The Lost Canadian: Don Owen

A section from Don Owen: Notes on a Filmmaker and His Culture

29 mins read

POV is pleased to present a section from Don Owen: Notes on a Filmmaker and His Culture by Steve Gravestock, the Associate Director of Canadian Special Projects for the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). The book, which will be launched in tandem with a retrospective programme of Owen’s work at TIFF, is the first ever written on the director of the legendary Canadian feature Nobody Waved Goodbye (1964).

Owen began his career as a documentarian at the National Film Board in the early 60s. He worked in the NFB’s famed Unit B with a group of filmmakers, among them Colin Low and Wolf Koenig, who eschewed voiceover and insisted on shooting in real locations. Owen was influenced by the “camera eye” style of this mainly Anglo unit and by the more subjective approach of such Quebecois contemporaries as Michel Brault and Claude Jutra. These contradictory influences mixed with Owen’s own energy, insight and ambition to create a unique group of documentaries. Among them are Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard CohenHigh Steel and You Don’t Back Down. In POV’s excerpt, Gravestock describes this high point in Owen’s documentary career.

The documentary short High Steel (1965), the first to be completed, focuses on Mohawks from the Kahnawake reserve near Montreal. Known for their expertise in ironwork and high-rise construction projects, they have been recruited to work on the extension of a skyscraper in New York City. As the film explains, their reputation can be traced back many decades to their work on an enormous bridge raised across the St. Lawrence River in 1904. Based on interviews with one of the workers, Harold Macomber, and with narration by Don Francks, the film records the group’s experiences and the danger and difficulty inherent in the job. The NFB has had a long-standing commitment to documenting Aboriginal culture, beginning with The Longhouse People (1951) and stretching to the present day, as evidenced by its support of filmmakers like Alanis Obomsawin (Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance [1993]) and Gil Cardinal (Totem [2003]).

The tone of High Steel is exuberant, largely because of Macomber’s pride in his work and the exhilarating cinematography courtesy of John Spotton. Francks’s uptempo song (it was originally supposed to be provided by Gordon Lightfoot) talks about “building mountains of iron and steel,” valorizing the Mohawks’ work and skill and imbuing their activities with a quasi-natural aspect. The shoot itself was rather risky, which may account for the overexcited tone. (The film crew, shooting with heavy and cumbersome 35 mm cameras, had to gain access to the construction site many feet above the ground by climbing across a ladder from an adjacent building.)

High Steel also records the impact of modern society on a traditional culture. The film is about an exported, perhaps exploited, labour force. Economics have forced Macomber to leave his rural environment to work and thus adapt to another world (“Everybody eats Corn Flakes, so we gotta eat Corn Flakes,” he explains), and the film highlights his sense of alienation and dislocation, as he laments the fact that his children, already separated from their traditions, are now growing up without a father. In a key article on Owen, “Don Owen’s Obliterated Environments,” James Leach argues that the film explores the repressive nature of the social and economic costs of technological advances, citing the way in which a “picturesque image of the village dominated by its church is obliterated by a large ship, suggesting that technological influences have superseded the old religious ones.” This image also contributes to the film’s sense of alienation and exile and evokes the life-is-elsewhere motif.

The film is suffused with mortality, belying its upbeat surface while reflecting the precarious status of Mohawk culture. Owen recounts through the use of archival photos that many Kahnawake Mohawks were killed in the building of the aforementioned bridge. In one of the film’s more telling images, a young mother pushes a baby carriage through a cemetery. (Leach argues that this can also be interpreted as an image of renewal.) High Steel was Owen’s first crack at editing a film himself; it went on to win the Canadian Editors Award for Best Editing.

Owen’s next film, Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen (1965), returns to a favourite subject: art and artists. It remains one of the most appealing pieces produced by the NFB in the sixties. The film, which follows the Canadian poet/songwriter on a return visit to Montreal, was co-directed by the NFB veteran Donald Brittain. (Owen left midway through the project to work on You Don’t Back Down in Nigeria.) The original idea of recording a tour of Canadian poets that included Irving Layton and Earle Birney was jettisoned when it was decided the other poets lacked the charisma to occupy the spotlight. Owen and Cohen knew each other socially—they frequented the same parties and shared several friends, including the NFB filmmaker Derek May. According to Owen and to Brittain’s biographer Brian Nolan, Cohen moved into a hotel for the making of the film because he didn’t wish to be perceived as a wealthy dilettante.

