Lonely Boy by Roman Kroitor
Girls sing "We want Paul!" – but it's not McCartney that they pass out on. This is the summer of 1961, and the Beatles are more than a year away from recording Love Me Do. Instead, the palpitation is a 19-year-old boy from Canada named Paul Anka. On the Atlantic City boardwalk, ladies line up to get autographs. Some of them also give or receive a kiss. The camera follows the young star backstage and into the changing room. The concert is about to start, so Anka quickly dresses. We see him in his underwear. He later speaks openly of being "a tough kid" in school and of his determination to become what was expected of the entertainers. He lost 35 pounds.
"You have to appeal," he says, looking almost directly into the camera. "You have to look like you're in show business – if you don't, you won't make it."
This intimate documentary, named after one of Anka's biggest hits, is called Lonely Boy and was produced and co-directed by a Canadian filmmaker who should be much better known: Roman Kroitor.
Kroitor, who died in 2012, was known for a number of innovations in filmmaking. He was at the forefront of the Cinéma Vérité movement, characterized by films like Lonely Boy, as well as a few short documentaries about the legendary piano player Glenn Gould and another who brings viewers into the life of Igor Stravinsky. Later on, Kroitor pioneered multi-screen filmmaking and co-founded IMAX, the company that aimed to bring a gigantic cinematic experience to viewers around the world. On the way he made a film that inspired Stanley Kubrick when he was shooting in 2001: A Space Odyssey – and Kroitor coincidentally gave George Lucas the idea for "The Force".
Most of all, Roman Kroitor was a risk taker who intuitively understood the elements of visual storytelling, recalls filmmaker Stephen Low, who often worked with Kroitor (as did his father Colin Low). While Kroitor made both dramas and documentaries, he was fascinated by the latter format. As Low puts it, "he loved telling real stories that real people celebrated".
And while this filmmaker's story has faded a bit over time, Kroitor has been hugely influencing dozens of filmmakers and the craft itself. Today he is possibly one of the most overlooked yet influential figures in film history.
Paul Tomkowicz: Tram Switchman.
Kroitor & # 39; s In the Labyrinth, originally a multi-screen presentation.
Maze at Expo '67: This view shows the first room (and the first scene of the film) with two 50-foot screens, one vertical and the other on the floor, viewed from one of the four oval balconies can be.
Kroitor documented the pianist Glenn Gould twice.
NFB on YouTube
Stravinsky up close.
NFB on YouTube
Kroitor was born in Saskatchewan in 1926. He went to school in Winnipeg and later earned a Masters in Philosophy and Psychology from the University of Manitoba. There were no film schools in Canada at the time, so he took up a career, starting with a summer internship with the National Film Board in 1949. He made his first film in 1952, Rescue Party. Something radical happened in the world of film in the early 1960s. Suddenly, documentaries became more intimate and real. The movement is often referred to by the French name cinéma vérité. And Kroitor, along with a handful of colleagues who worked at the NFB, was at the forefront of this new wave of filmmaking.
Many of these innovative filmmakers passed away by then, but Munro Ferguson, who witnessed it all as a youth, is well aware of how revolutionary their work was. Ferguson has been the animation director for dozens of films, and his father, Graeme Ferguson, co-founded IMAX and Kroitor. (Ferguson is also Kroitor's nephew; Graeme's sister, Janet, is Kroitor's widow.) This new, more intimate form of storytelling was made possible by three new technologies, all of which appeared on stage almost simultaneously, says Ferguson Ars. The first development was a 16mm -Cinema film that made cameras small enough to be easily handheld. The second was a good quality portable sound recorder, like the Nagra tape recorder. The third was the zoom lens that enabled the filmmaker to switch from wide views to close-ups without changing lenses.
"You grew from a film crew of seven or eight people to two people – a cameraman and a sound engineer," remembers Ferguson. "So you could be a lot more spontaneous about filmmaking and really try to capture reality for what it is."
By then, most documentaries had been written, explains Albert Ohayon, curator at the NFB. Scenes were rehearsed; everything was planned in advance. With the start of cinéma vérité, "we suddenly have this portable film equipment and can be on site and just film things as they happen," he says. "I think the filmmakers of the time, including Roman Kroitor, who had started in this very overwhelming era where everything had to be prepared in advance, suddenly felt this liberation."
