Lisa McInerney is a sweary writer of contemporary fiction who comes from Galway via Cork. She likes video games, Vincent Cassel, and being on time for things. Her first novel, The Glorious Heresies (published by John Murray 9 April 2015), tracks the lives of five misfits who exist on the fringes of Ireland’s post-boom badlands, from 15-year-old drug dealer Ryan, who’s escaping his father’s fists, to Maureen, the accidental murderer, who is back at home at the behest of her gangster son, Jimmy, after a 40-year sojourn. Lisa’s alter ego is Hazel Motes in Wise Blood. Eithne Farry
It’s a disconcerting thing to be a logical writer. It’s put to you as an apostasy. Common sense is for paramedics, farmers and the Famous Five; writers should be impulsive, emotional and drunk. And yet I am logical. Pragmatic. Ever sane. Maybe too sane. It sometimes feels like I’m the only sane person in a world of flakes and maniacs. Why can’t they just SEE? I ask myself. It’s perfectly SIMPLE. And then I kick a wall and hurt my foot.
So if there’s a movie character I feel closest to, it’s Hazel Motes from John Huston’s Wise Blood. Haze – draped over the skinny shoulders of Brad Dourif at his eyeball-popping best – is galvanised by logic. He’s so resolutely, unflinchingly sane that it’s driven him completely mad.
Haze, bent out of shape by an unspecified war wound and memories of his fire-and-brimstone preacher grandfather, comes home to Tennessee intent on spreading heresy. Made bilious by the milky-eyed convictions held by his Christian brethren, he abhors religion and yet is preoccupied with it, obsessed with theology in the way a child is obsessed with his playmate’s trinkets, focused on ripping to shreds the comforts of faith. Naturally, his extreme sincerity is ignored by the masses, seized on by the feeble-minded, exploited by the deceitful and upstaged by his hat, driving Haze into paroxysms of logic. It’s hardly a wonder it all ends in (burning) tears.
An anti-preacher losing the run of himself because no one around him will listen to reason resonates with me, a lapsed Irish Catholic and, unfortunately, rational novelist. My heart pangs for Haze because I know where the lad is coming from: a place of bitter incredulousness, where sometimes you’re so puffed up with sound philosophies that you can’t quite get them past your teeth except in a great big rancorous rush. Sanity’s a maddening thing in a world as complex as ours. Also, I wouldn’t mind young Dourif’s bone structure. Or such a mesmerising hat.
It must be the greatest laughing fit in cinematic history: 90 seconds of hysteria that capture man’s experience in all its complex joy and futility. Surrounded by a swirl of Mexican dirt, two weather-worn, work-wearied gold diggers bellow to the wind. After ‘ten months of suffering and labour’, the men, Howard (Walter Huston) and Curtin (Tim Holt), are left with nothing: ‘The gold’s gone back to where we found it’, cries Howard. Their hard-won wealth amounts to little more than handfuls of dust, carried away by the howls of a gale. The laughing duo used to be three: an uneasy allegiance of dirt-poor prospectors on the hunt for gold. They dug together, ate together, slept side by side and carefully divided up the granules of gold each evening. The plan was to ‘make each guy responsible for his own goods’, but it was the loose cannon of the group, Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart), who finally squandered the riches. The three men were headed back to Tampico to deposit their gold at a bank when they were stopped by a group of native Indians asking for help. Old-timer Howard answered their pleas and, through rudimentary medicine and luck, saved a child’s life. Eager to show their appreciation, the boy’s family urged Howard to stay on as an honoured guest so that they could re-pay their debt of gratitude. Howard relented, hoping to catch up with the young men in the city, but it was not to be: without Howard’s wise and sobering influence, Dobbs loses his head (both metaphorically and literally). Overcome with greed, he shoots Curtin and leaves him for dead. As a solitary figure with an unruly train of pack mules, Dobbs is unable to defend himself against a trio of bandits, who hack off his head and make off with his bags of gold. They mistake the precious metal for worthless rocks and empty the sacks to the wind. Howard and a wounded Curtin re-unite and hurry to the site where the bandits dumped their loot. And now they sit, among a swirling storm of gold-dust, as broke as when they started out. Their hearty guffaws ring out with gallows humour. On and on and on they go.
