40 at 40: Doc filmmaker Ron Mann recalls the start of Toronto’s New Wave
As part of NOW's 40th anniversary series, the documentarian discusses working independently and finding new platforms during the pandemic
By Norman Wilner
Apr 26, 2021
Original photos by Paul Till
In 1982, when Ron Mann was on the cover of NOW, he said it was a myth that you had to make schlock before you could make the film you wanted to make.
It’s been nearly four decades since Ron Mann made the cover of NOW with his second documentary, Poetry In Motion – a scrappy little 16mm project celebrating contemporary poets of the age, “narrated” by Charles Bukowski, who complains about the terrible state of the form. Towards the end of Steven Hillen’s interview, Mann offers some complaints of his own, most of them directed at the banality of Canadian television and holding out little hope that the new pay-TV channels would change the landscape for the better.
And now it’s 2021, and almost everything is different.
Mann’s still making documentaries, but he’s shooting and cutting digitally instead of photochemically. The Festival Of Festivals, where Mann premiered his movie, became the year-round cultural behemoth known as TIFF. (His movies still play there, of course.) Pay TV mutated into the 500 channel universe, which evolved into streaming services and VOD platforms where documentaries aren’t treated as the programming of last resort. And he’s moved into film distribution, co-founding Films We Like in 2003, though for obvious reasons, everything’s online right now, the newest releases available through virtual partnerships with cinemas and beyond.
“We’re not even using movie theaters, necessarily,” Mann says from his winter home in Austin, TX.
“The Donut King was released through donut shops across Canada, and we’re releasing a movie about Tiny Tim through Yuk Yuk’s, because a comedy club has a list of people who would be interested in that. It’s all about targeting, just trying to think of other ways to reach audiences. We’ve just started a program partnering with Hoovie, which is a B.C.-based streaming preview club, where we pair [films with] wine from an Okanagan winery in B.C. So we’ll see how that goes. Cinemas are about community and sharing ideas; we’re just trying different things until the fall.”
So, the obvious question: did Mann ever see himself ending up in this position?
“No!” he says, laughing. “I morphed into this role, but there was no plan. I didn’t have one – I really didn’t! Every film was my last movie, I would go into debt, make another film to get myself out of debt. That’s how I actually needed to keep going.”
Those movies inevitably focused on elements of pop culture that had yet to be given their due. In 1982, Mann told Hillen he made his documentary “to broaden poetry’s audience, to get it out there.” And that’s what he’s been doing ever since, describing his films now as focusing on “the culture that wasn’t documented.”
It’s hard to imagine an era where comic book culture wasn’t at the forefront of American pop culture, but Mann’s Comic Book Confidential argued for their relevance in 1988, two full decades before Iron Man and The Dark Knight helped superhero stories become the dominant narrative in American cinema. His other documentaries have examined dance crazes (Twist), marijuana culture (Grass), the auto art of Big Daddy Roth (Tales Of The Rat Fink), mycology (Know Your Mushrooms) and, most recently, American guitar culture as embodied in a Manhattan guitar shop (Carmine Street Guitars).
“I just keep doing it independently,” he says. “Really, that’s the one thing that I have. I wasn’t working for the CBC or the NFB and I wasn’t taking jobs; I really haven’t worked for anyone. I’m concerned about younger filmmakers these days, and how sustainable it is to be a documentary filmmaker, but I’m encouraged about all sorts of [new] programs for BIPOC creators, especially with Indigenous storytelling. It’s an exciting time where the funding is available now for alternative voices, because I was basically an alternative voice in ’82. I was just part of that counterculture.”
Poetry In Motion arrived just as the Toronto New Wave was beginning to come together. “Atom [Egoyan] worked on that movie, Bruce McDonald worked on that movie,” Mann recalls. “Peter Mettler was the film loader. I mean, you go through the credits, and there’s the Toronto New Wave. I think Atom’s job was to find Jim Carroll a residence at the University of Toronto because he was still in school there, at Trinity.”
Reading a recent magazine piece on the documentary side of the Toronto New Wave, Mann noticed a couple of telling omissions. “There’s no mention of Holly Dale and Janis Cole, two of my peers who were incredibly important feminist filmmakers,” he says.
That sparked a movement – in conjunction with Telefilm Canada, TIFF, the Academy of Canadian Cinema And Television and the Cinematheque Quebecois – to restore key Canadian films from the 80s, starting with Cole and Dale’s landmark documentaries P4W: Prison For Women and Hookers On Davie and Dale’s solo debut Calling The Shots, about women in the film industry. A new digital restoration of Guy Maddin’s Tales From The Gimli Hospital is also underway.
