Thursday, March 17, 2011

Gerald Pratley: One of the Real Guys

Gerald Pratley (1923-2011)
Before the Bell Lightbox, Cinematheque Ontario, TIFF, the Festival of Festivals, there was Gerald Pratley. Having discovered the other day that he had died from a lengthy illness in a Belleville hospital at the age of 87, I was immediately struck by the fact that I had known Gerald as both a friend and a colleague for most of my life. Over the years, we had shared a love of movie music, undervalued directors (William Wyler) and days spent at the NFB screening room watching movies destined for the Toronto Film Festival. Although I hadn't spoken with Gerald in over a year, I realized upon hearing the very sad news of his passing that I never expected a day when he wouldn't be here. For if there was one strong trait that I always admired in him, it was his ability to accept you on the grounds that you loved and cared for the work you produced.

As a film critic, it didn't really matter to him whether he agreed with you or not (as Gerald's tastes were often more conservative than mine). What mattered was your sense of integrity, or perhaps, the idea that he still had things to learn from others, just as he could impart to others much of what he knew from a different era with different values. In a profession today that has its share of poseurs and careerists, Gerald was one of the real guys. He didn't set out to be a star which may be why he doesn't have a stronger presence in contemporary film culture. (Like me, he didn't have much patience for film theory, either, which represents another pole of contemporary film culture that he's exiled from.) But Gerald Pratley did build a foundation here for film culture and Canadian movies that made possible all that we see vibrant today. Ironically, I suppose, Gerald wasn't Canadian born.

Pratley with Miklos Rozsa in 1977 (Photo by Mike Quigley)
Born in England in 1923, Gerald Pratley became CBC Radio's first film critic in 1948, a couple of years after he first arrived in Canada from the UK. I didn't meet him until the early seventies when I was still a teenager in love with movie music. I found out then that Gerald not only did a radio program on film composers for CBC, but he knew many of them and conducted interviews with Miklos Rozsa, Alfred Newman and David Raksin. At that time, Gerald was also the head of the Ontario Film Institute located in Toronto at the Ontario Science Centre where he catalogued and screened a vast selection of world cinema. Upon first meeting him, I found him to be both graceful and engaging and pleased to see that I was familiar with many of the film composers he'd loved and spoken to. In September 1977, as a result of our discussion years earlier, he even invited me to a screening of El Cid, an Anthony Mann epic made in 1961, which was scored by Miklos Rozsa. Rozsa was in attendance that evening to speak about his work. He would also conduct a performance of his movie and concert music a few days later at Hamilton Place. It was my first exposure attending a movie where you had an opportunity to discuss the context of the picture.

An annual award from the Film Studies Association of Canada
When I became a professional film critic in the early eighties, Gerald and I became closer friends sharing fine food and lively discussions at the Montreal Film Festival with now mutual friends Risa Shuman (then producer of TV Ontario's Saturday Night at the Movies and Film International), Andrew Dowler (then of Cinema Canada), Susan Green (a Burlington, Vermont arts and film critic who now, of course, writes as well for Critics at Large), the late John Harkness (film critic of Now Magazine) and many others who became part of a travelling group of scribes that spanned two generations with highly diverse opinions on things. Since it was a film festival, though, the Montreal gathering created the groundwork for a festival of friends, too, to both discuss and share our passion for movies (even if we sometimes parted ways on certain films). 

In later years, when Gerald served on juries at the Toronto Film Festival viewing a vast assortment of Canadian films (he would even write a substantial anthology titled A Century of Canadian Cinema: Gerald Pratley's Feature Film Guide), I spent many days with him in those screening rooms watching him go from being elated to being appalled. But even if some outrageous work offended his sensibilities, Gerald was never vindictive or patronizing with that offense. He had that very British way of sighing in sometimes profound disbelief at something that just escaped his understanding. The night he came to my book launch of Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa in 2002, I was particularly gratified. Frank Zappa wouldn't have been one of Gerald Pratley's musical highlights, but he came anyway. When I told him that evening that David Raksin, who had scored Laura (1944) and The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), was close friends with Zappa, his sigh turned to strange wonder. How could two such radically different artists ever find a common ground, his expression told me. But Gerald's friendship played a huge role in establishing a common ground for myself and many others. He made it possible for me to accommodate views that at first were seemingly alien, or movies also seemingly foreign to my tastes. Yet Gerald Pratley's sigh was most definitely an expression of love, a true compassion for those things that are built to last. Besides being irreplaceable himself, he, too, was built that way. That's why, as I'm writing this today, I know exactly why I'm gonna miss him.  

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Courrier continues his lecture series on Film Noir (Roads to Perdition) at the Revue Cinema in Toronto in March looking at the Femme Fatale.


