Funnel Celebrates its fifth season by John Bentley Mays
Globe and Mail, November 5, 1982
Tonight at eight, the troops will gather for the first time in months in the tiny theatre nestled under the Don Valley Expressway at 507 King St E. Fashionably late, the lights will go down. Then the three-minute bursts of super-8 footage will start. For the next hour or so, the packed house will be riveted to its collective seat by flashes of formal experiment, knockabout humour, haunting elegies, cinematic poetry and prosier items. All of which can only mean one thing. The Funnel Film Theatre, Toronto’s foremost production and exhibition centre for the new and radical in film art, will have begun its fifth season.
Granted, the curtain-raising show of one-cassette works by Funnel members is coming a little late this year. Cause of delay: a $35,000 overhaul of the facility (begun in April) that took longer than anyone thought it would. But given the twists and turns of the Funnel’s history, there’s a bit of a miracle in the fact the theatre has lived to see its fifth autumn. The Funnel began in the fall of 1977 when Toronto filmmaker Ross McLaren noted two facts: (1) the burgeoning interest in low-budget, experimental film, and (2) the absence of any space in town exclusively devoted to showing the stuff being made. ‘Filmmakers were just showing work in each other’s studios,’ McLaren recalls. ‘It seemed necessary to put our work in a social context.’ So it was that a projector and screen were borrowed, and the first screenings was scheduled in a basement on Duncan Street (just behind the Royal Alex), where the Crash ‘n’ Burn punk club had stomped and shrieked its way to a quick fizzle in the summer of 1977.
A year later, McLaren and Anna Gronau (now board officers), Michaelle McLean (now director) and other brides of film packed up their gear, trucked over to the new space on King Street East, christened it The Funnel, and began to do what they are still doing. ‘We want to support living, practicing experimental filmmakers,’ says Miss Gronau, an active producer with a special interest in women’s work. ‘There are not a lot of us when compared, say, to sculptors, but there are still an amazing number of people doing it.’ Besides the core of 25 members who are ‘doing it’ – Michael Snow, Joyce Wieland, Bruce Elder, Ross McLaren, etc. – the Funnel each season attracts thousands of spectators for screenings of contemporary and historical films, personal appearances by filmmakers from all over the world, lectures, performances and the like.
But the theatre continues to have its share of troubles. Now with people who come t the screenings, but those who don’t – notably the Ontario Board of Censors. The hassles began as early as 1980 – the Funnel hadn’t even heard of the censors before that. But the headaches turned into national headlines in 1981 when the board tried to censor films by the Funnel’s most conspicuous member Michael Snow. Today, the board doesn’t want to see everything – though it has demanded to see the super-8 films to be shown tonight. And it still wants written documentation on everything that’s screened. ‘It’s a depressing way to start the year and an international embarrassment,’ Miss Gronau says. ‘But the law’s there. We could risk jail and seizure of equipment. But that would destroy the space. Our decision is to raise public awareness and publicize the censorship problem.’ Earlier this year, the city issued costly work orders on the space. After weighing the pros and cons, the Funnel board decided to find the needed $35,000, secure volunteer labour, and get on with the extensive renovations, which have now been completed.
This months programming continues with screenings of work and personal appearances by San Francisco feminist Barbara Hammer (Nov. 10), Rose Lowder (Nov. 12), Michael Snow (Nov. 17), and US filmmaker Owen Land (Nov. 19 and 26).
Among next month’s offerings will be an evening of work from the Funnel collection (Dec. 1), and a screening of films by Funnel members selected to show at the prestigious Paris Biennale/82 (Dec. 10).