Darran McCann was born in Co. Armagh in 1979. He graduated from Trinity College Dublin and Dublin City University before becoming a journalist with Belfast’s Irish News. He went on to write, teach and study at Queen’s University Belfast. His debut, After the Lockout, a story about freedom and repression, is set in Ireland in 1917, and tells the story of socialist gunman Victor Lennon and his battle with the local parish priest Stanislaw Benedict for the souls of the people in his home village. Darran McCann’s filmic alter ego is George Bailey, protagonist of It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). EITHNE FARRY
The narrative of It’s a Wonderful Life concerns the grinding-down of a good man, to the point of utter despair. George Bailey (played with never-greater integrity by James Stewart) is a character of uncommon ambition and wanderlust: his many and varied plans and ambitions are consistent only in that they will take him far from his little hometown of Bedford Falls. And his ambitions are within his grasp. Frequently, a train, boat or plane, or a job or investment opportunity or place at college awaits, and there’s always someone on hand to assure George that no one will blame him for taking it. He is always free to choose his dreams.
Yet George always chooses selflessly. The story of his life is a litany of frustration, his plans always deferred, each selfless act bringing fresh hardship and heightened frustration. Ultimately, George hits rock-bottom, and only the magic realist intervention of Clarence, his guardian angel, prevents his suicide.
So why would I, or anyone, wish to be George Bailey?
Well, after his trip with Clarence through a world in which he never existed, George attains a level of consciousness that is surely beyond the grasp of all but deities.
But that’s not it.
There’s a philosophical ruthlessness to It’s a Wonderful Life that belies the film’s Christmassy reputation. It’s an easy truism that doing the right thing is hard, but It’s a Wonderful Life dramatises just how hard. George is punished, not rewarded for his goodness, yet he never succumbs to cynicism. His dilemmas are ever more unforgiving, the price of character grows ever greater, the life he wishes for grows ever more remote; yet George always makes the hard (and right) choice.
Can there be a more straightforward definition of morality? Of heroism? Of goodness?
And who doesn’t want to be moral, to be a hero? To be good?
Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel):
Cinematic Delights in Honour of Jack Layton (1950-2011)
The Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition in the Dominion of Canada
I have sad news from the Colonies.
Jack is dead.
The Official Leader of the Opposition passed away in his Toronto home on August 22, 2011. On direct orders from our Monarch’s representative, the Governor-General-in-Council, Jack became the first House Opposition Leader in the Dominion of Canada to receive the honour of a state funeral. Though the late Sir Wilfred Laurier was technically the first opposition leader to be so honoured, he’d previously held the position of Prime Minister – protocol dictated his lofty send-off.
Jack, however, was not Prime Minister.
He would have been.
You see, The Honourable John Gilbert Layton (referred to by friends, family, colleagues, wags, pundits, supporters, enemies, acquaintances and the millions who’d never even met him as ‘Jack’) devoted close to 30 years of public service to Canadians as a Toronto city council member, deputy mayor, acting mayor, Member of Parliament, leader of the left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP) and finally, after the historic 2011 federal election, he became the Official Opposition and was poised to duke it out in the House of Commons with Canada’s Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper (a not-so-closeted dictator and almost oxymoronically, a not-so-closeted libertarian).
During the election campaign of 2011, a cane clenched firmly in the right hand, Jack vaulted from planes, trains and automobiles – as it were – criss-crossing the country AFTER recently beating cancer and undergoing hip surgery. Jack the Juggernaut overtook the once-reigning, now-pathetic federal Liberals (easy enough given the wishy-washy egghead leader Michael Ignatieff), but also drove his party to the highest levels of support in Canadian history. Most importantly and stunningly, Jack dealt a powerful blow to the separatist movement by thoroughly decimating the traitorous Bloc Quebecois, winning a whopping 59 of 75 seats in the mostly French-speaking province.
Jack proved to be the real force behind Canadian unity.
Jack was a maverick! And I love mavericks! Hell, as nutty as he is, I even love Prime Minister Stephen Harper – he too (at least in my own world of equal opportunity acknowledgment) is a right-royal-maverick-fuck.
