this is true of many of them, a number of our country’s revolutions have been ‘quiet revolutions’ – not unlike the sweeping changes that occurred in French Canada between 1960 and 1968 that laid the groundwork for self-determination, cultural nationhood and separation. (Coincidentally, this quiet revolution and its aftermath were examined in detail and foreseen by one of Taylor’s subjects, the iconoclastic writer and first true champion for gay rights in Canada, Scott Symons.)

In the brief period leading up to and following the unleashing of Frank Cole’s A Life in 1988, it is safe to say that a quiet revolution was very much in full swing among a small band of cultural insurrectionists – the best and brightest of Canadian cinema. Movies in English Canada were changing and this was not lost upon critics, programmers and audiences outside of Canada (though much less so within). I feel strongly that Frank Cole was at the forefront with his quiet and quietly revolutionary A Life.

The promotional material generated for the launch of A Life during the Festival of Festivals in Toronto declared that Frank’s film charts ‘a man’s survival amidst death in a room and a desert.’ Both room and desert seem rather appropriate metaphors for Canada itself and certainly within the movie, both locations have the claustrophobic properties of a prison cell – one with literal walls, the other fortified by an all-seeing force of nature with the power to bestow both life and death upon those who dot its immense and virtually infinite landscape.

Survival, it would seem, is (and was, and perhaps in his afterlife, will always be) Cole’s primary concern – whether it be within physical man-made borders of walls or the ostensible limits of the immeasurable.

Early in the film Cole’s off-camera voice queries a jowly, liver-spotted old gentleman in a pointed yet strangely genial tone: ‘Are you afraid of dying, Grandpa?’ The old man seems perplexed, perhaps even slightly intimidated by the camera, and replies, quivering and moist-eyed, that he is indeed not fearful of death.

The camera truthfully captures its subject in an evocatively grainy monochrome and with such a tender, personal eye that the old man’s reaction tells us one thing verbally, but visually, his answer feels rather inconclusive (or perhaps, all too conclusive). In a similarly styled approach near the end of the film, Cole assaults us with the image of an old woman lying on her deathbed gasping for life (or, perhaps, death) while an off-screen voice pleads, ‘Live!’

These two gut-wrenching sequences, so strangely moving, yet disturbing and finally, irrefutably life-affirming, are bookends to a journey that is bleak, barren and sometimes harrowing.

The voyage proper begins after the black and white sequence with the old man. The monochrome yields to full colour, focusing primarily on the interior environment of the film’s central figure, a buff, poker-faced young man played by Cole himself. A series of oddly composed shots of inanimate objects greet us and in each one, they are shoved out of the camera eye; Cole appears to be ridding the Spartan room of what little it has in it.

We’re then battered with a group of strangely disconnected images; a bare, white wall as a nail is driven into it, a telephone call that never really comes and is never really answered, a lithe young woman with a handgun stuffed into her panties and, most disturbingly, a little girl who runs headlong into plate glass – at first in silence, then followed a few beats later with the sickening, almost excruciatingly painful sound of the glass smashing.

All images described above are cross-cut with recurring shots of Cole chiselling, hammering, measuring and sanding. The sound of his labour becomes increasingly grating. Adding to our ever-heightening disorientation and anxiety is the fact that we’re never sure what he’s building and that he’ll never leave this barren interior. In terms of pace, this is expertly timed. We feel like this self-imposed banishment will last for the rest of the movie. It’s uncannily and precisely at this moment when Cole shifts gears – not necessarily in terms of pace, but in locale. We move from one tomb to yet another.

The first exterior shots are simple optical manipulations as a series of sun-dappled head-and-shoulder freeze frames of Cole place him directly in front of several backgrounds that flicker behind. It’s as if the camera itself is sealing him in a crypt, though Cole’s off-screen narration explains it (or, if you will, not at all) when he proclaims, ‘I did this to feel alive’.

Perhaps the very process of making the film is what keeps the on-camera Cole from pulling the trigger of the same gun that was previously stuffed into the woman’s panties and is used later by her as she writhes on the floor and then shoots herself in the eye – a steely phallus delivering death through the one orifice that allows for the only on-camera persona to witness and/or participate in the proceedings.

After putting himself through the most rigorous paces in the interior sequences, Cole transplants himself into the Sahara, risking his life and cheating death to provide a series of stunning exterior images to contrast and parallel the claustrophobia of the room. In the room, for example, we see a snake slithering helplessly and aimlessly across the hardwood floors, while in the desert we see Cole crawling desperately across grains of sand. In the room, we hear the sound of wooden matches being repeatedly struck and extinguished, tossed onto the hardwood floor as the snake slithers over them, while in the desert, a jeep is doused with gasoline and torched as the camera slowly pulls away until the jeep becomes a flickering speck on the infinite horizon of the Sahara.

Cole’s vision is daring, psychologically complex, thematically layered and created by someone with a clear command of the filmmaking process and endowed with a supreme form of artistry. Given the stately pace, we have the option to think about what we see as we see it, or leave those thoughts until after viewing the film and instead allow a series of terrifying, lonely and often beautiful images to wash over us and to open up emotionally, viscerally to a cinematic world that cries for some sense of understanding and passion, not merely for the subject, but for the world, for all of us.

A Life is particularly revelatory in the sense that death, as a final act on this earth, is one of solitude, where we are truly alone with our body and spirit, and when the body goes, so does the spirit – alone into an infinite void.

The film’s emotional core comes from Cole’s seeming sadness and desperation, yet one oddly leaves this experience with a sense of elation, of fulfilment and with the feeling that perhaps there is A LIFE beyond the mere drudgery and suffering and pure survival that Cole so evocatively and painfully explores.
This is a film of lasting value and Cole must be forever remembered as an artist of uncompromising bravery and vision.

His small core of collaborators must also be commended – Jean-Yves Dion’s desert photography, Carlos Ferrand’s interior work and Vincent Saulnier’s stunning sound design are of a level and quality so far beyond the mediocrity of most films made in Canada – far beyond anything seen when the film was made, and now, nearly a quarter century later, that fact has not changed.

These days, it’s very difficult to see Frank’s films. To launch the recent publication of Life without Death: The Cinema of Frank Cole, an exquisite book from the Canadian Film Institute in Ottawa edited by Mike Hoolbloom and Tom McSorley, there have been a handful of screenings of A Life (in addition to full retrospectives at film festivals in Rotterdam, Wroclaw and Jihlava). The book itself includes a DVD copy of Korbett Matthews’s fine documentary film, The Man Who Crossed the Sahara and numerous writings on Frank’s work from a myriad of writers including John Greyson, Peter Mettler, Mike Cartmell, Geoff Pevere and my own original review of A Life published in 1988 in Cinema Canada magazine – a review that I have here revised extensively based on both my initial memories and a recent screening of the work.

Time always declares the final verdict on such matters, but it is safe to say enough time has passed to declare this film a masterpiece. In fact, A Life demands the sort of enshrinement that few Canadian films genuinely deserve. It has its own life. It continues to pulse, breathe, and survive.

Its spirit lives on.


From the Dominion of Canada,
On the northernmost tip of the Bruce Peninsula,
I bid you a hearty:

‘Bon cinema!’

The 35th Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 9 to 19.

Greg Klymkiw