The following review is PART ONE of my coverage on the landmark screening of Terrance Odette's HEATER playing at Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox in the important Open Vault series July 16 at 6:30pm. For tickets, visit the TIFF website HERE. PART TWO of my HEATER coverage is an interview with writer-director Terrance Odette which you can find HERE
dir. Terrance Odette
By Greg Klymkiw
Under the harsh glare of fluorescent lights, a large Aboriginal Man (Gary Farmer) with the name Ben emblazoned on his jacket sits patiently in a typically sterile welfare office. It could be anywhere, really, but this cold, hostile and slightly grimy government office is, for the purposes of the story in Heater, buried deep inside the stinking shit-cave of the world’s many assholes, Winnipeg.
The Aboriginal Man patiently waits – seemingly forever – while a thoroughly detestable welfare worker (Mauralea Austin) takes her sweet time shuffling papers like all good, little bureaucrats do. Though our friendly gentle giant is imbued with Job-like qualities, the slight shuffles and glances betray a desperation. When the Civic Sloth finally drags her living carcass behind the counter, a fortress wall to separate her and her ilk from those in society who need their help and understanding, she does what most petty bureaucrats do with relish - she serves up a toil and trouble brew of disdain.
And she's most eager to dish out her bilious verbal phlegm because, frankly, she can.
Ben, if that's even his name - he's homeless so chances are good he's wearing a piece of donated clothing from the Sally Anne - needs two simple things from this pasty-faced drudge.
You see, he's finally found a home - a real home.
It's not much, a squalid rooming house in Winnipeg's core area, but it's going to beat flea-ridden flophouses or worse, the streets. In a city where exposed flesh can freeze in 30 seconds or less, even the violence, filth and disease in flophouses is preferable to losing limbs to severe frostbite, or worse, curling up in the bitter cold to die.
A home would be nice.
The other thing he needs from this hag is his welfare allowance cheque.
She looks at him with disgust. His face has an oozing sore on it. Feeling more self conscious, than concerned about the blood filled pustule, he lowers his eyes and remains silent through her badgering barrage of questions that have nothing to do with what he really needs.
When the topic turns to said needs, he suffers even further indignities. She can't possibly release a cheque for his home unless the landlord signs some idiotic form. Though Ben claims she made no mention of this the day before, she insists she did.
It's her word against his.
In a world of petty bureaucrats who are we supposed to believe? Sadly, most will side with the losers who collect a steady cheque for following impersonal rules to a "T" and making the lives of those whose lives couldn't possibly be worse - worse.
Ben practically goes on his knees to get this money. After all, he is on the verge of securing a HOME. He's promised the landlord money from the welfare department (based on the vile harpy's say-so) and if he doesn't deliver the goods, he loses the room.
The welfare official could care less. You can see the hate and utter revulsion she has for her clients etched into her granite face with a chisel and hammer by some unfeeling God a la Bergman's Winter Light (or, for that matter, the God who gave poor Job the unpleasant, unwanted butt-blasting). Ben is clearly affected by this woman's evil and his replies alternate between shame and defiance.
This scene, far from over, is so harrowing, so utterly horrendous and realistic in its depiction of what the disenfranchised suffer at the hands of those who one assumes are paid to help, but instead, fall back on their niggling pieties to pull pathetic power trips and ensure that the meagre amounts of money they dole out aren't squandered on booze or drugs.
It's clear Ben isn't going to do that.
He just wants a home.
And in the few opening minutes of Terrance Odette's Heater, Ben is like Charles Laughton's Quasimodo at the end of William Dieterle's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, looking at the gargoyles atop the great cathedral. Quasimodo, however was bathed in the rays of sunset. Ben is awash in fluorescent light whilst staring at the welfare clerk, a more insidious contemporary rendering of a gargoyle.
As we weep through much of this heart-wrenching scene, Ben's sad, soulful eyes, seem to silently evoke the words of Quasimodo:
"Why was I not made of stone like thee?"
13 years after Heater was first made, it is a film that has not dated and in fact, is probably just as vital now, if not more so than upon its premiere showing. Given that the gap between rich and poor is ever-wider and that the misled (and dwindling) middle class (and brain-bereft rural hayseeds) side, sheep-like, with an oligarchy (there's no real democratic government) that wants everyone to be at their mercy (or dead), the importance of Odette's film can't be overstated.
The film works perfectly as advocacy, propaganda (in the Michael Moore sense), great drama and most importantly as a staggeringly original use of cinema.
That Heater is a film which was entirely bungled and mishandled upon its completion is yet another testament to the sad state of English-Canadian production, distribution and exhibition. Idiotically rejected by the Toronto International Film Festival for God knows what inexcusable reason, unable to secure proper domestic distribution, sold far too quickly to some fly-by-night distribution entity in the United States (a completely boneheaded move considering the film eventually got a prestige berth at the Sundance Film Festival) and afforded only a briefly successful DVD release - Heater is a movie that DEMANDS to be seen by as many people as possible.