Jack, however, took the maverick cake in politics – he was, in my humble opinion, a veritable Sam Peckinpah of the Canadian political landscape. He steadfastly became an early and continued advocate for the rights of AIDS victims, the working class, the homeless, visible minorities and all those disenfranchised elements of society that had become easy targets of derision for those on the right wing.
Jack had little use for the Status Quo. That said, his remarkable favouring of ‘the little guy’ was not the usual knee-jerk bleeding-heart Liberal lip service – he fought the good fight (though some chose erroneously not to believe it) for ALL Canadians in our fair Dominion. Fairness was the key word when it came to Jack.
Jack wanted a world where everyone was treated with compassion – rich and poor alike.
I loved Jack.
On the day of his state funeral service, I chose to celebrate his life in my own private way. I chose to celebrate cinema in his honour.
Something tells me he wouldn’t have minded at all.
HOW I FIRST MET JACK
In 1995, Jack sold me several humungous flesh-coloured prosthetic penises.
The prosthetics proved prophetic in more ways than one.
Jack was the official auctioneer at a charity auction for Toronto’s ‘Buddies in Bad Times’, the first theatre in Canada devoted to queer culture (and for many years, my home away from home).
I was producing a feature film called Bubbles Galore, a porn satire I co-wrote, which would eventually star legendary triple-X queen Nina Hartley, porn-star-turned-performance-artist Annie Sprinkle, Penthouse Pet Shauny Sexton, a bevy of exotic dancers and a who’s who of Canada’s acting community – all of whom had performed on the Buddies stage – including Daniel MacIvor (legendary Canadian playwright, actor, theatre director and filmmaker), the late Tracy Wright (Highway 61, Last Night), Sky Gilbert (founder and then-Artistic Director of Buddies), Andrew Scorer (Happy Town, Cube 2, Jack of Hearts), the late Ed Fielding (the nude jogger in Welcome to Mooseport), Peter Lynch (legendary Toronto theatre actor), Thea Gill (Lindsay Peterson in Queer as Folk), Rosalba Martinni (Where the Truth Lies, Slings and Arrows) and Kirsten Johnson (eXistenZ, Eclipse and one of Canada’s most acclaimed visual artists).
I needed props – very special props. So I decided to see what I could scare up at Buddies’ charity auction and at least put some money into the pocket of this great theatre company.
Jack was a born auctioneer. This made sense, of course. He held a doctorate in political science and was – for many years – a brilliant lecturer, and by this point, one of the country’s most articulate politicians. He performed his role at Buddies with gusto – describing the bevy of butt-plugs and other sex toys/aids with all the snap, crackle and pop of a 42nd Street barker (from those halcyon days before the NYC clean-up).
In Apocalypse Now, Marlon Brando as Col Walter E. Kurtz says: ‘I see a snail crawling along the edge of a straight razor.’ Kurtz pauses – as only Brando could – and then rasps: ‘That’s my dream!’
My dream, whenever I think of Jack publicly shilling sex toys at Buddies, is imagining him in front of the now-defunct Rug Room on 42nd Street, hustling prospective customers to enter the den of iniquity to see the ever so charming ‘live dildo-dipping beauties’.
Have I mentioned yet that Jack was a good sport?
But I digress.
The props I needed were strap-on, life-like penises. And they… uh… had to be BIG!
In the late 70s and throughout the 80s, Russ Meyer started outfitting all the studs in his pictures (Supervixens, UP! Beneath the Valley of the Ultra Vixens) with ludicrously engorged schwances of the prosthetic persuasion. In homage to the brilliant director of Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill! I wanted all the male actors in my film to be equipped with similarly endowed dinky-toys. During the shoot of Bubbles Galore I recall Daniel MacIvor quipping that after people saw him in the movie, his cachet at Woody’s (Toronto’s finest gay bar) would rise (so to speak) due to the massive member popping from his pants virtually every minute he was on screen.
