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5 films on literature: Atwood, Kerouac, Mowat, and more…

Films

Consider yourselves lucky today, dear readers: I’ve decided to take a break from writing my Great Canadian Novel—a tome rife with gravitas that elevates the literary game to the next level—in order to tell you all about the rich literary offering on NFB.ca this week. (What’s that? Am I writing said novel in my head? Well, OK, yes, there is technically no actual novel to speak of yet, but just you wait…)

We figured you’d be celebrating the tail end of cottage season snuggled up with a good book by a lake, so we thought you might like to know more about the fine folks responsible for some of this country’s (and the world’s) greatest literature.

The mind that brought you The Handmaid’s Tale, Alias Grace, Oryx and Crake…

You may be familiar with Margaret Atwood’s globally-renowed literary output, but how well do you know the woman behind the words? In Margaret Atwood: Once in August, we are treated to a revealing portrait of Atwood at her family’s farm near Alliston, Ontario, where we get a glimpse of Atwood’s irreverence, intelligence, and sharp sense of humour.

I’ve been a fan of Atwood’s work since I started skipping after-school re-runs of Saved By The Bell to power through my mom’s copy of The Robber Bride at the tender age of 11. But I didn’t realize what a funny and charming woman she is in person—until, that is, I once heard her refer to the great Canadian poet (and rumoured Lothario) Irving Layton as “a naughty little scamp”.

As I watch this documentary about Atwood, I can’t help noticing a troubling dynamic that emerges between filmmaker Michael Rubbo and Atwood herself. It seems as though he questions her in a manner that hints she may not know herself (or her writing, or the characters she creates in her novels) as well as he thinks he does. But Atwood’s confident, measured, and eloquent answers serve to put Rubbo in his place a little bit, thereby playing with the traditional documentary dynamic (not to mention the traditional gender dynamic) in fascinasting ways.

I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this rich and informative film; leave ‘em in the comments below this post.

Kerouac: counterculture, spontaneity, liberation, rebellion

In The Essentials of Spontaneous Prose (1958), Jack Kerouac advocated a style of writing that incorporated the “free deviation of mind… swimming in a sea of English with no discipline other than rhythms of rhetorical exhalation and expostulated statement, like a fist coming down on a table with each complete utterance, bang!”

How’s that for an instruction booklet on a literary revolution? Interestingly, Kerouac’s energetic writing is markedly contrasted to his thoughtful, languid demeanour in Jack Kerouac’s Road – A Franco-American Odyssey, a documentary in which the great American writer explores his Francophone roots in the North-Eastern United States.

Some critics equated Kerouac’s spontaneity with mindlessness and thoughtlessness, especially because he was such a fast writer. Some said he was not careful. But Kerouac’s frenetic words spoke to a disaffected generation. In 1957, On the Road became a best-seller, and publishers clamoured to print everything else Kerouac had ever written (many of his early works had been unseen and unpublished until that point).

A brooding prairie poet and the mythology of place and space

Andrew Suknaski was a celebrated Canadian poet and visual artist throughout the late 1960s and ’70s. In the early 1980s, he stopped writing, but his extensive poetry has been actively collected and analyzed since. In the hypnotic and revealing documentary Wood Mountain Poems, we get a glimpse of the complex man behind the poems.

Concerned broadly with themes of identity and its relationship to home, space, language, and culture, Suknaski’s poems drew from a wide range of influences, including his own Ukrainian-Polish background, the First Nations mythologies that surrounded him on the Western prairie landscape, and the legacy of settler colonialism that haunts the Western world to this day.

…stand dead man
stand stranger
a moment
in those brand new shoes
laced      on your dead feet
new shoes      for your long journey
…stand dead man
and let the mourners      lie
while i read your face more
oriental      than anything
your face      still brown
and burnished
by faraway sun      and suffering
your face forged      by all things
       chinese
       tartar
       hutsul
       viking
            cossack horsemen
      who forded      the rivers
      of your frozen
      blood
 

- Andrew Suknaski, excerpt from Photograph from Poland

Anna Jameson: 19th century writer, scholar, feminist, adventurer

Take a listen to the narration in The Petticoat Expeditions, Part One: Anna Jameson and see if you can identify the crisp British accent and its celebrity owner (we already know Russell Crowe contributed his golden vocal tones to other NFB films). Hint: besides her talent, she’s also known for her wacky red-carpet fashions and her marriage to an equally wacky Hollwood auteur. Still haven’t guessed? More hints: she’s a two-time Academy Award nominee and the star of such hits as Fight Club and the Harry Potter films.

That’s right: it’s none other than the iconic and talented Helena Bonham-Carter! The Petticoat Expeditions is a series of films which uses the words and works of three extraordinary British women to recount their experiences in 19th-century Canada, painting an inspiring portrait of women who refused to be constrained by the conventions of the time.

Anna Jameson was one such woman: she followed her aloof, alcoholic husband from England to Canada in the mid-19th century, and once here she found herself “cold, comfortless” and “as miserable as possible”.

“I lose all heart to write home, or to register or reflect on a feeling,” she wrote despondently. In one month in Toronto, she says, “I have been out of the house twice, and in that I was in continual danger of falling.” In twenty pounds of clothing in the Canadian winter, Jameson recounts how she found herself  “floundering about like a whale out of water.”

But this steely and adventuresome woman would not let the unfriendly climate and landscape of a foreign land keep her down. Jameson set out on a voyage of unexplored territory across Ontario—alone. (This was unheard of at the time; it’s likely she was the first European woman ever to explore this territory alone). Jameson’s reflections and experiences live on in her writing, which is revered to this day, such as in her Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada, still widely studied within settler literature and women’s histories.

The cross-country search for a literary legend

In Finding Farley, husband-and-wife filmmaking team Leanne Allison and Karsten Heuer set out to re-trace the steps taken across a selection of Farley Mowat’s most famous books. They canoe east from Calgary towards the Prairies (as traced in Mowat’s Born Naked and Owls in the Family) and then traverse the paths taken in Never Cry Wolf and People of the Deer. Their epic 5,000 km journey—trekking, sailing, portaging and paddling—finally ends in the Maritimes, at Mowat’s Nova Scotia summer home.

What’s more, the couple bring their 2-year-old son along on this epic journey. Got a 2-year-old at home? Then you can imagine what it might be like to canoe, sail, camp, and trek across Canada with the little one in tow. Oh, and a dog. Want to know what it was like? Read co-director Leanne Allison’s guest post here.

So, that’s the literary-themed selection on NFB.ca this week—when you’ve finished that last chapter you’re reading, close the pages and open your laptop to these enriching, inspiring, and revealing films. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to writing my novel…