Movies, Memories and Montreal

By Zev Asher

I was born in Montreal but tend to move around a lot (I am prone to wandering). A number of great feature films that have been made in Quebec’s big city have helped to capture its unique cultural climate. Like steamies, smoked meat and souvlaki, these treats bear repeated consumption for me as a form of memory re-coding.

My parents’ generation get their hometown hankerings from films like Ted Kotcheff’s “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” (1974) and “Joshua Then and Now” (1985). I look elsewhere.

Several remarkable feature films captured the essence of life for disenfranchised anglophones on the margins of early 1970’s Montreal. Frank Vitale’s “Montreal Main” (1974) has a neo-hippie failed artist courting a young pretty boy while various low-brow characters cavort aimlessly. His “East End Hustle”(1976) has some seriously shady whore-mongering going on along with violent redemption for the hookers. Allan Moyle’s The Rubber Gun Show” (1977) has many of the same people involved in the production (as Montreal Main) and is more abstract, humorous and drug-addled. Gritty realism and a dark sense of humour mark these films as overlooked classics of Montreal cinema.

Some movies have scenes in specific locations that were part of my early stomping grounds. In David Cronenberg’s “Rabid”(1977), nasty characters run through the 20/20 shopping mall on de Maissoneuve Boulevard. I used to do that. My aunt Ruthie played a Metro rider in that film as well.

Toronto wunderkind Cronenberg actually shot several of his early films in Montreal. His first feature, “Shivers” (1975) (aka They Came from Within), was lensed in an apartment complex on Nun’s Island, a small residential and industrial zone off the south shore of the city. I have a vivid memory of being on Nun’s Island with a musician friend of mine and a strange pair of siblings I had never met before. I think the guy was drugged up and behaving erratically when, in a fight with his sister, he reached over and violently twisted one of her large breasts. I later found out that they were sleeping together. Every time I see “Shivers” I think of Nun’s Island and that sordid incident of brotherly tough love.

I first met Demetrios Estdelacropolis in the offices of Concordia University’s student newspaper “The Link”. I had seen his raw “Mother’s Meat and Freud’s Flesh” (1984) and was suitably impressed. The film depicts a neurotic gay porn stud who has issues with his domineering mother and over-probing psychiatrist. Demetri worked guerilla-style in the fetid and fertile climate of the 1980’s arts scene. He shot his cast of characters delivering surreal non-sequiturs against a backdrop of Montreal in all its bold summer glory. The rides at La Ronde, the aquarium, his Dad’s diner in NDG, the streets of the Plateau – Demetri captured it all stunningly on a rich-looking 16mm film stock. I ended up working on his follow-up film, “Shirley Pimple and the John Wayne Temple of Doom”(1999). I served as a production assistant on the project but also managed to squirm my way into a scene where a number of local punk bands were “entertaining the troops” at a USO-styled show. Decked out in a white wedding dress and black combat boots, I performed an acoustic rendition of the 1960’s anti-war folk staple, ‘The Eve of Destruction”. The scene was filmed in a then empty lot on the corner of St. Urbain and Rachel in Montreal’s Plateau neighborhood (the lot is now home to a garish Portuguese church). As several hundred punks rustled restlessly in the huge pit beneath me and the other musicians, the film’s young lead actress Chelsea McIsaac came on to the massive stage. As the titular demon child Shirley Pimple, she began to squirt fake blood from a plastic gun all over my dress as I sang, “There’ll be no one to save with the world in a grave”.

Estdelacropolis’ epic bloody tome against the Duke and American imperialism took almost 18 years to finish. “Shirley Pimple and the John Wayne Temple of Doom” features a laconic performance from cult cartoonist and musician Rick Trembles, among other suitably warped character portrayals, and a series of vibrant Montreal locations. That this absurd, overblown and somewhat incoherent feature was finally completed almost two decades after it was shot, is a testament to director Demetri’s relentless perseverance. My scene, however, was cut out.

As a teenager, I used to earn small amounts of money by working as an extra in Montreal’s bustling film industry. I waltzed in a ballroom for “In Praise of Older Women” (1978), which introduced a dashing young Tom Berenger. I milled in a crowd in the gross-out teen gang comedy “Hog Wild” (1980). I bum-rushed Buddy Hackett in the abysmal rollerskating runaway story, “Hey Babe!”(1980). I badgered Donald Sutherland in “Bethune”(1977). I listened to Burt Lancaster sermonize in “Barnum”(1986). My scenes, however, were mostly cut out.

The late great Jean-Claude Lauzon’s nearly pitch-perfect “Leolo” (1994), was scripted from memories of the director’s days of growing up in Montreal’s working class francophone east end. It is a uniquely hilarious and demented coming of age story and perhaps one of the few genuine masterpieces of Canadian cinema. While Lauzon’s childhood memories are certainly very different from mine, “Leolo” captured an essence of Montreal’s unique charm that felt somewhat familiar to me. One of its many memorable scenes features plump Quebecois chanteuse Ginette Reno taking a shit with the bathroom door open. Poutine anyone?

I grew up in Chomedey, a soulless suburb in the city of Laval. The sleepy Riviere des Prairies separated me and my dreary neighbourhood from majestic Montreal and the mythical Belmont Park. Opened in 1923, this classic amusement park began its 60-year reign with a ferris wheel and a dance hall. It expanded to include the famous ‘Cyclone’ rollercoaster, sideshows, a flea circus and a multitude of other traditional rides and carnival attractions. Belmont Park also had one of those great “Make Your Own Record” machines which produced a 10″ heavy slab of vinyl of whatever you did into a microphone. It cost about two dollars, You would enter a booth and when the light went on you had two or three minutes to record your masterpiece. Most people would sing a song but I opted to do an improvised newscast. I sounded like an idiot but I cherished that record and I loved Belmont Park.

Andre Forcier is a great Quebecois director who has remained relatively obscure outside the province, despite a long and impressive career. When I first saw his sprawling “La Comtesse du Baton Rouge” (1997) at the Montreal World Film Festival, I could barely contain my excitement when I discovered it was set in Belmont Park. The story of a young Montreal filmmaker who falls for a bearded lady and becomes a human cannonball, “The Countess of Baton Rouge” also boasts a one-eyed man, a crocodile woman and the glorious backdrop of Belmont Park, or a set that looked like it anyway. Good enough for me.

There are other memorable Montreal films which tend to resonate on one level or another. Denys Arcand’s “Jesus of Montreal” (1898) had a dazed Lothaire Bluteau as the titular deluded Christ staggering around a Metro station. And who could forget necrophiliac morgue attendant Gabriel Arcand trashing his room bare-assed in Louis Belanger’s blistering debut “Post-Mortem” (1999).

I like Montreal but I tend to reject the notion of having a ‘hometown’. I have resided for periods of time in a number of cities in Canada and abroad. I eventually feel a sense of displacement, wherever I happen to be living. As I stay longer in a new place, it inevitably begins to become familiar to me and takes on the characteristics of a hometown. Then I start to dislike it. So I leave and go somewhere else.

Zev Asher
Montreal, April 2004
Next stop, Venice, Italy.