Jack’s spirited sales job was enough to purvey the prop penii (yeah, not a word, but it should be) directly into my greedy mitts to then be strapped on our male stars (save for the late Ed Fielding, whose endowments rendered prosthetics of such length and girth completely unnecessary).
Years later, Bubbles Galore became the centre of a controversial shit-storm when the former Reform Party (now Canada’s Conservatives – ruled by PM Stevie-Boy) used my little movie just prior to their national convention in Ottawa to drum up headlines and crap all over the reigning Liberals. A front-page headline in Canada’s National Post, the paper-formerly-owned by famed jailbird Conrad Black, screamed: ‘LESBIAN PORN FUNDED BY GOVERNMENT’. Similar headlines followed as well as a flood of TV news items and talk radio yammering.
At the time, I couldn’t figure out what the fuss was about. It was pretty much a slow-news-day story that lasted far longer than it should have. The movie was explicit, to be sure, but it was about porn, not really the thing itself. That said, like all satire, it did straddle the lines of being the thing it satirized which, of course might have shot well over the heads of the right-wingers.
The few times I ran into Jack at parties over the years, I’d remind him of his fine hucksterism at Buddies. He’d laugh and (I assume) pretend to remember me. I did, however, never ask him if he ever saw my movie and how he would have responded to the Bubbles Galore controversy if he’d been involved in federal politics at the time. I should have, but never did. It’s probably best to imagine his response since no politician at the time rallied to the defence of the film.
In fact, to this day I’ll never forget the pathetic, cowardly response of Canada’s Liberal Heritage/Culture Minister at the time, crapping on the government agencies in the portfolio providing arts funding, blaming the Conservatives (who weren’t even in power when the film was granted funding) and then releasing a massive, putrid bovine dump on the movie – admitting to not seeing it, nor intending to see it.
The total amount of government shekels awarded and approved by juries of peers was $120, 000 – not the most princely sum, especially compared to the millions stolen by the Progressive Conservatives during the Airbus/Schreiber Affair, through the Goods and Services Tax and in entering into a moronic Free Trade agreement with the United States that fucked Canada royally. In the end, it fucked America too. (Something Jack himself commented on to President Barack Obama.) As for the Liberals, they too eventually defrauded taxpayers of millions of dollars during the Canadian sponsorship scandal in Quebec.
Hmmm. In retrospect, I’d like to think Jack might have rallied to the film’s defence if he’d been a Fed at the time. After all, the picture was not only a satire on the porn industry, but thematically proposed that sex workers should never be criminalized and/or demonized, but should in fact be supported by making the sex trade a safe place for them to work – and furthermore for women to take control of a male-dominated industry – one in which they were its primary commodity.
Screw it. Jack would have been there swinging for the right to make the film with government support. He was never afraid of taking positions unpopular with the Status Quo. Besides, it was Jack who sold me schwancen galoren.
What a guy!
* * * * *
MOVIES FOR JACK
The Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition officially took office on May 2, 2011. On July 25, the entire Dominion of Canada was stunned when Jack announced he would need to take a temporary leave from his activities to battle a new diagnosis of cancer and get adequate rest before returning as Opposition Leader to unsheathe his sword against that of PM Harper when the House of Commons would resume on September 19.
Jesus Christ! Jack already beat cancer, got over hip surgery, fought the most stunning battle in Canadian political history, preserved Canadian unity and was poised to decimate the right wing in the colonies during the next four years.
Jack was a fighter.
He’d lick the Big ‘C’ again.
So, fuck you God! Fuck you, religious right! Fuck you, fake conservatives. I say: ‘fake’ because the Progressive Conservatives were crooks, but they were ‘old style’ cons who valued Canadian culture – so much so that cultural funding on a Federal level was never (in my experience) more bountiful than under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. It was a trough all artists in the Dominion dined on ever so swinishly.
Two days after Jack’s announcement of his temporary leave, I was one of numerous individuals in the Canadian film industry to get an email from Sarah Polley.
Sarah is not only one of the best actors in Canada, but she has proven to be one of the Dominion’s best filmmakers, serving up the astounding short drama I Shout Love, the tremendously moving Academy Award-nominated Away from Her and her soon-to-be-unveiled Take This Waltz starring one of the world’s most gifted Canadian funny men, Seth Rogen.
