A fortunate encounter at this years edition of Fantasia has led me to a treasure trove of Larry Kent (Canada’s godfather of indie and counterculture cinema who has been active from the early sixties right up to two new films in the past 4 years) DVDs which I will be exploring over the next couple weeks. The kick-off is the drug psychedelic kill-trip that pre-dates Natural Born Killers and The Doom Generation by several decades: 1967’s HIGH.
Tom is a college drop-out who keeps his sex and drug fuelled lifestyle going by playing gigolo to older women (and stealing their husbands credit cards, post-coitus), selling oregano to undiscriminating acquaintances, while keeping the good ganja for himself, and otherwise confidently hustling his way in and out of situations. He is somewhat of a cross between Breathless-era Jean-Paul Belmondo and Fritz the Cat, who may or may not have a few bastard children scattered about his stomping grounds of late sixties Montreal. His femme-du-jour, Vicky, may on occasion, pester him about ‘the future’ but for now – and in the now – she has no issues about getting down in an impromptu, casual three-way with her roommate under marijuana-laden red-filter cinematography. One of the films best scenes (and one of several sex scenes) has the contrast so low that you can only make out hats and hair: an animated tangle of long locks AND short pubes. Tom’s recent score of a Finnish Diplomat’s Charge-Ex card leads to a getaway weekend consisting of airports, 5-Star hotels, upscale city eateries and romping around in the fountains and shops along Kings St. in Toronto. Upon the couples return to Montreal, there is a desire for a little more of the good life, obtained the easy way. Before you can say, “Live fast, die young, and leave a good looking corpse,” director Larry Kent has (whether intentionally or not) changed the rules of the criminal youth on the run genre before they have even been fully fleshed out. Both Bonnie and Clyde and High at the time were playing festivals simultaneously, and while the latter doesn’t have the caliber of actors featured in the former, or the technical resources for that matter, it makes up for it with the tools of the indie filmmaker, a veneer of exploitation and lot of pluck. Supposedly, Warren Beatty was a big fan when both films played alongside one another in the Montreal International Film Festival in ’67.
For someone born in the 1970s, I have to wonder how High was received at the time of its release, beyond the simple factual history of its censoring and banning by the Quebec government. Sporting a psychedelic soundtrack, an in-the-moment vibe that seems to celebrate and condemn the free-loving hippie life-style and straddling the divide of a porn peep show and a Canadian riff on European arthouse of the day. With the French Nouvelle Vague in full swing in arthouse circles, Jack Smith on the experimental film/theatre side of things in New York, and the Summer of Love writ large in popular culture of the time, High seems to exist right middle of all these things while still being its own vérité beast. Viewing a film like this 40+ years after its release it can on one hand be considered a fascinating cultural document, on the other hard to disentangle from trends and fads of the day. Cinematic capture of street scenes and drug squatter homes of Montreal recall the aimless and confused romp down Yonge in Don Shebib’s Goin’ Down The Road. But surprise! When a plot of sorts starts to coalesce within the film, several interesting things, from feminism to genre subversion, start to click into place.