By Stephen Broomer
The Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre was founded in 1967, out of a pressing need in Canada – a need most felt in Toronto – for an independent film distribution network, one equipped to handle the diverse array of Canadian independent films being made by artists and students, and that could also serve as a pipeline for underground films to take greater root in the Canadian consciousness. In the mid-1960s, Canada’s few independent film distributors specialized in European art-house fare. None could accommodate the range of expressions found in underground filmmaking, a movement so often caught in conflict. Those conflicts were with censors, for its most wild, violent, and bawdy invocations; with audiences, trained by mainstream culture, with pretenses to form, who would broadly parse films into categories of good and bad, who might readily dismiss liveliness as incompetence; and with critics, who then, by large, lacked a cohesive vision of the underground, too many of them dismissive or silent.[i] The counterculture of underground film, born out of communities of artists and students, had little to no support system in Canada. Those who would lead the formation of such a network would have to look south.
In the late 1930s, when English civil servant and film theorist John Grierson was invited to develop a government-led film culture for Canada, he brought his authority in propaganda, gleaned while heading Britain’s General Post Office Film Unit. There, Grierson had supported formal innovation, evident in the experimental animations of Len Lye and Norman MacLaren, set to the service of promoting modern communications. Lye’s Trade Tattoo (1937) serves this dual role, of perceptual adventure and social and technological affirmation. But Grierson’s aesthetic support only coincidentally veered toward experimental forms; his primary interest lay in cinema’s rhetorical abilities, in the use of film to better and empower the nation. Where others saw Canada’s filmmaking history as a series of false starts and failures, in the shadow of American big business, Grierson saw a potential to take films into classrooms, community gathering places, trade union halls, an idea he termed ‘the non-theatrical revolution’, the notion that cinema could thrive beyond the lobbies of the traditional movie palace, and that it could even be posed to a greater relevance within society, as a tool for social development.[ii] His reports led to the creation of the National Film Board of Canada, a federal filmmaking organization founded upon humanistic principles, to create Canadian propaganda that would aid in the war effort and instill pride in the nation. The postwar mission of the National Film Board was to educate the masses through illustrations of Canadian life, and in doing so, to document and preserve Canadian culture. The NFB had provided a model for a Canadian film culture, but it was a civil servant’s cinema. And while the NFB employed many artists from its outset, and encouraged their experimentation, they were nonetheless constricted by the overarching didacticism of the institution’s mission: to document, to educate, to preserve.[iii] Those filmmakers who could not fit within this system were left with limited options for producing and distributing films. Outsiders to this system included those pursuing the freer forms of modern art, as well as those interested in narrative entertainments and character dramas. The Canadian propaganda film soon found purchase in the trade union hall and the classroom, but the truly independent film, emancipated of debts to the government or political message-making, was left to the marginal world of civic and university film societies, a world that would increasingly fall under attack from censors, vice squads, and other, less ordered puritanical forces.
Rare events would plant the seeds for a Canadian artists’ cinema – for instance, the Toronto Film Society’s 1949 presentation of Hans Richter’s Dreams That Money Can Buy (1947), held at the Royal Ontario Museum, where a young Joyce Wieland was in attendance. The next year, the Toronto Film Society collaborated with the University of Toronto’s Film Society to bring Maya Deren to Toronto, to present her films; she would return a year later to give a workshop.[iv] The film that resulted from this workshop, Ensemble for Somnambulists (1951), inspired a number of the participants to persist in filmmaking.[v] In 1960, painter Gordon Rayner received the first film grant awarded by the Canada Council, signaling the first steps taken in this era by the federal government to support independent cinema. A small group of Canadian painters – in Toronto, Michael Snow, Joyce Wieland, and Graham Coughtry; in London, Greg Curnoe – began to make and show films as part of ongoing Neo-Dada exhibitions, led in large part by Yorkville bookseller and Dada scholar Michele Sanouillet, and with notable support from gallerists Dorothy Cameron and Av Isaacs. Regular screenings at the Isaacs Gallery and later, the Bohemian Embassy, featured films by artists such as Richard Gorman, Gordon Rayner, and Bob Cowan.
While the NFB began producing work of broad social comment, Canada was elsewhere seeing its first signs of an independent film culture influenced by the American improvisatory filmmaker John Cassavetes. The controversial ‘Vancouver trilogy’ of Larry Kent and Claude Jutra’s A tout prendre (1963) bore the startling promise of a new era of independent Canadian filmmaking.[vi] In step with this, a Canadian artists’ cinema was gathering out of the new forms, energies, and movements of the early 1960s.[vii] It would take a sea change to create a widespread movement for both independent and personal filmmaking in Canada, and that change would largely be concentrated on university campuses. Students would begin to see the new Canadian independent features presented alongside works of the New American Cinema, such as those of Paul Sharits, Ben Van Meter, Shirley Clarke, Jonas Mekas, and Ed Emshwiller. Mekas, the leading ambassador of this movement, would describe it as something profoundly mystical, for he saw its artists as monastic vessels whose orders were to sing in a new age, “through their intuition that the eternity communicates with us, bringing a new knowledge, new feelings.”[viii] For Mekas, this was an “art of light,” light most mystical and serene, into which the artist might vanish.[ix] By 1966, the American underground had gained steady ground among Canadian artists and students. This underground was a vanguard of music, poetry, cinema, painting, dance, often but not always parceled with the outrages of a burgeoning counterculture, a world of outsiders enraged by widespread dehumanization of modern life, and seeking aesthetic, intellectual, and sensual renewal.