Sarah Polley is a maverick. I love mavericks and I most certainly love Sarah.
As if she isn’t/wasn’t busy enough, Sarah always made time for ‘the little guy’. Since her earliest years, the former child star of Terry (out-of-his-fucking-mind) Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and the beloved family TV drama Road to Avonlea Polley had maverick qualities and activism hard-wired into her genetic code. For example, at the height of its popularity, Polley up and left Avonlea in protest over the increasing ‘Americanization’ of the Canadian series produced by Canuck Kevin Sullivan in collaboration with Disney. And, speaking of Disney, it’s been reported that she attended some public function the Mouse-Eared conglomerate was sponsoring and refused a dim-witted studio executive’s demand that she remove a peace-sign button affixed to her blouse.
Who needs peace when you can start another useless fucking war?
Through her teens and 20s Sarah continued to confound and delight movie fans the world over as she blossomed into adulthood – engaging in several political protests wherein she was physically assaulted by goons (uh, the fine members of Toronto’s Police Department), while on the silver screen she performed some truly major-zombie-ass-kicking in Zack Snyder’s surprisingly effective remake of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and butted heads with a crazed creature created from gelatinous amphibian goo cloned with her character’s own DNA in Vincenzo Natali’s deliciously fucked-in-the-head monster movie Splice.
Sarah became revered and respected as one of our Dominion’s most powerful and persuasive activists and artists.
For many years, she’s fought strenuously for a theatrical exhibition quota system in English Canada to bolster Canadian cinema. It’s a cause close to my heart and I long for the day she finally wins this good fight.
Socially, politically and culturally, Sarah Polley has led the way on so many fronts and, I might add, NOT in that annoyingly fashionable way contemporary Hollywood stars have done. Sarah was an activist early on in her life – long before celebrity activism became so degraded. She came by it truthfully, honestly and one might even say, innocently.
Like Jack, she has always fought for the rights of what’s genuinely right.
She’s also funny and has one of the most perverse senses of humour I’ve ever encountered. Sarah Polley is probably one of 10 people on this planet who actually gets the insanely muted knee-slappers that Atom Egoyan occasionally dollops like globs of rich sour cream into the dour, though flavourful borscht of his movies.
She’s also a thoughtful and generous human being, which, finally brings me back full circle to the email she sent two days after Jack announced his temporary leave.
In it, she wrote:
Hey smart film people that I know…
Olivia Chow [Jack’s beloved wife and a prominent NDP Member of Parliament] asked me to put together a list of movies for Jack while he’s at home. I’m thinking I’ll just go buy a whole bunch and leave them in a care package on their doorstep in the next few days. I’m trying to come up with a list of movies that are inspiring in some way – and frankly – I’m not exactly an encyclopaedia of film and could use some help and suggestions… can you send a list of your favourites?
Keep in mind that this was a private gesture on Sarah’s part and the last thing she’d want is for anyone to publicly tub-thump her stalwart ring-leading in a drive to provide Jack with a whack o’ inspirational and uplifting movies to keep his spirits buoyed during this latest battle with cancer. The fact is, however, this – nobody suspected Jack would die. We all believed he was in recovery mode – that he’d beat this thing again. It made perfect sense that his beloved Olivia would ask an activist-artist extraordinaire like Sarah to recommend some inspirational movies and more importantly, that she would turn it into a collaborative, cooperative affair, asking friends and colleagues for help.
They responded immediately. Not only was Sarah flooded with suggestions, but many people dropped movies off at her home to pass on to Jack. The love and generosity of spirit among these members of the Canadian movie business speaks volumes about them as human beings, but also speaks to the love so many had for Jack.
Sarah, by the way, is someone who always makes a big deal about being film illiterate. This is utter nonsense. When she received my insane 40-or-so pages of must-see movie lists when she attended Uncle Norm Jewison’s Canadian Film Centre in 2001, she began reeling off a bunch of obscure titles on my list – agreeing with their inclusion and even suggesting a few she felt needed to be there. I’ll excuse her this self-delusion.
