"Can you do the kiss again," an off-camera voice asks in Lonely Boy, Roman Kroitor’s 1962 documentary about Paul Anka, the Ottawa-born heartthrob. The scene, shot with a hand-held camera by the great cinematographer Wolf Koenig, takes place in the Copacabana in New York. Anka, back for a return engagement after a hugely successful debut, has just presented Jules Podell, the mob-linked owner of the nightclub, with an autographed picture of himself. Forgetting the camera’s watchful eye, the cigar-chomping Podell clasps Anka in a beefy embrace and plants a smacker on the young man’s cheek. That’s when the voice asks for a second take, as though they are actors playing themselves.
Anka doesn’t miss a beat. He glances at the camera, laughs and then leans over and kisses a bewildered Podell on his flabby cheek. That exchange could have been edited in many ways – including cutting the first kiss. Kroitor’s genius was to show it all. By slyly inviting us to observe the camera as hunter and the singer as quarry, he gives us an intimate portrait of a rock star on the hustle and an insight into the process of making a documentary. He doesn’t tell us what to think. We see and decide for ourselves.
Kroitor, a legendary cinema verité pioneer, whose National Film Board film credits include Glenn Gould: On and Off the Record and Stravinsky, died of a heart attack at 85 on Sept. 17. His great gift was editing and sound mixing, according to filmmaker Graeme Ferguson, a friend and colleague since the two met at the NFB as summer interns in the early 1950s. They went on to become co-founders and inventors of IMAX, the camera and projection system that revolutionized the experience of making and watching movies.
“A lot of us who came up as cameramen didn’t much care what the film was about,” Ferguson confessed. “We liked taking interesting pictures and figured they get stuck together in a useful way.”
Kroitor came from a different perspective. “Roman got really interested in a film about the moment that the footage arrived in the editing room. He was really good at conceiving a film and figuring out what it was about philosophically,” said Ferguson. “He was interested in exploring the human spirit and finding out what was going on inside human beings.”
The best early example of that approach is Paul Tomkowicz: Street-railway Switchman, a black-and-white documentary. It has a simple story-line – a day in the life of an immigrant worker who sweeps the snow and salts the ice on the tracks. But the lighting, the close-ups and the juxtaposed images of commuters impatiently waiting for the trolley make the film work as a profile of one man and as a larger narrative about the human condition.
“It is an extraordinary film,” said filmmaker Peter Raymont, who saw it for the first time as a student at Queen’s University in the late 1960s. “Beautifully shot . . . [the movie] is the heart of Canada, the heart of the human being, which is really what Roman did all of his life.”
That early cinema verité film taught Raymont that “people can tell their own stories; you don’t need a narrator to get between the subject and the viewer,” and that simple, if done well, can be profound. Essentially, Paul Tomkowicz, a “voice-over and gorgeous” images, “is the type of film anybody could make with a camera and a tape recorder” about the local diner, or a neighbourhood character.