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The Bitter Ash

Year: 1963
Language: English
Format: 16mm Black & White
Runtime: 80 min
Director: Larry Kent
Producer: Larry Kent
Writer: Larry Kent
Cinematographer: Richard Bellamy
Editor: Richard Bellamy
Sound: Robin Spurgin
Music: Jack Dale, Clinton Solomon, Jimmy Thomas, Wilf Manz
Cast: Alan Scarfe, Lynn Stewart, Philip Brown, Diane Griffith
Production Company: Larry Kent Productions

The Bitter Ash, the first film by independent pioneer Larry Kent, is an uncommonly accomplished example of a style and approach Kent would perfect in later years. This independently produced, semi-improvised drama involves the sexual shenanigans of a self-involved young printer (Alan Scarfe) who throws away his marriage and his last hope for spiritual integrity for the sake of an ego-gratifying fling.

Made when Kent was twenty-four, this debut shows all the earmarks of the highly-skilled, original and unparalleled filmmaker he was already well on his way to becoming. Like his next two features, Sweet Substitute (1964) and When Tomorrow Dies (1965), The Bitter Ash is a restless film that mirrors the psychological agitation of its characters. It is shot and edited with an apparent randomness and energy that is comparable to films of the French New Wave. The camera perspective shifts wildly: unobtrusive and dispassionately observational one moment, it roams aggressively through scenes and skims boldly across surfaces the next. A continually raucous jazz soundtrack adds to the film’s edgy feel, as does the sense of instability established by Kent’s editing, which imbues many scenes with an arbitrary feeling that reflects the way the characters approach their lives.

Kent, who produced, directed, shot and edited the film himself, raised the $5,000 budget by working in a printing shop and cast the film with his classmates from the University of British Columbia drama programme. Upon its release, The Bitter Ash ran afoul of the overly restrictive provincial censor board which – on the basis of the film’s themes (class tensions, marriage viewed as a prison), its thinly veiled political subtext deeply critical of modern society, and a semi-nude sex scene – banned the film and had it seized wherever Kent attempted to show it. But even with exhibition of the film restricted to clandestine student screenings with one-dollar admissions, Kent recovered his initial investment and put the profits toward the production of his next film Sweet Substitute (1964).

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