Big heads, big talent, big ideas
That’s what strikes you about NOW Magazine’s focus on Canadian movies over the past 35 years.
How to describe the lens we’ve applied to our coverage? Independent. Activist-oriented. Always on the lookout for new talents.
So Canadian Film, NOW & Then: A 35-year Retrospective In 29 Covers is not a Canada’s Greatest Hits package. Our news and entertainment weekly first hit Toronto streets in 1981 just as Telefilm’s revitalized film policies were peaking. But we weren’t drawn to the tax-sheltered, government-promoted co-productions designed to create a commercially successful product that typically – and intentionally – did not scream “Canadian.”
We liked the smaller movies. The first NOW cover in this exhibit features Ron Mann, whose documentary Poetry In Motion surveyed artists committed to the least profitable literary art form. Especially early in our history, we preferred edgy themes to feel-good fodder and were passionately committed to putting the spotlight on local artists.
New discoveries became our specialty. We often featured film debuts – Deepa Mehta’s Sam & Me, Patricia Rozema’s I’ve Heard The Mermaids Singing, for example – or alit on the films in which young directors had found their artistic footing, like Atom Egoyan’s Speaking Parts, to name just one. Our film writers, the late John Harkness, Alice Klein, Cameron Bailey, Ingrid Randoja – and later Norman Wilner, Glenn Sumi, Radheyan Simonpillai and Susan G. Cole – were prescient. In almost every case, the cover subject went on to win multiple awards – including Oscar nominations in the cases of Mehta, Egoyan and actor-turned-writer/filmmaker Sarah Polley.
We, however, could not have predicted how many of them would switch creative gears so successfully: filmmaker Mann is now also an influential distributor with Films We Like, Jay Baruchel has gone behind the camera with his charming hockey series Goon, and Polley, too, now sits in the director’s chair, having explored fictional families in Away From Her and Take This Waltz and her own history in the acclaimed documentary Stories We Tell.
We didn’t shy away from proudly experimental artists like Mike Hoolboom, Richard Fung and John Greyson, and fully a third of our subjects are queer. And we honoured activist documentary makers like duo Janis Cole and Holly Dale and Alanis Obamsawin. The added attraction of covering Lynne Fernie and Aerlyn Weissman’s Genie Award-winning Forbidden Love was the chance to give credit to the National Film Board’s budding Studio D, committed to female filmmakers.
All these film artists are brave, passionate and completely committed. Writer John Harkness, whose obituary is included in the show, made the point in his story about Yves Simoneau that it has always been extremely difficult to make movies in Canada and, with the United States breathing down our borders, to find audiences.
We chose actors for our covers who we knew were on their way to stardom. When Cameron Bailey spoke to Ellen Page in 2005, he called her the next big thing. He was right. Tatiana Maslany may be a megastar (and an Emmy-winner) these days, but she was still the country’s best-kept secret when she appeared on our cover.
Yes, John Candy was already a Canadian icon when Ron Howard gave him his breakout role in Splash and showed the rest of the world what he could do. And now there’s a groundswell of support for the idea of dubbing the Canadian Screen Awards the Candys.
From the beginning, NOW was a scrappy, independent publication, but it’s always been beautiful to look at. The spectacularly shot portrait – affectionately known as the Big Head – became our visual signature and defined the newspaper’s look. In the early days, that was all there was on page one: a head and a few words. As you can see in this chronologically organized show, we added more type on our covers as time went on. But being that subject always meant something.
We foreshadowed our film cover subjects’ ascension, but we didn’t appreciate the breadth of their influence until we asked younger actors and directors to comment on those who’d made a difference to them. As you can see from the text accompanying these images, they leapt in enthusiastically, telling us why these artists matter, giving added meaning to these powerful images. And where we could, we let the photographers weigh in on how they got the shot.
These days NOW remains a ferociously independent magazine, both in print and especially online, where we our creating new possibilities in an ever-changing digital world. One thing about our future is certain: we will continue to highlight local creators, shake up the mainstream and be a bold and powerful presence in Toronto. Now take a walk through Canadian film’s – and NOW’s – history.
