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The Review/ Feature/

Waving Good-bye: Don Owen, 1931-2016

Saying good-bye to a pioneer of Canadian Film

by Steve Gravestock
Feb 24, 2016

The English Canadian filmmakers who emerged in the 1950s and 1960s were notable not simply for their groundbreaking, sometimes extraordinary work, but because they were able to create it in an environment which seemed not just indifferent to artistic pursuits, but downright hostile towards them. That was certainly the case when Don Owen — who passed away in Toronto on February 21 at the age of 84 — began his career. Along with such contemporaries as Paul Almond, Larry Kent, Allan King and Don Shebib, Owen launched the English Canadian feature-film industry with his internationally acclaimed debut Nobody Waved Good-bye in 1964, and his career trajectory leading up to and following that milestone is illustrative of the challenges facing film artists in this culture.

Born in Toronto in 1931, Owen grew up obsessed with movies (as he relates in his self-published autobiography, his first real job was working in a local movie theatre, the Tivoli), but he originally wanted to be a poet. (Appropriately, he made his first onscreen appearance playing a beatnik poet in Sidney Furie’s 1959 film A Cool Sound from Hell, in which he recited the opening lines of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl.) This kind of career choice was hardly conducive to finding one’s place in the Toronto of the 1950s. Far from the multicultural (and cultured) city we know today, ’50s Toronto was “Laura Secord heaven,” as Owen called it: super-WASPy, fanatically uptight, and inclined to view artists of any kind of good-for-nothing loafers. Owen’s memories of this restrictive milieu surely had something to do with his predilection for artists (successful or otherwise) as both subjects in his documentaries — the artists and art teachers Robert Markle and Gordon Rayner, profiled in Cowboy and Indian (1972); the jazz musicians (including a nattily attired bebop aficionado named Michael Snow) featured in Toronto Jazz (1963); the portrait films dedicated to Snow, Leonard Cohen and Mordecai Richler — and characters in his fiction features: Peter Kastner’s teenage hero in Nobody Waved Good-bye, who’s an aspiring folkie; Heather Grey’s would-be photographer and photojournalist in Partners (1976); the artist cum activist boyfriend, and almost every minor character, in Unfinished Business (1984); the homeless protagonist of The Ernie Game (1967), who’s a frustrated writer.

Don Owen

Don (left) with Robin Spry

Leaving Toronto for Montreal, Owen found a haven in the more welcoming confines of the National Film Board, the only real film production centre in Canada at the time. It was a fortuitous moment to arrive at the NFB, as the conservatism of the John Grierson era — which had largely limited the Board’s employees to cutting footage shot elsewhere rather than making films themselves — was giving way to a new generation of cineastes. Equipped with lightweight 16mm cameras and mobile audio-recording systems, directors like Michel Brault, Gilles Groulx, Wolf Koenig, Roman Kroitor, Claude Jutra, Arthur Lipsett (who would later be best man at Owen’s wedding), Colin Low, Terence Macartney-Filgate, and Pierre Perrault began to document life in Quebec, and eventually, the rest of Canada, in the process reinventing the NFB’s entire approach to filmmaking.

In a country that had always been dominated by American films, seeing Canadian life reflected directly on Canadian screens could have the effect of an epiphany. For Owen, that moment of revelation came when he saw Brault and Groulx’s Les Raquetteurs (1958), about a snowshoeing competition in a small Quebec town. During his time in Montreal, Owen had the chance to work as cameraman on some of the Board’s key films of the period, including La Lutte and À Saint-Henri le cinq septembre (both 1961) — and this despite the fact that his status as a Torontonian made him something of an outsider among the NFB’s leading lights, who viewed Toronto as ridiculously stuffy when compared with energetic, cosmopolitan Montreal. (When I interviewed Owen for a monograph on his work, he told me one of the jokes making the rounds at the time was about a radio contest where the second prize was two weeks in Toronto; the winner only had to stay one week.)

