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An excerpt from Don Owen: Notes on a Filmmaker and His Culture

Originally published in Don Owen: Notes on a Filmmaker and His Culture. Written by Steve Gravestock. Published by the Toronto International Film Festival Group, 2005 published online by permission of the author.

Don Owen occupies a central place in the development of English-Canadian cinema almost entirely on the basis of his debut feature, Nobody Waved Good-bye (1964). Largely considered the first significant feature to emerge from English Canada in decades, Nobody Waved Good-bye was a substantial international success, primarily because of the authenticity of its dialogue, much of which was improvised, and its low-key, documentary-style realism. In fact, it was mistakenly perceived as a documentary in some quarters, even receiving the BAFTA for best documentary feature in 1965.

Owen went on to make several key fiction films and documentaries in the sixties and seventies, most of them for the National Film Board of Canada ( NFB), including Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen (co-directed with Donald Brittain, 1965); High Steel (1965); Notes for a Film About Donna and Gail (1966); The Ernie Game (for which he won the Best Director prize at the Canadian Film Awards, 1967); and the independently produced Partners (1975); Unfinished Business (1984), a sequel to his first feature; and his most recent narrative feature, Turnabout (1987), also independently produced.

Yet, despite his crucial role in the emergence of the English-Canadian feature, Owen remains a problematic and neglected figure. Outside of a few articles, usually focusing on Nobody Waved Good-bye, there is little of import written about him. He is not unique in this regard (many of the filmmakers who began in the sixties have been ignored), but Owen probably represents an extreme example. In effect, he’s been consigned to the role of pioneer rather than examined as a filmmaker in his own right. And his role as a pioneer is perceived in very limited terms—as if Nobody Waved Good-bye was an anomaly, before the real history of Canadian cinema began.

This situation is rather perverse since, on a closer examination, Owen’s career is intriguing on a number of levels. Historically, he established many of the key motifs and approaches of English-Canadian cinema in the sixties and beyond. In films like Nobody Waved Good-bye, Notes for a Film About Donna and Gail and The Ernie Game, he was one of the first filmmakers to present Canada as a modern urban country. (Most of Nobody Waved Good-bye’s significant cinematic precursors propagated the notion that Canada was a vast, uninhabited nation, rich in natural resources and wildlife, or, as Edmund Wilson so aptly put it, “In my youth … we tended to imagine Canada as a kind of vast hunting preserve convenient to the United States.”)1 Owen’s presentation of both Toronto and Montreal—the city as a hostile and inhospitable place—was the genesis of a theme that retains currency among Canadian filmmakers.

He was one of the first Anglo filmmakers to explode or mix genres, combining documentary and fiction techniques—an approach that would be reflected in most of the major works on English-Canadian cinema in the sixties. Indeed, the mere act of shooting on a Toronto street in the sixties was still virtually revolutionary within the historical context of Canadian cinema. (As Joyce Nelson has pointed out in her book The Colonized Eye: Rethinking the Grierson Legend, much of the early NFB product—especially the wartime films—seemed to have been designed to ignore domestic issues entirely.)2 Owen’s early films in particular helped to “de-colonize” Canadian film as an art form, simply by recording life on the streets of Toronto and Montreal. But he was also exploring and documenting Canada’s place in the world in geopolitical and cultural terms, most notably in You Don’t Back Down (1965). Curiously, he remains one of the few English-Canadian filmmakers to directly address our relationship with the United States, an issue in films like Nobody Waved Good-bye, Partners and, to a lesser extent, Unfinished Business.

One reason for the critical oversight of Owen’s work may stem from his penchant for trying different means of storytelling, adjusting his approach according to the needs of a specific project. In some ways, neglect of Owen recalls that of figures like the French filmmaker Louis Malle or even John Huston, whose radically varied work ran against the auteurist concept that dominated critical discourse in the fifties, sixties and seventies. (Like Malle, Owen divided his work between fiction and documentary projects.)

Stylistically, little seems to connect Owen’s films. From one work to the next, he played with sharply different techniques, searching for the format and style that best suited his material. Nobody Waved Good-bye defines and establishes realism as the dominant mode for the English-Canadian feature. The influential Canadian film professor and writer Peter Harcourt sees the film as an extension of the NFB’s documentary ethos.3 However, most of Owen’s subsequent work could only be called realism by stretching the definition considerably. The Jean-Luc Godard–influenced Notes for a Film About Donna and Gail constantly calls the reality of what’s being presented into question through the uncommon device (in cinematic terms) of an unreliable narrator; The Ernie Game merges curiously divergent approaches, from highly stylized near-slapstick seduction scenes to scenes that feel like street theatre.

With its gun-toting American industrial spies and its drug-smuggling hero, Partners ostensibly belongs to the thriller genre, but it’s equally concerned with cultural differences and Canadian history—hardly conventional thriller components. Owen’s last film, Turnabout (1987), is a cautionary fable about two women who exchange their lifestyles, yet it’s also driven by a desire to record life in Toronto’s Rosedale electoral riding, a neighbourhood both the extremely wealthy and the very poor call home.

