|Once a major route between|
Canada's largest city, Toronto
& Canada's Capital city, Ottawa,
this stretch of the Trans Canada
is one endless Ghost Town.
Dir. Neil Graham, Derreck Roemer
Review By Greg Klymkiw
I could say life is just a bowl of JelloCanada is overflowing with communities like Arden, Ontario. These towns, villages and hamlets are replete with piles of refuse, old abandoned vehicles, shuttered, rotting storefronts, eateries, motels, gas stations, homes and an almost cavernous, echoing cornucopia of other deader-than-a-doornail businesses and structures. Dolloped like mounds of waste matter along long stretches of abandoned highways and byways of our great country, they seem even more depressing to the naked eye than urban blight. We expect blight in larger urban cesspools, but not amidst the natural beauty resting beyond the borders of our deceptively genteel Gotham Cities. Our eyes see waste and decay in this rural paradise, but our hearts and minds are with those who once thrived in these locales. Sometimes, we even turn our thoughts to those who do manage to carve out a living in such places and we like to positively think that it might not be so bad. We imagine it might be a warm, restful and comfortable place to live, work and thrive. For all of us, who've had such thoughts, filmmakers Neil Graham and Derreck Roemer aim their camera-eyes upon one tiny slice of an alternately literal and figurative wasteland in their compelling, revealing and downright informative 74-minute documentary The Lost Highway.
And appear more intelligent and smart,
But I'm stuck like a dope
With a thing called hope,
And I can't get it out of my heart!
Not this heart ... -- from "South Pacific"
the hit musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein
The results prove to be less than positive once we meet the people. Sure, good intentions, good ideas and a kind of cockeyed optimism are the order of the day, but optimism, much less cockeyed optimism, doesn't put bread on the table and certainly doesn't point towards the healthiest of futures.
Once the main route from Canada's largest city, Toronto, to the nation's capital, Ottawa, Highway 7 has long been supplanted by larger highways and a once bustling two-lane-blacktop might well be the country's largest, longest strip of ghost town. Curiously, I've taken the route myself and have always found it to be a far more pleasant alternative to the supposed super highways that are so often wall-to-wall traffic jams, but there's no accounting for humanity's lemming-like behaviour, especially Torontonians who are infused with an almost pathological desire to lineup for everything.
The movie focuses primarily upon two families. One is Howard Gibbs, an 80-year-old owner of a gas station that's been part of his family for close to a century. His dream is to keep the business in the family. His daughter is a single mom and she decides to move to the old homestead and take a shot at it. Howard's a wily, irascible old coot - kind of like Bruce Dern in Nebraska, but with a decidedly Canadian timbre in his voice. He's a former local politician and full of the delightful corn-pone double-speak so many rural politicians are endowed with (and unlike some, he's not a crack user). It doesn't take us too long to realize there might be more than a few secrets Bill's keeping from us and by extension, his daughter. Alas, it seems to take her a longer time to figure that out and contributes mightily to the narrative thrust of the picture.
In fairness to the cracker-barrel-funny Howard, he's facing a disaster of monumental proportions. Some idiot bureaucrat (is there any other kind?) demands he sell off his remaining gas and shut his gas station down until an environmental assessment can be undertaken, the result of which will most certainly involve replacing the tanks. Bureaucrats demanding such things are always the sort of losers to target people who can't afford to properly fight them and the costs associated with these demands are extremely usurious. Howard assumes the idiot government doesn't want to discourage business and that if they're especially concerned about the environmental issues surrounding the state of the station's tanks, that they'll provide some form of financial relief. We wait, like Howard and his daughter, with baited breath to see if this will be so. In the meantime, Howard is forced to clear cut his acreage and sell off the trees as timber to make ends meet. So much for the environment. Fucking idiot bureaucrats!
The other family is a couple from the "big city" who move to Arden with a dream to build a swanky upscale lodge. This isn't the craziest idea in the world - if they can market to people who already use the route as an alternative to the superhighways or even institute a marketing plan that includes persuading people to consider the alternate route, they might just make it. Unfortunately, business doesn't boom. They were properly capitalized to setup, but don't necessarily have the capital to weather the usual early storms new businesses face.
Add to this, marital strife.
And yes, there's certainly even strife on display of a different kind between Howard and his daughter. He's either intentionally or naively withholding truths from her. The film takes on an added and harrowing dimension of parallel narratives involving family conflicts. (There's also a - I know, it shouldn't be funny, but it is - sequence where Howard just up and mysteriously disappears. Turns out, he's been on some wild shack-up with a friendly lassie.
In addition to the aforementioned, there's a nice subplot involving the remaining residents of Arden and their attempts to get people to stop in the town. Close, but no cigar, folks. There's really nothing in Arden to attract anyone to stop. Even if they did, what would they spend money on? What would they do? Patronize the one craft store that's not even open all year round? And no offence, but almost everyone living there seems ready for respite. Youth and plenty of it is what's needed, but in places like Arden, those not in their dotage are in short supply.
Directors Graham and Roemer have great material on their hands and within the slight, but perfectly pleasing 74-minute running time, they weave a tale that on the surface is exquisitely simple and direct, but just below the flesh, the movie reveals several layers that run deep to the core. There's also something very special and uniquely Canadian about the film and this version of the film would, no doubt, be of considerable interest to communities outside of the major centres. In a perfect world, it's the kind of picture that should be touring rural areas from coast to coast. The problems facing the town and subjects of the film are universal and not unlike those many communities face across the country. I daresay the film's universal qualities could even translate into rural areas throughout America's heartland. That the movie also presents a very real human element in terms of deception and strife amongst families, is a very luscious cherry on the hot fudge sundae.
And who knows, maybe the movie will even inspire a few lemmings from Toronto to take Highway 7.
The Lost Highway, at least for now, can only be seen in the manner its filmmakers intended, at one show, in one theatre, in one city: Sunday, April 6, 2014 at 4:00pm at the lovely community cinema The Revue at 400 Roncesvalles in the heart of Little Poland and High Park in Toronto. Rural viewers should be pestering the TIFF Film Circuit HERE about arranging screenings of this feature length cut. A version that appears to be less than one-hour-long will be playing on TVO's Doc Studio HERE, so Ontario viewers can watch this short version, or instead, start harassing the PUBLIC BROADCASTER to play the real version. A very nice lady who might be amenable to your desires is the Doc Studio's Commissioning Editor. She can be reached by emailing her HERE