It's a great picture and will eventually achieve masterpiece status, but until then, anyone who truly cares about cinema will demand it be played on any format, though given the film's unique power and how stunning it actually looks on 35mm film, it's a shoe-in for specialty screenings in the few independent cinemas that still could do very well with the film if both the exhibitors and producers were willing to put in the necessary grassroots elbow grease into promoting it.
Thankfully, the TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) Bell Lightbox is making up for the sins of past programmers and highlighting Heater at a special Open Vault screening in Toronto. I suspect this could be a perfect start to a new life for this great film.
Part of the film's power is rooted in the utter simplicity of its narrative. When Ben dejectedly leaves the Welfare Office, he's accosted by a Man (Stephen Ouimette) a squirrelly, limping, intense, homeless lower-drawer Ratso Rizzo.
Clutching a brand new baseboard heater still intact in its box - and obviously stolen goods - The Man is desperate to sell it.
He'll take 20 bucks.
Ben and the Man connect on several odd levels and begin an odyssey on the mean winter streets of Winnipeg to sell the heater or perhaps, even return it to the store for a refund.
Terrance Odette wrote and directed this astounding and deeply affecting film. It's a script that is imbued with a delicate simplicity that yields enough layers worthy of any great piece of literature.
Odette's mise-en-scène is rooted in genuine neo-realist traditions: mixing professional actors with real people, on real locations and allowing the camera enough time and space to capture the drama of life. There are no false touches (at least none I have ever detected). Odette lets the camera roll and the actors and locations (especially those hauntingly desolate Winnipeg streets) do their thing.
There are obvious parallels to be drawn between Heater and Don Shebib's seminal Goin' Down the Road (two male friends on a journey, looking for the simple pleasures in life and finding poverty and desperation at every turn), but for me, Odette's film comes closest to the stripped bare realism (albeit manipulated) of Lionel Rogosin's landmark classic about post-war-end-of-the-road alcoholics who live, from one drink to the next On The Bowery of New York's meanest streets of the 50s and 60s.
The "actors" in Rogosin's film are NOT actors, but they ARE directed and they do work from a narrative. Odette's actors are actors, but given the similar documentary approach and the genius of both Farmer and Ouimette as The (Homeless) Odd Couple, this is certainly a movie that feels like the real thing and most importantly, for those unfamiliar with the cast, it could well seem as realistic as Rogosin's masterpiece (which, by the way, is an absolute must-have DVD/Blu-Ray available from the visionary American cinema archivists and distributors, Milestone Films).
Made on a shoestring budget, the movie doesn't feel like it. Sure, the picture is raw, but cinematographer Arthur Cooper deftly shoots and lights the film like a true master. It's probably safe to say that in the intervening years between Heater and the present, Cooper is one of the country's great cinematographers. The funny thing is, based solely upon his work in Heater, Cooper already was a Master when he shot the film 13 years ago.
Another superb creative element is the ace editing of Canada's hands-down-undisputed-greatest-living-editor David (Sarah Polley's Away From Her, Guy Maddin's The Saddest Music in the World) Wharnsby. With his work in Heater, Wharnsby establishes a perfect rhythm. He strictly adheres to the stunning directorial virtuosity of the first scene - placing the audience into an almost hypnotic state throughout the almost somnambulistic (though always compelling) pacing. But every so often, Wharnsby brilliantly breaks the rules and delivers cuts that are utterly breathtaking - giving us a visceral response to dramatic beats and moving us ever-forward. And, of course, he even throws in a few French New Wave cuts a la Godard to jolt us onwards when we NEED to be jolted.
In addition to the leads, Odette has cast the movie to perfection. Some of the supporting performances, though brief, are true gems. Tina Keeper shines - as she always does - in the role of a nurse at the homeless drop-in centre and in a double-barrel whammy of sleaze, Blake Taylor and Joyce Krenz are so utterly creepy they look like every slum landlord I had the misfortune to meet in a life I briefly led in Winnipeg. (Does anyone remember the notorious Local Employment Assistant Program - LEAP - of the 80s? Mega-dollars-from-public-coffers for middle class caucasians to provide on-the-job training to the "disenfranchised" but instead feathered the nests of those who smarmily referred to this cash-cow as "The Indian Deal".)
Heater exposes truths that many want to avoid. This is one of many reasons why it's a great film. Odette is not content to simply drag us, Ulrich Seidl-like (the brilliantly insane Austrian filmmaker) through inhumanity to find some scrap of humanity. He trains his cameras on the disenfranchised with truth and compassion. It is finally a movie that celebrates those small dignities that can, in the lives of some, be larger than life itself.
Love, dignity and understanding drive this movie's engine and in that respect, Heater is a cinematic locomotive of hope.
See it. Demand it. Embrace it.
Check back for part two of my HEATER coverage where I present an interview between myself and writer-director Terrence Odette. You'll find that coverage HERE.