A few weeks ago, a forum was held in Nova Scotia that revealed a province on the cusp of a severe labor shortage after decades in which the population aged, the birth rate declined, and generations of young workers moved west to pursue better and (perplexingly, given the current situation) more abundant jobs. For a province that has been steeped in persistent unemployment problems for decades, this is a bewildering problem to wrap our minds around, but it may have severe consequences for the funding of social services as the number of paychecks contributing tax dollars to these programs declines rapidly.
It is against the background of this apocalyptic labor reversal that I watched the first film in my informal effort to watch more Canadian, and specifically Maritime, cinema: Goin' Down the Road. This was, by all accounts, a landmark film for Canadian cinema, a work of neo-realism that treated the archetypal Atlantic Canadian story with greater truth than (according to Pauline Kael, so the story goes) John Cassavetes's films could lay claim to. Two unemployed (and, such is the depressed state of the Maritime provinces, unemployable) young men leave their native Nova Scotia for the brighter prospects of Toronto. Once there they discover that the Toronto relatives whose support they had counted on are too ashamed of their provincial broadness to answer the door (the finks are actually depicted hiding behind the curtains of their house while snarking about our heroes' behavior). They had dreams of white collar success (symbolized by an attempt to acquire a career in advertising), but they can't get any but the most transient jobs without a university education that would have been largely useless to them in Nova Scotia. Between them, they get and lose minimum wage jobs, frolic in the parks of Toronto, knock up and marry a girlfriend, buy three rooms of furniture out of the back of a magazine (including a color tv - "If they could see this at home!") and then lose the ability to pay for a three-room apartment. Eventually they are crammed into a tiny tenement flat - husband, pregnant wife, and their friend (who is the only one bringing in a paycheck) - and they begin to wonder how they are going to be able to afford to eat their next meal.
So it is a jolly sort of film.
For me, the interest of this movie was largely historical and geographical. It has all the possible faults of neo-realism - hamhanded acting from inexperienced performers, sentimentality, and shaky production values. But it is an exquisitely typical representation of a particular cultural moment of almost Dreiserish economic deterioration and despair. And I should note that the film's ending, although necessarily grim*, is oddly hopeful as well. This is a film of the road, like so many films about economic depression, and the road is equally a symbol of the endlessness and the falsehood of hope and progress.
But the most appealing moments of this film, for me, were the Nova Scotian ones, the ones that are a portrait, both alien and quintessential, of my new home. Thus the opening of the film is a grittily lovely montage of Nova Scotian still lives: a field of abandoned, rusting cars; mist rising over a lake; a fishing boat tilted and half-submerged in still, dark water. Stunning. It makes me reflect (both affectionately and scathingly) that this might have been a more successful film if no one ever spoke in it.
A worthy watch, but not necessarily an enjoyable one.
Goin' Down the Road
dir. Donald Shebib (Canada, 1970)
*It involves (SPOILER) assault, police pursuit, and spousal abandonment.