Color, 1967, 88 mins. 31 secs
Directed by Don Owen
Alexis Kanner, Judith Gault, Jackie Burroughs, Derek May, Louis Negin, Leonard Cohen
Canadian International Pictures (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
Though there are exceptions, the heyday of Canadian indie filmmaking from the '60s through the mid-1980s has been sorely underrepresented on home video since its initial explosion on VHS. A lot of key films and overlooked treasures have completely fallen through the cracks since then, and even some significant titles have started to suffer from film element issues. One new company that looks like a welcome source to address that issue is Canadian International Pictures, which seems poised to give new life to films that often tread that fine line between art and exploitation. Its first offering, The Ernie Game, is a drama produced by the National Film Board of Canada and exhibited at Cannes in 1969. Unfortunately it didn't get much traction after that, but from both a cinematic and music standpoint it seems like a significant film that pointed the way for many things to come.
After being released from a mental institution, writer Ernie Turner (Kanner, best known for his showy two-episode stint on The Prisoner) hits the icy streets of Montreal when he's unable to come up with enough rent money to stay in his apartment. He accepts an invitation to a party where Leonard Cohen happens to be sitting on the floor providing live musical entertainment, but mostly he's fixated on the opposite sex-- be it a new fling with copy writer Donna (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravtiz's Gault) or a very volatile reunion with his ex Gail (The Dead Zone's Burroughs) and her kid. Prone to self-destructive impulses but unable to take any responsibility for his life choices, Ernie seems to be spiraling in a downward direction as he tries to hang on to his creative dreams.
With its drifting young protagonist and pop-folk soundtrack, this one starts off feeling a lot like the Canadian equivalent of the same year's The Graduate. However, it soon swerves in a darker and more melancholy direction despite the abundance of very bright and colorful decor present throughout, which also contrasts with the atmospheric shots of a wintry Montreal complete with great looks at its many shops, parks, and even a quick trip to a movie theater. This marked the second feature (and first in color) for Canadian filmmaker Don Owen, who had been making documentaries for the National Film Board of Canada and directed their premiere in-house feature, 1965's Nobody Waved Good-bye. He shows a great deal of visual skill here balancing color and composition to underscore the main character's desperation and mental imbalance, which rises to the surface at some unexpected points and leads to a haunting final scene that really sticks with you. The promotional copy for this film's restoration and reissue touts it as a forerunner to Taxi Driver, though you could easily draw a line to other films as well including Model Shop, Five Easy Pieces, and even more recent ones like Garden State and Red Rocket. It was also ahead of the curve of the wave of "disconnected young man" films that U.S. studios scrambling to churn out in the early '70s, most inspired by British kitchen sink realism and ignored at the box office (like Cover Me Babe and Jennifer on My Mind).
Apparently never released before on home video, The Ernie Game hit Blu-ray in 2022 in a robust edition featuring several nice bonuses from the National Film Board archives. The main feature (from a 2K scan of an archival interpositive 35mm print) looks healthy throughout with good color and contrast as well as no visible damage; there's some waxiness that would suggest substantial noise reduction, though without anything else for comparison it's hard to judge the degree here. The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 mono track sounds crisp and clean, with optional English SDH subtitles provided. The film can be played with or without a bonus intro short, Cosmic Zoom (1968, 8m1s), an impressive animated short by Robert Verrall that must have blown a few minds in an altered state at the time with its wild perspective shifting from the outer reaches of the cosmos to the microscopic world inside human blood cells, all centered around an idyllic boat passenger. Also included are four bonus shorts directed by Owen: High Steel (1965, 13m54s), a look at Canadian iron workers told from the point of view of a First Nations employee; Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen (1965, 44m14s), a snapshot of the legendary ]singer-songwriter co-directed by Donald Brittain, here focusing on his time in Montreal as a poet, novelist, and public speaker given he hadn't released his first album yet; Notes for a Film About Donna & Gail (1966, 48m44s), a fictional look at two young roomies (played by Burroughs and Michele Chicoine) whose characters would recur in the main feature and are seen here juggling their dreams and day jobs as their friendship ebbs under the observation of a questionable narrator; and A Further Glimpse of Joey (1966, 28m1s), a matter-of-fact depiction of a young boy adjusting to life in his adopted home ranging from a boat trip with his new dad to days spent wandering alone in his neighborhood. An insert booklet features an essay by Steve Gravestock, "Reaching for the Sky Just to Surrender," offering a well-researching overview of Owen's career, the film's rocky reception at its production home, and some interesting possible readings of the main character's psyche.
Reviewed on January 31, 2022.