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Saturday, 12 September 2015

AL PURDY WAS HERE film/Acorn and Free Speech Movement/

Al Purdy Was Here, Brian D. Johnson’s documentary about the deceased, highly combative Canadian poet, is not only one of the engaging treats in this year’s TIFF Docs program; it’s multi-dimensional.
Part warts-and-all investigation of how a rebel poet created his own myth and part total-pleasure songbook, the film will have its world premiere on Tuesday, Sept 15 at TIFF Bell Lightbox. And 15 years after his death, this should remind a lot of people that Al Purdy was indeed here.
From the perspective of fall 2015, this is not just nostalgia but a timely reminder of those golden pre-Harper years decades ago when culture played a key role in Canadian nation-building, and poets led the charge.

Just as striking for many is the emergence of Johnson, best known for more than two decades as the film critic at Maclean’s, as a hot director. No one is more surprised — almost apologetic — than Johnson himself. “I know this sort of looks like a man-bites-dog case about a long-time film critic deciding to reverse engines,” he told me one recent evening at a Yorkville cafe. True, he had retired from Maclean’s in early 2014 and had time to do something completely different. “But it wasn’t a career choice. I got pulled into this thing gradually and before that I didn’t know a thing about Al Purdy.”

It was Marni Jackson, the talented author, who lured her husband into this project, one chapter at a time. “Marni had interviewed Purdy and she had written about him,” says Johnson. “I owe the film to her.” Jackson knew all about the legendary A-frame cabin that the back-to-the-land poet and his wife, Eurithe, had built out of discarded lumber in Ameliasburgh. That’s in Prince Edward County, which later became a high-end rural favourite of Ontario’s social elite.

Indeed, Eurithe, at 90, emerges now as one of the great strengths of the new film, with sheer star quality. Terrific songs and a surprise Act 3 plot turn are the other ingredients that make this a breakthrough not just for Purdy followers but for many who know little or nothing about the poet.
Along the way we get performances by Bruce Cockburn, Tanya Tagaq and Sarah Harmer, as well as insights from Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje and Leonard Cohen.

“Marni was well down the Purdy road,” Johnson says. She worked on a 2013 event at Koerner Hall: a fundraiser to restore the A-frame house and keep it going as a mecca for writers, while raising money to maintain a poet-in-residence program there. The event was filmed and Jackson asked Johnson to edit the footage. “I found this guy enchanting and charismatic,” he recalls. He was also boisterous and an entertaining raconteur.

But there were many sides to this hard-drinking, high-school dropout who hopped a freight train, heading west during the Depression, and worked in factories before pioneering the idea a guy could earn a living writing poems. A lot of bad poems came before the good ones, such as his best known work “At the Quinte Hotel,” in which beer drinking looms large. He won the Governor-General’s Award twice.

Songwriters agreed to contribute to the Purdy legend. The obvious next step was a documentary film about this larger-than-life character. Asked for his advice, Johnson replied that maybe there could be a half-hour for TV. It was the music that later made him think this should be a full-length documentary. And since he had previously made a seven-minute short film in which other poets read a book by Dennis Lee, Johnson was the right guy to direct this movie.

It was the CBC, through its documentary channel, and film distributor Ron Mann (of Films We Like) that drove the project forward. Now the film is likely to have a limited theatrical release before reaching TV screens in 2016. For CBC management, this was a great opportunity. The public network was enduring scandal, crisis and cutbacks. It helped that the team for this film included Jackson as co-writer, Nicholas de Pencier as cinematographer and a young co-producer, Jake Yanowski, who, according to Johnson, wound up mentoring his much older partner.

“This is a tale about Al Purdy and his legacy, but people are bringing more to it,” Johnson told me. “This is about our cultural roots. It evokes nostalgia for a time when poetry mattered, when Canadian culture was still being invented and this activity was a key part of nation-building. Today that seems like a far-fetched ambition for anyone to entertain.” 


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Hi Honey & Peter,
Many, many thanks Honey for sending me your CD, MILTON ACORN & THE FREE SPEECH MOVEMENT! I've just had the chance to play it once so far, and it was thoroughly enjoyable - another great tribute to Milt and the People's Poetry Movement he so well represented, along with Big Al and many others. The musical accompaniment highlights your narration and singing without being overly obvious.

Your CD tribute adds an important historical perspective in the ongoing resurrection of the greats of the Canuck People's Poetry. Another large step in this resurrection is detailed in the article Peter Rowe sent me from today's STAR about the new doc on Al Purdy being debuted at The TO International Film Festival in a few days. All of this follows our 8 years of celebrating the 'greats' of People's Poetry at our annual PurdyFests, and the tribute evenings which followed in TO for Milt and Ray Souster. Last week's celebration of the plaque honouring Gwen and Milt on Ward's Island, organized by George Elliott Clarke, is starting to give the impression that a major renewal of public interest in Canadian poetry is underway. (And many thanks Peter for forwarding the link!)

I heard Brian D. Johnson, the producer of the Purdy film, interviewed on CBC radio this morning, and it doesn't give me great hope, tho, that Milt and his importance to the co-development of CanPo with Al will be properly recognized. When the host asked Johnson about Milt, Johnson stuttered ... 'ah, ah, ah ... Acorn WAS A COMMUNIST!' he finally blurted. Good God, man, that's the best you can say about one of Canada's finest poets? In the STAR article Johnson does acknowledge that he had no knowledge of Purdy until he was contacted about making the film - scary, as Johnson has been a Kanadian kultural maven for many decades, and he WAS a contemporary of Al and Milt.

So it'll be interesting to see the film, and at least it's giving a higher profile and belated recognition to one of the greats of CanPo, if not to all of whom James Deahl calls "the great generation of Canadian poets".

I'll post something on my blog, and copy it around to publicize the good news (hope this film IS good news for Milt's legacy, and not another out-of-date piece attacking a straw man who never existed).

peace & poetry power!
Chris ... & Chase   Wrfffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffff!

p.s. I'm also cc'ing historian Charlotte Gray - I've been encouraging her for a couple of years to write a co-bio of Milt & Al.
p.p.s. it was nice, Honey, to quote Robert Priest and mention Kent Bowman on your CD, but I was the dude who risked life and limb saving the guy who was attacked at our vigil in Allen Gardens - first I had to physically back off his attacker, then drag him off the street full of busy traffic & then calm him until the ambulance arrived - the rest of the poets stood there with their thumbs up their asses as usual


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