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The Grub-Stake Revisited is an engrossing salute to Nell Shipman, a pioneering independent dynamo of the silent era.
The Grub-Stake Revisited is an engrossing salute to Nell Shipman, a pioneering independent dynamo of the silent era.

Striking gold with a legend’s classic silent film Add to ...

Between heaven and Nell

You don’t need Shakespeare and a live orchestra to beef up the high-country outdoor melodramatics of a Nell Shipman movie, but as The Grub-Stake Revisited (Bell Lightbox, May 6, 7:30 p.m.) so pleasingly proves, it doesn’t hurt.

Better known to feminist scholars and Canadian film archivists than the world at large, Shipman (born in Victoria in 1892) was a pioneering independent dynamo of the silent era: an actor, writer, director, owner of the continent’s largest private collection of live animals and a resolutely stubborn free spirit. She once turned down the offer of a seven-year contract from Sam Goldwyn, and ultimately went bankrupt because her self-distribution scheme collapsed in the face of studio-driven monopolization.

Not surprisingly then, her most popular and persistent persona was that of the fiercely scrappy woman who resists all seducers, is pursued across vast expanses of usually frozen wilderness, enjoys a convenient spiritual bond with the local wildlife and (more than once) comes to the rescue of a leading man who would be dead without her. In Back to God’s Country (1919), the made-in-Canada movie that consolidated her briefly streaking stardom, she even had a nude bathing scene in a northern lake, a testimony to her pluck, pioneering PR savvy and sheer outdoor heartiness.

The Grub-Stake, made in Washington and Idaho, was one of Shipman’s last shots at off-studio movie stardom before a financial flame out forced her off the screen, into bankruptcy and apart from her beloved menagerie (much of which appears in the film, making a final appearance before being sold to the San Diego Zoo). Co-directed with her business partner and lover, Bert Van Tuyle, a dashing production manager the married Shipman had fallen for while making God’s Country, the film followed the Shipman playbook to a literal cliffhanger of a T, featuring Nell as a woman who is lured into marriage by a conniving dance-hall gambler cum gold-rush pimp, but who escapes into the wilderness with her ailing father in order to defend both honour and independence when the gambler and his cronies show up. Along the way, she scales mountains, cavorts with bears, gets into a couple of slugfests, captures the heart of a French-Canadian woodsman and generally conducts herself in manners most attractively unbecoming.

Losing its distributor upon completion, The Grub-Stake was barely released, and Shipman’s stab at independent, self-managed movie stardom was effectively finished. She continued planning a comeback that never quite materialized and spent her remaining decades writing scripts, concocting scenarios and penning her memoirs. She died in California in 1974, largely but not completely forgotten. A Shipman revival was well under way by the nineties, culminating in a retrospective at the 2003 Toronto International Film Festival and the publication of University of Toronto professor Kay Armatage’s exhaustive biography The Girl From God’s Country.

The version of The Grub-Stake screening on Monday is an act of inspired creative repurposing, a live event that uses Shipman’s melodrama as a springboard to something else – maybe not something of which she would have approved, but something that testifies to her enduring sturdiness and leap-into-the-void chutzpah nevertheless.

The brainchild of Whitehorse-based composer and filmmaker Daniel Janke, this Yukon Film Society production not only condenses Shipman’s original film to a briskly galloping 74 minutes, it sets it to a score that is both lush and roots-tinged and – here’s the high part of the concept – eliminates all the inter-titles in favour of a brilliantly cherry-picked Shakespearean script spoke by live actors.

The result is exciting, funny and, for all its interventions, strangely reverential to the spirit of this singularly daring and amazing silent-movie pioneer, a woman who took risks, performed all her own stunts and tamed every beast but the roaring Hollywood lion.


Sonic Temple

Speaking of interventions, what would Jesus make of hardcore punk performed in his name?

According to the musicians, fans and other decibally jacked participants in the growing Christian hardcore movement documented in ChristCORE (at the Royal May 4-9), he would be totally down with it.

Directed by self-described atheist Saskatchewanian punk rocker Justin Ludwig, the movie provides a considered skeptic’s account of a scene that converges at certain festivals and events across the United States, and which is impressive not just for its fealty to the authentic sonic assault of mosh-pit churning hardcore punk, but to the utter sincerity of its participants, who make a very simple argument: If music is rapture and rapture is God, then do the math.

Adopting the form of a low-rent road movie tracking a couple of bands to various gigs and faith-based festivals, the film is far less analytical than observational, but it is fascinating to see Ludwig’s own deep-seated resistance (he claims he got into punk because of its built-in blasphemy) dilute in the face of such sheer, unwavering rock and roll conviction.

Indeed, as is noted more than once, everyone here is totally into the music and the scripture and “everyone is completely sober.” Or as Tommy Green, the charismatic faith healer, mosh-pit Baptist and lead singer of Christian hardcore superstars Sleeping Giant, puts it to Jesus: “You’re the awesomest, awesomest, awesomest of awesomeness.”



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