It’s not the best of the independent short films (in fact it’s the worst) but is of some kind of interest anyway for having taken 43 years to complete. That is a world record, I’m sure. It’s only 3 minutes long, by the way.
My account of its creation is below, reprinted from my original posting two years ago. I actually only saw the entire film once, and an excerpt once when it was broadcast on CBC television, also explained below. All I’ve had all these years is fifty feet of negative 16mm film, so I wasn’t able to actually watch it. About ten years ago I looked into having it reversed to positive and transferred to videotape but the cost was astronomical. But technology advances, bringing new and cheap ways to do the almost impossible.
My friend, Dave Say, is one of the hottest jazz and R&B tenor players in the country. He also, as a sideline, transfers film to video. Yesterday I took my little roll of film over to his place and in no time I had the movie on disk. We agreed it needed sound so later that night he played the film, improvising the music along with the movie, a la Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, the 1958 Louis Malle masterpiece for which Miles Davis produced the music by improvising to a screening of the film.
A couple of things. One, I remember shooting Peggy and Willie, and my stuffed seagull, Igor, but now that I’ve seen this thing for the first time in 43 years, I find there’s a saxophonist, as well. I have no memory of who this is. And two, the thing is utterly meaningless, as far as I can tell. Although I’m confident there are smarter and better educated cinephiles out there who will recognize the deep meaning of my film and, I hope, they’ll tell me what it is. I have to say, though, that my camerawork isn’t bad, considering I’d never held a movie camera in my hands before.
Here’s my original story as posted two years ago:
A tragic tale. One night at the Swiss Hut someone gave me a puppy. It couldn’t have been more than a couple of weeks old. My lifelong dream of my own dog came true at last. I named it Benway, after the character in Naked Lunch. What idiots we were. That damn dog was too young to leave its mother. We were all too young to leave our mothers, obviously. I didn’t know what to do. The dog got sick within two days. I went to a payphone in the middle of the night (phone was cut off again) and called the SPCA for advice. They were no help. The next morning Benway was dead. I couldn’t even figure out how to get rid of the corpse. It was December, probably 20 below zero outside. I found a shoebox, lay Benway in it, tied it up, and put the coffin outside where the body would freeze till the trash collectors picked it up. I swear to god I didn’t realize till Harvey came over and I told him what I’d done that he looked outside and noted that Benway was in a Hush Puppies®box. I couldn’t stand it!
Benway’s death disturbed and haunted me. I thought I’d make a movie about it some day.
Benway’s Deathbed (1964) 3 minutes. No rating.
In 1964 I talked a lot about becoming a filmmaker. I talked about it so much that, in some sense, I was a filmmaker already. My friend Karen worked at the CBC, in the research department of a network public affairs and arts show called The Observer. She called to say they wanted to do a piece on an independent filmmaker – would I be interested? You bet I would! She didn’t know my film career existed solely in my mind.
“Independent filmmaker” was, to most people, an unfamiliar concept that was just barely starting to penetrate mass consciousness. The CBC, always on the cutting edge, wanted to do a short interview and show an excerpt from one of my films. No problem. My friend Roger was making a movie at the time and I helped him shoot some incomprehensible scene in Central Station which I’m sure never saw the light of day. Somehow he managed to wangle permission to rope off half of the busiest train station in Canada in the middle of a weekday. I asked him to lend me his Bolex and give me one reel of 16mm film so I could shoot my “excerpt”.
I got Peggy (at the time a student at the École des Beaux-Arts) and Willie, and asked them to “act” for one minute. Peggy sat on the couch trying to “act” something and Willie played a game of chess with my stuffed seagull. (Very symbolic.) I told the CBC I had no money to develop my film and made them develop and print the one reel. In the editing room I acted like Akira Kurosawa, threatening to pull the whole thing if they didn’t give me final say on the editing. The director’s cut, so to speak. They thought I was a lunatic, but were committed by then.
They showed the clip (the whole friggin movie was a “clip”) and interviewed me on network TV for 5 or 10 minutes. The next day Karen called to say the response to my bit had broken records. The phones had lit up like a . . . whatever. The Toronto producer was on the phone one tenth of a second after my segment wanting to know, “What the hell was that?”
Review of Benway’s Deathbed, by Only Magazine‘s esteemed film critic, Adam O. Thomas.
As a film critic and writer it is my pleasure to watch all kinds of work whether it be big Hollywood blockbusters or little independent films. As such I have watched your “experimental” film Benway’s Deathbed a few times now as it is thankfully short and feel like I may be able to offer some insight as to what it means.
Take the first frame. It is a perforated film frame that precedes the title. This obviously intentional recognition of source is a welcome reminder of a time now long gone. That single frame signals an awareness of the artifice of cinematic construction about to follow, a powerful signal that this is just a film. The simple credits underscore the complicated imagery that lies at the heart of the film and the playful cast credit of “unknown saxophonist” underscores the mystical and philosophical possibilities the film reflects. As if saying “the name is not important but the effect remains.” A truly brave statement in a time of endless categorization.
The lingering camera work blends with the tender jazz score to create a haunting atmosphere of uncertainty. We watch, constantly searching for clues, yet the images languish back and forth denying us any, what we film writers would call, action. Murky and bewildering, comparisons to Bergman are inevitable and are overtly reinforced by the scene of a man playing chess against the stuffed bird. Which also invokes a sense of tension because it could also be Hitchcock…but with far fewer birds, so its not quite as scary.
The simplicity of the relationship to music and muse as reflected in the relationship between the saxophonist and the girl is a tender reminder of the simple beauty in life, being sensual or sonic and this operates in powerful contrast to the nihilistic imagery of the aforementioned man versus bird chess match.
Of course all of this could be “bullshit” and the film, made something like 40 years ago could simply be the work of a drug addled beatnik on pot or in the throws of an LSD bender, but it is unlikely you were drunk at the time because so much of the film is in focus. I hope this helps you understand the film you made and also gives you some insight into the powerful and fascinating job we film writers have. Please if you have other films, don’t hesitate to send them somewhere else.
You can watch the film again here, no extra charge.
Its probably a good thing that benway was so long in the making because if you had achieved early success, you probably would have been snatched up by the NFB and ended up with a beret, rimless glasses, and a typical NFB government whore attitude. You probably would not even be talking to me because of my low stature. After a series of endless government cutbacks you would have ended up in LA directing porn movies.
I think “Death of Benway” should be subtitled.
D. Saxe – Williston, VT
If I were a film student I’d say, “It’s obvious to me that the seagull represents Benway, while Willie is your ego and Peggy, your id.” Since I’m not I’ll just say I enjoyed your movie and can’t wait till you find the interview — That would be very cool to see! Do you think it’s somewhere in CBC’s vaults?
Melody Diachun – Vancouver
cold…so cold….so very, very cold…
Miles Black – Vancouver