You won’t listen to a telemarketer in quite the same way after watching Scouts Are Cancelled, a fascinating doc about poet John Stiles.
Stiles, born in rural Nova Scotia, lived for about 8 years in Toronto, where he took on a series of tough jobs to support himself, including door-to-door salesman (where he was told to sell in poor neighbourhoods, because the people would be more likely to listen to him and buy) and telemarketer.
During his telemarketing gig, he occasionally spoke to his unsuspecting customers in a series of colourful voices that harkened back to his small-town upbringing. These voices – full of vernacular phrases and singsong rhythms - influenced his poetry and his poetry readings.
Whenever Stiles reads from his work – in performance, or in a studio session filmed in cool jazzy black and white – he comes alive. His body takes on a different character. His words stand up, stretch their limbs and do a little dance.
When he’s not reading, he’s not quite present. He blinks his eyes a lot, as if he’s just woken up. His mouth settles into a frown.
Writer/director John Scott has known Stiles for nearly 20 years, and admits he spent a lot of time filming his friend. He includes some footage of a series of trips taken a decade ago, to places like Prague and India. (For some unknown and unacknowledged reason, Scott uses Margaret Laurence’s phrase from The Diviners, “Memory Bank Movie,” to preface these flashbacks.)
Scott interjects occasionally to tell us what we’re watching, but he doesn’t dig deep into his own relationship with the man. That works for and against him. We make up our own minds about Stiles, who’s a bit of an oddball drifter, but also also wonder why Scott is so fascinated by him. Is Stiles doing what Scott, who seems to have taken a more traditional life path, wishes he were doing? In short, what’s Scott’s motivation for making the movie?
The director does successfully bring some of Stiles’s poems to life, and he’s edited the film in a suggestive fashion that plays with his subject as inventively as his subject plays with language. One of the best sequences contrasts Stiles’s own colourful readings with a series of monotone readings from students in a high school where Stiles teaches. It’s brilliant.
The ending is also moving, when Stiles goes back to his home town, visits his mother, and goes in search of an old friend in an apple orchard.
This, I think, is the heart of the film. Where does artistic inspiration come from? The answer is still a big mystery, but Scouts Are Cancelled offers a partial response that’s beautiful and poignant.
Scouts Are Cancelled screens tonight (Wednesday, April 25, 9:30 pm) at the ROM and April 28, 7:45 pm, at the Al Green.