The Late Vancouver Films of Larry Kent: The Hamster Cage and Exley

by Donato Totaro Volume 18, Issues 11-12 / December 2014 14 minutes (3473 words)

Iconoclastic veteran director Larry Kent has carved out a niche for himself as a pioneer in Canadian film history, making fiercely independent feature films at a time when feature fiction films were not part of any Government structured support. The Canadian Film Development Corporation began in 1967, but prior to that Larry Kent made three fiction feature films: The Bitter Ash (1963); Sweet Substitute (1964); and When Tomorrow Dies (1965). He shot all three in Vancouver before he moved to Montreal where he went on to make the controversial and trippy High (1969) and Fleur bleu (The Apprentice, 1971). As noted by Dave Douglas, surveyors of Canadian film have tended to identify Vancouver as a vital center of Canadian, West Coast experimental cinema (David Rimmer, Ellie Epp, Chris Gallagher), while overlooking the important and influential fiction work of Larry Kent, whose early features broke from the perceived mold of Canadian cinema as being documentary-based or experimental/animation by making films that were more influenced by New American independent works (John Cassavetes, Frank and Leslie’s Pull My Daisy), the French New Wave and European Art cinema. His films captured in their exuberant form the frustrations and disenchantments of young urban adults, some middle class, some bohemians, blending vérité kineticism, a jazz influence in mood and music, with touches of New Wave formal experimentation. Echoing the Euro art house films of Antonioni, Godard, and Bergman, his films gave the possibility for female characters to feel alienation, despair, boredom or marital dissatisfaction (Douglas, p. 94-96), at a time when such feminine subjectivities were stifled in North American cinema, or the province of male characters (think Nobody Waved Goodbye, Going Down the Road).

Kent’s early features have since received a fair share of coverage, with festival retrospectives and academic consideration finally giving him his due recognition as a Canadian film pioneer and auteur of early Canadian fiction landmarks that captured their time and place beyond the same period’s output by the NFB or the CBC. Kent’s career stuttered during the mid-seventies and eighties, until rebounding with his sensitive portrayal of a mother and daughter in Mothers and Daughters (1992). Two more important films followed, The Hamster Cage (2005) and Exley (2011), which have yet to receive their critical due. While we eagerly await Larry Kent’s forthcoming horror film, the Vancouver shot She Who Must Burn (currently in post-production), I want to offer my critical appreciation of these two ‘late’ Larry Kent features: The Hamster Cage (2005) and Exley (2011).

The Hamster Cage is Larry Kent’s twisted black comedy. It features the natural beauty of the British Columbia landscape in a casually backgrounded but meaningful way, setting the crazy human behaviour within a calming natural environment. Although the film features ‘real’ characters, an extended family and friends, it is not a film that can easily be taken at face value; like Exley, naturalism or realism is slowly met, if not usurped, by a touch of mad surrealism or magic realism. The film deals ostensibly with a large family gathering to celebrate a character’s mid–life career success (his own lackadaisical reaction to the success echoes the older professor character from Wild Strawberries), that takes a wicked turn toward death and the oddly surreal. The patriarch, Phil, played by Alan Scarfe, has won the Nobel Peace prize for physics. To celebrate the occasion his long suffering wife Jenn (Patricia Dahlquist) invites the children — Lucy (Jillian Fargey) and Paul (Tom Scholte) — and Paul’s swinging brother Uncle Stan (Scott Hylands) to their country home to celebrate. Uncle Stan brings along the alluring college-aged Candy (Carly Pope), who doesn’t so much set things in motion as serve as the family’s own Boswell (as succinctly declared by Father). Phil seems not to care about the prize, claiming it is the work itself which counts. Suggesting Kent’s own university history, and friendship with several professors from Concordia in Montreal, the film is filled with snide and negative references to academia (“If I don’t get tenure in the next four years I never will,” says Paul).

The lost ballerina, mother Jenn

The surface of the film is rife with obvious Freudian themes: the Oedipal Complex, incest, murderous wish fulfillment, and the horrid family life (as when the niece kills her pedophile uncle who abused her sexually as a child). However, the film’s true meaning can be found below this surface: what are the values and consequences of success? How do we gauge success? Each character suffers through this question: Paul and Lucy are both struggling academics with doctoral degrees but with no full time jobs. Are they still a success, since they succeeded in getting a PhD, which many fail at? Is the Nobel Peace Prize something of value on its own? What worth does it hold? Or how about Uncle Stan’s prize in the ‘soft sciences’ which Phil scoffs at? The wife Jenn was a successful ballerina in her younger days, but Phil’s jealousy put a stop to that, driving into her legs with his car. But as she claims, she may not have followed Nureyev’s footsteps but she reared two children and tended to domestic duties. Is not the competency of being a house wife success on its own? These are all serious and important questions bubbling below the surface of the film’s more sensationalist scenes.