One of Kroitor's early short documentaries, Paul Tomkowicz: Street-Railway Switchman (1953), is as intimate as it sounds. The camera follows a 64-year-old Polish immigrant who is maintaining the tram tracks, sweeping away the snow and salting the tracks on a stormy winter night in Winnipeg. Tomkowicz never looks at the camera, although sometimes it must have been an arm away. He tells his story in voice-over. "I know the tracks like my own garden," he says. In the last scene, daylight has returned. After his shift, he has coffee and breakfast in a diner that, thanks to the razor-sharp images, consists of five hard-boiled eggs, three sausages and six slices of bread.
The intimacy seen in Lonely Boy and the Tomkowicz film reappears in the two films Kroitor made about Gould: Glenn Gould: Off the Record and Glenn Gould: On the Record (both from 1959). It is also there in the Stravinsky film entitled Stravinsky (1965). In the first of the Glenn Gould films, we see Gould hammering hard on the piano in his house on the shores of Lake Simcoe north of Toronto – but we also see him walking down a country road with his collie Banquo. At some point Gould, who is sitting in his garden on the shore of the lake, answers Kroitor's questions – but we also see him talking to fellow musician and radio producer Franz Kraemer. Their jokes are completely unplanned, which certainly felt revolutionary after an era of screenplay documentaries. (What would happen, Gould ponders, if a child were raised with Schoenberg instead of Mary Had a Little Lamb? Would the child develop an affinity for the twelve-tone scale?)
"It feels spontaneous – you don't know what's going to happen next," says Ferguson. "It's kind of excitement that you know it was filmed 'live'. This is not planned at all. Anything could happen."
In the second film, we see Gould recording in a Manhattan studio. The camera is sometimes on Gould and sometimes on the band of engineers in the adjoining control room. “I love the sequence that Gould is in and they are recording,” Ohayon says, “but the camera isn't on Gould; the camera is on the engineers jacking and talking about their weekend – until they find out the camera is on them and they talk about the recording session again. "
The Stravinsky film is also full of revealing events – like the scene in which the composer settles in his hotel room in Hamburg and the writer Vladimir Nabokov comes to visit. (You can feel that Kroitor and his co-director Wolf Koenig knew that Nabokov would come over – or they were very, very lucky that the camera was set up in the hotel room at that moment.) Interestingly, this is not the case with cinéma vérité demand that the filmmaker go away; Rather, they often appear on the edge of the story – and sometimes within the framework. At some point Stravinsky suggests that Kroitor and Koenig are too "hardworking" for something – he reaches for a Russian-English dictionary with which he always travels – he says. He invites the two filmmakers to relax and have a drink with them.
Universe by Roman Kroitor.
Where no documentary has gone yet
As innovative as these films were, Kroitor's 1960 documentary Universe, made with Colin Low, was even more groundbreaking. As the title suggests, the film takes the audience on a tour of the universe – or what was known about the universe back then. It has often been compared to Carl Sagan's Cosmos TV series, despite the fact that Universe Cosmos is two decades older. The universe follows astronomer Donald MacRae during a night observation at the David Dunlap Observatory north of Toronto. It also features remarkably sophisticated animation of planets and moons, stars and galaxies.
Among the awe of the universe was the late Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick showed the film as he was preparing to work on 2001, "and he absolutely loved it," says Ohayon. "He contacted the NFB and some of the people who had worked on the film, including Roman Kroitor, and asked them to come and work with him in 2001." Kroitor refused, despite the fact that Kubrick hired Wally Gentleman, who was working on the visual effects of the universe, to help in 2001. He also hired Douglas Rain, who narrates the universe, as the voice of the HAL 9000 computer.
Kroitor's connection to George Lucas is awkward, but just as fascinating. While studying at the University of Southern California, Lucas showed a number of NFB films, including an experimental work entitled 21-87 (1964) by another Canadian filmmaker, Arthur Lipsett. The film is actually a montage of images and sounds and contains unused clips from other films – including an excerpt from a film that Kroitor made called The Human Machine. In this excerpt, Kroitor can be heard in conversation with the neuroscientist and pioneer of artificial intelligence, Warren McCulloch. Kroitor apparently responded to McCullough's assertion that humans are just complex machines, saying, “Many people feel that while looking at nature and communicating with other living beings, they become aware of a force or something behind this phenomenon is mask that we see in front of us, and they call it God. "
Lucas was fascinated. And thirteen years later, Darth Vader would use the Force to strangle his enemies while Luke would use it to obliterate the Death Star. (Oh, and "2187" appears as Princess Leia's cell phone number in the original Star Wars movie and again as Finn's Stormtrooper name – FN-2187 – in The Force Awakens.)
