When film critic Brian D. Johnson retired, he became a filmmaker himself. His first project: a documentary about the difficult, brilliant (and strangely forgotten) Canadian poet
By Jay Stone
TORONTO — “You can argue whether he was our greatest poet, but certainly he was our most Canadian poet. No one wrote about the land the way that he did. If the Group of Seven was a bar band, they might sound like Al Purdy.”
It’s a warm September afternoon and Brian D. Johnson is sitting at an outdoor table at a coffee place he likes near the Toronto International Film Festival. He’s in the sun, hatless, and there is sweat on his forehead. Furthermore, people keep stopping to interrupt us because Johnson is a pretty popular guy in the film festival district, and also because, at this year’s festival, he’s a bit of a celebrity.
He was the film critic for Maclean’s magazine for 28 years. Now, at 66, he has retired (“I’ve had a career. I’m looking for the sweeter things”) and launched himself into something new. He’s become a filmmaker.
He made a documentary called Al Purdy Was Here, about a legendary writer who is still unknown to many Canadians, and it was accepted at the festival. Now he’s on the other side of the notepad, a filmmaker telling his story to journalists. He’s told it many times, but nothing — neither sun nor sweat nor the passing parade of festival people — can dampen his enthusiasm for another recounting of Purdy’s life, and of how he came to it.
Purdy was a high school dropout who hopped freight trains during the Depression. He eventually built an A-frame cottage in Prince Edward County — a ramshackle place that was nonetheless a gathering place for such writers as Margaret Laurence, Dennis Lee, Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje —where he wrote 39 books of poetry, a novel, two volumes of memoirs, radio and TV plays and enough letters to fill four volumes. He won two Governor General Awards.
And yet, since his death in 2000, he has been largely forgotten.
“Why don’t we know more about Al Purdy?,” Johnson asks. “He’s right out of central casting for a folkloric Canadian hero, if we’re going to have such a thing in the arts. If anyone is going to be one, it should be him.”
But people don’t read Purdy much any more; indeed, Canadians these days may not know about any of our poets besides Leonard Cohen (with whom Johnson is friends, and who reads a Purdy poem in the film.) Purdy was back in the news a few years ago when the A-frame was going to be demolished and a group of literary people said it should be preserved. They formed a committee, raised money, and restored it as a retreat for writers to use.
Johnson’s wife, the magazine writer Marni Jackson, was familiar with Purdy — she once interviewed him on TV — and thought the story of his life, and of the cottage, would make a good play. So when a group of supporters put together a benefit concert to raise money for the cottage, Johnson, who learned something about film editing during his writing career, helped by making a video montage.
“And that’s how I discovered l Purdy,” Johnson is saying now, his forgotten cup of coffee cooling in the sun. “Looking at it I thought, ‘Wow. What a charismatic wonderfully prickly provocative character he is.’ He was a real rock star. Poets were rock stars back in the day. Poets went on prime-time TV.”
It sounded like a movie, and Johnson already had some footage.
“I wasn’t making a movie yet, but the movie was starting to make itself before I started to make it. Which is an interesting organic way for a movie to begin: unintentionally.”
Al Purdy Was Here includes archival interviews with Purdy, an irascible man who comes across as one of those hard-nosed poets, like Charles Bukowski — a Purdy friend — who once roamed the landscape. They were free-range rebels, back in the days when poetry seemed to matter more. They drank and caroused. They weren’t fun to live with, but they were great to read.
“There was a certain kind of persona they all adopted,” Johnson says. “They were tough. They were flamboyant. Whether the personas were real or invented, they seemed necessary. “
For the film, he interviewed writers including Margaret Atwood, Dennis Lee and George Bowering. The movie also includes, somewhat wonderfully, the thoughts on a Twitter feed called @statueofpurdy, anonymous observations that are attributed to a statue of Purdy at Queen’s Park. They’re told from the statue’s point of view, and include pensees on squirrels, trees, and other park passersby.
Johnson also talks to Purdy’s 90-year-old widow Eurithe, who stood by him through what was, by all the evidence, a rocky marriage and is the guardian of his legacy. She was a reluctant source — Johnson says she was the most difficult subject he ever talked to, besides the famously cranky actor Tommy Lee Jones — but she eventually agreed to be part of the film. She’s sometimes reticent, but Johnson says her silences speak volumes.
“She’s the heroine of the film,” Johnson says. “This is a movie about what gets sacrificed in the name of a man’s single-minded ambition to be a great artist, and Eurithe sacrificed a lot of her life.”
Al Purdy Was Here is also notable for its use of music. “Songs could give some juice to what might otherwise be a stuffy documentary about a dead poet,” Johnson says. “And also give it some stars, which you need to raise money.” The music in the movie — which has been recorded for The Al Purdy Songbook — includes new songs commissioned by such artists as Sarah Harmer and Bruce Cockburn, as well as older tunes. Johnson got Neil Young to agree to the use of his song, My 48 Pontiac, in the film. Johnson says there’s a connection between Young and Purdy: “they’re both ornery outsider artists, in a way.”
Johnson says that while’s a fan of Purdy’s poetry, “you can’t be a complete fan of his life. That’s what makes it interesting. The film in some ways is about the incompatibility of family and art, at least in his situation. I’d like to think it doesn’t have to be that way.” Indeed, Marni Jackson was the co-writer of the movie and their son, Casey, a musician, composed the score.
“There was a lot of anxiety and a lot of stress, but I was determined that I wasn’t going to be a bad father in making a movie about a bad father,” Johnson says.
He also learned a lot about documentary filmmaking, which he calls “journalism by other means.” But it’s more collaborative, and you have to get involved in some fiction as well. To get the movie funded, Johnson had to write a script before he even knew where the movie was going. He imagined the movie’s opening shot, which is of a tree being cut down.
“I wanted to open with a close-up of a chainsaw and then the tree being milled into a plank on which we have the donor board (the names of those who contributed to the A-frame restoration) and then Leonard Cohen’s name along with other donors and we’d have a macro close-up of his name being burnt into the wood, and then cutting to Leonard Cohen talking about the importance of a place for an artist to write.”
That part, alas, is missing. The donor board wasn’t finished in time and while Cohen agreed to read a Purdy poem in the movie, he refused to do the interview.
Nevertheless, the key image is there. “I wanted this movie to start with a chainsaw,” Johnson says. “I just like the idea that this isn’t a stuffy movie about a Canadian poet. A chainsaw massacre of Canadian literature.
(Al Purdy Was Here opened in Toronto on Dec. 4)