The film’s narrator explains that Cohen—who at the time was living alternately in Montreal and the Greek island of Etre—often returns to his hometown to, in Cohen’s words, “renew neurotic acquaintances.” Ladies and Gentlemen opens with Cohen reading at Sir George Williams (now Concordia) University, and in the familiar, dryly humorous tone he’s known for, he recounts a lengthy, absurd story about visiting a friend in Verdun’s mental hospital. Eventually, he’s confused for an inmate. Characterized by a voice-over as sardonic and wry as Cohen’s, the film segues from the university performance with “When he’s not being a stand-up comic…”

Cohen is filmed hanging out with friends, performing, visiting old haunts (where fragments of his poems are written on the walls), jamming with musicians, extolling the virtues of the city’s night life (the first act of rebellion by man, according to Cohen, was refusing to sleep), making television appearances, attending academic cocktail parties (which he dismisses as meat markets) and, intermittently, writing.

IIn some ways, the film is as much a record of sixties Montreal nightlife as it is of Cohen. In fact, the filmmakers clearly see Montreal as a kind of outpost within Canada where the pursuit of art and culture are viable activities. Unlike the Toronto of Nobody Waved Goodbye, Montreal offers both pleasurable intimacy and comfortable anonymity. Cohen is glad the town is still small enough that he knows where the night owls congregate; but he can also abandon them and wander into a cheesy movie whenever he feels like it.

Like Toronto Jazz , Ladies and Gentlemen ’s presentation of the artist initially emphasizes work and the effort it takes to become an artist, showing Cohen in his hotel room scribbling madly, though the man’s sensibility gives it a unique, broader spin. The emphasis is on the preservation of self against a host of oppressive influences. Cohen frequently talks about the hotel as a “sanctuary,” being pursued by “hounds” and protecting and preserving a “state of grace.” He’s forced to meet with academics and is badgered by the broadcast journalist Pierre Berton, who looks quite miffed at Cohen’s apolitical insouciance. (Fellow poet Layton seems equally anxious to speak for Cohen.) Cohen’s description of his situation echoes the comments of the embattled hipsters of Toronto Jazz, but both subject and film take this image of the embattled personality even further, suggesting that identity in modern society itself is a precarious construct at best and often culturally determined (the mix-up in the asylum, for instance, or Cohen reading a poem about stereotypical images of Jews).

CCohen refuses to fully cooperate with the notion that art is work, so the filmmakers shift their focus to art as play. He frequently declares that he no longer writes. The conventional notion of the tormented, serious poet is partially mocked by his interest in and comfort with pop culture. He’s seen listening to pop music while writing, perusing tabloids at newsstands and wandering into a rundown theatre to watch an overtly trashy genre film, Beyond Mombasa (1957).

Ladies and Gentlemen can be seen in many ways as a corrective response to the NFB’s celebrated Lonely Boy (1961), directed by Koenig and Kroiter. (When Nobody Waved Goodbye was released in New York, it played on double bills with Lonely Boy.) The film explores the pitfalls of celebrity as well as its inherent artificiality by following the pop star and teen idol Paul Anka, who seems oblivious to the fact that he might be perceived as a product. In contrast, Cohen is acutely aware of his persona, evident in his decision to move into the hotel, his polished, self-deprecating performances and his wry yet romanticized view of himself. As the narrator notes, he had a reputation for dabbling and not being particularly serious. The critic George Woodcock’s essay on Cohen’s work suggests that he was always a pop star in training rather than a poet, citing an interview with him in which he said as much. The word “con” is used several times to describe the whole artistic endeavour, always by Cohen. Echoing the conclusion to Jean Rouch’s Chronique d’un été, the film shows Cohen presented with rushes, then he comments on them. He’s mildly troubled by what he sees and states that, until then, he didn’t realize “what style of man I was.” At the end of the sequence, he writes “caveat emptor” on the wall of his bathroom. As James Leach notes, the film almost abandons its project of interpreting Cohen. In some ways, the film implicitly offers a critique of the American cinéma-vérité movement by openly dispensing with the notion that the subject isn’t aware that he’s being photographed. In spirit, Ladies and Gentlemen is far closer to the Quebecois version of cinema direct.