In the Labyrinth, which Kroitor co-directed with Colin Low and Hugh O & # 39; Connor, was created specifically for a multi-screen cinema at Expo 67 in Montreal. The film, a kind of snapshot of humanity on planet earth, was shot all over the world: We see America's Great Plains and African rainforests. We will be taken to Greece, India and Cambodia. We see a caravan of camels pulling through a desert. We glimpse Winston Churchill's funeral in London, young girls at a ballet lesson in Moscow and Soviet cosmonauts training for a space launch – all in color. The moving images on each of the five screens sometimes flow in unison. sometimes they offer independent vignettes. (Although it can be viewed on the NFB website, viewing it on a computer or television certainly doesn't quite capture the oversized experience visitors to the expo would have enjoyed.)
"Labyrinth was a real masterpiece," says Stephen Low. “The film board trusted that he was making this film about humanity. about life, about the stages of life. It's a very artistically risky, complex, challenging thing – but he made it. "
Making a maze seems to have given Kroitor a taste for ever larger visual presentation. “The problem with multi-screen, like they did at Expo 67, is that you had to have different projectors that had to be perfectly synchronized,” says Ferguson. “It was really complicated to do things like this. So they thought, "Let's just build a big projector." And that's how IMAX was born. "
The IMAX system used special cameras and special projectors. On both machines, the film is fed through from the side, with three standard 65mm frames forming a single IMAX frame. (The aspect ratio is 4: 3, just like television of that time – but at a much higher resolution.) Kroitor and Graeme Ferguson founded Multi-Screen Corporation, the company later known as IMAX with Robert Kerr being a local Owned a print shop and later hired engineer Bill Shaw. Kroitor produced the first IMAX film, Tiger Child – a sort of sequel to Labyrinth – which premiered at Expo 70 in Osaka, Japan. Other oversized films followed, including Hail Columbia (1982) directed by Ferguson, with Kroitor as writer and co-producer, documenting the first space shuttle mission; and Transitions (1986), the first 3D IMAX film.
Had he been so inclined, Kroitor could have settled in Hollywood and become part of the mainstream film business – but there was no appeal to such a move. It wasn't just because he liked being around his close group of friends and colleagues in and around Montreal, where he spent most of his adult life, although that was certainly part of it. He found Hollywood and the celebrity culture that revolved around it just "disgusting," as Ferguson puts it. Also: "He wanted to make films in Canada."
The Canadian movie scene may have been a small pond at the time, but, ultimately, Kroitor could be a very big fish. Kroitor's association with the NFB lasted decades. He oversaw dramatic production there in the 1960s and 1970s and later worked as an executive producer to see that the most deserving projects were given the go-ahead. The panel, for its part, valued Kroitor's vision and energy.
"The NFB was unique in the world," says Low. "It gave these young people the opportunity to make these magical films."
The trailer for At the Max.
Kroitor's last directing project was the Rolling Stones concert film At the Max in 1991 – a project plagued by disagreements and disputes. According to Low, the band members couldn't agree on a director and the job ended up falling into Kroitor's lap more or less by accident – even though he wasn't a Stones fan. "I don't think he was very impressed with the Rolling Stones," recalls Low. Kroitor hoped the film would tell some kind of story; The band wanted a direct concert film. While Kroitor may have remained unmoved, critics like Roger Ebert were blown away. "In my experience, no other music film has so overwhelmed the eyes and ears and drawn us into the feel and texture of a rock concert," wrote the famous critic in his review.
Low remembers Kroitor not only as a brilliant filmmaker and storyteller, but also as someone who was constantly looking for the new, the untested. "He wasn't interested in what had happened in the past," says Low. "He wanted to experiment." He might not be the easiest person to get along with – sometimes he was prickly, and he certainly demanded it. "But everyone benefited from Roman's courage and ingenuity. He took creative and technically insane risks – and everyone benefited from it."
For the curious there are really only two ways to catch up on Kroitor's work today: YouTube and the NFB web archive. However, if you take the time to look at something like Universe now, nearly 60 years after its release, it is easy to see why this lesser-known Canadian filmmaker has entranced some of the biggest and most revered names in film .
Dan Falk (@danfalk) is a Toronto-based science writer. His books include The Science of Shakespeare and In Search of Time.