Canuck cowboy controversy

In Arts & Life /

Paperback Hero, directed by former Ryerson film student, Peter Pearson, stars a crazy Canadian cowboy and set the stage for feminist rage and gay disputes when it hit the big screens in the ’70s. Now, Pearson want to bring this character back. Amanda-Marie Quintino writes.

Peter Pearson grew up in the so-called golden days of television. Now he’s living in the entertainment industry’s “disorganized, disgusting and disordered era” —and he’s determined to bring the brilliance back.

He was brought up during a period when the dinnertime hour was spent singing along to songs on The Ed Sullivan Show and weekend mornings were spent thigh-slapping at the hilarious hijinks of Rocky and Bullwinkle.

It may not have been great quality, but television was good, clean fun in its early days, says Toronto-born Pearson, who took a television course two evenings a week at Ryerson in the fall of 1961.

“All I see nowadays when I turn on the TV is garbage,” he says. “I see the trailers for movies they’re playing in the theatres and I wince.”

With prime-time programming now being polluted with superficial sitcoms and tacky talk shows, Pearson, 58, feels it is his responsibility to rejuvenate the medium with some good script-writing, detailed directing and a touch of truth-telling.

“We’ve really self-destructed on the small and big screen,” says Pearson, whose most popular film will be screening at a downtown theatre next week. “I’ve set out to create works that deal with real issues in real time, the types of productions that have a moral and prove a point.”

Although he always found that big brown box with the small silver dials intriguing, he never thought it would play a part in his career­—at least not until he realized he had more up his sleeve than the simple suit and tie lifestyle.

“I went to a private school and my parents expected me to be that good grades, book worm kid,” explains Pearson, who also studied politics at the University of Toronto in the early sixties and was planning to attend Osgoode Law School.

“But it just got to a point where I couldn’t see myself being a lawyer like they wanted me to be. It just seemed boring to me.

“When confronted with the contrast of spending my life in an office as opposed to going out and doing something that could influence and entertain people, I knew a more exciting life was waiting for me in entertainment.”

Pearson took the course at Ryerson after “stumbling on an opportunity” to work as a studio director at the CBC even though he had no technical experience at all.

“After learning how to direct in the the control room and operate those pedestal cameras, I decided to get serious about this,” he says. “So I packed my bags and headed to Rome to study at (the National Film School of Italy, formerly known as Centro Sperimentale).”

When he returned to Toronto in 1964, he was an experienced, employable 24-year-old. So he decided to go out into the industry and put his passion into perspective through film.

But Pearson first fell in love with the fine arts long before his days at Ryerson. As a child, he performed in the Toronto Children’s Chorus, a young theatre troupe that put on plays at the nearby Carlu Theatre in College Park.

“People used to say I was quite the character,” he reminisces. “I was quite the star. I just remember liking the rush of it all, noticing how much the audience got into it.”

After being behind the scenes of an actual production, he realized his goal: to one day ensure that his work would give a room full of people a reason to applaud.

Since then, Pearson, now an established director, producer and screenwriter in the film and television industry, has heard the applause of thousands of hands.

Successfully battling bankruptcy and cruel critics throughout the years, Pearson’s movies and television dramas have been awarded a total of 19 Genie Awards (formerly the Canadian Film Awards), more than any other Canadian director in history. From 1972 through 1975, he served as president of the Directors’ Guild of Canada and executive director of Telefilm from 1985 to 1987. His most popular films include The Best Damn Fiddler from Catabogie to Kaladar (1968), Only God Knows (1974), and The Tar Sands (1977).

In July, Pearson screened one of the most acclaimed, yet most controversial films he has ever directed, Paperback Hero, which was originally on the big screen in 1973, at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The film tells the tale of Rick Dillon, “a hardware clerk in Saskatchewan who confuses hockey heroics in a beer league with gun-slinging in Hollywood’s Wild West,” reads an excerpt from his soon-to-be-released book,Entertaining Insurrection. The book, written in memoir form with a focus on how the reel life has gotten less and less real over the past five decades.

Based on a character in Margaret Atwood’s Survival, former National Hockey Leaguer Rick convinces himself his life is just like the movies by doing off-beat things. This includes carrying a six-shooter pistol even though it’s illegal, and driving his Mustang across the prairies rather than galloping his horse.

The film, rife with representations of typical male pride, received rave reviews and nods of approval at the festival. But Pearson didn’t always get applause for Paperback Hero.

“Reviewers and audience members were offended when it came out in the seventies,” explains Pearson, adding that the film contains a domestic violence scene.

“It was reviled by gays and feminists who found him offensive and felt as if the film glorified the aggressive male stereotype. It was a puzzling response for me. I was just making a movie, telling the story of a small town dufus, not an evil ogre.”

Pearson is eager to see and hear the reaction the film will get at its next screening.

“Either way, it doesn’t matter to me,” he says. “I just always wanted to give people something to think about, to produce engaging work. And if debate is being caused, I’ve done my job. I may not understand what all the fuss is about, but at least it’s effective.”

Paperback Hero will be screened at 8 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 17 at the Carlton Cinemas.

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