With these ideas of personal cinema entering campuses through film societies, John Grierson’s notion of a Non-Theatrical Revolution was finally turning, away from anthropological subjects and the missionary work of education, and towards modern and post-modern art. The experience of the Canadian filmgoer was still, by large, that of any average North American filmgoer, but for the few who were paying attention to the movement for an indigenous Canadian cinema, they could see omens of a free cinema, one that was wild and transgressive, and that dealt with a range of expressions that were taboo and personal. At McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, art student and community organizer Patricia Murphy began to rent films from the New York Film-makers Cooperative for the campus’s annual Art Festival. Along with John Hofsess, Murphy had travelled to New York City and met with Jonas Mekas, and was inspired to take further steps to build a Canadian audience for this cinema; Hofsess, likewise inspired, wished to make films that dealt with spiritual and perceptual renewal, and his aesthetic concerns were further formed after he, Murphy, and others involved in the arts festival, invited Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable, a multiple-projector happening featuring the Velvet Underground.[x]
Hofsess, along with campus film critic Peter Rowe, formed a production co-op with the consent of the student union. The primary mission of the McMaster Film Board was to produce experimental films in the style of the New American Cinema. Their first two films, Redpath 25 and Black Zero (released together as the diptych, Palace of Pleasure, 1966/67), endured considerable resistance from conservative forces on campus, but ultimately prevailed as a calling card for a new Canadian underground film, gaining theatrical runs in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, and screening at international festivals of media art to considerable acclaim. In London, Greg Curnoe and Jack Chambers were making films with modest circulation; in Toronto, Richard Gorman was making collages, film loops, and direct cinema experiments; and expatriates Michael Snow, Joyce Wieland, and Bob Cowan had departed for New York City where they were developing significant bodies of work in film and other media. But Hofsess’s Palace of Pleasure, a work of profound and hypnotic sensual character, briefly commanded a tremendous focus in the Canadian independent film scene, bridging the divide between the new independent Canadian film and an emerging Canadian underground.[xi] At other campuses, filmmaking clubs were also forming: at University of Toronto, where David Secter made his innovative gay drama Winter Kept Us Warm (1965), a Film Production Club formed under the aegis of Glenn McCauley, Rob Fothergill (formerly of McMaster), and Sam Gupta. Against this, other young Toronto filmmakers, such as Don Shebib, Iain Ewing, Clarke Mackey, and Julius Kohanyi, began to make independent films, ranging from documentaries to experimental subjects.
In the fall of 1966, the vantage point was changing in Toronto. John Hofsess, writing for The Varsity, offered a series of articles titled “Revolution in Canadian Film,” in which he outlined the challenges facing young filmmakers, primarily the challenges of obtaining equipment and film stock, and of having a film distributed “in order to receive criticism, recognition, and revenues for future work.” The practices surrounding independent filmmaking demonstrated “a system best mastered by those with more talent for wheeling-and-dealing than for actually making good films.” In organizing collectively to address these problems, amateur filmmakers could build “the conditions in which creativity can thrive.”[xii] Artists with such support could cast experiences, document the margins, and tell stories in a manner more authentic to the Canadian everyday. This vision of a supportive network for filmmakers would be further cemented with Peter Rowe’s announcement of the formation of the Film-makers Co-operative of Canada, a realization of Hofsess’s vision for a national independent film distribution centre modeled upon the New York Film-makers Cooperative. Rowe credited it as “both an offshoot and an amalgamation of the McMaster Film Board, with everything on a much larger and all encompassing scale than before.”[xiii] The aim was to create a northern echo of New York Film-makers Cooperative. It was anticipated that by early January 1967, the co-op would be distributing thirteen films, four by the McMaster Film Board, with those titles complemented by films from other university film societies, such as Glenn McCauley’s This and Rob Fothergill and Sam Gupta’s Oddballs.