Susan G. Cole, NOW senior entertainment editor
National Canadian Film Day 150: Why this? Why NOW Magazine?
The notion of a national day of celebration of our cinema is, to say the least, not a conventional idea. To the best of our knowledge, no other country has ever attempted such a thing. But perhaps no other country ever needed to.
The fact is that over the past several decades, Canadian filmmakers have produced a fantastic body of work that remains virtually unknown to many Canadians. For those of us that love cinema and believe in its power to express the essence of a nation, this is an unfortunate loss. The sesquicentennial has offered a perfect opportunity to try to start a dialogue and to expose as many people as possible to what their country has produced cinematically.
So at REEL CANADA we decided to throw a nationwide party on April 19 to put this treasure trove of films in the spotlight — one day for all Canadians to discover our own stories on film. We wanted them to discover the high quality of the work and we also wanted to celebrate its incredible range. Our working premise was that whatever kind of movie you like — from rural to urban, from art house to mainstream, horror, comedy, romance, drama, documentary, animation, even Bollywood — there is a great Canadian one to enjoy. The diversity extends beyond genre to include cultural heritage. Canadian filmmakers come from such varied backgrounds (French, English, Indigenous, multicultural) that the stories they tell cannot help but reflect the very nature of the Canadian experience.
Awareness of the movies was our first goal, availability was the second. The commercial distribution system being what it is, so many great Canadian films are simply too difficult to find or have virtually disappeared. So our day of celebration had to include online and broadcast platforms for truly universal access. We have been fortunate that many of the broadcasters have agreed with us and are making a multitude of Canadian movies available on numerous platforms. Everyone with a computer or a television will have access, at least for that one day.
But the heart of our national day will be live events, where Canadians will gather to sit in the dark and see themselves on the big screen. And that seems to be something for which there is an extraordinary appetite. At this writing, there are an astonishing 1,700 screenings taking place in every corner of the country, from Vancouver and St. John’s to Whitehorse and Windsor. In the GTA alone there are 153 events scheduled, but there is also one taking place in Climax, Saskatchewan. (pop. 182).
There are screenings in military bases and embassies around the world. TIFF is a significant partner, hosting 150 screenings of their Canada On Screen features around the country. There are screenings in legion halls, libraries, high schools, personal care homes — everywhere people gather together. And they are watching French films, English films, Indigenous films and even a few in other languages. Diversity ‘R’ us!
REEL CANADA has been working in this sandbox for the past 12 years, bringing Canadian movies to high school students and new Canadians via our dynamic film-festival format. And from what we see, there is a growing eagerness to see ourselves and our values reflected back to us, to see what our country and the people around us look and sound like, to appreciate our genuine uniqueness.
And there is now a body of cinematic work that now stands proudly with any in the world, and that effortlessly reflects the values of tolerance and diversity and inclusivity that so many Canadians strive for.
Simply speaking, it’s time.
Once we make that leap — and it is a significant leap for any former colony — then exhibits like Canadian Film NOW & Then find their meaning and context. This is the story of how we tell our stories. This is a parade of images and moments that helped these films in their day penetrate the public consciousness. In this new context, it becomes so important to revisit those moments and give them a more substantial place in our collective memory.
At the same time, this allows us to discover how significant a herald a publication like NOW Magazine has been, and what an important role it has played in telling the story of our stories and keeping the cultural discourse alive.
We at REEL CANADA are delighted to help bring this exhibit into being as one of the delicious offerings at the buffet that is National Canadian Film Day 150. It provides a wonderful alternative window onto the rich cinematic legacy we are celebrating.
Sharon Corder and Jack Blum
In memoriam: John Harkness, 1954-2007
We at NOW are hurting at the sudden loss of our founding film writer, John Harkness, who, we believe, was the greatest Canadian film writer of the last 26 years.
John was the kind of live-large guy you would hope worked at an alternative newspaper, and yes, a great screenwriter making a movie about NOW would have to have invented him. Fortunately for us, Harkness invented himself and walked through our front door.
He spoke as he wrote, with humour and intelligence, often trying out lines on unsuspecting fellow staffers who could be spellbound – or headlocked – listening to him, his wiseass conversational cracks refined and repeated in copy in the next day’s paper.
