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Richard Kerr

Richard KerrFebruary 3, 1952, St. Catharines, Ontario


Richard Kerr made a significant impact on the Toronto experimental film scene in 1984 with the multi-part feature On Land over Water (Six Stories). Made in a self-conscious Hemingway-esque manner, the film is a coming-of-age travel saga that features a mixed bag of film styles. Although it drew some critical fire from feminist filmmakers in Toronto because it stepped into the neo-narrative boundaries of feminist filmmaking, On Land over Water quickly built critical support after its screening at the Toronto Festival of Festivals. Before this film, he had made a set of interesting impressionistic documentaries — Hawkesville to Wallenstein (1976) and Canal (1982) — and produced video clips for the rock band Parachute Club. None of these projects suggested Kerr would become one of the strongest experimental voices of his generation.

A graduate of Sheridan College’s media arts program, Kerr associated with fellow graduate Philip Hoffman (with whom Kerr collaborated on early works), and their teacher, the well-regarded experimental filmmaker Rick Hancox. These associations, which were extended to other filmmakers, including Mike Hoolboom, led to claims that there was an “Escarpment School.” However, neither a group style nor shared ambitions were ever apparent. In fact, the filmmakers quickly drew further apart as they continued to work.

As travel imagery from the United States was used in On Land over Water, it was employed again in The Last Days of Contrition (1988), Kerr’s oblique political essay on the U.S. political inclination toward the apocalyptic, and in its sequel, Cruel Rhythm (1992), set at the threshold of the Gulf War in 1991. The two films form a desert/war diptych. With these films, Kerr moved further away from personal, “neo-narrative” story forms toward an accelerated imagistic cinema of montage and aggressive soundtrack compositions. While completing these films, Kerr assembled an exceptionally large Canadian avant-garde film series for the Art Gallery of Ontario, Spirit in the Landscape (1989), which included films by Michael Snow, Bruce Elder, David Rimmer, Joyce Wieland and others. It toured cities in Canada and the United States and, eventually, the series served as a sidebar to the Earth Summit in Brazil.

Responding to the work of these avant-garde filmmakers and that of American filmmaker Stan Brakhage (who often came to Toronto during the late 1980s), Kerr essayed three impressionistic landscape films of his own, Plein air, Plein air étude and The Machine in the Garden (all made in 1991). In fact, by 1987, Kerr had decamped from Toronto to become a professor of film studies at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan.

The McKenzie Art Gallery in Regina was open to experimental artists, and Kerr presented video installations, beginning with Still Life (1991), a time-lapsed, multi-monitor video piece. His next piece, Overlapping Entries (1993), large in scale and dually projected, combined video-generated and landscape montages, plus a highly reworked video of Marshall McLuhan in full flight during a classroom lecture. (The latter screen piece was subsequently reworked as a single-monitor video piece.)

Meanwhile, Kerr began preparations for a fully scripted 35mm feature film, the willing voyeur (1996). It was intended to be his long-delayed return to the kind of narrative filmmaking he had worked into the successful On Land over Water. the willing voyeur focuses on two female protagonists and takes place on a train from Washington, D.C., to Regina. (The film features several long scenes in Regina’s historic, semi-ruined railway station.) The project was plagued from the start because of a confused script, funding inadequacies and production problems. These troubles reflect what can happen to an incautious experimental filmmaker who attempts the industrial mode of production. Although it has some striking passages and, surprisingly, a few scenes of very strong acting (none of which involve the feckless TV actresses cast as leads), neither the film’s structure nor style materialized satisfactorily and its plot was a muddle (in contrast to the elliptical grace with which Kerr negotiated On Land over Water). The film was never widely circulated.

Dropping back from 35mm to handheld video, Kerr’s next project, human tragedy on a grand scale (1999), experienced different kinds of problems. It was planned as a heavily stylized documentary portrait of Ernest Hemingway’s grandson and was intended to coincide with the author’s centennial. However, the Hemingway family threatened to sue Kerr, so he was obliged to delay and, finally, re-edit the film. In the end, Kerr was unable to find a suitable form for the film. Nonetheless, the influence of the long cinéma-vérité segment shot on the mean streets of Vancouver, revealing the lives of those addicted to heroine, continues to influence filmed depictions of these social problems years after the film was first shown — in both cuts — at the Vancouver Film Festival in 1999.

the willing voyeur and human tragedy on a grand scale, the two ambitious film projects Kerr undertook in the later 1990s, harmed his career as a filmmaker. While he has continued to shoot and edit some remarkable diaristic videos, Kerr has yet to shape them into a final form. He has instead concentrated on two cycles of static works using lightboxes. The first, After Motion Pictures, started amid the frustration of the willing voyeur, is a collection of large boxes over which he runs strips of found film footage. Much of the material is from ruined reels and trailers discovered at a deserted Regina drive-in and outtakes from his own films like Cruel Rhythm.

The works, which are impressive elegiac inversions of Kerr’s video installations, were shown en suite at the McKenzie Art Gallery, then mostly dispersed to collections in Western Canada, with the largest selection in Lethbridge, Alberta. After he completed the installations, Kerr moved to Montreal to teach film studies at Concordia University, where he now heads the graduate production department. Soon after his arrival, he began a new cycle of lightboxes, entitled Les collages de Hollywood and an experimental 35mm collage-compilation film of the same (working) title, now in postproduction.

Kerr’s role in recent Canadian experimental cinema, from the late 1980s to the early 1990s, is secure, and his importance as a film production teacher (like Philip Hoffman) is well recognized. Whether Kerr will renew and recast his place among contemporary experimental filmmakers remains to be seen.

By Bart Testa

Film and video work includes

Hawkesville to Wallenstein, 1977 (director; writer; cinematographer; producer)
Vesta Lunch (a.k.a. Cookin’ at the Vesta), 1978 (director)
Dogs Have Tales, 1979 (director)
Canal, 1981 (director; producer)
Luck is the Residue of Desire, 1982 (director; cinematographer; editor)
The Road Ended at the Beach, 1982 (sound)
Where's Howie?, 1983 (sound)
On Land over Water (Six Stories) (includes: Indian Camp, Shotgun Stories, Drive to Work, Spirit Astray, His Romantic Movement, At Her Cottage), 1984 (director)
The Last Days of Contrition, 1988 (director; writer; co-cinematographer with Todd Irving; co-editor with Jackie Dzuba; producer)
Cruel Rhythm, 1991 (director; co-cinematographer with Todd Irving; editor)
Machine in the Garden, 1991 (director; cinematographer; co-editor with Roger Roscoe; producer)
Plein air, 1991 (director; co-cinematographer with Todd Irving; co-editor with Jackie Dzuba)
Plein air étude, 1991, (director; producer)
McLuhan, 1993 (director; producer)
Out of Control: Behind the Scenes of Gun Control!, 1994 (producer)
Plot #9 (Guilt and Defeat), 1995 (director; co-writer with Allan Zweig, Patrick Butler, Jake Roberts; co-editor with Todd Irving; producer)
the willing voyeur, 1996 (director, writer, editor, producer)
...never confuse movement with action, 1998 (director)
human tragedy on a grand scale, 1999 (director)
Pictures of Sound #1, 2000 (director)
i was a strong man until i left home, 2000 (director)

Note: Updated to January 2003.



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