I was thrilled to provide a few suggestions in response to her email. I initially went a tad overboard and fired off a crazy list of 50 movies. Sarah responded – not at all about the breadth of the list – but instead wanted to know what titles were TRULY uplifting.
‘I don’t mean uplifting for YOU. I mean for humans.’
‘Yikes!’ was my first thought. She’s right, of course. I’d included titles like Ulrich Seidl’s Dog Days (two hours of depravity – brilliant and cinematically inspiring depravity, but yeah, not uplifting in any way, shape or form. I quickly revised my list – keeping the truly inspirational pictures in there and dropping some of the more – shall we say ‘challenging’ titles or rather, those that are inspirational in a purely cinematic sense.
I won’t reel off my entire list here, but it might be of some interest to provide of few of my top picks. (You can rest assured that Chariots of Fire is not on this list.)
Save for the first film listed in this category the rest of the titles are in alphabetical order.
Grab a whack o’ these yourself and prepare to soar.
High. Very high indeed.
How Green Was My Valley
‘Men like my father cannot die. They are with me still, real in memory as they were in flesh, loving and beloved forever. How green was my valley then.’
This profoundly moving John Ford classic was my first and most emphatic choice. Replete with painterly compositions, uplifting Welsh choral music, childhood memories of a place and time so perfect, yet filled with tragedy, hardship, triumph over adversity and the importance of holding on to the spirit of those we love, it is unquestionably the perfect picture to raise anyone’s spirits and one I’ve seen well over 100 times.
‘If I knew things would no longer be, I would have tried to remember better.’
Barry Levinson’s brilliant, sprawling, autobiographical tale of Eastern European Jewish immigrants in Baltimore charts the value and importance of communication – REAL communication between human beings and the insidious eradication of personal connection in an increasingly impersonal world fraught with the pitfalls of technological advancement.
Bob le Flambeur
‘I was born with an ace in my palm.’
Jean Pierre Melville’s glorious tale of a silver-domed Gallic charmer, an old dog gambler who’s beyond learning new tricks and applies what he knows best – old-school values – to make one last big score. Steeped in romance and atmosphere, the picture allows us to see humanity in all its splendour – its flaws AND its indomitable spirit.
‘I heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.’
This was John Huston’s last film. His perceptive eye, his acute sense of the story’s natural cinematic rhythm and the staggering brilliance of every single performance are enough to commend The Dead to its rightful place as one of the great films of all time. I obviously can’t say this about every movie, but I will about this one – it’s perfect! What’s especially amazing about the movie is that Huston adheres to the literary qualities of James Joyce’s original material and manages to do so in ways that are wholly and supremely cinematic. This is a movie about love – or more pointedly, PASSION. The final third of the movie is without a doubt one of the most exquisitely wrought series of emotionally wrenching scenes you’ll ever experience.
The Enchanted Cottage
‘Do you know what loneliness is, real loneliness?
This movie is insane! Two ugly people residing in the said enchanted cottage eventually fall in love, and within the confines of the cottage, become physically beautiful to each other. They don’t make movies like this anymore. They should. It has more to say about love and the relationship between sexual attraction and physical appearance than most movies I can think of. The picture’s got impeccable direction from ace studio hack John Cromwell plus a script by Herman Mankiewicz (Dinner at Eight, The Pride of the Yankees and – fuck me! – Citizen Kane) and the great RKO scribe DeWitt Bodeen (The Cat People, The Curse of the Cat People, The Seventh Victim and I Remember Mama) and an impeccable quartet of performances from Robert Young, Dorothy McGuire, Mildred Natwick and Herbert Marshall. This is one motherfucker of an inspirational picture!
The Friends of Eddie Coyle
‘I spent most of my life hanging around crummy joints with a buncha punks drinkin’ the beer, eatin’ the hash and the hot dogs and watchin’ the other people go off to Florida while I’m sweatin’ out how I’m gonna pay the plumber. I done time and I stood up but I can’t take no more chances. Next time, it’s gonna be me goin’ to Florida.’