Even among his documentary films, Owen’s approach to his material varies considerably. Compare the aloof and elegant Runner (1962) with the impressionistic Toronto Jazz (1964) or the scruffy, playful Cowboy and Indian (1972); the dynamic rapid-fire montage of Gallery: A View of Time (1967), a documentary commissioned by the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y., with the impressionistic approach of Holstein (1978), which records the day-to-day life of a dying provincial village. Owen’s documentaries are positioned between direct cinema, with its emphasis on highlighting the act of filmmaking and the close identification of the filmmaker with the culture he’s recording, (practiced in Quebec) and the tentative, observational style of the NFB’s Unit B/Candid Eye series.

Yet thematically Owen’s work is often surprisingly consistent. His fictional narratives frequently focus on the failings of the old Anglo-Scottish sensibility, which defined and dominated English Canada prior to the sixties and seventies. As Owen puts it, Toronto in the fifties “was like Laura Secord heaven”—an unbearably stuffy place with no real culture.4 At the same time, Owen is equally suspicious of the cultural and economic influence of the United States, which he sees as potentially invigorating but intensely individualistic and problematic. Nobody Waved Good-bye, Partners and Unfinished Business all concentrate on the drawbacks of both English and American influences. In many ways, Owen inherits and elaborates on themes explored in the forties and fifties by Canadian novelists like Hugh MacLennan, who envisioned Canada, at its best, as a synthesis of American and English values.5 Owen’s account of this conflict is seldom glib, as evidenced by the recurring motif of arrests in his films, which both underlines the significance of rejecting values and strictures and acknowledges a sense of pervasive authority. Whenever someone steps outside cultural norms, the response from authority is immediate.

Similarly, Owen frequently focuses on artists and their place in society, especially in his documentary work, making profiles of such wildly disparate figures as the poet-songwriter Leonard Cohen, the author Mordecai Richler, the avant-garde artist Michael Snow, the painters Robert Markle and Gordon Rayner, the jazz musician Lenny Breau, and the Québécoise chanteuse Monique Leyrac. From the very beginning of his career, he has attempted to define and defend art, from a variety of different perspectives. As the American critic Edmund Wilson observes, the influence of Protestantism in Canada “notoriously worked ... to discourage the practice of the arts.”6 Suspicion of artists is endemic in Canada. In the mid-eighties, the author and critic John Metcalf introduced The Bumper Book, a collection of essays on Canadian literature that he edited, by reprinting a recent letter to The Globe and Mail in which the writer complained bitterly that all Canadian artists were essentially loafers.7 (The lack of respect accorded artists and especially earlier Canadian filmmakers is perhaps best reflected in the  number of books published on them. The Toronto International Film Festival Group’s Film Reference Library, the premier source for English-Canadian film materials, holds one book each on the directors Don Shebib and Allan King and none on Owen. In contrast, there are nineteen books on John Grierson, the Scot who founded the NFB.)

Owen’s interest in this subject seems, in part, to be linked with his inveterate dislike of the oppressive/repressive nature of English-Canadian society, but it also reflects his own ambivalence. Some of his films about artists, in particular the earlier ones, seem determined to defend art in the most Protestant terms imaginable—as viable and difficult work. As his career progresses, Owen moves from this position to defending art as play—as a different kind of necessity, one made even more significant and essential because of the repressive, debilitating culture that opposes it.

As James Leach implies in “Don Owen’s Obliterated Environments,” a seminal article on the director’s career, Owen’s take on this subject shifts markedly between his documentary and fictional work. The artists in the documentaries usually succeed in some fashion, often simply by the act of creation.8 On the other hand, Owen’s fictional films are populated by nascent artists who never act on their talents—for instance, the folkie Peter Mark in Nobody Waved Good-bye and Partners’ would-be photographer, the heiress Heather Grey—or sham artists, like the hero of The Ernie Game. Perhaps the lone exception is the television production Changes (a k a Subway or Spain [1971]) in which the hero rejects a dreary life as a subway-train driver to pursue a career in music. These failed artists—almost invariably presented as isolated, irredeemable figures—are spectacularly “un-Canadian,” incapable of observing any proprieties for a significant length of time.

In the same vein, Owen often juxtaposes the playfulness of children or young people with the world of adults, which is typically oppressive, authoritarian or indifferent to the point of hostility. (Canadians seldom seem as young or naive as they do in Owen’s films.) That said, Owen doesn’t use a simplistic innocence-versus-corruption schema. Characters like Peter Mark and Ernie are nothing if not aggravating and often selfish—and even waiflike and troubled Donna, from Notes for a Film About Donna and Gail, is manipulative. Owen refuses to valorize his youthful heroes, instead preferring to criticize the culture they come from. The adults are not normally seen as villains; more often than not they’re just as trapped as those they try to oppress.

