Piecing together the life and legacy of a man who passed away more than 15 years ago can be mysterious business – especially when the person in question is legendary Canadian bad-boy poet Al Purdy. Yet for the director/ producer of the documentary, a little bit of mystery is a very good thing.
"I think a sense of wonder is really what filmmaking is all about," says Brian D. Johnson, a renowned print journalist who directed two Bravo!FACT short films before this, his first feature. Based in Toronto, he is also a musician, book author, and president of the Toronto Film Critics Association. "I'd like to think there's still lot of mystery about Al Purdy. Why the hell did he start writing poetry in the first place? I still don't know that. What made him keep going through thick and thin?”
Purdy’s determination to write poetry, no matter what, through struggle and hardship; factory jobs and early writings that the poet himself considered to be really very bad, the artist’s non-negotiable need to express and to share is among the interwoven storylines of this beautifully-made, warmly human, and highly entertaining documentary based on poet Al Purdy (1918-2000).
Finally, Al Purdy became a famous poet during the 1960s. He wrote more than 30 poetry books, among other writings, was appointed to the Order of Canada and won two Governor General’s Awards, and, it seems, was also known for his rock star persona as a drinking, smoking, sensitive bad boy, and for his Canadian nationalism.
“Purdy was a very autobiographical poet,” Johnson says. “He didn't just write memoirs; his entire poetic work is a kind of memoir. He was a great observer. He wrote very concrete details, he told stories in his poetry.”
The film, too, has many layers of story, and performances by an eclectic array of Canadian artists: Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Joseph Boyden, Bruce Cockburn, Gord Downie, Leonard Cohen, Sarah Harmer, Tanya Tagaq and Gordon Pinsent.
In a suitably mysterious twist of fate, Johnson wasn't looking to make a movie when this story found him. His wife, Marni Jackson, whose latest book is called Don't I Know You?, is the film’s co-writer and brought Purdy to the family‘s attention. She, Johnson explains, was involved with the Al Purdy A-Frame Association fundraising drive to preserve the cabin in Ontario's Prince Edward County that Purdy had built, and thought it would make a great play. Johnson offered to shoot the fundraising gala. He recognized a great story, and the footage from that evening turned out to be the documentary’s first shoot and what he describes as the “nucleus” of the film.
“I spent a long time as a journalist, many decades,” Johnson says. “Although filmmaking and print journalism are not the same, the elements of storytelling are similar–knowing you've got a good story,” says Johnson. “[Purdy] was enough of a rock star poet during his heyday that there was a wealth of archival footage.”
The poet has also, Johnson explains, come to represent a certain time. “He straddled the old English Canada and its traditions and the new wave of Can lit. He wasn't the same age as Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje and Dennis Lee. He was older… in a way he sort of became synonymous with that culture of nation building when that was a very progressive force in the country. It affected music, literature, visual arts and everything. We were discovering ourselves as a country and Purdy became known as the ‘Voice of the Land.’ Because he traveled the country the way he did and because his poetry encompassed so much of Canada, it was almost reportorial; it was almost like he was a one man National Film Board but doing it with poetry.”
In 1957, Purdy and his wife Eurithe (who appears in the film), built the A-frame house, where they lived and Purdy wrote. It also hosted a constant flow of literary guests (including Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence and Michael Ondaatje) who would come hang out, drink, discuss and argue.
“It's interesting to see how Purdy's legacy has lasted," Johnson notes. "I think it's partly because of the common touch. His poetry is incredibly accessible and colloquial, yet it's still sophisticated."
The film’s narrative continues beyond biography and into this legacy; into those parts of the man that live on in this world. The people whose lives were rippled by his special force, and of course, his poetry. And, into the A-Frame Association’s transformation of said abode into a writing residence for a new generation of poets. The film also follows this storyline as the first young poet arrives.
“I had a lot of balls in the air,” says Johnson about weaving together the narrative. “There are musical performances, there's the story of the renovation of the A-frame and the new poets moving in, there's the biographical story…"
“[When I started] it was a duty project. I thought, ‘Somebody's got to make this damn movie, if I don't make it nobody else will.’ To me the key was the music. I thought, ‘If I create the Al Purdy Songbook [in progress], and I draw up a list of people I wanted to ask to create and record original music based on Purdy, I had this cast list all of all these stars.’ Which made it kind of irresistible, and it also gave the film some life. When these people actually started to come in and contribute this work, this little duty project started to expand in scale to become exhilarating in its scope.”
Photo credit: EyeSteelFilm
Al Purdy Was Here screens October 13 at Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, as parts of [email protected]. Brian D. Johnson and co-writer Marni Jackson will be present.