Mary Tyler Moore in Nova Scotia

The recent passing of actress and cultural pioneer Mary Tyler Moore received the usual global media interest, with emphasis on her eponymous 1970-1977 television series that had her portraying a single, career-oriented professional when, up to that point, women had been relegated to the role of married foils to working husbands.

The continued steep decline in local media was revealed again when no reports on her death mentioned that Moore filmed a movie for TV here in Halifax in the summer of 2003. Blessings was adapted from journalist and author Anna Quindlen’s 2002 novel, and told the story of an eccentric 82-year old woman played by a heavily made-up Moore, whose life is revitalized by the arrival of a baby, dropped off anonymously on her doorstep.

Local actors Cory Bowles and Laura Regan provided supporting roles, and the project was broadcast on CBS in October, 2003, right after the catastrophic landfall of Hurricane Juan in Halifax. That might be responsible for the mass amnesia in Nova Scotia concerning the project. There were, in fact, two movies filming in the South End of Halifax throughout the Juan disaster, and they distinguished themselves by providing electricity through their generators for some of their neighbours after the power went out.

Whether Blessings was one of those films remains a question that perhaps the greater public can answer. Still, to have such an important media figure in our midst doesn’t seem to faze Bluenosers much (we’ve played host to the likes of Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas over the years ), but it is a reminder of the reach of Nova Scotia’s motion picture production scene.

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“First Features” Film Series Begins at Dalhousie Art Gallery

A new film series begins at the Dalhousie Art Gallery this Wednesday evening (January 18th), curated by my good friend and colleague Ron Foley Macdonald. This time out Ron has created an eclectic program of “first features” by well known film directors. As Ron puts it in his write-up for the program:

“Some directors arrive fully formed on their debut features. Others never recover. In this survey of first features, we begin with one of the greatest motion pictures of all time,Citizen Kane, and then progress to more contemporary times where some directors—Duncan Tucker and Transamerica, for example—disappear from the scene after tackling some exceptional subject matter. Female directors and stories of gender determination dominate more modern times; Art House staple directors such as Lars von Trier (The Element of Crime) and Andrei Tarkovsky (Ivan’s Childhood) help anchor the series to the traditions of ‘serious’ cinema, while other directors’ debuts mark them for ‘serious’ Hollywood success.”

All of the screenings start at 8 pm, and are free to the public. If you’re a filmmaker, or someone who wants to become one, you should make a point of going to as many screenings as you can. It’s like a masterclass in how to make a film, enhanced each time by Ron’s introduction.

Here is the schedule, with Ron’s notes. The series begins with Citizen Kane, a film that many people consider the greatest film of all time – which makes for quite the first feature, indeed – although there is a group of Kane admirers who believe that The Magnificent Ambersons was actually Welles’ best film.

Let the debates begin!

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Viola Desmond’s Story on Film

The announcement that Viola Desmond will grace Canada’s ten-dollar bill has brought her story to the attention of a new generation of Canadians. It is a story of profound courage and resolve that Iain MacLeod and Brian Murray, two Nova Scotian filmmakers, have told in different but equally compelling ways.

MacLeod’s film was a drama shot in black and white back in 1996, whereas Murray’s film is a documentary made in 2012 for his employer, Communications Nova Scotia, to commemorate Canada Post issuing a stamp in Desmond’s honour. Both films run about 45 minutes.

MacLeod took an oblique approach “November 1946,” never showing the actual incident itself but rather letting the word “spread around the town.” Ultimately he used Desmond’s narrative to set up the tension in order to portray an inter-racial romance. The film was an ambitious costume drama that played to a packed house at the 1996 Atlantic Film Festival. Its unusual length and rough language made further distribution a challenge, and sadly it is mostly unseen today. I remember it vividly, however, as it marked MacLeod as a filmmaker of vision and substance.