On the face of it, John Huston’s masterstroke of powerful, pithy cinema, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), acts as a straightforward fable or morality tale. Three men go in search of gold and lose it all to greed and paranoia. The descent of Dobbs certainly follows the standard tragic trajectory. He displays hubris, ignoring Howard’s warnings. The men meet in a grimy guesthouse, where Howard offers plenty of words of caution: ‘I know what gold does to men’s souls’; ‘I never know a prospector yet that died rich’; ‘When the piles of gold begin to grow, that’s when the trouble starts’. Dobbs believes that he can beat these portentous phrases: ‘It wouldn’t be that way with me, I swear it – I’d take only what I set out to get, even if there was half a million dollars’ worth sitting around waiting to be picked up’. For Dobbs, the effect of gold ‘can be as much a blessing as a curse’: ‘it all depends on whether the man who finds it is the right guy’. Over the course of the film, such hubris gives way to increasing materialism and selfishness, resulting in his final act of callous treachery. In a violent tale of black-and-white morality, it is only fitting that he meets his end at the blade of a machete.
But dig beneath the topsoil of the men’s search for gold and you’ll see more than just one doomed expedition. The film is full of them. Before hunting for gold, Dobbs and Curtin undertake conventional employment as construction workers. In the searing heat, they work to build an oil rig but the contractor disappears without paying them. It is only by chance that the two men stumble upon their former boss and manage to extract their wages by force: a punch-up in a bar, full of ‘rats, scorpions and cockroaches’. Dobbs has no better luck, gambling on the lottery. We first meet the down-and-outer tearing up a ticket, in front of a notice board of winning numbers, and later, when he does win a few hundred pesos, he sinks the money into tools and provisions for the doomed gold-hunting trip. The bandits who ambush Dobbs have even less luck than Howard and Curtin. They throw away their chance at wealth because they assume Dobbs is a fur trader. The bandits believe Dobbs was using the rocks to bulk up animal hides and deceive potential buyers. They dash the bags aside and then, rounded up by the Federales (the Mexican police), they are forced to dig their own graves.
Each attempt to accumulate wealth – honest labour, prospecting, gambling and stealing – reaches a dead-end: ‘I never know a prospector yet that died rich’. No success lasts and no failure deters another attempt at success. The doomed expeditions act as micro analogies for the macro busts and booms of the capitalist system. In the novel on which the film is based, published in 1927, there are even more examples of botched attempts to acquire and retain fortunes. Through B. Traven’s magnificent prose (his description of bandits ambushing a train is heart-quickeningly good), Howard spins fantastical yarns about forgotten mines and Spanish settlers. Every page provides acutely written insights into the bizarre, torturous logic of modern capitalism, secreted within gloriously told stories. And in the film, Huston creates an equally taut narrative, condensing Traven’s perceptive words with visual punches of gun fights and bar brawls. The doomed expeditions of the book and film reveal the fragility and sometimes nonsensical nature of economic systems and how they are created by and impact on human nature. In that sense, it’s a work that is apposite for our times and has traversed decades. Men losing their wealth in a cloud of dirt would have been a familiar vision to audiences on the release of the film in 1948, memories of the Dust Bowl not too distant in their minds, and Traven’s novel itself was published two years before the Wall Street Crash. With the release of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre provides a welcome and very different context to the wealth of the Roaring Twenties, showing the practical reality of wealth accumulation behind the opulent display.
