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Robin Spry films (and dries up) the streets

Robin Spry films (and dries up) the streets


Beating Schrader’s Hardcore to the punch by a matter of months, Robin Spry’s grim and gritty gutter-level drama is driven by a not-dissimilar premise, that of a man searching the seedy urban underbelly for his drug-addicted prostitute daughter. Rather astonishing that it was made for TV – the remarkably bleak opening indicates that no punches are going to be pulled, as we first see Peter Brennan (Don Francks), before the credits have even finished rolling, nodding out in a grimy cafe toilet, the needle still sticking out of his arm. This is followed by howling hospital cold turkey, as a borderline sadistic cop plays Peter a slide show of a drug-addicted girl forced into sex work, before revealing that said girl is Peter’s own daughter. We then get to see said slide show again in harrowing close-up, while Peter wails ever louder. So, once recovered, and with regular stops for his methadone and orange juice, he sets off for the sex-strip quarter of Toronto to find her.

In fact, his search goes little further than asking people on the street if they know Ellen as, hooking up with old lag pals, he is soon enmeshed in the drug-trafficking underworld, stooge for the cop who wants him to help bust the drug ring, in exchange for information about Ellen; whilst Peter, previously proprietor of the best LSD lab on the west coast, becomes drug cook for the gang, maintaining his standards of production with innate professionalism. What he does find, however, is another young runaway, Anne (the affecting Sarah Torgov), at the tracks on whose arms he stares in resigned recognition, but who gives him the chance to act as the savior he could not be for his own daughter.

vlcsnap-2015-03-24-17h55m57s23TV veteran Franck is a quietly appealing presence, a genial aging hippy with waist-length ponytail, and the unprepossessing air of a man who just wants to put his life back together again, to remain in the background, until he finds he must make a stand. Spry’s direction is no-nonsense, if somewhat underemphasising the double bind in which Peter finds himself, exploited by both police and criminals, yet blithely unconcerned, it seems, about life on the wrong side of the law. This restraint benefits the central relationship, however, between Peter and Anne, which develops quite gently, touchingly natural and underplayed; and despite the grimness of the film’s opening, and other hard-hitting bursts of violence, pornography, and drug abuse, this is no wallow in filth, Spry’s rather observational approach lending the film a certain documentary feel, which is hardly surprising, given his background.

Son of a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation co-founder, Robin Spry (1939-2005) was a mainstay of the English-language arm of the National Film Board of Canada in the late 60s and 70s, perhaps best-remembered for the paired documentary films Action and Reaction (1973), covering the notorious October crisis of 1970 caused by the kidnapping of a British diplomat and a cabinet minister by Quebecois separatists, and subsequent martial law (these films directly inspired Michel Brault to make his celebrated feature on the same subject, Les orders, 1974). His was one of the loudest anglophone voices to show sympathy for and interest in the cause of the separatists, although the documentaries do not take a specific side, instead examining local reactions to the situation, and recording events as they unfolded, on the streets and in the media. Around the same time, Spry also appeared in Denys Arcand’s documentary on the general subject of Quebecois nationalism, Québec: Duplessis et après… (1972), reading from the Durham Report of 1838 (concerning then-recent uprisings across the country against British rule).

vlcsnap-2015-03-24-18h45m48s23Born in Toronto, Spry studied at the London School of Economics and Oxford University, where he made several short dramatic films with actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company. He returned to Canada, to Montreal, in 1964 to begin work as an assistant director at the National Film Board, where he moved easily between documentary and fiction, and even helped found the NFB’s film-acting technique classes at a time when the board still maintained an uneasy relationship towards fiction. This was in part because, no matter the form, Spry’s films are imbued with a documentary-like social conscious and investigative tone, covering subjects from abortion to hippies. His first feature, docudrama Prologue (1969), the first Canadian film to be selected for the Venice Film Festival in competition, was a dramatized love story against the documentary backdrop of the 1968 Democratic Conventions riots in Chicago; his first fully fictional feature, 1977’s One Man, which played to acclaim at Cannes, was about a journalist’s attempt to expose industrial pollution, and was shot entirely like a news report.

It was with One Man that Spry managed to combine his socio-political concerns with a popular (thriller) form. The film’s success, and the NFB’s reluctance to pursue this sort of film-making, led Spry to split from the board and form his own production company, Telescene Film Group. One of Telescene’s first films was Drying Up The Streets for CBC, a continuation of social investigation couched in genre trappings, with a healthy dose of verité street-level filming as Franck tramps the strip in search of his child. Thereafter, Spry directed only sporadically, preferring to concentrate on production, and Telescene became quite a success, garnering numerous awards, most notably for the 1995 mini-series Hiroshima, and turning over $100 million annually at its peak in the 90s, before going bust in 2000. Undeterred, however, Spry continued producing television series and movies, most latterly the South African co-production sci-fi series Charlie Jade, right up until his sudden and untimely death in a car accident in 2005.vlcsnap-2015-03-24-18h44m25s172