Canada Lost and Found
Film pioneer Sidney J. Furie's A COOL SOUND FROM HELL returns to its birthplace.
Early on, though, it’s true that Canadian filmmakers never expected first chances, let alone seconds, and accordingly put all they had into their too often single films. This pervasive desperation accounts for the potency and urgency in works like Larry Kent’s The Bitter Ash (1963), and later, Patrick Loubert’s 125 Rooms of Comfort and Frank Vitale’s Montreal Main (both 1974); in general it supplied many features with an unmistakable animus—a sense of purpose and vitality. This is the early Canadian filmmaking conundrum, a subject very near and dear to my heart. As a film historian and filmmaker, fresh from the recent TIFF premiere of Sidney J. Furie’s A Cool Sound from Hell (1959), I feel it necessary to pay tribute to a man who made not just one bold-by-default pioneer picture, but two of them. (The other was A Dangerous Age, his 1957 debut.) Both became declarative examples of DIY spirit, and both were born in a relative vacuum.
Of course the National Film Board of Canada, which predominantly produced shorts, had been a bedrock since 1939. And there were early pioneering efforts in French Canada, René Delacroix's Tit-Coq (1953) and Claude Jutra’s Les mains nettes (1958) being oft-cited examples. But in English Canada, two films from the mid-sixties, Don Owen’s Nobody Waved Good-bye (1964) and David Secter’s Winter Kept Us Warm (1965), usually get credit for putting the English provinces on the cinematic map. Canadian cinema icon David Cronenberg described the former, a drama shot in and around the University of Toronto campus by classmate Secter, as the film that “started everything” for him. A little later, Donald Shebib’s game-changing Goin’ Down the Road (1970) opened the door for a Canadian independent filmmaking boom. One might even say that, like a gail-force wind, it blew the door off, proving Canada’s viability and newfound mettle within the film market. Jutra’s masterful Mon Oncle Antoine (1971) only insured a new trend of Canadian high quality. For a time, Canuck filmmakers pumped out personal ruminations about working-class dreams and defeats, including Peter Carter’s The Rowdyman (1972), William Fruet’s Wedding in White (1972), Paul Lynch’s The Hard Part Begins (1973), and Peter Pearson’s Paperback Hero (1973).
The truth is that although Nobody Waved Good-bye and Winter Kept Us Warm were vital to a developing ecosystem for Canadian independent cinema, most of the real “pioneer” laurels belong to Furie, whose early independent features achieved the unprecedented. On money raised solely from friends and family, Furie scraped together two very personal efforts that wound up screening internationally, as no other Canadian work had done to such a degree up to that point. It wouldn’t be until Jutra’s À tout prendre and Michel Brault’s Pour la suite du monde (both 1963) that other grassroots Canadian features proved successful on the international festival circuit. (The latter was the first Canadian feature ever to screen in competition at Cannes.) And although William Davidson and Norman Klenman took an early shot at English Canadian features with their Now That April’s Here (1958) and Ivy-League Killers (1959), and Julian Roffman helmed the similarly Beat Generation-themed The Bloody Brood (1959), none of these efforts surfaced as artistic or commercial triumphs, and all lacked the feeling of a more personal cinema that pervaded Furie’s efforts.
Many contemporary Canadian film scholars have acknowledged that Furie’s two Canadian films were negligently shafted in the first critical studies of the nation’s patchy film history. Quickly forgotten after its out-of-competition festival premieres at Venice and Cannes, A Dangerous Age later would occasionally turn up on late-night Canadian TV throughout the seventies and eighties, with most who saw it wholly ignorant of its historical importance. A Cool Sound from Hell, on the other hand, fell off the map and vanished entirely. That picture was deemed “lost” for decades—until I was tenacious (and lucky) enough to locate it, deep in the vaults of the British Film Institute archives. Both films were exhibited theatrically in London, where Furie ultimately chose to live when frustration over setting up shop in the Canadian filmmaking wilderness got the better of him. “I tried to start a Canadian film industry, but nobody cared,” Furie told British reporters in 1961. Arguably it was meant to be, given how well he did for himself in Britain, helming The Young Ones (1961), The Leather Boys (1964), and The Ipcress File (1965), among many others.
