In Memoriam: Peter Harcourt (1931-2014)
Monday, July 14, 2014
Peter Harcourt, An Introduction
When Joyce Nelson and I edited our anthology Canadian Film Reader in 1977 we decided to end the book with a chapter entitled, “Introduction.” It was too cute a ploy, something I wouldn’t do today. On the other hand I’ve never regretted our choice of author for that piece: Peter Harcourt.
Peter was the Introduction to Canadian Film. He began by introducing it to himself, coming around the long way as so many people did back then. As a University of Toronto undergrad he studied music and played jazz trumpet. Then he off he went to study English literature at Cambridge under the sway of F.R. Leavis who demanded only that the study of anything be productively engaged in the construction of a better world. Like Grierson or fellow Leavis student, Robin Wood, Peter came to believe that film was his path to exactly that sort of critical engagement. The early sixties found him working at the British Film Institute’s Education Department, contributing to the film journals of the day and eventually teaching film courses at a number of art schools around London.
England, as it turned out, was prologue. In 1964, Peter wrote a long article for Sight and Sound about the National Film Board’s Unit B. In it, we find that self-introduction to his own national cinema:
There is something very Canadian in all this, something which my own Canadianness prompts me to define. There is in all these films a quality of suspended judgment, of something left open at the end, of something undecided…there is also something academic about the way Canadian films have been conceived. There is something rather detached from the immediate pressures of existence, something rather apart. “The Innocent Eye: An Aspect of the Work of the National Film Board of Canada” (Sight and Sound, 34, 1 (Winter, 1964-65), p. 21.
It seems to me that when Peter wrote this he had found his Leavis-mandated cause, the nexus of his critical work: a non-negotiable demand for purposeful detachment, manning the barricades of a space “rather apart.”
So began Peter’s second work of introduction, introducing this understanding of Canadian cinema, Canadianness, Canada to Canadians themselves. He returned home to a perfect storm of cinematic energies: a crescendo of Canadian documentary at Expo and Challenge for Change; the chaos (creative and otherwise) of a newly subsidized feature film industry, a free for all of emerging talent finding its way into every genre. Peter was hired to add one more ingredient to the mix: university film studies. He founded the program at Queen’s in 1967, shaped the emerging York program beginning in 1974 and then went on to his permanent home, Carleton, in 1978.
Peter taught with humanity and passion, weaving together the cosmopolitan refinement gleaned from his London days and the pursuit of his Canadian mission. His classroom was a conversation that often spilled over to the campus pub. No one was left unheard. Peter’s former students smile at the sound of his name.
He also wrote – constantly and on everything from European masters and emerging experimental filmmakers to the minutiae of government film policy. I don’t recall him attacking films or filmmakers, not even those of the New Hollywood, our principal nemesis. What he did best was to champion filmmakers who mirrored his own discovery of detachment and the something rather apart. His pantheon was made of cinematic slow food, filmmakers who could wait for the point to make itself.
Peter’s most lasting introduction – what I will remember him most for providing – was the introduction of all of us to each other. His pursuit of Canadian cinema took place at the personal level, over who knows how many dinners over who knows how many years. He always cited people, no matter how elevated their stature, by their first names. This wasn’t entertainment sleaze-speak. Peter really knew everyone across and well beyond the spectrum of Canadian cinema. And he expected them to work for the common goal. If there was an impenetrable cultural divide or a deathless ideological struggle going on, you would never know it from the people sitting at Peter’s table. Not even the gender wars could shake his inclusiveness. He told anyone who would listen that feminism was the Copernican Revolution of our times. The cosmos, having shifted, wasn’t going to shift back.
That glad, gregarious, prolific acceptance of the future is Peter’s great legacy. He writes in his memoirs of being a child in the grey Pre-War English Canada, a soulless, frozen outpost of the dying British Empire. After that, everything got better. Thanks to Peter’s introductions, it also got better for everyone whose lives he touched.
 A Canadian Journey: Conversations With Time. Ottawa: Oberon Press, 1994.