Owen’s first portrait of a solo artist, the film also represents the first time Owen concentrates on an artist who is at home with and successful in his chosen profession, despite Cohen’s protestations. This comfort stems from Cohen’s skill at juggling internal and external contradictions, or to paraphrase him, the balance with which he rides the chaos around him. He’s a radically different protagonist from Nobody Waved Goodbye ’s Peter Mark, perhaps because of his sense of humour—or maybe he’s a Peter Mark who’s actually succeeded, though, like Peter, Cohen is apolitical, and both have uneasy relationships with their parents. Cohen’s meeting with his mother is a stiff, formal affair, somewhat reminiscent of a similar scene in Jutra’s À tout prendre. (The film’s narration, perhaps engaging in some image-making of its own, constantly stresses that Cohen and his family are estranged.)

Cohen’s persona in the film and in his performances is one of the first examples of the bemused, distanced and put-upon Canadian artist-intellectual, a trope that has been revised and reborn many times, most recently in Don McKellar’s filmmaker-chauffeur in Child Star (2004). Part of Cohen’s evident comfort may come from his status as an international transient. Prior to the sixties, Canadian


artists felt themselves misfits in their own country, as much of Owen’s cinema illustrates. Cheaper and more accessible international travel and the occasional international success (which Owen experienced with Nobody Waved Goodbye) opened up other possibilities. Owen’s next effort, Monique Leyrac in Concert develops this international theme further.

Made for the CBC’s Telescope series, Monique Leyrac in Concert is one of Owen’s liveliest, freshest films—due in no small part to the cabaret singer’s own vibrancy and zeal as a performer. This vitality is heightened by the unique nature of the singer’s particular art form, which demands that the performer be equally adept as an actress and as a vocalist. Leyrac was successful in several formats, including recordings (she specialized in releases devoted to individual composers) and one- woman plays (focusing on subjects like Sarah Bernhardt). But her talent was probably best realized in solo performances. At the time Owen made this portrait, Leyrac was at the height of her career, having recently released her version of Gilles Vigneault’s “Mon Pays” (“My Country”), an unofficial anthem that not only became her signature song but also helped solidify Québécois’ own awareness of theirs as a distinct cultural entity.

The film meets Leyrac as she returns following triumphant performances in Europe and is designed to introduce her to English-Canadian audiences, principally by stressing how successful she is internationally, either by showing recent performances or by comparing her to recognizable, better-known international figures. “If Édith Piaf is France, then Monique Leyrac is Quebec,” explains the host and narrator, Fletcher Markle. The comparison also imbues her with an iconic, representative status. Owen records Leyrac as she shuttles between performances and also recounts her arduous, painstaking preparations to present a new song.

The film concentrates on three central issues. First, it shows Leyrac as a distinctly modern woman, vastly more independent and career-oriented than her predecessors. Her agent, Samuel Gasser, may play an important role, but she is in complete control of her work and presumably her career. As she claims in the film, “I do it all myself.” In rehearsals, she appears to have high expectations of her musicians, frequently stressing the need for perfection: “All the technique must be perfect.” This drive is seen to be both exemplary and novel. Leyrac also confides that she has little or no choice in her rather hectic schedule. As she puts it, “If I stop work … I will die.” These statements of course echo or pick up motifs from Owen’s other portraits of artists, including the notion of the artist as a craftsman, art as a demanding profession, artists as addictive personalities. Almost entirely absent, however, is the notion of play. Leyrac is probably as unlike Leonard Cohen as one could possibly imagine, at least in the way she presents herself and her dedication to her craft.

Third, the film debates the inherent tension between Leyrac’s roles as an iconic figure who represents Quebec culture and a singer/performer in her own right, worthy of comparisons to other artists working in the same field. The debate is instigated by Leyrac herself. She’s not sure whether it’s necessary for the songs she performs to reflect Quebec’s realities, which she refers to as problems. Her assertion that her work “is not only a local thing” opens up into a subsequent discussion about how a performer doesn’t necessarily get lost in a role; he or she is giving a performance first and foremost. She essentially refuses the representative status assigned to her. The climactic performance seems designed to illustrate this point, stressing the power of her art by example. It’s ultimately unclear where the filmmakers sit on this issue.

This universalist note may seem distinctively, self-effacingly Canadian, but it also underscores themes evident in works like High Steel and Ladies and Gentlemen, which stress Canadians’ interaction—and place—in the world, and our ability to perform/compete on that level. Owen would of course have been familiar with this after his own success in New York. As mentioned earlier, the need for Canadians to justify themselves internationally first and domestically second is especially pervasive in the film industry but not unheard of in other fields (not only is life elsewhere, but so is validation). Leyrac’s international success itself is trumpeted perhaps to justify English-Canadian interest in her since, presumably, if she were “only” a Québécois star she would be of little significance. Her prominence also underscores the fact that Quebec, unlike English Canada, has never shied away from celebrating its own performers or constructing its own star system.

Unlike the Cohen film or Toronto Jazz —in which the artists were valorized for their refusal to be defined in social or conventional terms— Monique Leyrac in Concert politicizes culture, or at least acknowledges the political aspects of culture. However, Leyrac is not an individualist like Peter Mark or, for that matter, Leonard Cohen. Her importance derives from both her representative status and her skill. This unambiguous acceptance of one’s cultural roots is rare within Owen’s body of work.

Owen’s next short film—the one that dragged him away from the Cohen project—was made for the NFB. Titled You Don’t Back Down (1965), the film looks at a young couple, Alex and Anne McMahon, who were sent from Canada to the backwaters of eastern Nigeria to aid in the country’s modernization efforts. As the narrator, John Vernon (Peter’s sleazy boss in Nobody Waved Goodbye), informs us, Nigeria is experiencing “the itch of modernity.” The contrast between industrialized, modern Canada and Nigeria is established in the opening shots, which present a variation on a familiar Owen motif: shipyards and docks, except that here tankers are replaced by large canoes. The McMahons are there as part of CUSO (the Canadian University Services Overseas), the Canadian version of the United States’ Peace Corps.


You Don’t Back Down is primarily about culture shock. As Vernon explains, “two years in Africa may leave the McMahons questioning their own assumptions.” Owen concentrates almost exclusively on Alex, a physician who’s in charge of establishing and operating a local medical clinic. The challenges are legion, including lousy equipment, poor sanitation, suspicion and reluctance on the part of the locals, inadequately trained staff and poverty. Patients are required to pay a fee, something Alex complains about to no avail. Moreover, the McMahons have to deal with their own inexperience both as professionals (Anne is a teacher) and as inhabitants of a country whose ways are extremely foreign to them.

The film recounts the day-to-day experiences of Alex as he struggles to provide health service for the area. (Anne’s work is only mentioned in the film, partly because of her reluctance to participate.) Alex is rather reserved, even stuffy, most of the time: at one point he responds to a botched operation with “Oh, heavens.” And he’s not exactly lovable, often berating the nurses for their incompetence and usually speaking to the patients as if they weren’t present. During a dinner with Anne Williams, a Peace Corps teacher from Arkansas, Alex is amused by her accounts of her students’ writing assignments, one of which comments on her long nose. He responds with “They write so spicy, so frank,” a remark that seems weirdly colonial and condescending. Still, he’s extremely diligent, running off in the middle of the night to perform emergency surgery.

The biggest struggle for both Alex and Anne is homesickness and their inability to understand or function in the local culture. Alex confesses, “When you come over here, you’re really ignorant … so suspicious of everything.” The most oft- repeated comment centres on their desire to return home. Anne especially seems even more at odds with their environment than Alex. She confesses that “the first time I tried to cook alone ended in tears.” After Alex is called away on an emergency during the dinner with the Peace Corps teacher, Anne leans over and whispers how much she hates it there.

The most revealing moment, however, comes when Alex discusses his greatest fear, that he will “face a challenge and I’ll have to back down. But you don’t back down. You just can’t.” This comment, which comes almost immediately after the emergency operation mentioned above, refers to doubts about his own skills as much as cultural conflicts.

It would be entirely unfair to judge the McMahons exclusively by our standards, and Owen emphasizes the exotic nature of the environment and the McMahons’ inability to achieve isolation or genuine involvement. The leper colony for infants, for example, is right outside their kitchen. Festivals and celebrations go on constantly, but the McMahons are seldom involved, the lone exception being when Alex sits down to a more formal meal with a visiting politician. Intriguingly, instead of trumpeting the McMahons’ efforts or successes, You Don’t Back Down focuses on their inability to cope with their new environment. The film is less about success than alienation, more about personal bewilderment than triumphant colonialism, and fuses the traditions and approaches that influenced Owen earlier in his career; its tentativeness echoes the work of Unit B while its awareness of the pitfalls of colonial responses is reminiscent of Rouch’s films.

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