“I have an association with the American Genre Film Archive, and they’ll be putting out Blu-ray boxed sets of all the titles,” Mann says. “We also have U.S. distribution on Amazon Prime streaming and Apple TV. We’re working on those four [films] right now, and there’ll be many more.”
And while that’s going on, Mann is still making his own movies. His current project is a celebration of Emile di Antonio, the American socialist filmmaker to whom Poetry In Motion is dedicated, and whom Mann credits with giving that film its structure by recommending the Bukowski footage. He’s spent the winter in Austin going through di Antonio’s journals, page by page, taking a break only when the power grid collapsed during the blizzard in February.
“No one’s ever read the journals,” he says. “So I had someone scan them – thousands of pages – and I’m going through it to construct a documentary. And that’s kind of incredible.”
And he’s still into poetry.
“I just went to a drive-in last week for a poetry slam,” he says. “It was incredible. The cinemas are still closed, so it was an urban drive-in, on the rooftop parking lot of a building. And the groups had recorded their performances, and made it into an evening. There were 200 cars, and they were all judging [the acts], as they would do in a poetry slam. It was a cool night.”
Below, find Steven Hillen’s cover story on Ron Mann: Canflicks whiz kid, republished from NOW’s November 11, 1982 issue.
Mann’s film fate
By Steven Hillen
If Toronto filmmaker Ron Mann has one big gripe about the production of his latest film, Poetry In Motion, it’s having had to spend most of the summer months out of those balmy breezes, cooped up in a dark editing room like an ascetic in a cave. He managed to wander out into the real world just in time for the film’s premiere at the Festivals of Festivals this September, and has since been touring and talking it up in the media.
Mann may have missed those lazy summertime rays, but the self-deprivation seems to have paid off. In recent weeks the 24 year-old Toronto filmmaker has been basking in some pretty warm praise.
Poetry In Motion follows Mann’s earlier award-winning Imagine The Sound, a film about jazz. Mann’s latest offering may be the definitive film about contemporary poetry – a poetry which is now drifting back into the public ken via clubs and bars, television, film and even books, after staying under wraps for a few years.
Mann says the film harkens back to the ancient “oral tradition” which has always kept poetry lively and accessible – remember that William Blake sang his poems – though specifically the film deals with the perpetrators of a mid-twentieth century resurgence (Beat writers Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs among these), and their New Wave offsprings.
Poetry In Motion is a fast-paced, quick-witted, sometimes comic and often rousing film, that has been flattering the swelling rank of the art form’s adherents, and surprising the uninitiated. The enthusiastic response the film has received is perhaps an indication that the spoken word is being listened to with fresh-perked ears.
The first hurrah was at the Festival of Festivals, where, despite an ancient projector that sabotaged and impeccable soundtrack and apparently reduced soundman David Joliat nearly to tears, the film was greeted with spontaneous waves of applause.
Last week, back from a successful screening in Montreal, Mann learned that the film has been booked in for a run at New York’s prestigious Film Forum. His spirits were lifted still further with news that Poetry In Motion had won an award at the Chicago Film Festival. Add to this the ballyhoo back at home base – a big bash at the Ontario College of Art November 19, with guests including rock poet Jim Carroll; and a week long run at the Carlton Cinemas, introduced each night by a different literary luminary, beginning on the 19th as well – and the result is a rather jubilant Ron Mann.
Mann began the film without any money, but he didn’t want to put things off (lest some of the senior laureates died in the meantime), so he got a bank loan first and secured Arts Council support and private investment later. The filmmaker is philosophical about finances. “My father,” he recalls, “once told me that ‘You can lose money and that’s okay, but if you’ve lost your courage you’ve lost everything.'” Editing was another problem; with 45 hours of film to be compressed into a 90-minute documentary.
“We had so much to say,” explains Mann. “And so much we wanted to do and we were excited about everything. So many we had 200 possible structures for the film. At one point we thought of throwing the I Ching to determine where everybody would be, which, incidentally, we might do for a sequel.”
Eventually, at the suggestion of legendary filmmaker Emile di Antonio (to whom the film is dedicated), it was decided to intersperse clips of Charles Bukowski as the “anti-narrator,” lecturing with sardonic brilliance on why poetry today is noxious garbage.
