Monday, April 21, 2014
The Lost Highway: Superb TVO Documentary
Depressed about the current state of Canadian TV?
May I suggest as a quick pick-me-up the beautifully realized new TVOntario documentary The Lost Highway premiering on TVO Wednesday April 23 at 9 p.m?
The fact it is so good just doesn't surprise me at all.
That's because it's the work of veteran documentary film makers Derreck Roemer and Neil Graham who won the Gemini for direction for their last documentary Last Call At The Gladstone Hotel.
"We were lucky then in hooking into a narrative that unfolded in a special way," Graham (or is it Roemer) is saying --I interviewed the partners on the telephone and couldn't always distinguish between the two --they sometimes finish each other's sentences.
In Last Call they documented an attempt to transform the aging Victorian relic Toronto's Gladstone Hotel which turned out to be so thorough all the former tenants of the upper floors could no longer afford to live there.
In Lost Highway they examine nostalgically a part of an iconic Ontario highway --Highway Seven --that has deteriorated with the decades and is now a seldom travelled backwater.
They claim they're lucky again but both times it's far more than luck.
Roemer and Graham have a knack of latching onto true characters who first surprise us with their sheer individuality and then cause us to be concerned about their future.
I know a lot about Highway 7 having spent summers in the Havelock-Marmora area in the Fifties when it was an extremely busy and bustling through fare from Toronto to Peterborough to Smith's Falls to Ottawa.
"No more," says Graham.
For one thing travellng habits have changed and an outing these days to the nation's capital might take the average family along the 401 to Kingston and then up to Ottawa.
So Highway 7 has been depopulated into dilapidated motels that seem right out of Psycho and deserted farm houses that speak of another era.
Everything changes seems to be the moral of this story and to illustrate it Roemer and Graham have found some deliciously odd ball characters along the route.
There's the nostalgic senior Howard Gibbs who is never short of words.
His family (beginning with his father) have owned Gibbs Gasoline for 80 years. In the early days the big oil companies vied to build gas stations and install state-of-the-art pumps.
These days Gibbs gas needs a new lining in the underground tank before it can re-open for business.
And most drivers these days prefer traveling from Peterborough to Ottawa without a break.
Gibbs is the ex-warden of Frontenac county, a melancholiac at heart as he talks about a way of life that has vanished.
Daughter Melanie is trying to revive the station but wife Hope is never seen --she's moved out to nurse a neighbor--and it seems like she'll never return..
"We wanted to interview her but she declines," Roemer says.
At one point Howard goes missing for days. Suicide? Murder? Melanie says he went away with another woman.
Neighbors David Draski and wife Linda Tremblay have their own set of challenges as they try to repair a crumbling farmhouse into an elegant bed and breakfast called Nomad's Rest.
Arden's last remaining retailer (profiled here) is batik artist Sarah Hale who closes down for the winter because business is so scarce.
The village actually has a name --Arden -- it used to be a bustling center of the logging industry with three general storers all of which have closed. The few villagers left prefer shopping these days in the larger town of Madoc.
The Lost Highway has that great capacity to surprise. One ends up caring about these great individuals and wanting them not merely to survive but flourish.
And because Lost Highway runs on TVO Roemer and Graham have an elongated 58 minutes to tell their story (CBC documentaries run 44 minutes).
A story this well made deserves to be savored --here is Canadiana at its best.
THE LOST HIGHWAY PREMIERES ON TVONTARIO WEDNESDAY APRIL 23 AT 9 P.M. (REPEATED AT MIDNIGHT AND SUNDAY APRIL 27 AT 11 P.M.)
MY RATING: ****.