Much of Owen’s work fits into the key paradigms offered by critical surveys of Canadian literature like The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination by Northrop Frye and Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature by Margaret Atwood, both of which outline the lingering effects of colonialism and of course the significance of the natural environment on the Canadian psyche. Owen’s artists are prime examples of the urban division of what Frye called the garrison mentality. He argues that English-Canadian poetry reveals an obsession with preserving authority at all costs, which led to a closed-off protectionist mindset resistant to change. In cities, this resurfaced as fiercely defined cliques and enclaves. Similarly, many of Owen’s characters feel cut off, outside the decision-making process or, as Atwood puts it, have “the sense that decisions are made elsewhere.”9 Both Atwood and Frye discuss the existence in works they analyze of unquestioning acceptance of near-omnipresent authority and the prevalent motifs of escape and alienation—both recurring in Owen’s work.

At the same time, in films like Nobody Waved Good-bye and The Ernie Game, Owen makes crucial steps toward realizing that the social order is simply not conducive to the satisfaction of individual needs and ambitions, something Frye defines as a peculiarly Canadian moment of self-realization: “In such a society the terror is not for the common enemy ... The real terror comes when the individual feels himself becoming an individual, pulling away from the group, losing the sense of driving power that the group gives him, aware of a conflict within himself far subtler than the struggle of morality against evil.”10 Owen’s characters struggle to identify their real enemies, though they customarily fail. Much of his cinema documents the failure of socialization in Canada— and more often than not this failure is a result of poverty and hardship.

Of course, another reason for the critical neglect of Owen’s work may be the result of his reputation as a troublemaker, one that extends back to Nobody Waved Good-bye, which was originally supposed to be a short docudrama about middle-class juvenile delinquency. Adding insult to injury, he spoke openly about shooting the film on the sly without the NFB’s knowledge, which didn’t exactly ingratiate him to the powers that be. (Both The Ernie Game and Partners proved to be as controversial.)

Owen seemed not to regard filmmaking as a career, and his decisions often flew in the face of professional concerns, most notably his insistence on following Nobody Waved Good-bye with a medium-length piece (Notes for a Film About Donna and Gail) instead of a feature. Like several of his characters, Owen sometimes seems spectacularly un-Canadian. (He has been accused of patterning characters in several of his films after himself, most notably in Nobody Waved Good-bye, Notes for a Film About Donna and Gail and The Ernie Game.) Another reason may be the apparent inconsistency of Owen’s work, particularly his later features, though these films are, at the very least, intriguing in the way they advance his characteristic themes.

The pattern of Owen’s career is distressingly emblematic and rather depressingly familiar, reflecting Canadians’ habitual suspicion of homegrown work. Nobody Waved Good-bye received a nominal Canadian release in 1964. Some of the early reviews were downright hostile—and the industry, or what there was of it at the time, wasn’t exactly supportive. (The distributor-turned-producer Nat Taylor referred to it as “amateur night in Hicksville.”)11 Things turned around when the film played the 1964 New York Film Festival and especially after it was picked up for distribution in the United States. The film was subsequently re-released in Canada and received a far more positive response. This situation has been duplicated ad nauseam: filmmakers like David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan faced significant critical opposition domestically and then achieved success elsewhere before being appreciated at home.

The subsequent neglect of Owen’s work is even more disturbing. Paradoxically, The Ernie Game, for which he won a Canadian Film Award, effectively halted his career as a feature filmmaker for almost a decade; the tax shelter period of the late 1970s— which prioritized genre films over art films—didn’t help much either; nor did the lack of critical attention to Owen’s work in the intervening years. Referring to the scarce support for emerging writers, Mordecai Richler once joked that Canadians eat their young; it’s perhaps equally true that they neglect their elders.


1 Edmund Wilson, O Canada: An American’s Notes on Canadian Culture (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1965), 36.
2 Joyce Nelson, The Colonized Eye: Rethinking the Grierson Legend (Toronto: Between the Lines, 1988), 72-73.
3 Peter Harcourt, “1964: The Beginning of a Beginning,” Self Portrait: Essays on the Canadian and Quebec Cinemas, ed. Pierre Véronneau and Piers Handling (Ottawa: Canadian Film Institute, 1980), 64.
4 Unless otherwise noted, all interviews with Don Owen were conducted by the author.
5 Hugh MacLennan, Barometer Rising (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1941), 218.  MacLennan’s hero, a First World War veteran, muses, “But if there were enough Canadians like himself, half-American and half-English, then the day was inevitable when the halves would join and his country would become the central arch which united the new order.”
6 Wilson, O Canada, 39.
7 John Metcalf introduction, The Bumper Book, ed. John Metcalf, (Toronto: ECW Press, 1986), I.
8 Jim Leach, “Don Owen’s Obliterated Environments,” Dalhousie Review, Summer 1980: 283.
9Margaret Atwood, Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature(Toronto: Anansi, 1972 ), 18.
10 Northrop Frye, The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination (Toronto: Anansi, 1971), 228.
11 Joan Fox, “The Facts of Life, Toronto Style”, Canadian Film Reader, ed. Seth Feldman and Joyce Nelson (Toronto: Peter Martin and Associates, 1977), 156.

By: Steve Gravestock

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