His intellect was as fresh-pressed and natty as the fine Italian suits he began wearing later in life, after he became fabulously wealthy through a dot-com windfall.
But he was always what late Globe and Mail film critic Jay Scott called a “heavy metal film writer.” He almost defied you to dismiss him, but his wit and knowledge, not just of film but of almost everything, made him impossible to ignore.
He had an astounding knowledge of pop culture, could explain the intricacies of poker or a curve ball pitch, yet also had a deep understanding of classic literature, the visual arts and the joys of watching things “blow up real good” on the screen. He never reviewed a film based on a book without reading the original work, even if it was published only in French.
John’s work appeared in every edition of NOW and he never missed a deadline. That’s why when John missed one for the first time ever on Tuesday, we dispatched colleagues to his apartment, in the same building he had lived in when he started at NOW, to discover our dear friend had died.
I first met John mere weeks before launching NOW, at my first press conference, a Festival Of Festivals presser – TIFF to us now – in August 1981, and I spied Harkness across the aisle. I didn’t like him right away. He seemed too intense, too serious about this entertainment.
Eventually his clippings caught up with me, as were about to launch NOW and I was blown away.
The first clip was from Cinema Canada, a trade mag he wrote for. In 200 words he dissected a crappy Canadian horror movie, offering a lesson in tax credit filmmaking.
A spellbinding noir narrative was also in the package, one of many standout assignments he’d done for his mentor Andrew Sarris, the Village Voice film writer and John’s prof at NYC’s Columbia, where he incubated before joining NOW. Of course, we hired him.
Garth Drabinsky once ordered us to fire Harkness in 1984. John had been quoted in GQ magazine declaring Cineplex had “ersatz films on the screen, real butter on the popcorn.”
An enraged Drabinsky kicked NOW out of his theatres and cancelled our biggest advertising account, but we were always proud to stand with him no matter how deep the rage he’d engendered.
He knew in his bones why John Ford was certain there was no better image than a man thundering across a screen on a galloping horse, and he could still get goose bumps watching a chopper fly low and fast over a rice paddy, all the while enjoying the classical music exploding on the soundtrack.
In the days before he died, John had picked up the keys to the new luxury condo he was about to move into, appropriately close to Yonge and Eg’s movie theatres. We can at least take comfort in knowing he was in the midst of an amazing period of revival and discovery before he left us.
He was in the remarkable position of no longer having to work due to his dot-com dividends. And yet, free from any financial imperative, John couldn’t walk away from film writing. He was as productive as ever, positively gushing with insight online and in print.
He was never attracted to movies for the stars, only for the starlight.
John was a big enough personality to have actually contemplated what he’d call his autobiography. “My Life In The Dark,” he’d say. “I’ve spent my life sitting by myself in a dark room.”
No, John, you were never alone. We were lucky enough to be there with you as you shone your light on the Lumiere.
Michael Hollett Abridged from the published version, December 20, 2007
Special thanks to:
NOW Magazine, now
- Alice Klein Editor/publisher
- Sharon Arnott, Production Supervisor
- Susan G. Cole, Senior Entertainment Editor
- Vaughn Gray, Engagement Manager
- Barb Hefler, Senior Marketing Executive
- Jon Kaplan, Senior Stage Writer
- Fran Schechter, Copy Editor
- Glenn Sumi, Film Editor
- Norman Wilner, Senior Film Writer
- Michelle Wong, Art Director
- Francie Wyland, Copy Editor
NOW Magazine, then
- Michael Hollett, Co-founder, Editor/publisher
- Cameron Bailey, Film Writer
- Troy Beyer, Creative Director
- Karen Chappelle, Photo Coordinator
- Irene Grainger, Photo Editor
- Ingrid Randoja, Film Writer
- Bryce Duffy bryceduffy.com
- Debra Friedman debrafriedman.com
- Ben Mark Holzberg benmark.ca
- Susan King susanking.ca
- David Laurence davidlaurence.ca
- Anne Levenston
- Rick McGinnis someoldpicturesitook.blogspot.ca
- Steve Payne stevepaynephoto.ca
- Paul Till rockandrollportfolio.com