Donald Shebib’s landmark 1970 drama Goin’ Down the Road was a watershed moment in Canadian national cinema, in part because it proved that there could be one. The very notion of a Canadian national cinema was relatively new when the film was released. Though the National Film Board (NFB) was establish in the late 1930s, it was only in the 1950s that its focus shifted from war-effort propaganda to a very specific form of national soul-searching, wondering aloud who we were and what our place in the world was. The collective attempt at pinpointing Canada’s national identity would reach a fever pitch with the Centennial just around the corner, but ended up yielding precious few concrete answers (though it wasn’t for lack of trying, as NFB-produced works like Helicopter Canada, commissioned specifically for Canada’s 100th birthday, can attest).
Seemingly every country had its cinematic New Wave at one point or another, where a loosely-affiliated group of filmmakers bucked the establishment and made vital, live-wire cinema for the ages. No one speaks of a Canadian New Wave because there wasn’t really a system to buck against. Mid-century social democrats that we were, the federal government was the main patron of the film industry, where the greats of Canadian cinema first cut their teeth. Up until the late-1960s, Canada’s reputation in the greater cinematic world mostly rested on the NFB’s two best-known exports: documentaries and animated films. Though there were fiction films made in the past, it wasn’t until 1968 that production companies finally got a leg-up with the creation of the Canadian Film Development Corporation (CFDC). The newly-founded Crown corporation got $10 million to help kick-start a true-blue Canadian film industry. Ultimately, the CFDC would burn through their fund in less than 3 years and use their subsequent grants to finance co-productions that could make their money back, ushering the Canadian film industry into the Great Tax Shelter Era. But one of the movies that got made in that small period of prosperity and promise was Goin’ Down the Road.
As previously stated, there isn’t a Canadian New Wave per se, but Goin’ Down the Road plays like a movie that could have been part of it. Shot on 16mm reversal stock using handheld cameras, the film has a scrappy, hardscrabble look that wouldn’t have felt out of place in a vérité-style doc by Michel Brault or Pierre Perrault (tellingly, Shebib paid his dues making documentaries for both the NFB and the CBC). The colour palette the film uses is so washed out and faded that this writer mistakenly thought the film was shot in black-and-white. The leads were Doug McGrath and Paul Bradley, two non-professional actors from the West Coast with the thickest, most glorious hoser accents this side of the Confederation Bridge. It featured two delicate, beautiful songs by a then-unknown Bruce Cockburn, excellent location photography of downtown Toronto, and colourful, partially-improvised dialogue by the performers. But most importantly, there is a strong emotional core to the film, a sense of empathy towards a couple of losers from Nova Scotia just trying to make it, whatever that may mean.
What’s still striking about the film is its social-realist edge. The protagonists, Pete (McGrath) and Joey (Bradley), leave the Maritimes for Toronto because there are no prospects to be had at home. Once in the land of opportunity, they hold down menial jobs, live from hand to mouth, and still pine for something yet better. It doesn’t happen: Pete drowns his loneliness in a seemingly endless succession of two-fours, while Pete knocks up (and subsequently marries) a waitress named Beth (Jayne Eastwood, excellent). If anything, Goin’ Down the Road is about trying to make ends meet when the ends are rigged to stay far apart. Pete and Joey are basically migrant workers, exploited and downtrodden. There’s no safety net in place to keep them afloat. Pete and Beth try to make a life for themselves on the back of a credit card, but that ultimately backfires in an all-too-familiar fashion, culminating in a heartbreaking nighttime scene at a local Loblaws. It’s hard to be concerned with bring “good” or “proper” when the jaws of the machine are clamping down on you. The film is then not only a documentation of the cracks in the system, but how long the way down is when you fall through them. And yet there are moments of happiness; the thrill of the road ahead, the joy of companionship, the rapture of shouting along to a song close to your heart (in this case, Hank Snow’s “My Nova Scotia Home,” natch). That these fleeting moments of elation are spliced in among the drudgery of life at the margins makes them all the more bittersweet.
In 1996, during another difficult economic period in Canadian history, the great Etobicoke rock band Rheostatics released their album The Blue Hysteria, which contained “Bad Time to Be Poor,” one of the greatest songs about being young, poor, and ignored by those in power (in this specific case, then-Ontario Premier Mike Harris). The irony being, of course, that there’s never a good time to be poor, but that it’s especially taxing when you’re young, alone, and out of your element (or, conversely, when the element would rather not have you as a part of it). So the spirit of Goin’ Down the Road lives on, not only because it truly is the bedrock of contemporary narrative film in Canada and one of the best movies the country has ever produced, but because sadly, to paraphrase the Rheos, being young and poor still go hand in hand.