Vancouver, early 1963. Since he moved here from South Africa in 1957, 26-year-old Larry Kent has kept himself busy. He works at Pacific Press as a typesetter, a job he hates. But it pays for what he does with another part of his time, which is studying theatre at the University of British Columbia. He’s also newly married.
Time isn’t the only thing Larry Kent doesn’t have. He also lacks money, filmmaking experience, production equipment or any idea what to do with a movie even if he ever got it made.
Yet he decides to make a movie.
Forty-nine years later, before a Toronto International Film Festival retrospective screening of that movie, The Bitter Ash, the now 75-year-old Kent laughs when asked the obvious question: What was he thinking?
“I have no idea what I was thinking,” he says. “Obviously, we were a little crazy.”
The Bitter Ash is about a triangle, but you’d be stretching things to call it romantic. The story begins with Des (Alan Scarfe) going to work at Pacific Press after learning that his girlfriend is pregnant. Then we meet Laurie (Lynn Stewart) and Colin (Philip Brown), a bohemian couple with one baby on the hip and another on the way. Colin’s at work on an absurdist play he’s convinced will alert the world to his tempestuous genius, but Laurie suspects this will only mean working more late shifts at the diner.
When the couple hosts a would-be boho beat party to raise rent money, Des shows up and everything goes just as badly as you could possibly imagine .
The Bitter Ash is not a happy or hopeful film, but it is, even with all its technical shortcomings, an honest and genuinely amazing one. “I came from South Africa,” Kent says today. “And to come from South Africa is to come from British culture, and to come from British culture is to be acutely class-conscious. Also, being a printer and a working-class guy is very frustrating, very anger-making. It’s in my DNA.”
It was the dizzying value gap between the printing-press job and the university theatre department that was making Kent’s blood boil, and he felt compelled to make a movie about those colliding worlds. In the process, he capitalized on students’ frustration over the stuffy irrelevance of the curriculum, and their willingness to throw themselves in front of his camera. He also anticipated one of the defining cultural rifts of the emerging decade.
When the movie opened later in 1963 at the campus student union, the theatre was packed and there was a lineup outside to get in. For a moment, it looked like this raggedy-ass little movie might be something of a hit. Then the controversy started.
As tame as it might seem now, The Bitter Ash ignited a firestorm for it’s frank depiction of matters sexual, pharmaceutical, moral and generational. Kent had barely been able to wrest it free of the lab when word spread across the country about this ‘dirty’ little Canadian movie from Vancouver. It was pretty much dead before it was born.
Triumphant screenings did take place at McMaster University in Hamilton and McGill in Montreal, where students allegedly broke a door down in order to flood a sold-out hall, but then the movie pretty much disappeared, both from screens and from history. Nobody talked about Bitter Ash or Larry Kent for years, despite the fact the movie was perhaps Canada’s first-ever independent feature.
Indeed, Kent didn’t bother to take his film when he left Vancouver for Montreal a few years later. If it weren’t for a former landlord who kept the movie in his basement until the National Archives in Ottawa came knocking years later, there would be no Bitter Ash at all.
Despite the fact it’s still a struggle to get movies financed, made and distributed, and notwithstanding the fact that the The Bitter Ash is the first Larry Kent film that TIFF has seen fit to screen in years, Kent is still pursuing his craft. A new movie is set to roll in Vancouver later this year. He isn’t exactly sure how or why, but it will.