For Murray, the story of Viola Desmond was one that needed to be simply and directly retold using modern-day documentary techniques. Because there is little to no footage of Desmond herself, Murray used a blend of dramatic re-creations, punctuated by expert ‘talking head’ testimony and period stock footage.

Perhaps most importantly, Murray’s “Long Road To Justice” provides more depth and insight to a story that continues to gain resonance and momentum. As national audiences now catch up to speed with the narrative, we can all consider the extraordinary contribution Viola Desmond has made to Canada’s cultural fabric.

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“Shakespeare 400” at the Dalhousie Art Gallery

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare.

As Film Curator at the Dalhousie Art Gallery, I thought it was a good idea to revisit some of the cinematic versions of the Bard’s plays.

There is certainly no shortage to choose from. I did have a couple of guidelines. One was the 140 minute mark. The seats at the gallery are hard plastic, and most people are used to feature films being around two hours long. Shakespeare’s plays, however, generally run longer in their theatrical form. In film, some of the more famous ones – Roman Polanski’s Macbeth from 1971 for example – run 140 minutes or more. Alas, out went Roman’s well-known and well-loved film.

I’ve also found that people’s attention spans have shrunk a bit in the age of electronic devices and premium episodic television. Longer films will almost always lose audiences. I’ve actually seen this happen at the gallery.

Still, the films I’ve chosen for the series are all worth seeing for one reason or another. They run from the 1930s to the modern era, and include great productions from Orson Welles, Max Reinhardt, Julie Taymor, Ralph Fiennes, and others.

“Shakespeare 400” screens Wednesday evenings at 8:00 pm at the Dalhousie Art Gallery. Admission is free but donations are gratefully accepted; seating is limited so come early to guarantee admission. The series is supported by the Canada Council and Arts Nova Scotia.

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It’s Time to Abolish the Maritime Film Classification Board

Last month’s announcement that the beloved and long-running Quinpool Road film rental store Video Difference, along with its Bedford satellite site, will shut down August 20th and sell off its stock of films brought a range of emotions from its customers.

The store was acclaimed as classy and well-run with a reputation for service and selection. A victim of changing times – like the blacksmith shops of a hundred years ago – the closing of Video Difference marks the end of an age.

With any luck, a bit of long-overdue collateral damage should be the Maritime Film Classification Board. The agency of the provincial government that issues ratings for theatrically played films and video store selections, the MFCB has lost about half of its rather thin reason to exist with the closure of last major video rental store in Halifax.

The system is a dinosaur – a relic from a bygone era. If we really need ratings (a debatable point in the era of free-flowing online information), they can come from either Ontario, or the MPAA in the United States. Nobody needs Nova Scotian film ratings anymore. The old saw of “Community Standards” has been eclipsed by the flood of material on the Internet. Besides, “Community Standards” always brought up the question of “whose community, whose standards?”

So with only three hundred or so films to be classified from now on, it’s time for the Maritime Film Classification Board to be put to bed.


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David Manners – Nova Scotia’s First Movie Star

David Manners is arguably the most significant actor to ever hail from Nova Scotia. The suave Halifax-born thespian, who made 38 movies in Hollywood between 1930 and 1936, was the star of not one, not two, but three enduring horror classics made by Universal Studios: Dracula, The Black Cat and The Mummy.

Born Rauff de Ryther Duan Acklom, Manners took advantage of his smooth good looks, athletic bearing and sophisticated-sounding mid-Atlantic accent to work his way onto the Hollywood A-list. Taking his mother’s maiden name for a more manageable moniker, the young actor was in high demand for leading man roles against some of the most eligible females stars of the time.

It’s those Universal horror films that keep Manners’ name and face in circulation today, however. In the credits to Todd Browning’s Dracula from 1931, Manners gets equal billing with Bela Lugosi, who he also co-starred with in The Death Kiss. In Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat, from 1934, Manners would face not only Lugosi but the immortal Frankenstein actor himself, Boris Karloff, who had also co-starred with the in-demand Haligonian in Karl Freund’s The Mummy in 1932.

