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Fade Out in Montreal

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Fade Out in Montreal, image,
Serge Losique and guests at the entrance to the Imperial Theatre during the 2018 MWFF. Photo © 2018 by Maurie Alioff.

Fade Out in Montreal
By Maurie Alioff – Québec Correspondent

(May 24, 2021 – Montréal, Québec) The apparent demise of Montreal’s international film festival, run since its inception in the 1970s by its President, Serge Losique, has meaning beyond the fate of this one event. In its glory days, the Montreal World Film Festival was a vibrant manifestation of the city’s thriving movie culture. Audiences embraced all kinds of films from Hollywood extravaganzas to indie experiments and international pictures to retrospectives of individualistic standout directors like Fellini, Welles, Ford, Kurosawa, and Fuller.

Of course, passionate, often knowledgeable movie talk is rampant online, for instance in Stanley Kubrick discussion groups, the widely followed Incredibly Strange Films, and threads on the Facebook pages of scholars like Joseph McBride and Jonathan Rosenbaum, not to mention filmmakers like Paul Schrader. Every day, the Kubrick aficionados come up with another take on Eyes Wide Shut or a revelation about The Shining. Group members, some of them obviously in the business, post interesting background information and never-before-seen pics of geniuses at work on familiar sets.

Typical of online film discussion, Michael Hickey recently wrote about Kubrick’s last film that Eyes Wide Shut is a “labyrinthine story largely about identity … It begins to seem as if the good doctor [Tom Cruise’s character] is losing his grip on reality. And his night has just begun. Things won’t be cleared up anytime soon, if at all.”

Cinéastes and fans now have unprecedented opportunity to discuss the movies they love, hate, or are confused about. They engage in hot debates and praise each other’s insights with “likes” and “loves.” They learn about the production of Alien or Citizen Kane, casting disasters that were narrowly avoided, on set conflicts and scandalous behaviour.

But there’s one dimension of movie experience they never enjoy as they hammer away at their keyboards around the world. They can’t plug into the communal warmth and shared kick of watching a film together in a theatre. Of course, before COVID-19, people were going out to the movies, but in diminishing numbers. If Alien had been released in 2021, far less people would have screamed in unison when the baby monster wriggled out of John Hurt’s belly.

I have nothing against streaming feature films and brilliant series like The Underground Railroad or Small Axe. But I miss theatres like the Loews, which originated as a vaudeville house in 1917, became Canada’s largest movie house, seated huge audiences, and was itself like a luxuriant movie set. A few old-time, elegant venues like the Imperial and the Outremont are left, but they don’t play movies regularly, and in fact, the Imperial is mostly dark. I fondly remember the manager of the multiscreen version of the Loews and exiting into the alley between Mansfield and Metcalfe, vibing with friends about a new Brian De Palma release, or some other flick.

Fade Out in Montreal, image,
Montréal’s Ste-Catherine Street in the 1970s.

Many Montrealers were saddened by the recent news that even the architecture of the Loews building won’t survive as it devolves into yet another condo project. The city’s exhibition culture has been hit hard by COVID, and it’s hard to say what state it will be in once the world hopefully attains normalcy. Once upon a time, between 1952-53, 77 Montreal standalone theatres were open seven days a week estimates Northernstars publisher Ralph Lucas.

The death of the Loews Theatre in the summer of 2021 matches up with what seems like the final death rattle of Serge Losique’s World Film Festival. I am using words like “apparent” and “seems like” because you never know with Losique. I worked on programming in 2018, and was proud to build a slate of pictures that were worth the price of admission. In 2019, Losique, after enduring many emergencies and debacles, decided to forego the edition with the idea of better preparing 2020. This plan was decimated by the pandemic.

August 2021 would have marked the 45th edition of the MWFF. Losique and his supporters have been silent about it. Back in 2013, on the cusp of the festival’s opening despite the disabling government funding cuts that had gone on for years, Losique launched his ritual polemic defending his beloved fest. “Look at Cannes,” he told The Montreal Gazette’s T’cha Dunlevy, “What is it with their famous steps? It’s for diamond and perfume companies, pretty women in pretty dresses, L’Oréal, etc., with nobody around. Why? So a photographer can take a photo. But what does it have to do with cinema. Here, we couldn’t do that. The public wouldn’t allow it.”

Only Losique would make a crack like that. Or insist that “People judge you because you don’t have American stars. So what? You see American films every day.” The implication is that the Toronto International Film Festival is strictly about Hollywood glamour, and Cannes is really a perfume promo. Thousands of filmgoers have zero interest in seeing a variety of charming or provocative or boundary pushing films from different countries. Not the reality of course, but on other hand, TIFF without the stars in the street, the red carpets, the party reports, any slide in media coverage could dampen the enthusiasm of corporate sponsors and funders. In a sense, Losique has been right. For Losique “Our public wants cinema, and our public will find cinema. All the films we show are world premieres, international premieres, or North American premieres. We don’t take films from other festivals.” The MWFF is the only internationally recognized competitive festival in North America.

Serge Losique expressed Montreal filmgoers’ vision of themselves as lovers of film and true believers in experiencing its wonders once that ruby red curtain opens on the vast screen. He has been uncharacteristically subdued since the 2019 festival failed to materialize.

To check in on him, I reached out to people who have known or worked with Losique for years. What is he doing? Where is this enigmatic man living?

Said one industry veteran, “I would imagine he’s in a fine country house watching foreign movies, like Mussolini did decades before him in a theatre alone, which spawned the Venice film festival.”

Another lady told me, “I have no idea where he is (his country house?) I cannot imagine what he’s doing or whether he is even still in good health. I mean, he’s really getting on in age and I can’t imagine that the pandemic is doing him much good. I can guess that, if he’s doing anything, it’s that he’s probably mulling some plan for the FFM to come back from the dead. I mean, I don’t know if he’s had any other preoccupation in life than his festival.”

“Hi Maurie,” said a long-time colleague, “I have little or no idea… and if I did, I would not share. Am still in touch but would never share, imagine or speculate. Sorry.”

Northernstars logo image Maurie Alioff is a film journalist, critic, screenwriter and media columnist. He has written for radio and television and taught screenwriting at Montreal’s Vanier College. A former editor for Cinema Canada and Take One, as well as other magazines, he is affiliated with the Quebec media industry publication, CTVM.Info. His articles have appeared in various publications, including Canadian Cinematographer, POV Magazine, and The New York Times. He is the Québec Correspondent for northernstars.ca.