I’ll never forget the first time I saw The Friends of Eddie Coyle as a kid with my ex-cop Dad. It was a movie that stayed with me and haunted me for the 30 or so years since first seeing it. Robert Mitchum delivers his greatest performance as the title character. From Eddie Coyle’s first appearance – heavy-lidded, baggy-eyed, paunchy, world-weary and shuffling with the gait of a once-physically-powerful man now consigned to the throbbing aches of late middle age – we pretty much know he’s doomed. The movie deals unsparingly with the disenfranchised and what leads them to The Life they live. What I’ll never forget was my Dad’s response at the end of the movie. ‘That’s the way it is, kid, that’s just the way it is,’ he said to me, with more than a little sadness in his voice, and with many long years under his belt as a cop, dealing with guys just like Eddie Coyle. Seeing the movie now, Dad’s words still hold true. Only now, as an adult, I see Eddie lumbering through the inevitability of his doom – those same words emblazoned, no doubt, on HIS brain. ‘That’s just the way it is.’ And, yeah, it’s really fucking depressing and not uplifting at all. It is inspiring though to anyone who fought or continues to fight strenuously against ‘the way it is’.
The Ghost and Mrs Muir
‘You must make your own life amongst the living and, whether you meet fair winds or foul, find your own way to harbor in the end.’
From Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All about Eve), this is one great love story! Rex Harrison works overtime etching an irascible and charming sea captain – his body long departed, but his spirit still beating. His final monologue to the sleeping figure of Gene Tierney before traversing back to the spirit world is one of the great show-stopping moments of screen acting. I can’t think of a better movie for people in love to watch together.
Meet John Doe
‘Oh, John, if it’s worth dying for, it’s worth living for.’
One could drop a bunch of Frank Capra titles into a fish bowl, pick one and know – beyond a shadow of a doubt – that it’d be supremely uplifting. That said, it wouldn’t be Meet John Doe. So many of Capra’s pictures shared the ideals Jack Layton stood for, but this one bursts at the seams with them. There’s a strange darkness to the film that’s hinted at in Capra’s other movies, but never fully exposed the way it is here. When an ordinary guy is duped into becoming the public face of a corporate/government campaign that pays surface lip service to the plight of the disenfranchised he manages to bring hope back into the lives of millions of people – real hope! This is a lot more than the Status Quo bargained for. Capra and his brilliant screenwriter Robert Riskin expose the sort of inherently evil machinations used to mute movements designed for the good of all kind. In a sense, their ordinary guy becomes a Frankenstein monster run amuck – fighting for truth, justice and fairness for all. Capra eventually drags us through the film-noir-like mire engineered by the power brokers, but the movie ultimately proves that perseverance will always yield a light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.
Nights of Cabiria
‘There is some justice in the world. You suffer, you go through hell then happiness comes along for everyone.’
Federico Fellini continually explored the notion of redemption via false prophets. And I do not mean Christ, but rather, those within, and most often at the highest levels of any organized faith, who seek to dominate and control by proselytizing distorted teachings to the weakest and most vulnerable of society. Cabiria (Giulietta Masina) is just such an individual and it’s no surprise that even the film’s title states clearly that we are to journey through the Nights of Cabiria. It’s the darkness of night that roots us in a place from where we are allowed to find the light, an idea not far removed from the aforementioned Meet John Doe. This simple tale of a waif-like, almost Chaplinesque figure of innocence (or naïveté) that works the world’s oldest profession to preserve a higher standard of living is ultimately about her search for a state of grace. She looks for love and instead finds redemption. This is a picture guaranteed to have you soaring higher than you ever thought possible. That’s the real greatness of Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria – it allows you the freedom to be weightless within the overwhelming spirit of humanity.
‘There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.’