Manners was receiving, at one point in his career, 100,000 fan letters a week. Up to his passing he was still receiving fan mail from star-struck punters who explained just how much seeing Dracula, The Mummy and The Black Cat had changed their lives.

Never comfortable with Hollywood, which he found to be a “false place,” the iconoclastic Manners retired from the screen in 1936 at the height of his fame. He moved to the desert, painted and wrote novels, one of which is set in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia, and performed on stage until his retirement from acting altogether in the 1950s. He passed away in December 1998 at the age of 97, one of the last links to the earliest years of Hollywood.

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Draegerman Courage – A Nova Scotia Tale

Every once and a while Nova Scotia finds itself in the center of world attention because of a tragic event. Whether it’s the sinking of the Titanic, the Halifax Explosion, the Springhill mine disasters (1891, 1956, and 1958), or the Swiss Air Crash, this province on the edge of North America suddenly gets thrust upon the world stage for all the wrong reasons.

Such was the case on April 12, 1936, when the Moose River gold mine grabbed headlines all over the world. While three men were inspecting a mine, it caved in and the world stood transfixed as J. Frank Willis, the Regional Director in the Maritimes for the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission (the precursor of the CBC) dropped a specially made microphone down a drilled hole to the trapped men.

650 radio stations across North American tuned in, with an estimated 100 million listeners; even more listened through the BBC, which transmitted the live updates to the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe. It was the first live radio remote broadcast in Canada, and it was a story that resonated around the world, holding people’s attention in the midst of the darkest days of the Great Depression.

A year later, Hollywood told the tale in Draegerman Courage.

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10 “Must See” Nova Scotia Films of the Past Decade

I have been involved in the film and television industry in Nova Scotia for almost twenty years now, first as the Program Administrator at the Nova Scotia Film Development Corporation, and since 1999 as a filmmaker myself. During that time, I have seen pretty much every film made in this province. Some have been terrible (including one of my own), and most have been fair to middling – but some have stood out to me as compelling examples of the kind of original filmmaking, to the point of true artistry, of which Nova Scotians are capable when they have the resources and the infrastructure to support and encourage their inspiration, and their aspirations.

Here are the ten films made in Nova Scotia by Nova Scotians (in whole or in significant part) from the past decade that in different ways really made an impression on me. As with all such exercises the choices arrayed below in alphabetical order are highly subjective. There will accordingly be folks who think that any “list” like this should include their favourite, and that’s eminently fair – indeed, I encourage them to offer their thoughts in the comments section. In the meantime, I’m happy to recommend these films without hesitation as some of the best cinematic storytelling that not only Nova Scotia but Canada has to offer.

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William D. MacGillivray – An Iconoclastic Visionary

As he approaches his seventieth birthday this May, William D. MacGillivray is still a busy and visionary writer, producer and director. A recipient of multiple awards and retrospectives, MacGillivray has little to prove to anyone. Being the subject of doctorates and representing Canada abroad at prestigious film festivals like Berlin, he is a motion picture artist who could easily just rest on his laurels.

Instead, however, he’s continually upending expectations, as in the extraordinary The Panther Next Door and the moving Hard Drive, all the while still intent on locating the soul of the East Coast. And while that might always be something of a moving target, so is Bill himself – always shifting, always changing, always re-adjusting his vision.

It’s a vision that has brought the Atlantic Cinema into a very sharp focus indeed.

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Nova Scotia’s “Titanic” Filmmaking Legacy

Last month’s column on Nova Scotia’s Oscar connections generated some interesting discussion, particularly in the case of James Cameron’s 1997 epic Titanic. Most people don’t know that one-third of that motion picture was filmed in Halifax, and that the original ten-day shoot turned into a three month marathon.