But A Cool Sound from Hell is a Toronto film in the fullest sense, “a striking record of hipster Toronto in the 1950s,” as senior TIFF programmer Steve Gravestock put it, and “a direct refutation of Toronto’s squeaky-clean self-image.” Here, the city itself is a character, despite never being named explicitly in the dialogue. When I ventured to Toronto for the film’s recent festival showing (its official, if ludicrously delayed, North American premiere), I couldn’t help but walk the streets with its director, tracing the pathways of his potent, evocative nighttime exteriors. Fragments of roadways, blocks, and locales looked vaguely familiar, especially from now having seen the film many times over. These places now wear the masks of age and progress, but some ghosts remain. (At one point in the TIFF screening, the audience laughed uproariously at a police car with “Markham Township” inscribed on its door. Local townie humor, no doubt.)
Remembering his own A Cool Sound from Hell experience, star Tony Ray once told me he got the sense during shooting that Toronto as a city had been built “before it had a need for it. There were tall buildings with hardly anyone inside, and long, wide streets with hardly any cars.” There was also, however, a burgeoning subculture thriving in the city’s hippest recesses. Furie’s ventures into the world of all-night jazz and poetry led directly to his realizing this roman à clef about his own experience dating a girl from the wrong side of the tracks.
Furie’s failure in Canada with the previous, more gentle, debut picture A Dangerous Age inspired a more souped-up, ostensibly more commercial follow-up. Though seemingly more marketable, A Cool Sound from Hell still found itself rejected by Canadian exhibitors and curators who, to his eye, suffered from a national inferiority complex. As Furie once explained, “The prevailing attitude in Canada at that time was, ‘If you’re so good, why aren’t you down in the States?’”
The response to A Cool Sound from Hell at TIFF 2016 could scarcely have been warmer. The times, they had a-changed, bringing Furie to tears on stage. Expressing his pride and gratitude for what Toronto had finally realized for itself in terms of cultivating a prestigious international film community, he could not suppress some powerful emotions, and memories of being unwanted in a country only interested in product from south of the border. The film’s composer, ninety-three-year-old jazz legend Phil Nimmons, was present at the festival premiere, and it was his first time ever seeing the finished product.
The film’s beautiful, moody monochrome images are, by now, to me, indelible. At dinner after the screening, most of those present expressed to Furie how sophisticated the film looked, even by today’s standards. He was comforted by these warranted remarks, as in fact he’d dreaded showing such an aged, “immature” work. Furie’s eye is always and forevermore on the future. (On that front, he’s about to release his latest feature, a wild, old-fashioned comedy called Drive Me to Vegas and Mars, the production of which we covered in a video-diary series last year). He’ll also be going into production soon on another film, a love story between two eighty-something Holocaust survivors in Israel. As for this artifact from his long-gone past, A Cool Sound from Hell is flawed, as I think any great independent film is, but imperfections sometimes yield a kind of perfection. (Consider Shadows, and On the Bowery, and many others.) That I was instrumental in its rediscovery is one of the honors of my own lifetime. Reviving so vital a piece of history is what every film historian hopes to do, and what’s so often impossible to do.
After the pioneer days, the Canadian filmmaking conundrum remained. The tax-shelter era that midwifed many lowbrow genre efforts placed a caveat on the “Made in Canada” imprimatur throughout the seventies and eighties. Although the ecosystem has since matured and quality filmmaking has become a more sustainable industry, much of the country’s product gets relegated to the direct-to-video graveyard. Most that meet this fate do indeed deserve it. A small handful, like Furie’s own Going Back (2001) and Global Heresy (2002), do not. Going Back tells the story of a group of traumatized Vietnam War veterans who return to Saigon in the nineties with a television documentary crew. In the U.S., the film appeared visually butchered, under the ostensibly “more commercial” title Under Heavy Fire. To add insult to injury, forty minutes were hacked off its running time. In the original 149-minute widescreen form, it stands as one of its director's masterpieces—and, Furie grants, “one of my most personal films.” It is another Canadian effort I intend to help rescue and get re-released (details here), with the help of Furie’s closest collaborators, all of whom feel that it unfairly fell between the cracks.
“Olly olly oxen free” is hollered in a game of hide-and-seek to notify the hidden when it’s safe to emerge. Even in an age when such games have become passé, hiding still is possible—perhaps even newly necessary. For an artist, though, staying hidden has unfortunate consequences. So, with confidence, and even abandon, I’m hollering “olly olly oxen free.” The indefatigable Mr. Furie now can emerge from hiding and take his place in history, a pioneer for the cinema of Canada and everywhere else.