TIFF 2012 Review: THE BITTER ASH is Pulled Out of Canadian Vault

[In light of its recent screening in the Cinematheque sidebar at TIFF, we pull out this review from our own archives as a part of a series on the cinema of underground/indie filmmaker Larry Kent:  the godfather of Indie Canadian cinema whose filmography spans well over 40 years yet still is only really as a kind of 'secret handshake' by Canadian film-lovers.]

Like early an Richard Linklater movie, Slacker or Before Sunrise, yet more fearful, uncertain and angry, as if the vibrant youths of those film walked into the world of Who's Afraid of Virginia WoolfThe Bitter Ash is not lacking for things to chew on.  The film, not surprisingly, is more than a bit rough around the edges in the tech department.  To call the budget shoestring would be rather generous, maybe just that tiny plastic-wrapped end of the shoe-string would be more accurate.  Filmed with a single camera with no accompanying audio (later clumsily added in post production) as a University of British Colombia film school project - before UBC had a film school - it took on some degree of infamy after it was banned locally, and in other parts of Canada before being relegated to a few university screenings where it was in high demand for the prospect of on screen sex, drugs and booze.  Yet this was considered one of the first independent Canadian films to get a 'release.'  I'm guessing that the film is one that would resonate with the youth of the day, frankly and boldly examining the anxieties of the post 1950s, pre-countercultural era, albeit from North of the Canadian border rather than Berkeley or New York.  There is enough juice (and sauce) in here to keep it relevant enough to the trials and tribulations of today, while also functioning as a curious historical moment in Canadian cinema.

Des wakes one morning to find that his girlfriend, Julie, not only wants to quit her better paying job at the Bank of Montreal, but that she is pregnant and wants to get married before the baby arrives.   Julie then leaves him in bed, taking off for the weekend to her mothers, in bed to stew in his own pickle.  Des spends the weekend wandering, until he ends up at a 'rent party.' (Yes, a party to raise money to pay the rent, they were forward thinking in the early 1960s!)  Des knows half of the couple throwing the party, having recently had a deep discussion about life with Laurie in a drive about town.  She toils as a waitress while her husband, Colin, has been struggling futilely for years to get a successful play off the ground; a play that has an ending of frustrated violence.  Before you can ponder if the play is actually the movie (for the The Bitter Ash feels as much a stage play as a film at times) things start flashing back to fill in some of the details of desires and dreams of these characters.  This sheds some light on the details, if not the broader implications (left to the viewer) on how all these bright young things have somehow been smashed to a pulp before anyone has turned 25.

Alan Scarfe, an actor familiar in Canada-produced Television, as well as on stage at the  Stratford Festival, plays Des with a bit of a DiCaprio vibe, circa Catch Me If You Can (although Revolutionary Road is perhaps more on the nose!)  Des is hard to pin down, a bit angry, a bit square, but free as hell, if only in the moment.  His crisis and confusion - to keep at his mundane job of typesetting at a local publishing house of some sort, listening to stories in the cafeteria at lunch of his small minded co-workers and ostensibly pay for raising a domestic life he is ill prepared - is literally crosscut with the quite tangible stress of Julie and Colin who already have an infant at home, and she is expected to work and care for the child to indulge her husbands bohemian and creative lifestyle.  Kent seems to get at the cross-roads of culture between the post-war Squares and the nascent Hippie movement.  He comes down hard on both sides of the equation, particularly in a scene with Julie's parents who live well, but forbid her marriage to Colin.  The scene plays simultaneously intense and farcical.  This may be things in the rear window, but nevertheless, it resonates.  On the other side of the coin, Colin, being the angsty-creative beatnik, is a monster, even considering this is a fair number of years before any sort of a feminist movement would push towards the man lifting a finger to change a diaper.  

Messy, ugly and rife with frustration, the youth portrayed here are traveling with no particular direction in mind and there sure as hell ain't no Beach Boys playing in the background.  In the end, rough as it is, the writing is solid, and the jazzy score which lays over the film like a thick fog, presumably to cover for the dodgy ADR, gives the film a momentum that boils up to steamy and sordid climax which mirrors a lingering image early in the film:  Two lumbering rail cars in a Vancouver train-yard possibly docking to one another, perhaps crashing into each other.

The Bitter Ash screens at TIFF Bell Lightbox on Saturday September 8th at 3:45pm (for FREE!)
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