Dobbs’ descent into feverish individualism is beautifully rendered by Huston’s direction and Bogart’s performance. Sitting around the camp fire, the three prospectors discuss what they will do with their money once they get back to Tampico: Howard says he wants to get himself a little grocery or hardware store, providing himself with a stable income and time for ‘readin’ comic strips and adventure stories’; Curtin states that he hopes to buy a peach farm and watch his ‘own trees bare fruit’; but Dobbs’ aims are far less noble:‘Well, first off, I’m goin’ to a Turkish bath and I’m gonna sweat and soak till I get all the grime and dirt out of my system. Then I’m goin’ to a haberdasher and I’m gonna get myself a brand new set of duds…a dozen of everything. Then, I’m goin’ to a swell cafe – order everything on the bill of fare, and if it ain’t just right, or maybe even if it is, I’m gonna bawl the waiter out and make him take the whole thing back’.
He seamlessly takes up the mantle of a societal oppressor, losing empathy for those lower down the pecking order. Later, when a fellow American prospector named Cody (Bruce Bennett) arrives unexpectedly at the men’s camp, Dobbs uses the language of a heartless employer: ‘We got not use for you… No vacancies’. Despite his own experience of jobless desperation, he is all too eager to laud his new-found power and humiliate a man in a weaker position. He starts to see himself in financial terms, arguing that he should receive a larger share of gold as he put up more money for the expedition than Curtin: ‘In any civilised place, the biggest investor gets the biggest return, don’t he?’. He becomes increasingly aware of his own position and status, frequently referring to himself in the third person (‘Fred C. Dobbs don’t say nothin’ he don’t mean’). After he finally shoots Curtin, Bogart’s performance comes into its own as he carries the film with an intense, paranoid monologue.
In his novel, Traven does not present a simple solution to the ills of capitalism, but there are glimpses of alternative realities, which receive slightly more emphasis in Huston’s film. Curtin’s dreams of a peach farm provide a vision of a harmonious society: ‘I figure on buying some land and growing fruit – peaches maybe…One summer when I was a kid, I worked as a picker in a peach harvest in the San Joaquin Valley. Boy, it sure was something. Hundreds of people, old and young, whole families workin’ together. At night, after a day’s work, we used to build big bonfires and sit around and sing to guitar music, till morning sometimes. You’d go to sleep and wake up and sing, and go to sleep again. Everybody had a wonderful time. Ever since then, I’ve had a hankering to be a fruit grower. Must be grand watching your own trees put on leaves, come into blossom and bear…watching the fruit get big and ripe on the boughs, ready for pickin’…’
And in the film, unlike the novel, we see Curtin making concrete plans for such an existence. The movie script kills off the fourth American, Cody (in the book, he is a strange, haunted prospector, who continues to search for gold after the other men return to Tampico) and invents a letter from his widow, which speaks of a life based on harvesting the land rather than chasing riches: ‘The country is especially lovely this year… The upper orchard looks aflame and the lower like after a snowstorm. Everybody looks forward to big crops. I do hope you are back for the harvest. Of course, I’m hoping that you will at last strike it rich. It is high time for luck to start smiling upon you, but just in case she doesn’t, remember we’ve already found life’s real treasure.’
At the end of the film, Curtin decides to sell the last of the animal hides and buy a ticket to Dallas to visit Cody’s widow. There is an emphasis on respecting land and its resources elsewhere in the film too, when Howard urges the younger men to help him clean up the camp before they leave for Tampico: ‘We’ve wounded this mountain. It’s our duty to close her wounds’. And Howard’s life as a medicine man in the Native Indian village also acts as an alternative to chasing gold, providing relief from prospecting adventures (‘I’m all fixed for the rest of my natural life’).
Despite highlighting these alternatives, the movie stops short of becoming a preachy prescriptive take on how life should be. We are not asked to hate Dobbs (‘I reckon we can’t blame him too much’, muses Howard) but rather understand what created his and others’ failure. Like Traven’s novel, the film primarily provides a description of the absurdity of aspects of capitalism. It describes the doomed expeditions that make up the whole. After all, as the wise old-timer explains, ‘Gold itself ain’t good for nothing except making jewellery with and gold teeth.’
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