Director came full circle with family film
LOCAL writer-director Shelagh Carter had to steel herself to examine her troubled relationship with her mother in her film Passionflower, on now at Cinematheque.
But there was a symmetry in the experience. After all, it was a movie, seen almost four decades ago, that brought Carter to a deeper understanding of that relationship in the first place.
The autobiographical drama takes place in 1962, when a young girl named Sarah (Kassidy Love Brown) grows aware that her mother Beatrice (Kristen Harris) is suffering a profound psychological disturbance, manifested in provocative behaviour and an increasingly erratic relationship with her family.
“It’s from my childhood,” says Carter, 58, over lunch near her home in River Heights. “This was my journey and it was time to tell it.”
As Carter recalled her fractured family history, she realized that many of the adults in her life were as confused as she was as a girl.
“People really didn’t know what to do, but also they didn’t realize how bright kids are and how they know what’s going on, but no one is talking to them.”
It took a 1974 movie to crystallize her feelings for her mother when Carter herself was barely out of her teens.
“My mother and I weren’t getting along that well. She was going through a bad time, but I wasn’t talking about it with anyone,” Carter says. “But I had a very sharp prof, who said to me one day, ‘Hey, we’re going to the movies.’ And she took me to A Woman Under the Influence.”
That John Cassevetes film stars Gena Rowlands in an Oscar-nominated turn as Mabel, a woman whose madness threatens her relationship with her husband (Peter Falk), a man in denial of the extent of his wife’s illness.
“I was sitting in the audience and I had the feeling I had heard this story before,” Carter says.
“I was looking at the screen at this woman, Gena Rowlands, who was so my mom,” she says, recalling how a minor outburst in the audience sent her into a rage.
“There were these people behind me who started to laugh, and I now realize they were probably laughing with discomfort, but at that moment, it felt like they were laughing at my mother.
“I went over the bench and I was going to take them all on; my prof had to hold me back and say, ‘It’s just a movie.’
“But it was the start of me realizing I really loved my mother and I wished I could help her,” she says. “But there were so many times I didn’t know what Cinematheque Sept. 22-23, Sept. 30 and Oct. 4 at 7 p.m. to do.”
It may have also been the start of Carter making a late debut as a feature film director. In the subsequent years, Carter studied design, became a lifetime member of the famed Actors Studio (where her telephoned inquiry about their program was received by James Lipton himself) and learned filmmaking at the Canadian Film Centre’s Director’s Lab. With a number of short films under her belt, Carter is currently a professor of theatre and film at the University of Winnipeg.
And at this stage of her life, Carter might not be inclined to use a phrase as dismissive as “just a movie.”
“At the Actors Studio, you learn your inner life is so much a part of your art,” she says. “It’s funny how you can turn a lot of that into gold, to take something that’s happened to you and use it in a way that’s artistic.
“It’s also very freeing because it’s just honest,” Carter says.
After catching my boyfriend of six months at a nightclub with his new secret girlfriend, she said things that revealed he’d been two-timing me for at least two months. I was a wreck. I couldn’t sleep that night, so I wrote a short story to explain the dramatic night when I found out. Writing it down really helped. The relationship is over. I thought I established an honesty policy in that relationship. There were so many lies it makes me sick. What can I do in the future to avoid such a disaster? My intuition told me something was off, but I had no idea it was a full-fledged other relationship! I’m glad I found out the truth. I’m glad the other girl found out, too. In the end, everyone is actually hurt. Keeping a collection of partners (boyfriends or girlfriends) is only recommended to those who openly practise polyamory or the like. — Craving Honesty, Winnipeg
Dear Craving: Writing is good therapy, along with this exercise. Explore the all-important “my intuition told me something was off” statement by closing your eyes and doing a re-run of your relationship. Start with the day you met and stop at any points where something felt odd or wrong. You’ll probably discover there were several times when the stories didn’t jibe, he sounded insincere, he was missing in action for a period of time, had a peculiar mark on him, or smelled different. This guy was not being careful and he let other people know by taking Girlfriend No. 2 out to a public place. You looked the other way, but hopefully you’ll trust your senses next time.
Dear Miss Lonelyhearts: OK, I did it. I slapped my girlfriend, but she slapped me first and in front of a bunch of people. We were at a cottage-closing party on the weekend. She slapped me real hard after I told her she was “turning into a drunk.” Reflexively, I slapped her (medium-hard) right back. Now her girlfriends are telling her I’m abusive and never to see me again. My slap was only a natural reaction after being pounded across the face. The whole thing was over in a fraction of a minute — her slap, my slap. Then I left and drove back to Winnipeg alone. Apparently she got lots of sympathy and coaching from her girlfriends after I left. I do love her, but my friends say I should never see her again. What do you think? — Mixed Up, North End
Dear Mixed Up: Run from this firecracker. The two of you, as a fiery couple, could end up in a lot of trouble with each other and the law. She may hit you whenever she’s angry, thinking it’s nothing because she’s a woman. And since (you say) she’s a drinker, her inhibitions will fly right out the window when she’s hitting the booze. And then, if you hit her back “reflexively” (you have proved this can happen) you will probably be the one who ends up getting into trouble with the law, because you’re a guy. She’s more liable to report you for assault than you are to report her, am I right? It’s not fair, but it’s reality. So, put your fists away, and head in the opposite direction.
Director Shelagh Carter on the set of Passionflower.