If you don’t think the saga of RMS Titanic is at least in part a Nova Scotia story, the reaction to the event’s 100th anniversary, held around April 12th, 2012, certainly should have convinced you otherwise. The Atlantic Film Festival, for example, held four standing-room only screenings of non-Cameron Titanic-related films: the 1953 Hollywood-made Titanic, which won the Academy Award for Writing Original Screenplay; the 1943 German-made Titanic, commissioned by Nazi Propaganda Minister Joeseph Goebbels, who later banned it; The Unsinkable Molly Brown, a fictionalized account of Margaret Brown, who survived the sinking of the Titanic; and the 1958 British-made classic A Night To Remember, which most critics regard as the most historically accurate cinematic portrayal of the disaster. There was also a lively seminar on “Titanic in the Media” which I had the pleasure to chair.

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Robert Frank – The Man Who Brought Avante-Garde Filmmaking to Nova Scotia

Robert Frank is arguably the most important photographer of the post-WWII period. First published in France in 1958, then in the United States in 1959, his work The Americans changed the course of twentieth-century photography. Less well known is the key role he played in the development of the Nova Scotia film community.

Born in Switzerland in 1924, Frank was a legend of the post-war avante-garde by the time he came to Nova Scotia in 1969 as part of a wave of world-class artists who have lived in the province, off and on, more or less ever since (some of those artists include sculptor Richard Serra, screenwriter and novelist Rudy Wurlitzer, actor and playwright Sam Shepard, and composer Philip Glass).

While Frank’s extraordinary cinematic work can hardly be called mainstream by any stretch of the imagination, many of his techniques and attitudes still resonate within the more adventurous elements of the international motion picture community, including Nova Scotia, where he left an indelible mark.

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The NFB’s Legacy in the Nova Scotia Film Industry

The legacy of the NFB lives on, infused by the memory of a time when it was pretty well the only game in town. Its online presence is perhaps the greatest reminder of this famed public service production house of documentaries, animation and experimental cinema. Its role in the community, of course, is much harder to quantify on a balance sheet, but only fools would look to bean counters for a true valuation to society of the arts.

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Nova Scotia and the Academy Awards

Nova Scotia has a rich Oscar history. Three Bluenosers have actually been awarded the golden statuette – producer Michael Donovan for the documentary “Bowling For Columbine,” choreographer Onna White win for 1968’s “Oliver,” and actor Harold Russell in a rare double win for 1946’s “The Best Years Of Our Lives.” Others have been nominated – Ellen Page is the most recent example, for “Juno.” Just as interesting, however, are the many lesser known Nova Scotian Oscar connections sprinkled about cinema history, from French New Wave director Francois Truffaut’s “The Story of Adele H” to the various films based on the life of Anna Leonowens.

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Pioneering Canadian Filmmaker Don Owen Dies at 84

One of English Canada’s pioneering filmmakers, Don Owen, died at age 84 on February 21st.

While Owen made his films mostly in Toronto and Montreal in the 1960s, ‘70s and 80s, he lived in Halifax for almost a decade after he finished his final feature, Turnabout, in 1988, which screened at that year’s Atlantic Film Festival. He made his mark mostly at the National Film Board of Canada, particularly with the breakout feature Nobody Waved Goodbye, a 1964 long-form film that gained international acclaim and distribution in the US, at rarity at the time. Judith Crist of the New York Herald Tribune called it “a remarkable film,” and the New York Post hailed the film as “a masterpiece.”

Don Owen was a colourful character, generous with his opinions and time. His cinematic legacy, celebrated during his lifetime, will undoubtedly endure.

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The World In His Arms

Nova Scotia once ruled the waves in the world of sailing ships. So much so, in fact, that Hollywood came calling in the early 1950s for our help in the making of The World in His Arms, a swashbuckling classic starring Gregory Peck and Anthony Quinn, directed by the great action helmer Raoul Walsh and adapted from a Rex Beach novel.

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