Gerald Pratley, honoured at the Genie Awards in 2002
Unlike Kevin Courrier, I didn’t get to know Gerald Pratley in his heyday as head of the Ontario Film Institute, but I too became friends with him. When I moved to Toronto in 1984, the OFI was in its last years before morphing into the Cinematheque Ontario. I attended its last screening in 1986, in fact, of Claude Chabrol’s La femme infidèle, introduced, if I recall correctly, by then critic/programmer Cameron Bailey, who is now Co-Director of the Toronto International Film Festival. But I actually got to know Gerald a few years after that, largely though my coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival, when we often encountered one other at film screenings and press conferences. We slowly became friends and, for much of the last decade, I had the privilege of regularly lunching with him at the Hot House Café, which was south of Toronto’s downtown and not far from the Performing Arts Lodge, where Gerald was then living. Even after he moved out of the city, to live with his daughter, I continued to get together for lunches with him, agreeable afternoons centred on discussions of films, of course, but also of his family and what he was working on at the time.

What I’ll always cherish about Gerald was his genuine nature and that perhaps more than anything is what I took out of our friendship. (Some of the same observations I had are also being made by Kevin in his tribute to Gerald.) He was sincerely interested in what I was up to, an attitude which is not all that common in our film environs. I’ve lost count of how many times I have had Canadian film folk talk at me about what they were accomplishing but neglect to ask me what was happening in my world. Gerald was never like that, and he unfailingly always asked me how my girlfriend Rosa was doing, this after having only met her once. He was also pleased with my success at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, where I was Director of Programming, even writing that when he autographed my copy of his book A Century of Canadian Cinema. He also never condescended when I mentioned liking a film that appalled him. Like many of his generation, which included my late father, he couldn’t make his peace with the explicit violence, sex and coarse language of the more recent cinema. Nor did he namedrop immodestly, even though he was friends with filmmakers like John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, Seconds) and Lindsay Andrson (If…, O Lucky Man!). If I knew that Gerald had contributed so much to our Canadian film culture, it was through others’ testimonies, never because he boasted of his many accomplishments.

I agreed with many of his friends that he was treated quite shabbily by his successors at the Cinematheque Ontario, which barely acknowledged his contributions. A mention of him as founder in the program guide, which has even been dropped from Bell Lightbox’s current program book, and the odd opportunity for him to introduce a film or program wasn’t, to my eyes, showing sufficient respect to him. I resolved therefore, to acknowledge him in my own way. Thus, I profiled him in Performing Arts in Canada magazine, a now-defunct local cultural publication. (Apparently, you can order that article online.) And I was honoured to be able to host him at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, in 2004, when he came to the city to introduce and handle the question and answer session for a documentary called Dziga and his Brothers. That film, about the Kaufman siblings, among the Soviet Union’s and later America’s’ foremost cinematographers, was a perfect fit for Gerald. But my most cherished memory of that visit wasn’t the gig so much, which went fine, but his sheer enjoyment of the previous night’s film, Paul Morrison’s Wondrous Oblivion. That drama, chronicling the relationship between Jewish and West Indian neighbours in 1960 London, was just the type of old fashioned, straightforward film that he most cherished and I was so pleased that he was able to catch it  while at the festival.

I’m sorry that the vagaries of his ill health meant that Gerald wasn’t ever able to update his 2003 book on Canadian cinema and more than a little angry that he wasn’t properly feted by his peers while he was alive. (Fortunately, the media coverage of his death has largely been thorough and respectful.) If Toronto’s cinema culture is so rich with foreign films, Gerald is one of the main reasons why that is so. I’ll miss him as a friend; Canadians should miss him as a film pioneer who contributed so much of value to our city and country.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto . He will be teaching a course on science fiction in the movies and on television beginning in late April at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute.


  1. Thank you both for those heartfelt sentiments.

  2. You guys hit the nail on the head. Great pieces! Two cool things: 1. I too had a couple of similar conversations with Gerald about Wyler. And damn, nobody knew how to shoot staircases like Willie. 2. And Shlomo, it's so amazing how gracious Gerald was about significant others - whenever I ran into him unaccompanied, his first queries were always "that darling wife" of mine.

    There were missed opportunities for more people to be touched by Gerald due to TIFF's, shall we say, "ignorance", but his genius touched so many others that I trust deeply it'll live forever.

  3. We recently had a comment published by someone hiding behind the persona of 'Anonymous' who had some beef against Gerald Pratley. The comment was deleted not because the individual had issues with the late critic, as he has claimed in a more recent unpublished response, but because (unlike this individual) we put our names to our opinions and then make attempts to back them up. Thanks to all of you who respond to us with your comments and criticisms in good faith.