The Last Word

Permit me to be personal. This is about cinema — and me — and why I take such delight in attending festivals like TIFF.

The first film I remember seeing was outdoors during the September festival of Saints Cosma and Damiano in a southern Italian village of the same name.

I was four years old and on a visit to my father’s birthplace. All I remember of the silent film, projected onto a vast white screen was seeing a carnival in full swing. A man in full evening dress, wearing a pig’s head from whose mouth an enormous cigar protruded, was in the centre of a throng of revellers.And that’s all I remember.

After we returned to England, I became a regular moviegoer through indulgent parents and grandparents. And in Italy, both before, during and after the war I frequented outdoor cinema. That’s why Cinema Paradiso and the Chinese film Electric Shadows have resonated so strongly with me.

At age 13, I received a 9.5 Pathé projector which showed 9.5 millimetre film and enabled me to rent silent classics like Potemkin, Metropolis, Michael Strogoff, Caligari and early Hitchcocks. Most of these films were fro Europe or Great Britain. With Doug Snow, a school chum who lived some distance from me, I engaged in a joint venture. Charging other boys and girls two pence each, we’d show films first at his home on one night and then mine the next; strictly illegal of course, but lots of fun. The money went to pay Mr. Burroughs, whose only juvenile clients were Snow and Viccari. He trusted us to return films undamaged.

By now sound films were well established but we owed our grounding in film history and aesthetics to the gullible kids we enticed to the showings.

Fast forward to my first job on being discharged from the Military Mission to the Italian Army in 1946: as a reader with Paramount Pictures’ London office, feeding the great maw of Hollywood with synopses of new books. Then to the fast-growing J. Arthur Rank Organization as a story analyst, where I not only read but saw new plays and foreign-language films. I was also earmarked for a training program with Rank’s junior production unit, Highbury Studio.

Disaster arrived in the form of the Bogart or Bacon tax with the Labour government slapping a 70 percent tax on all Hollywood films to shore up the war-wounded British economy. Instead of bolstering the British film industry, the tax had a reverse effect on the only game in town, Rank, with five British studios. Reciprocal distribution agreements with the U.S. film industry went out the window and hundreds of men and women were fired. I was one of them.

And so to Canada where I became one of the founders of the revived Toronto Film Society and still an inveterate moviegoer dabbling occasionally in movie journalism.
Three completed screenplays have failed to attract a responsible Canadian agent but ironically, a venture into documentary writing has seen the completion and the multiple TV screening of The Third Element, a study of Canada’s ethnic media dating back to the 19th century and a film, now in progress, on Canadian attitudes to our multiculturalism policy. On both occasions, I’ve had the good fortune to be associated with Lalita Krishna, the winner of many awards for her brilliant and sensitive documentaries. Whether as executive producer or director or editor she excels at her art.

One Response to “The Last Word”

  1. Bill Says:

    This month’s Last Word is good reading, Ben. The story about the man in full evening dress (with the pig’s head) is very Fellini-esque.

    I like the personal touch and I understand now, that your history as a film buff goes right to your roots. You’re certainly qualified to do these reviews!

    I’ve seen The Third Element a couple of times and look forward to seeing what you and Lalita do next.