A film culture blunted by caution by John Bentley Mays (Jan 26, 1985)

Globe and Mail

Standard fare at Toronto’s Funnel Experimental Film Centre (507 King St. E.) runs to history nights of flickering, silent footage, screenings of new work by Canadian and international filmmakers on the non-Hollywood circuit, and group showcases of movies on feminism and other topics of contemporary interest. It’s a serious place, presided over by people with semiotics dancing in their heads, and with fires in their bellies for intelligent film culture.

During this month and next, however, the Funnel is loosening its stays and presenting a series rather out of keeping with its high church propriety. Cache du Cinema: Discovering Toronto Filmmakers is an informal five-evening rag-bag of 60 new or hitherto unknown films and mixed-media works by as many Toronto artists, including a few veterans and many virgins. The first two programs were held earlier this month, and the series continues at 8p.m. on Feb 1, 6, and 15. In addition, two screenings of works in progress are scheduled for April 12 and 19.

The lineup features a photo-and-sound piece by Michael Snow, a film done by Funnel founder Ross McLaren 10 years ago but rarely screened since, and a new work by Judith Doyle, though not her much-awaited film on Nicaragua. The series also includes the first and last movie by Toronto actor Jo Ahlers – it was made in 1968 and discovered accidentally by one of the organizers – along with many knocked-together class projects, super-8 frolics and other examples of Toronto’s cinema obscura.

This roundup has been explicitly crafted as the experimental film community’s answer to the New Work Show of video art, The New City of Sculpture, and the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Toronto Painting ’84, all of them big 1984 showcases of new local art. The Funnel show has also been mounted, according to a press statement, to “provide an opportunity for the average Toronto art observer to learn about local films, and consequently further his knowledge of Canadian art.”

To make all this happen, three curators were put on the case. Dot Tuer, a bright Toronto critic new to the scene, got the job of securing work by each of the Funnel collective’s 30-odd members. Paul McGowan, a professional film editor, scoured film departments at area schools – Sheridan College, York University, Ryerson Polytechnical Institute, the University of Toronto and the Ontario College of Art – while filmmaker and film historian John Porter sought out people who made experimental movies, but who were not in school, did not have an agent, and were otherwise unknown.

Unlike the organizers of most of last year’s art showcases, and to its credit, this curatorial trio has taken the time and energy to prepare useful mini-catalogues, one for each night of the series. And after all’s done, the whole event will be documented in a full-dress catalogue by Dot Tuer.

If Tuer, Porter and McGowan are doing a careful job of documentation, their curatorial work has been deliberately casual and inclusive. This weeks’ press screening of some three hours of film selected by the curators, showed just how inclusive it’s been. It would be risky business indeed to base firm conclusions about the whole program on this screening, which contained less than half the material. But the excerpt did raise a thicket of questions about the state of experimental film culture in Toronto.

Question Number One: If this is experimental, what’s traditional?

The abstract formalists here add nothing new to the drips, flashes and colourful abstraction of yesteryear. Similarly, most others play it safe, and keep to the old toys and visual lingo. There’s no violence or sex or anything else you wouldn’t do with mom and dad around the Christmas tree, except for some art school yuk-yuks that are too stupid to be offensive.

The charming fantasias of Susan Reaney and Jim Anderson are films that please – but we expect more than pleasantries from the children of Sergei Eisenstein and Andy Warhol, Jack Smith and Michael Snow. The work in this show is underground film the way Ontario head censor Mary Brown would want it to be always – squeaky clean fun, and no naughty bits.

Question Number Two: What planet do these artists come from?

The experimental film world has long been blessed with eloquent political radicals and serious thinkers. But these films make the sloppiest Hollywood pap seem positively relevant. Virtually no one here is talking about anything urgent – feminism, homosexuality, torture, nuclear war, famine, censorship, growing up absurd, racism or other issues which, after all, are matters of more than passing concern for billions of people on this planet. Instead we get such things as Arlene Hazzan’s slick, empty postcard called Queen Street (1984); a funny knockabout cartoon about a Loblaws board game from the fifties by Munro Ferguson and Pascal Sharp; and large dollop of Toronto film artists admiring each other’s fooling around.

Question Number Three: Have any of thee artists taken a break from TV long enough to see some of the great experimental film of the past?

The finest films have always been apocalyptic, tearing away the veils from our eyes, or from hidden social and creative realities. In this selection, Ross McLaren’s Baby Green (1974) stands out as a penetration of the veil which separates ordinary life from the hidden world of perverse sensuality. The films of McLaren (and Snow and Stan Brakhage and a tribe of others) are also demonstrations of critical invention, cutting away at pat notions of how camera, screen and image are used.

But far from throwing down any gauntlets, most of the other artist here fall all over themselves to please us, serving up visual bonbons and one-liners instead of delivering statements about their art of their lives. (Two exceptions: the exquisite film called Flow by Ric Amis and David Rosenboom and Martin von Buren’s Water Events, which could have been brilliant hd the artist really known what he wanted to do.)

Question Number Four: What good is done by this show?
If the three-hour selection is typical of the full eight hours, experimental film culture – understood as a critical, energetic force capable of inspiring and involving ambitious newcomers – is dead in Toronto. A handful of Funnel filmmakers, most of them with roots in the anni mirabili of the sixties, carry on the torch of the avant-garde discourse and position in Toronto, and they should be encouraged to continue doing so until the dawn of less cautious days. But it is hard to find a good reason – and I don’t think misplaced populism is a good reason – why the Funnel should be turning over valuable exhibition time to young filmmakers who are merely doing a bit of slumming in the art world before getting hired to make Dove commercials.

Tuer, Porter and McGowan wanted to put on a show that included everything. It appears they have succeeded. It can only be hoped that their success will remind the Funnel that showing old movies and the best contemporary experimental film around hasn’t been such a bad thing after all.