Preston Sturges made many great social comedies about the plight of the poor and working poor, but his crowning glory is still this hilarious, romantic and heartbreaking odyssey of a successful studio director (Joel McCrae) who gets it in his head to stop making celluloid cotton candy (like Ants in Your Pants and Hey-Hey in the HAYLOFT) and devote his energies to making a movie about the plight of the homeless. But first, he needs to divest himself of all comforts. With a dime in his pocket he hits the open road to experience the misery of homelessness and gets far more than he could ever have imagined – including romance with the peek-a-boo-coiffured Veronica Lake. Sturges’s dialogue is still unbeatable. It puts the best contemporary comedy writers to utter shame. His actors spit out their words like machine guns and the overall pace of the movie almost never lets up, and when it does, it’s to deliver wallops of heart-wrenching emotion.
So those were 10 of 50 or so movies I recommended Jack see. Sarah Polley blasted down to Bay Street Video, bought a bunch of movies, painstakingly affixed Post-it Notes to each with the name of whoever recommended it and a brief description of who they were in the movie business. The movies she couldn’t find, she typed up on lists with the names of those who recommended them and Jack’s wife Olivia intended to use Netflix. Sarah placed the movies in a basket, hightailed it down to Jack’s house and left the goods on their front porch.
Jack called Sarah soon after. He left a message on her answering machine. Sarah relayed the following to all of us via email:
‘It meant so much to him that the recommendations came from so many people in our community. He read all your ‘bios’ that accompanied your suggestions and was thrilled.’
A few weeks later, Jack died.
Sarah got a personal note from Olivia. In it, she made reference to the movies:
‘The beautiful film collection kept him company in his final days. They kept him laughing, kept him inspired and kept his spirit up.’
Movies are like that. They really are a great gift to mankind.
Deep down I guess that when I made a list of inspirational movies for Jack, I tried to also think about who he was, what he did and what he represented to so many Canadians. A part of me wanted to select movies that would not only entertain but address issues and themes close to Jack’s heart.
I recently asked Sarah about Jack. She expressed the following sentiments: ‘Jack lifted my spirits time and time again with his tireless efforts on causes that were supremely un-sexy at the time he was championing them – gay rights, homelessness, violence against women, the environment. Every time I see a bike lane or that big wind turbine down by Lake Ontario I think of him. He was also the only person who I felt ever raised the issues of the film and television community eloquently in Parliament. Above all though – I think he redefined what it means to be a public servant. He dedicated most of his life to making this city and this country better and more equal and just. I don’t think I’ll ever meet anyone again who works that hard.’
Out of the ridiculous amount of movies I recommended to Jack via Sarah – one stands out: David Lynch’s The Elephant Man. It’s the story of the hideously deformed John Merrick, who spent much of his life in the late 19th century being abused and exploited until taken under the wing of Dr Frederick Treves. The movie details the unflagging efforts of those who attempt to breathe humanity into this poor man’s life. The end of the film is sad, yet uplifting. Merrick, who could never sleep lying down, as the weight of his head would choke him, spent his nights sitting up. One night, after a seeing a glorious, magical stage production, he retires to his room and decides to remove the pillows from his bed that would buffet him up through the night in order to breathe. He nestles into the bed, takes one last look at his mother’s picture and places his head back to sleep ‘normally’. Lynch creates a series of indelible images to represent Merrick’s final death dream. In it, among glittering stars, Merrick’s long-dead mother appears to him and whispers ever so gently:
‘Never, oh never, nothing shall die.’
I feel the same way about Jack.
NEXT ISSUE: PART TWO of my cinematic tribute to Jack Layton will detail what I did on the day of his state funeral, including a trip to my favourite movie store Sunrise Records, visiting with Vincent Price’s daughter, stalking Hayden Panettiere and a full review of The Complete Jean Vigo, the Criterion Collection Blu-ray I bought that very day and watched in Jack’s honour. It seemed fitting to watch Vigo on the day of Jack’s funeral. Vigo was one of the greatest film artists of all time. His legacy – Zero for Conduct and L’Atalante – both continue to inspire, but he left our good Earth far too early and one can only imagine the greatness to follow.
Just like Jack.
From the Dominion of Canada,
On the northernmost tip of the Bruce Peninsula,
I bid you a hearty:
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews