What Remains

Frank Cole, the fearless maverick filmmaker, died in the Sahara in 2000. McSorley remembers him well.

19 mins read

I thought you’d beat the inevitability of death to death just a little bit —The Tragically Hip

OTTAWA FILMMAKER FRANK COLE, who was murdered one night in 2000 while crossing the Sahara Desert alone for the third time, was an enigmatic and intriguing figure who created one of the most intense and eccentric bodies of work in the history of Canadian cinema. He produced four films, two shorts and two features; three of these four were deeply personal and decidedly peculiar documentaries. His two documentary shorts are exceptional and eccentric visions: A Documentary (1979) is a harrowing vision of his beloved grandfather’s death, while The Mountenays (1981) is a cinema verite/direct cinema portrait of a lively and desperately poor Ottawa Valley backwoods family. His final film, Life Without Death (2000), is a diaristic chronicle of Cole’s pan-Sahara solo crossings, his obsession with mortality, and desire to transcend time itself. All of Cole’s works, including his minimalist fiction feature, A Life (1986), are constructed upon arresting and unsettling combinations of emotional extremity and detached observation. Imagine a hybrid of Werner Herzog and Frederick Wiseman and you’ll be on the dangerous, fascinating road to the cinema of Frank Cole.

THE PHONE RINGS. I pick up the receiver. A monotone voice says my name.


I say yes. There is a long pause.

“It’s Frank Cole.”

He is calling from his barren apartment on Riverside Drive in Ottawa. There is the hint of an echo from the room in which he is speaking. We speak about the film funding proposals we had read separately as jurors for the Independent Filmmakers Co-operative of Ottawa (IFCO).

To say we speak is misleading. Conversations with Frank Cole are less speaking than they are disquieting excursions into aural arrhythmia and silence. Frank’s deliberate, glacially paced remarks cleave enormous slabs of silence out of utterances. Talking to him, I find myself slowing down, measuring my words with more care—slowly, more slowly, even more slowly. There is much silence on the phone, more silence than sound. I discover that this initially unsettling navigation of Frank’s intermittent monotone articulation is pleasurable, even relaxing; a conversation with Frank Cole has a palpable sense of taking its time. Taking all of time itself. It is a gradual immersion in a place where time can be heard again. I can feel it hovering on the line in the slight trembling coils of the telephone cord. It is strange and refreshing. After many protracted pauses and words patiently waited for and eventually uttered, we arrive at which films will receive co-op funding.

Before he hangs up, he laughs. A genuine, husky, eager, almost giddy laugh. It is a laugh that says we did it, it is a sound of relief. And now—the laugh intimates as it fades—it’s on to the next zone of dread.

FRANK WAS A MAN AT WAR. On the half dozen occasions when we met, he possessed the air of a veteran of an obscure, mysteriously violent campaign. Or so I imagined. His charismatic, subtly intimidating presence, made me imagine that he had seen rare and sinister and wondrous things. He seemed to have access to something I did not and could not even imagine.

On the other hand, he was typically Canadian in his confrontations with vast, hostile and emptied landscapes. He was another Terry Fox on a different kind of marathon. Crossing and re-crossing a continent of sand, he wrote a life’s story in a book of sand, adhering to a tenacious, disciplined monotony. Stride after stride he wrested form out of the hot, sandy temporal trudge. Walking was his war, and it was always fought in no-man’s land, alone under black hole darkness or searing incandescence.

Another whispering night is upon me. I know how to sleep on this bed of dry oceanic terrain. Will I die out here? I’ve been warned of the lawlessness and desperation. But I’ve done this before. There are always warnings. I have seen no one around me. I will bed down under this tree. I will be awoken by the desert’s gathering inferno and the stubborn scratching of trees and bushes against the arid air. I will wake up.

FYODOR DOSTOEVSKY once observed that his Russian capital, St. Petersburg, is a “premeditated city,” where the social atmosphere is dominated by silent strategies of identity control, careful attention to one’s social behaviour, and a paranoiac concern with regulating individual passion. In many ways, Ottawa is similar: it has a decidedly cautious personality with a quiet obsession with discretion. Beneath this surface, however, as in Dostoevsky’s Russia, outrage and irrationality look for an outlet. The dark fissures in this ordered city can be seen in the sensibility of Frank whose intense expression arises out of a culture of control, not only as an inhabitant of Ottawa, but also as the son of a diplomat whose cultural currency was necessarily restraint and moderation.

In 1939, the National Film Board of Canada was established in Ottawa, a government institution which spawned not only Canada’s storied documentary tradition, but also, in the gifted hands of a young animator named Norman McLaren, the nation’s equally fabled avant-garde, experimental film tradition. In Ottawa? Conservative, repressed, careful, “premeditated” Ottawa: city of bureaucrats, blazers, briefcases, minor conspiracies and hidden agendas? Yes, Ottawa.

Unlikely as seems today, Ottawa was, at least until the NFB moved its head office and production facilities to Montreal in 1956, the epicentre of filmmaking in Canada. Outside the NFB, Ottawa’s independent film company, Crawley Films, was producing dozens of sponsored films and documentaries, and in the 1960s began to make feature films, including The Luck of Ginger Coffey and Amanita Pestilens. In 1975 they won the Academy Award for best documentary with The Man Who Skiied Down Everest. Few independent filmmakers worked in the area, however, and most filmmaking talent left for the emerging production centres of Montreal, Toronto, or Vancouver. Lacking a critical mass of practitioners and fighting the perception that a government town is a creative wasteland, after the NFB left, the remaining Ottawa filmmakers went underground.

In the mid-1970s, at Algonquin College, Frank Cole learned the craft of filmmaking under the tutelage of Peter Evanchuk. At the same time, Carleton University was creating a film department with such luminaries as Peter Harcourt encouraging the study and appreciation of Canadian cinema. The city developed a lively critical and film exhibition community, with the Canadian Film Institute’s cinematheque as well as an excellent repertory cinema (the Towne latterly called the ByTowne), but production was something one had to go elsewhere to do. Film production activity in the city was sporadic, with Cole, Evanchuk, and a handful of others toiling away in obscurity. By the late 1980s, even Evanchuk had moved away, but Cole soldiered on, finishing three films in this period. Cole worked in almost total isolation until, thanks to his and others’ efforts, the Independent Filmmakers Co- operative of Ottawa was founded in 1992.

Not surprisingly, given the exodus of aspiring filmmakers to other production centres, namely Montreal and Toronto, Ottawa’s film co-op arrived much later than those in other Canadian cities, most of which were founded in the mid to late 1970s. Throughout the 1990s, while Cole was either crossing the Sahara or training for solitude in his apartment, the Ottawa film production community began to grow. Through IFCO, up to ten short films were being produced each year. Most were mediocre, but a number of works began to redefine the staid image of Ottawa. In addition to Cole’s unusual films, Dan Sokolowski’s live action and animation hybrids led the experimental side, while Lee Demarbre’s freewheeling genre pastiches and parodies of Asian action and blaxploitation films detonated any notions that Ottawa is a lifeless government town.

For most Canadians, Ottawa is an abstraction: the capital, a tourist town, a place to send your taxes, and the seat of government corruption. Ottawa is all that, but it is also a border town, where Quebec bristles against Ontario and vice-versa. It’s a formerly lawless lumber town filled at one point with working class Irish and French who drank and brawled their way out of the 19th century; a place where one of Canada’s few political assassinations occurred; a city where a Prime Minister of Canada consorted regularly with prostitutes and spoke to his dead mother and his dog; a place where secrecy and repression strained against insatiable appetites for revelation and scandal. There is even a tourist walking tour of “haunted Ottawa.” In many senses, Ottawa is a very peculiar place.

Like Winnipeg’s Guy Maddin and John Paizs, who made their initial strange, imaginative works outside the “centre,” Frank Cole’s idiosyncratic vision developed in a medium-sized city in the margins of Canadian film culture. His work is at once a response to and an embodiment of the orderly atmosphere of Canada’s capital city, unafraid to stare at the roiling fears beneath. Was Frank Cole Ottawa’s Stanley Kubrick? His films were as formally rigorous and challenging, and they were as rare as the American master’s notoriously infrequent releases. Was he Ottawa’s Jean Vigo, who after two masterpieces died prematurely in 1930s France? Cole’s films, too, are poetic and unforgettable and he also died too young.

Of course, Frank Cole was neither and he was both. He was also one of the most remarkable filmmakers to be found anywhere, and was critical to the development of independent filmmaking in Canada’s capital city. His talents were prodigious; his aesthetic, demanding; his creativity, astonishing; his integrity, indisputable. Indeed, the power of his work is as undeniable as it is difficult to define. One cannot look at the world in quite the same way after seeing a Frank Cole film.

Kill him, they might have whispered in a nocturnal desert language. The ones who would deliver death and disappear into the primal night. Not a second thought. Shred his time on earth and wrap it over our shoulders. His campaign is complete. We will go on. He is fuel for us now. Kill him.

“FRANK COLE CANNOT BE WITH US tonight because he is somewhere in the Sahara Desert,” I said to the small audience gathered at the Canadian Film Institute’s retrospective of Cole’s work in November 2000. It was the premiere of his latest feature, Life Without Death. I said, half-jokingly, that it was somehow appropriate that he wasn’t here, because one rarely sees Frank even when he is in Ottawa. He’s always been away or else in his apartment practicing the occult arts of solitude. Unlike the last screening of A Life at the Institute with Cole in attendance, there would be no achingly long and awkward pauses in his introductory remarks; no unsettling brandishments of longevity magazines or dietary and pill regimes to prolong life; no audience members squirming uncomfortably and staring in mute shock at the intense, gnomish figure preaching with such conviction. All we had that night was the film and that was appropriate, too, because, perhaps more than any other Canadian filmmaker, Frank Cole was embodied by his work.

As it turned out, Frank was no longer in the Sahara. While I was making my remarks, Frank Cole had been dead for a few weeks and his remains had been returned to be stored, as per the instructions in his will, in a cryogenic tomb in Detroit, Michigan. The retrospective was, unbeknownst to me, already a posthumous one. There were some in the audience that night who already knew, but they kept it to themselves.

Silence. What is it that cannot be spoken in the sounds of those not speaking? Having been raised Catholic, I understand that silences are never empty. Here was another demonstration. Like waiting for Frank to finish a thought, to return the conversation to my rhythm, to allow me to accelerate, to dismiss me from his spartan enclosure of sonic caesura.

ANDREI TARKOVSKY ONCE ARGUED that the aim of art is to “prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.” There is no better encapsulation of Frank Cole’s art and his affirmative life as a local filmmaker. We are better because he was here, and diminished by his demise on yet another desert odyssey. What was he looking for out there? Life? Death? It is difficult to say. What A Life and Life Without Death suggest, however, is that what Frank Cole perceived in the vast, shimmering landscapes and silences of the Sahara were the outlines of his own mortality, the contours of his own harrowed soul, and the obscure nature of time itself. Those perceptions found extraordinary expression in his cinema.

The cinema of Frank Cole remains with us. His four films reveal a brave artist who gave cinematic shape to the profound solitude we experience in time, in life, and, one conjectures—as one imagines Frank Cole did constantly—in death. The inevitability of death. The adamantine logic of which he tried to outrun, to “beat to death just a little bit.” His films speak of and to an unavoidable ontological mystery: they seek it out, they search for it. In many senses, their murdered creator embodied it. Now that he is virtually completely disembodied, the mystery of Frank Cole and what he was searching for remains.

And so we sift through the remains of the mystery. Images. Sounds. Silences.

All those remains of mystery. All that remains is mystery.

All that mystery is remains.

What remains.

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