Given the chance to direct his own short film back in Toronto, Owen made Runner (1962), a portrait of middle- and long-distance runner Bruce Kidd, who had just begun to garner international attention. Though his film is clearly a cousin to the American Direct Cinema movement of the period, Owen distinguishes himself from contemporaries like Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles brothers — who tended to latch on to high-profile subjects with built-in conflicts structured around winner and losers like presidential races... or celebrities (Don’t Look Back) — by focusing on the dogged commitment and essential loneliness of his long-distance runner rather than the drama of victory and defeat. (It’s not even clear who wins the race depicted in the film.) This seeming modesty aside, Owen certainly wasn’t lacking for chutzpah in his very first outing as a director: with the nerve and resolve of the young and committed, he managed to convince the renowned British poet W.H. Auden to write the film’s narration.

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Owen showed even greater chutzpah soon thereafter when he directed Nobody Waved Good-bye, which grew out of an assignment to make a half-hour docudrama about middle-class juvenile delinquency in Toronto. As he began improvising dramatic situations with his young performers Peter Kastner and Julie Biggs, Owen moved further and further away from his original brief. According to legend, the NFB higher-ups were on vacation during the production and no one was monitoring how much footage Owen was shooting; consequently, he simply kept ordering more and more film stock as the summer went on, until he had shot enough material for an entire feature film.

This was not Owen’s only sin against orthodoxy. During the shooting, the director had the audacity to argue with the esteemed veteran cinematographer John Spotton, insisting that they shoot a crucial scene in the evening, during a rainstorm, over the DP’s objections. (The result was one of the film’s most touching and poignant sequences.) Even more galling, perhaps for the Board and certainly for some of the film's critical detractors, was that Owen had gone off-script from the projected “social-problem” picture and made a film that took the side of Kastner’s opinionated, confused and rebellious teenage hero against that of his alternately dismissive and authoritarian parents, who are simply incapable of listening to or understanding their son.

Don Owen
Don Owen

Initially released in Canada with little fanfare, Nobody Waved Good-bye seemed destined for obscurity, until a rapturous reception at the New York Film Festival sparked a domestic re-release. Prominent Canadian film scholar Peter Harcourt argued that Good-bye heralded the emergence of a genuinely English Canadian perspective in Canadian cinema, and Owen, once a near pariah, now came to be viewed as the future of the NFB. During the rest of the decade Owen created a number of groundbreaking works for the Board, including You Don’t Back Down (1965), a study of Canadians working for NGOs in Africa; Ladies and Gentlemen… Mr. Leonard Cohen (co-directed with Donald Brittain, 1965), a portrait of the poet and singer-songwriter as he embarks on his musical career; and High Steel (1965), about Mohawk construction workers who toil on the dizzying heights of New York skyscrapers.

But probably Owen’s greatest post-Good-bye accomplishments during the decade were Notes for a Film About Donna and Gail (1966)—a story of two young women who fall in love, whose wildly energetic fusion of fiction and documentary techniques exposed the tepidity and staleness of the vast majority of so-called docudramas—and his most daring work The Ernie Game, about a homeless bisexual hustler and petty thief (Alexis Kanner) struggling to survive a frigid Montreal winter, and his own demons. Part of a series of three dramas planned by the NFB to celebrate Canada’s centennial —and only a filmmaker as restlessly curious and anti-careerist as Owen would think a film about a bisexual street hustler was the ideal subject for a centennial celebration — The Ernie Game proved to be a troubled shoot for Owen, with the director even venting his frustrations with the NFB bureaucracy in public. Though the film eventually won Canadian Film Awards for best picture and best director, it irked as many viewers as it pleased; and indeed, watching Ernie several times during the writing of the Owen monograph in 2005, I was struck by how the film—much like its irreconcilable young hero, whom some read as a thinly veiled version of Owen himself — could be enthralling on one viewing and utterly maddening the next.

