When I meet Larry Kent after the Film Pop screening of his underground classic, High, he's donning a raincoat, rolled up pants, mountain boots and a knapsack. The quintessential cinematic explorer of hippiedom lacks pretension and exudes warmth. One of the first Canadian directors to probe sexuality and youth culture onscreen, Kent made High back in 1967. The film still resonates.
Kent finds joy in the fact that young people today can still relate to the themes he addressed in his earliest work. He is not surprised though. "Youth is youth; it doesn't change. You have more energy, more curiosity; being young is a time for experimentation," he says.
Kent is the unsung hero of Canadian indie filmmaking. Despite laying low for the past thirteen years, he has recently been garnering the attention he deserves in time for the release of his latest film, The Hamster Cage, a strange and controversial dark comedy.
The director has made it his lifelong mission to flout convention. He takes a humorous approach to taboo issues, which has at times led to strong criticism and even censorship. Ironically, as Montreal was striving to pull off an international cultural tour de force with Expo '67, Kent's film High was denied a screening license for the now defunct Montreal Film Festival. The film features sex, drugs, crime and violence, but Kent defends his light treatment of such heavy matters. "I hate to sit through a movie that is all dreary, so that when you go out [at the end] you want to kill yourself," he says. "A film should entertain; that doesn't make it less serious, it makes you think deeper."
After just six months of working for the National Film Board early on in his career, Kent felt compelled to shake up the conventional practices of the institution. Drawing on a theatre background (he wrote a screenplay called The Afrikaner as a student at University of British Columbia) his personal approach to filmmaking was based on teamwork and improvisation. He thrived on the spontaneity that came out of creative collaboration. "While the script is ultimately important, you mustn't forget that it's the actors who tell the story," he explains.
Born and raised in South Africa at the height of apartheid, Kent knows how damaging it can be to the morale to live under severe and unjust restrictions. "In 1957, South Africa was a repressive, fundamentalist religious state which justified everything it was doing to God's creations," he says. Sickened by what he witnessed and experienced there, he set off to see the world at twenty, with no intention of going back.
The use of colour film (the latest in film technology at the time) in High seems fitting to represent Kent's wholehearted embrace of the relative liberation he discovered on settling in Canada. By the time he had moved from Vancouver to Montreal in 1967, colour film was at the apex of film technology. Kent stresses the importance of working in conditions of freedom to give free rein to the imagination. "When there's a tremendous amount of censorship," he says, "eighty-five percent of your imagination is then shut off."
Though often associated with the New Wave movement, Kent's approach to filmmaking defies strict classification. In a New York Times review of High from April 3, 1969, film critic Vincent Camby, noted the influence of Godard, Antonioni, Truffaut and Bertolucci on Kent's work. The director himself has never had any interest in the name game, claiming that the term "New Wave" is merely a loose way of presenting the films he made back in the sixties. But those films are also characterized by a timelessness in the themes they explore, and his experimental style is not restricted by the conventions of any movement. "My films are much more dynamic; you're not sure where they're going, yet they're organically correct. They're set up to make sense, even when they're unpredictable."
Kent is returning from his directorial hiatus to present what he believes is his best film to date. The character Candy (played by Carley Pope) in his latest film, The Hamster Cage, comes across as a more mature, updated version of the main female protagonist Vicky from High, perhaps with a tinge of the anti-hero, Tom. (Vicky is a low-key librarian who engages in a spree of seduction and crime; Tom is an unscrupulous dropout.) Kent describes Candy as "a traditionally male character, a sort of smart-aleck female who has ambitious desires to be a good writer, not above using her sexuality as a tool to [achieving her] ambitions."
Bizarre as his material is (The Hamster Cage features nymphomania, incest and violence, is modeled on Western classic The Wild Bunch, and yet is classed as comedy) Kent certainly doesn't come off as an outlandish person. "I'm not trying to be esoteric and obscure," he says. "Usually people who do that, they have nothing to say. Sometimes, when there is something to say, it's so dense that there's no other way to do it."
The brutal honesty he wears on his sleeve is all he's ever wanted to transfer to his films, and he hopes viewers can identify the integrity in his approach. "Once you've done the work, you hope it's self-explanatory...that it's all there," he says. "I really want for the audience to have a visceral experience of this film."