For example, there is a great scene where Candy, Stan’s Lolita, brings Phil a drink to his room. She finds Phil nude, and not in any mood to shirk back from the role of exhibitionist – to the point where as they talk he gets an erection. She is embarrassed but intrigued and stays to milk the moment (pun intended). When she leaves she begins jotting down notes about the encounter, so she can add veracity to her creative writing endeavors. This becomes Candy’s mantra, exploiting the miseries and dysfunctionalities of the family for future writing reference. She has a soft spot for older intellectuals and fellates Phil while he spouts off his ‘spring theory’. When she leaves she intones, “I blew off a Nobel Peace prize winner….freaky!” And the theme of ‘success’ is never far away: Candy is that eager Grad student motivated by academic performance, at any cost.

Stan’s Lolita-cum laureate, Candy

Twenty or so minutes into the film Stan visits Lucy in the toilet, and tries to justify his pedophilia, stating that in the time of Ancient Greece it was perfectly acceptable to have sex with younger partners. Shocked by his brazenness and lack of repentance, Lucy attacks her Uncle Stan with a toilet plunger, causing him to fall and hit his head inside the bath tub. Stan appears dead. She calls her brother Paul for help, and he appears casually impressed by the death, as if it were a normal turn of events. After this somewhat accidental killing Lucy feels excited: “I feel high”. Paul and Lucy drag Stan’s body to the woods, where they add him to their own personal cemetery (it appears she’s killed before).

Thus far the film has maintained a transparent, subdued style, with flat lighting, conventionally motivated camera movement, and long takes preferred continuity style editing. But Stan comes back to life. It seems he was not dead after all. You can’t keep a good pedophile down! This becomes a weak running gag: they kill and bury him but he returns to life (a reference to the zombie craze?). The second time they kill Stan invokes the first moment of stylization; from a low angle and with low key lighting, the camera encircles Lucy as she stalks Stan, cowering behind Paul, and hits him repeatedly with a steel shovel, until a final (seemingly) fatal blow to the head.

Lucy does in Uncle Stan….again

Uncle Stan came to the party bearing gifts, but each of Stan’s family ‘gifts’ invoke long repressed bad memories. The ballerina slippers to Jenn, recalls her enforced retirement from art (Red Shoes). The photo of the family barn given to Phil recalls when Phil saw their father rape his brother Stan; an event which scarred him for the feeling of exclusion (Stan was the good looking one, and when Phil asked his father if he would love him like he did Stan, the father says no: rejection). In another revelation of the family skeletons we discover that Phil took Paul out hunting one day with the intent of shooting him. While these sordid memories are dragged back into the light, Candy writes ferociously. Another vitriolic view of the pressures of succeeding in academia. As all of these obscenely over the top social faux pas‘ began to pile up I began to think that with the many insert shots of Candy noting everything as fodder for her creative writing, maybe these events are either her wish fulfillment or projections of her fiction in the making? Back in the ever crumbling present Paul, goaded by his father for his failures, shoots the patriarch repeatedly, returning the latter’s wish from the past in so doing. Lucy and Paul notice Candy taking it all down on paper, and they tie her to the kitchen table.

Both Paul and Lucy have an unhealthy relationship with their mother (as well as their father). Paul eventually enacts his Oedipal desires, which seems a natural extension of the way they have been behaving with each other, but Jenn reacts violently to her son’s advancements, acting as if this desire was completely displaced (as an audience, we too are surprised by her surprise). Meanwhile Lucy confronts her mother for her attitude toward Stan’s abuse, and Mom admits how she suffered in a loveless marriage for 30 years. Then she slams Lucy with self-blame for her abuse: “You were always a flirtatious child!” Angered by her crass accusation (which may of course have a modicum of truth twisted in) Lucy shoves Mom off the top landing, her fall dragged out in slow motion. Paul is heart-broken by Mom’s death. Lucy consoles him and in the film’s longest take, clocking in at 4 ‘30”, kisses of comfort slowly morph into a passionate embrace as Lucy and Paul cement their incestuous desires. Surprisingly they let Candy go. Are they willingly giving themselves up, knowing she may well go straight to the police? Candy goes back to retrieve her notes. It is more likely that she will turn this crazy weekend into a novel. The final credit scene has them walking along a sepia tinged shoreline, peaceful, happy, content. Paul gives a final zinger line: “Well, at least I am not going to have to go back to Concordia.”