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Though The Ernie Game won praise from some of the country’s toughest and most insightful critics (including Robert Fulford and Wendy Michener), its seamy subject matter and confrontational aesthetic won Owen no friends at the NFB (or beyond: the film was denounced on the floor of the Canadian Senate as “indecent, immoral and repulsive”), and he would not work with the Board again until 1984. But even when out from under the aegis of the NFB, Owen had the ability to shock, infuriate, and push the boundaries of taste and subject matter. Partners, a rumination on Canada’s schizophrenic relationship with the United States, almost shut down the Festival of Festivals (later the Toronto International Film Festival) when provincial censors vehemently objected to a scene where the heroine was on top of her partner during sex and refused to allow the film to screen. (When I was planning an Owen retrospective in 2005, the one film Owen would not talk about was Partners. Though he didn’t remember it very fondly, when it screened at the retro he howled with laughter through the entire film.)

Though Owen’s later features do not reach the heights of his work in the ’60s, all of them strive to depict significant changes in Canadian society and culture that were rarely (if ever) reflected in the country’s cinema. Owen’s depictions of the city he called home are particularly resonant today: Partners captured the energy of Toronto’s music scene (including appearances by singer-songwriter Murray McLauchlan and Rough Trade, then one of the city’s hippest bands); Unfinished Business, a belated (and less celebrated) sequel to Nobody Waved Good-bye, continued to explore the musical milieu centered on Queen Street West (including a performance by The Parachute Club and Molly Johnson with Alta Moda), as well as documenting the city’s growing multiculturalism and the emergence of a more vibrant and vocal political-cultural scene; while Owen’s last feature Turnabout (1987), a story about two women (one working-class, one upper-class) who switch places, commented ruefully on gentrification.

didn’t meet Don personally until 2004, although I had attempted to do so a couple of years earlier when he attended a panel discussion at the Festival, but was foiled when he bolted from the room and across Avenue Road immediately after the event. I soon found out that this was the pace he maintained at all times. Don possessed a character trait that, while not unique to pioneers, is certainly a crucial element of their character: the overwhelming need to plow forward, even when circumstances are less than advantageous. I witnessed this quality firsthand when we mounted a large exhibition of Don’s paintings as part of the retrospective of his work. Many of the pictures came directly from his country home in Glenstreams, and some of them had significant water damage. As I borderline-panicked about how to deal with this, Don grabbed a bottle of Windex, sprayed it on the canvases, and wiped the mould right off. And just like that nighttime rain shot in Nobody Waved Good-bye that wasn’t supposed to work, the paintings emerged unscathed and the show went off without a hitch.

Don became an adherent of Buddhism in the 1960s, and his devotion to the faith was so consuming that it may have actually cost him a project he was trying to mount in L.A. in the late ’70s. (As he recounts in his self-published memoir Captain Donald’s Search for Crazy Wisdom, he spent the whole day leading to a big evening meeting meditating in an ashram, and was so exhausted that he promptly dozed off the minute the meeting began.) His faith fuelled and sustained him through the rest of his life, especially when his health began to fail: he suffered a heart attack in the early 2000s, followed by a stroke during surgery; an arthritic knee hampered his rehabilitation, and he never regained full mobility. Despite these obstacles, Don continued working on a range of projects — from film scripts to his memoir — right up until his recent passing.

Don’s attentiveness and insight weren’t dimmed by his health problems either. During our conversations about his films, he would often talk about the tenets of Buddhism and the role his faith had played in his life. Having been to church all of one time outside of weddings and funerals, I had little interest in religion of any sort, so I simply listened and nodded politely, successfully concealing my lack of knowledge and interest in the subject. Or so I thought, anyway, until a moment in our third interview when he stopped abruptly in mid-reflection and said, “You’re not very interested in spirituality, are you? Every time I mention it your eyes glaze over.”

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It was that kind of forthrightness, coupled with his searching curiosity and fierce determination, that allowed Don Owen to break new ground in Canada’s cinematic landscape when the powers-that-were decreed not only that it couldn’t, but shouldn’t be done. It’s thanks to artists like him that we now have a strong Canadian feature-film industry — and, far more importantly, that we have a canon of great films that show ourselves to ourselves. For these reasons alone, anyone who has ever worked in the Canadian film industry — or simply been entertained, enthralled or inspired by a Canadian film — owes Don an enormous debt.