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Canada On Screen: The Bitter Ash

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On January 30, a free screening of The Bitter Ash (1963) by Vancouver-based filmmaker, Larry Kent, was shown at The Cinematheque. The screening was part of an ongoing program known as Canada On Screen, which seeks to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday by rolling a list of Canada’s 150 essential moving-images works in feature films, documentaries, short films, animation, and more. The following is a review of the film, The Bitter Ash, by our newest Arts Reporter, Edison Huang.
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The Bitter Ash is an old film. In fact, it’s likely to be older than some of your parents. Directed by Larry Kent and released selectively across Canada in 1963, it has developed a cult following that still exists to this day.

The film not only looks old, but feels like a small-time, low budget one as well. Upon viewing the hand drawn, paper slide intro sequence one can immediately tell this was no blockbuster. The stripped down design and drama driven plot gives the film an authentic, very personal feel. There is no flashy special effects or high budget editing, something that resonated with me as a student viewer. Larry Kent was only 26 – and still going to UBC when he shot the film with a mere $5000 budget. The aesthetic he created is one of the most personal and direct I’ve ever experienced.

The Bitter Ash features the life and the problems of a few struggling 20 something year olds. Des, and his girlfriend Julie are at odds when Des wants her to quit her day job and to get married before their baby arrives. The issue is Julie makes a solid earning working at the bank, while Des drifts along in a hedonistic, bohemian haze. Julie’s well off parents protest her relationship with Des and do not approve of his financial status. Des, distraught spends his weekend wandering alone before attending a party at Colin and Laurie’s house.

The newly married couple are a contrast to Des and Julie, still miserable despite their status as husband and wife. Laurie works a job as a waitress while Colin struggles with promoting his play. The ties between the two are clear when shown how both women in the relationships have to pay for their partners’ shaky artistic pursuits.

The tone of the play aligns with the counterculture attitudes of the 1950s. Des is confused, angry, and living only in the moment. His job as a typesetter is mundane and he is tired of listening to his conventional, small-minded coworkers. He wants to live a creative lifestyle and is at a crossroads between practicality and idealism. Des and Colin are opposed to conventional jobs but can’t earn enough on artistic pursuits alone. The repressed tension explodes into drama when Julie’s parents confront Des, and when Laurie questions Colin’s direction. The film’s characters struggle with the “correct” way to live their lives and settling for less than their dreams.

The film’s jazzy blues score accompanies the characters’ jarring lives well. The voice track seems a bit detached, which is unsurprising since it was dubbed over during post-production. The acting and story are the main draws of the film and will surely resonate with lost souls today and in the years to come. A local, Canadian classic.

 

Written By Edison Huang