Paul and Lucy give in to their incestuous desires

Exley (2011) is a film cited by Kent as being “totally improvised,” which is perhaps why parts of it have the feel of Cassavetes, most notably Shadows and Faces. The film’s opening recalls the ending of Shadows: a young man (Exley, played by Shane Twerdun) gets beat up in the alley behind a bar. Exley is so inconsequential that the camera remains at ground level, only filming his aggressor’s legs. A woman who works at the bar, Janey (Eliza Norbury), seems sympathetic to the poor sod, and returns with him to his one room apartment. They make love. We learn that Exley is an artist but not a successful one (there’s the theme of success again). A phone call from his distant mother (they haven’t spoken in 20 years) telling him she is dying sets in motion a Kafkaesque series of events where his attempt to get the $1000 he needs to travel cross country to visit his mother ends up in abject failure. But somehow the journey becomes one of self-discovery.

The film’s style is at first realist, with hand-held close-ups throughout the first few scenes, then the dizzying vortex of bad events sends the film spiraling closer to surrealism, but always with a patina of realist photography. Plot points and actions recall many films: Woody Allen’s Manhattan (like Allen, whose wife, played by Meryl Streep, leaves him for a woman, Exley’s ex-girlfriend Maude (Katey Grace) is now shacked up with Exley’s sister Phoebe (Hilary Marsh), who oddly look like sisters, dressed the same with brown hair, glasses, etc. It turns out Exley is an uncle, as they have a baby, but his ex-girlfriend Maude keeps Exley at bay (this is a ‘safe space,’ she claims) and away from the baby as much as she can, afraid his presence alone will bring harm. A scene at a card game ends up with a guy being shot in the foot, a la Joe Pesci in Goodfellas.

Exley’s path to seek out $1000 begins with a visit to an old gay man, who he has gone to before, only now Exley is more forthright about wanting to be paid for the sex (he receives fellatio). Exley’s bluntness upsets the old man, who was living under the illusion that Exley went there for amorous reasons. Exley leaves as poor as he came (excuse the pun). Up next is his sister Phoebe, who gives us the first clue that his quest may be false, when she asks Exley whether “mother is telling the truth.” Like the jilted elderly gay man, Exley is living under an illusion, that there is something of real value to be restored between him and his mother. When he leaves his sister empty handed he visits his ‘best’ friend Luce (Bill MacDonald), who calls him “Ackley” (since we later learn that Exley is his family name, is Ackley his first name?). Luce is living with a younger blond haired ‘dude’ (a sexual partner?). He encourages seeing his mother but has no money to help him out. Instead he sends him to meet a boxing trainer named George Wilson (the film theorist?) who may be able to lend him the money he needs. This leads him to a back room poker game, led by poker player #1, played by Paul from The Hamster Cage Tom Scholte. The poker players spend their time discussing the finer nuances of Kafka, beginning with “Metamorphosis” (he is a vermin not a cockroach!) and then “The Trial” – which can be seen as a mise en abyme of Exley’s own slow descent into the vortex of the unexplainable. Poker player #1 shoots another guy in the foot (cueing the Goodfellas reference). In an effort to help Exley – who he calls George, after George Samsa no doubt – find his money, he tells him to go see someone named Cassidy, “who will give you a package and your money” (all of this remains vague, but Exley is desperate). This leads to a pivotal scene, one which severs the film from any realist ties and sinks the film purely into Lynchian land.

