Film provocateur relives his heyday

As Byron Black puts it to the Georgia Straight, “Dinosaurs stomped the smouldering earth” when he was making motion pictures in Vancouver. “Pterodactyls cackled and flapped past,” he says. “ ‘Wacky’ Bennett and Social Credit squirmed out of the primordial ooze.”

But it wasn’t all laughs. A draft-dodging, freethinking creative type, Black was engaged in the serious business of making art when he arrived here on December 27, 1970 (“about two steps ahead of the FBI and the CIA”), financing his experimental film work with free money that might have been spent instead on paving a few roads.

This was a time, he explains, when certain people were trying to make B.C. a viable commercial film centre. “And they wanted to call it, quote-unquote, Hollywood of the North,” Black recalls with audible disdain, on the line from his home in Jakarta. “I mean, talk about fuckin’ small-minded Vancouver thinking. Hollywood of the North. Nobody appreciated my take on it. I said, ‘Why don’t you call it the Woody Hall of the North?’ ”

Artist, filmmaker, videographer, and all-around provocateur Black returns to the city he left for Southeast Asia in 1980 for a retrospective of his work at VIVO Media Arts Centre (1965 Main Street) this week. His decade here was a fruitful one, and the program—one of three running on concurrent Thursdays at VIVO under the title Anamnesia: Unforgetting—includes some of the work he did for his Cable 10 show, Images From Infinity, along with the 1974 feature The Holy Assassin.

The Straight didn’t have the opportunity to screen the 64-minute film, but based on Black’s impish video shorts, things look promising. In one, an admirably silly blast of political Dadaism called “The Snowback Caper”, he attempts to capture the world record for “the most illegal border crossings in the shortest time”. In general, his work is a bit like Michael (Mr. Mike) O’Donoghue landing at the Western Front.

“I tried to tickle the medium in a way that would be ironic, insightful, and yet entertaining,” he says. “I tried to be entertaining. Maybe it’s maddening; who knows?” Some people know. It wasn’t quite L’Age d’Or at Studio 28 in 1930 Paris, but Black’s 1972 full-length, The Master of Images, caused a ruckus when it opened at the Hollywood Theatre on Broadway. Black recalls the cinema owner “foaming at the mouth”. Looking back, he wonders if it was made under the influence of too much acid.

“Following that, The Holy Assassin was made with the long-suffering Canadian taxpayer’s money: a Canada Council grant,” Black says of his experimental sci-fi film, which was inspired by the Nic Roeg movie Performance. “[But] I was stuck with an audience of knuckleheaded guys and rounders, and a big crowd wanting to be entertained by, I dunno, Sylvester Stallone.”

Asked what we should expect when The Holy Assassin unspools once again at VIVO and then on Monday (November 19) at the Cinematheque, both times with the prodigal director in attendance, Black responds with this elliptical description: “Hippie danger, dope dealers, nuclear war, alternative living, slipping and sliding. You go into a house; you see 19 people, with children; it takes a long time to figure out who’s with who, or what,” he says. “And that’s how it was in those days, because rent was very cheap and you’d move into a big house, and there’s a guy upstairs with a gun. There’s somebody else who’s doing art; there’s somebody else who’s doing music—it’s very Vancouverish in the ’70s.” Unforget that, knuckleheads!

The Holy Assassin screens at VIVO Thursday (November 15), and at the Cinematheque on Monday (November 19).