Initially, Mann encountered the suggestion that making a movie about poetry was a stupid thing to do. After all, according to today’s post-literate consumer culture, poetry is boring as hell; the effluent of some self-obsessed somnambulists, thick of eye glass and musty of mind. Mann soon discovered that many of today’s major poets are far from being introverted academicians, that to be a myth, “poetry has a public surface. This poetry comes out of the universities and the libraries. This poetry wants to be with people.”
Many of the artists in Poetry In Motion draw upon allied media to project the message. Allen Ginsberg shakes his considerable fanny in front of a rock band (The Cee Dees). Ed Sanders plays his musical tie, Helen Adams prances like a Victorian grandmother on cocaine. Here is a group of writers-cum-performers with a strong sense of theatre and an energy that travels.
Mann’s first major revelation was witnessing a particularly energetic reading by John Giorno. (He went upstairs after the performance and persuaded Giorno to be the film’s associate producer.) There were other key encounters to keep him on course.
“I showed a top executive at the CBC a 15-minute rough cut,” Mann reflects. “He looked at me, and looked at the screen, and looked back at me, and said, ‘All those people belong in a nuthouse.’ From that moment on I knew I was doing the right thing.”
They may be nutcases to distant on-lookers, but to Mann his poet-subjects were nice people in the Peoria sense. He says the film was truly a collaborative effort, unobstructed by ego or eccentricity. “Everybody wanted the film to be made,” says Mann. “Everybody was receptive. Everybody wanted to give their best performance, and everybody went out of their way to help. Dianne diPrima got this theatre for us. [Charles] Bukowski made dinner for me and we got drunk all night. One of the greatest things about making this film was that it was so much fun to do.”
For all of their plain-folks hospitality, the characters in Poetry In Motion remain outlaws to the larger society. Mann calls his movie “a political film,” not so much because of the expression of any particular ideology, but more because the directness of the poets’ art is an affront to our sedative culture – the voice of dissent in a P.R. world. It’s true what they say in suburbia: after prolonged exposure to this kind of stuff, that straight-arrow kid with his eye on the accounting room at Imperial Oil will be irreversibly warped. Poetry, therefore, does not often find its way out of the dry-toast treatment of high-school curricula, and onto, say, television.
Ouch, that word: television; at present it can raise blisters on Mann’s brain. Despite generally good distribution world-wide, Mann is sorely disappointed at the response of Canadian TV, and can’t see why they would opt for Love Boat over the most famous or creative writers in the world.
Mann says he was told by an exec at the C-Channel (the C means Culture, and it’s slated to go on the pay-TV dial) that his film “is too intelligent to program.” He’s mad about that. “There’s so much garbage going out on TV,” says Mann. “You’re so brainwashed by the bourgeois culture, by the corporate idea of what entertainment is all about, that you really thirst for some type of creative expression that has to do with human experience and with this world.”
He calls pay-TV people “cowardly and crass” for not reversing the trend, and predicts that “What’s going to happen is that they’re going to have the same shit that’s coming off commercial TV. It functions pretty much as censorship. If you have the same station all over the dial, what choice do you have?”
For years poets have been operating without a lot of choice, and it’s spawned some interesting solutions.
“What [John] Giorno tries to do, and what I try to do in the film,” says Mann, “is to broaden poetry’s audience, to get it out there. Giorno has some crazy, wonderful ideas – like the Dial-a-Poem thing, and putting poems son everyday things like matchbooks and objects that you would come in contact with in daily life.”
An accomplished filmmaker at 24, Ron Mann is about to embark on his first feature film. It will be called Border Lives, will be shot on the border of Quebec and Vermont, and deal with the traffic of booze from Quebec to Vermont in prohibition times, and the marijuana traffic in the opposite direction in the 70s.
It’s a big step in only a few short years of serious filmmaking. One of the most exceptional things about Mann’s career is that it has been notably free of compromises.
“I always thought you had to make schlock before you could make the film you wanted to make,” says Mann. “But I know now that’s a complete myth. You have to have integrity right from the start.”
A life-long Torontonian, Norman became the senior film writer for NOW in early 2008. Previously he had reviewed films for Metro newspapers across Canada and covered every video format imaginable (yes, even Beta) for a Toronto Star column from 1988 to 2006. He served as secretary and vice-president of the Toronto Film Critics Association from 2008 to 2016 and has been a member of the features jury for Canada’s Top Ten. A member of the international film critics’ organization FIPRESCI, he’s sat on festival juries in Toronto, Montreal, London, Vienna and Palm Springs.
A life-long Torontonian, Norman became the senior film writer for NOW in early 2008. Previously he had reviewed films for Metro newspapers across Canada and covered every video format imaginable (yes, even Beta).