DVD: Lies My Father Told Me (1975)

January 15, 2012 | By

Return to: Home Blu-ray, DVD, Film Reviews / J to L

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Film: Very Good/ DVD Transfer: Very Good/ DVD Extras: Good

Label: Ergo Media/ Region: 1 (NTSC) / Released: October, 2011

Genre: Drama / CanCon

Synopsis: In 1920s Jewish Montreal, a father strains the strong friendship between a boy and his grandfather.

Special Features: Dual English & French Menus & text extras / English-only Interview Featurette with co-producer Harry Gulkin (18:59) / Photo Gallery, Awards & Credits / Letter from Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau

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Review:

– Oscar Nominee for Best Writing, Original Screenplay.
– Golden Globe Best Foreign Film Winner.
– Winner of Canadian Film Awards for Best Feature Film, Best Performance by a Lead Actress (Marilyn Lightstone), Sound Editing, and Golden Reel Award.

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Nominated for an Oscar, Ted Allan’s semi-autobiographical film is structured like a child’s dream, as young David Herman recalls his formative years with Grandfather Zaida, his mentor and best friend, during the family’s hard years in Montreal’s Jewish quarter in the 1920s.

Allan’s background as an actor in radio and TV reveals itself in the script’s classically fanciful tone and dialogue. (Allan had in fact adapted his Lies short story into a radio play, mounted in 1954 by CBC Radio.) The familiar archetypes include David’s mother Annie (Marilyn Lightstone), who’s always in a state of finger-waving disapproval of household disorder and husband Harry’s (Len Birman) poor parenting skills; and Zaida’s (Yossi Yadin) unwillingness to gamble hard saved money on Harry’s latest miraculous invention that miraculously doesn’t function, and loses money fast.

After some tonal issues in the opening scenes which set up the various immigrant families living in the tightly packed courtyard, the script finds its proper groove, the actors get some wiggle room to develop their characters beyond the clichés, and Jan Kadar’s direction deepens Allan’s tale of a boy’s hard life counterbalanced by a sense of adventure, loyalty to family, and his intense distrust of his idea-crazy father.

Lies may be a classically rendered, rich snapshot of the North American immigrant experience, but it’s also the classic Canadian multicultural experience in filmmaking, bringing together artists from various cultures, and allowing them to assert bits of their own culture instead of diluting them into an American melting pot.

Allan’s script is clearly set in Montreal and balances the dominant English & French languages to satisfy the country’s ‘two solities’, whereas Kadar’s direction still shows off his Czech New Wave style: gritty, neo-documentary visuals; frank nudity that’s natural instead of exploitive, editing that makes temporal leaps instead of classically invisible scene transitions, and a use of score that’s wildly uneven.

Like Adrift [M] (1969), Kadar has the music score sometimes veering into the satirical, although it’s hard to tell if that’s a deliberate choice. Veteran Fox compose Sol Kaplan (Titanic) seemed to have been instructed to evoke fifties schmaltz through contemporary arrangements, blending orchestra with light contemporary instruments, and while not jarring in terms of orchestration, it sometimes appears as though Kaplan either missed Kadar’s intention, or the director wanted a classical style to contrast his own modernist style (which, when compared to Adrift, is definitely more tempered).

As David, Lynas (in his film debut) is pretty good, and Lightstone gives mother Annie a good measure of compassion, which acts as a buffer to husband Harry’s loud complaining, and earnest efforts to beat the family’s current odds as a poor Jewish family relying on Zaida’s scrap peddling. Yossi Yadin gives Zaida archetypal dignity and humanity, but Allan’s characterization remains solidly built around the familiar archetype of a wise, neglected grandfather who can only retire to hot tea and religious writings to remain grounded, and find inspiration to cope with familial bickering. It’s not an original character (there are shared similarities, in terms of the character’s tenor, with Fiddler on the Roof’s Tevye), but Yadin ensures his humanity remains genuine – which becomes vital when the film reaches its open-ended finale.

Len Birman is perfectly cast as dreamer / complainer Harry, and his superb voice (easily recognizable to fans of the animated series Rocket Robin Hood!) richly conveys Harry’s genuine aspirations to do good for his family, if only he wasn’t such a bully. Oblivious to his family’s emotional needs, he gambles, berates his stepfather, and believes creaseless trousers and elastic cufflinks will move the family from a tenement courtyard with prostitutes to the upscale suburb of Outremont. Like a classic poor boy born into poverty, he wants to show Montreal’s elite he’s made of the same quality DNA, but he’s also ignorant to the fine DNA of his own family, and completely misses out on making peace with his stepfather before its too late.