As beautiful a notion as the Film-makers Cooperative of Canada had been, it would never reach full operation. But it did inspire some in the community, notably Fothergill and Patricia Murphy, to take action toward forming such a service. In May of 1967, the founding meeting of the Canadian Film-makers Distribution Centre (CFMDC) took place in Rob Fothergill’s Lowther Avenue apartment. In attendance were Fothergill, David Cronenberg, Jim Plaxton and Lorne Lipowitz (Lipowitz would later achieve mainstream celebrity as Lorne Michaels, producer of NBC’s Saturday Night Live). The new Distribution Centre would establish their first office at 719 Yonge, near the commercial art-house distributor Film Canada and its underground theatre, Cinecity. Their first office manager was Patricia Murphy, and Rob Fothergill was its first director.[xiv] The largely inactive Film-makers Cooperative of Canada became redundant and quietly dissolved, its titles entering the first collection of the CFMDC. Although Hofsess was no longer directly involved, drawn away from his community-building activities by the demands of his own filmmaking, this was the ultimate result of his campaigning, of Hofsess and Murphy’s 1965 visit to New York City, their meeting with Jonas Mekas, and the flurry of activity that followed their return to Hamilton. With the formation of the CFMDC, power was further shifting away from bureaucrats, and into the hands of artists, who were proving that they could organize themselves, that they could work selflessly toward a common cause. As Grierson had discovered in his report on Canadian filmmaking, the marketplace for a new cinema could not be restricted to the movie theatre. The CFMDC’s films would pass through classrooms, art galleries, and in other margins, on other edges, a true non-theatrical revolution. The CFMDC’s first catalogues, photocopied in secret at York University’s Atkinson College, consisted of six pages announcing fourteen titles for rent, the founding works of a new Canadian cinema.
[i] The few exceptions to this – Jonas Mekas, Sheldon Renan, Parker Tyler, P. Adams Sitney – made serious efforts to wrestle with the relative merits of underground films, and what the movement ultimately meant for an evolving cinema. The critic to ultimately give this movement its first cohesive portrait was Sitney, with Visionary Film (1974).
[ii] John Grierson, “A Film Policy for Canada.” Canadian Affairs 1, no. 11 (Ottawa: Wartime Information Board, 15 June 1944), 11.
[iii] This is evident even in the work of an artist widely regarded as an avant-garde filmmaker – perhaps the lone avant-garde filmmaker in the NFB’s history – found footage filmmaker Arthur Lipsett, whose work was thematically consistent with the social-criticism documentaries made at the National Film Board in his era (1958-1970); and, it must be noted, he was also marginalized within the organization because of the ways in which his films diverged from the ‘correctness’ of form celebrated at the NFB.
[iv] Deren’s workshops were very unlike the contemporary film workshop, a kind of condensed lesson; hers were an occasion for making a collective film in her style. The resulting film from her Toronto workshop, Ensemble for Somnambulists (1951), was not completed to her satisfaction, and she withheld it from distribution; the work as it is offers some guide to the form that might have been given to Deren’s final workshop film, Season of Strangers, left incomplete at the time of her death.
[v] A full account of this visit, and the subsequent two decades of filmmaking activities in Toronto, can be found in John Porter’s “Toronto Artists’ Film Activity 1949-1969” (1983/84), http://www.super8porter.ca/Toronto4969.htm
[vi] These efforts were in a sense mirrored by the National Film Board, when they released Don Owen’s Nobody Waved Goodbye (1964).
[vii] This call to filmmaking among artists, partly inspired by the intermedia forms of the era and partly from the new access to filmmaking technology, was resonating far beyond Toronto, from the activities of Neo-Dadaist painters in London, Ontario, to the emergence of the Intermedia collective in Vancouver. While this article deals with the immediate environment that created the CFMDC, there were avant-garde filmmakers active elsewhere in Canada in the years leading up to the CFMDC’s formation, such as Sam Perry and Gary Lee-Nova in Vancouver, Charles Gagnon in Montreal, and Rick Hancox in Prince Edward Island.
[viii] Jonas Mekas, “Where are We – the Underground?” in Battcock, ed., New American Cinema (New York: Dutton, 1967), 21.
[ix] By the late 1960s, ideological divides would develop between styles that would, through discourse, be termed ‘lyric’ and ‘structural’ filmmaking. Even as this revealed a hazardous competition, it affirmed an overarching harmony between the constructive systems of cinema and of poetry. This critical discourse was an acknowledgement, however subtle, that the forms that cinema had taken on, outside of the dominant ideologies of narrative and documentary form, evolved toward similar expressions as modern poetry.
[x] An account of the formation of the McMaster film community, its conflicts with censors, and its subsequent trials (both figurative and literal), is given in my forthcoming book, Hamilton Babylon: A History of the McMaster Film Board (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016).
[xi] John Hofsess’s Palace of Pleasure disappeared from circulation for a number of decades; I performed a digital restoration of the film in 2008.
[xii] John Hofsess, “Revolution in Canadian films,” The Varsity, 11 November 1966, 8.
[xiii] Peter Rowe, “MFB: The Leader in a New Era of Canadian Film-Making?” Silhouette Review, 6 January 1967, 4.
[xiv] Fothergill offers his account of the formation in “The Distribution Centre: A Founding Memoir,” Canadian Journal of Film Studies 3:2 (1994), 81-85
Title Image Credit: Palace of Pleasure (1966/67)