The poker player’s lead brings Exley to a home on 1949 Castle Road (the address is seen plainly on a wooden fence door), where we meet two strange women, Stella (Nancy Sivak) and Zelda (Jenn Clement). The women, who may be lovers, excitedly greet Exley outside their home, as if expecting him by some chance fate. The women are eager to “read Exley’s future” with a set of Tarot cards. They somehow know about Exley’s mother, which surprises him. Exley is frustrated by their behaviour and is anxious to get the package. The women tell him to go upstairs, where Exley hopes to find the said package. Instead he finds a young woman in an upstairs bedroom, with her head in a black sack and arms scarred from suicide attempts. The woman, who Exley seems to call by name, Mona (Missy Cross), pleads with Exley to “just stay,” drawing Exley closer to her. Exley moves to kiss her, but the woman begins to laugh hysterically, echoing the two women downstairs, and pulls the sack over Exley’s head. A frazzled Exley runs off, pulling up his pants as he runs down the stairs and out of the house. Like Candy at the end of The Hamster Cage when she returns for her notes when freed, Exley decides to return for his hat, which he left behind; but now the address on the wooden fence reads 895. Odder yet, the house is now empty, with no sign of life or furniture, only the whispery, ghost-like voices of the women a vestige of their presence. He finds his hat on the floor of the empty bedroom, white curtains billowing and a saturated white light glaring from the window outside, echoing the nocturnal visitation scene from Bergman’s Persona. Were the three women ghosts? Did Exley step into an alternate reality? Into a strange past? This idea of a man who seems to have stepped into a house from the past, peopled by ghosts recalls Ugetsu, when the potter finally realizes that the mansion where he married the Princess was but an illusion.

Echoes of Persona?

Barely removed from one bizarre experience, Exley is brusquely pulled into a false marriage by an aggressive woman to play the phony groom, suggestively named Thomson Cassidy, to a bride who is out to deceive her mother of her inheritance. The mother catches on but the marriage goes through anyway. While the surly British accented blond pseudo bride (Emma Day) pays off other people for their feigned wedding roles, Exley is ungraciously dumped out of the car, where he is ‘helped’ up by two strong arms in suits, who stuff him into the trunk of their car and drive him off to meet a one-eyed, white-haired man in a business office. The man, dressed in a suit and tie, pours out two whiskeys and asks Exley, “Regale me if you will, of the day’s events…I want to hear the truth, of your day.” “I will help you find what you need to find if you give me the opportunity to find it.” When Exley asks him who he is, he replies, “I’m the one who can get you what you want.” Almost to prove a point, Exley recounts in blustery detail a blow by blow account of his ridiculous day. Shane Twerdun’s performance in this scene is remarkable, as he tries to recount the crazy events with a straight face. His harried speech pattern is counter-balanced by reaction shots of the man listening, his face giving only the slightest sign of surprise or incredulity. This scene is a clever allusion to Exley’s film-as-journey, referencing in particular the Greek epic poem Odyssey, with the one-eyed Cyclops he must overcome to complete his journey home (represented here by the trip to his mother). Not only does the mystery man, credited as Mr. Yates, have one eye, but he speaks in flowery (poetic) phrases. Incidentally the “Cyclops” is played by the film’s writer Bill Marchant, who in fact has two fine eyes, hence his disfigurement is an intended make-up effect.

Mr. Cyclops

After his “interview” Exley is tortured with a blow torch by the two henchmen until he loses consciousness. Exley wakes up in his basement prison, to the painful cries of an offscreen voice. Exley unties himself and crawls toward the voice, which ends up being another prisoner, the noted George Wilson (Niall Matter), who is dressed as if he may have been groom #1, or the real groom. Exley, as he tried unsuccessfully before with the young woman in the ghost house, now manages to rescue George, crawling hand in hand, euphorically, to a garage door they slide open, only to find the two men in suits having a smoke and coffee just outside. Cut to the suits driving Exley and George into the deep woods, where they take a sledgehammer to their respective legs and leave them to die. Lying side by side in the desolate woods, George, who has already suffered abuse, pleads with Exley to put him out of his misery. Exley cannot, but George dies from his wounds. Exley hears George’s cell phone ring, and takes it out of his coat pocket to use to call the hospital where his Mom said she was, in Port City. He asks for Penelope Exley and gets the answer we all expected: “I’m afraid there is no patient here by that name.” With his hand firmly clasped with George’s, Exley, eyes wide open, joins him in a quiet death. An extreme long shot frames them lying in a peaceful, natural setting. End of journey. To die in the hands of a caring stranger seems to be the best possible fate for poor Exley, who has managed to stay clear of the pain and agony inflicted from within by family, as in The Hamster Cage.

Bibliography

Douglas, Dave. “Exile on Hastings & Main Street: The Vancouver Films of Larry Kent.” Canadian Journal of Film Studies/Revue canadienne d’études cinématographiques. 5.2,1996: 85-99.

The Late Vancouver Films of Larry Kent: The Hamster Cage and Exley

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

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