FINALE SPOILER

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Whereas a straight Hollywood tale would’ve allowed for a concrete if not classically uplifting finale, Allan and Kadar opt for a more European end: David comes home from a lengthy stay with his uncle, and finds his world turned upside down as Zaida is not only dead, but all traces of his existence have been purged from the family home, including the old horse (who’s likely been rendered into glue).

David’s decision to run away and Harry’s dismissal to launch a search is never resolved, and the film simply pauses as David hides in the family attic. The images turn to sepia, and the audience is left to conjure their own version of what David’s subsequent days may have been like with his family, and whether the unit managed to stay together and grow, or Harry made true on his threat to be the family’s new boss, bullying everyone to his whim, his delusions, and potential destruction.

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END OF SPOILER

Lies has flaws in script and characters – there are many clichés that seem to grind against Kadar’s attempts at modest neo-realism – but the evocation of a close-knitted community and 1920s Montreal is superb. Allan’s characters provide a rich snapshot into a raucous community, and the sets & locations are superb. The opening scenes dreamily convey the cold beauty of Montreal’s old city and laneways, and later scenes in a park are vital to establishing the firm bond where Zaida indulges in David’s wild imagination during their weekly trek, collecting scrap materials for a few cents to keep the family alive.

For a film so heavily lauded during its theatrical release, it may seem odd Lies has remained unavailable on home video for a long period, but Ergo’s DVD offers a new transfer from a clean print, presumably restored in 2008 in terms of a new negative. Most Canadian films from the seventies were co-financed with private funding and government assistance, and finding any clean print let alone clearing rights has always been a headache for any DVD producer.

Harry Gulkin, who co-produced Lies, appears in the DVD’s bonus interview featurette, and he describes the 4-year journey in bringing Allan’s script to finished film after American International Pictures proved too demanding as potential co-producers, but Columbia Pictures saved the day by providing completion money. There are nods to the cast, crew, director and writer, and Gulkin also describes his own trial by fire as a newbie film producer, handling budget issues and Kadar’s improvisational filmmaking style.

U.S. label Ergo Media has assembled a fine DVD set, and the transfer is generally good: the details are very sharp, colours are rich, and the sound mix is clean, but the digital compression is evident during dark scenes, as blacks get blocky during fadeouts. Framed for the DVD at 1.33:1, the film seems to have been cropped from its reportedly original 1.85:1 ratio, as one set of end titles are clipped. That said, Ergo’s DVD rescues another Canadian classic from oblivion, and it’s riveting to see a print that looks so sharp after seeing fuzzy copies on TV.

The DVD includes dual English & French menus (selectable only when the DVD’s first loaded), and separate English & French dub tracks. (Interestingly, Kaplan’s English main titles song, “Rags, Clothes, Bottles,” was substituted with an instrumental version of the main theme, plus some additional French intro narration. Were the two solitudes in 1975 so great that an English title song was verboten?)

Allan, who plays the amiable Communist trying to convert Zaida to Lenin’s teachings, continued to write plays and film scripts, and among his best-known works are Love Streams for John Cassavetes (1984), and the epic Bethune: The Making of a Hero (1990). Unsurprisingly, neither of these works currently exist on DVD.

Within Kadar’s canon, Lies was the director’s last feature film before he moved into TV, making The Blue Hotel (1977), The Other Side of Hell (1978), and Freedom Road (1979) before passing away in 1979. His best-known works remain the films he co-directed with Elmar Klos, including the Oscar-winning Best Foreign Film classic The Shop on Main Street [M] (1965), set in Slovakia during WWII.

Also available separately from Ergo Media is the vintage hour-long 1976 making-of documentary, Lies: The Making of the Movie. Further online readings for the film include an interview with co-producer Gulkin with The Jewish Daily Forward, and a related essay on the film’s evocation of Old Jewish Montreal.

Allan’s story was later adapted in a stage musical in 2011, starring the venerable Theodore Bikel.

Harry Gulkin’s procductions also include film adaptations of Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes (1978), and Mordecai Richler’s Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang (1978), two other CanCon films still unavailable on home video.

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© 2012 Mark R. Hasan

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External References:

IMDB Composer Filmography

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Amazon Links & KQEK.com’s Media Store:

Amazon.ca —– Amazon.com —– Amazon.co.uk

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