Celebrated film finally gets its due

Clarke Mackey's The Only Thing You Know to be given proper release, at last

Film professor Clarke Mackey holds his Canadian Film Award for his 1971 debut feature.
Film professor Clarke Mackey holds his Canadian Film Award for his 1971 debut feature.
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Interview: Clarke Mackey, director of The Only Thing You Know @ Etherington Auditorium, Oct. 22

Canadian films have a tendency to be boxed into unpleasant categories.

Labeled as boring, low-budget or even depressing, the canon of Canadian cinema is just plain misunderstood.

Clarke Mackey, head of the film studies department at Queen’s, begs to differ with this misunderstanding.

Mackey, who is perhaps best known for his work on the television series Degrassi Junior High, won a Canadian Film Award for his 1971 feature film The Only Thing You Know. The film is decidedly realistic, and takes a very Canadian approach to the art of filmmaking.

Growing up in Toronto in the ’60s, Mackey was exposed to Canadian cinema that experimented with documentary techniques, most notably Claude Jutra’s A Toute Prendre and Don Owen’s Nobody Waved Goodbye.

“These were films made in Montreal and Toronto,” said Mackey in an interview with the Journal. “They were quite different from the norm. There was an element of improvisation—they were like documentaries with fictional qualities.”

Mackey became “very excited” about this burgeoning style of cinema. After dabbling in short film production and editing at the CBC, the young filmmaker gathered a small group of friends together to make his debut feature-length film.

“It was a film with no script,” said Mackey of the then-unnamed project.

A 15-page outline was put together by Mackey, with a vague description of the film’s plot, characters and ending.

“The idea was to create a spontaneous story that looked like a documentary, but was fictional,” said Mackey.

“There was a storyline, and we did rehearse beforehand … the story was open-ended.”

A small crew of 20 people, which included the cast, assembled in downtown Toronto. Using a camera that was meant specifically for documentaries, because of its mobility, Mackey and crew took mere months to complete the filming. Editing took Mackey six months in total.

Mackey likens his excitement on the set of The Only Thing You Know to that of amateur filmmakers today.

“There was an expansion of filming technology. This opened up the possibilities for new potential filmmakers,” he said of the newly-accessible equipment in the early ’70s.

Although there were some filmmakers practicing this technique, Mackey was one of the forerunners in Canadian cinema. The style was later made popular by Robert Altman.

However, The Only Thing You Know didn’t receive a spectacular release when production of the film wrapped up in the spring of 1971. Along with belonging to an “out there” genre of filmmaking, The Only Thing You Know dealt with subject matter that audiences weren't accustomed to.

“[The film] clearly does not have Hollywood characteristics. It’s very real, and deals with complex struggles,” said Mackey. “The Only Thing You Know is not a sentimental film.”

Distribution companies didn’t jump at the chance to pick up the film either. The only theatre that would show it, an independent cinema in Toronto, had two midnight screenings, to surprisingly large audiences.

After this small success, the theatre decided to run the film for another week, with both matinee and evening screenings. Critics came to the film, with some encouragement from Mackey, and The Only Thing You Know went on to win the special jury prize at The Canadian Film Awards (now known as the Genies). Anne Knox also won best actress for her role as Ann.

One of the members of the jury that selected Mackey’s film to win, Bosley Crowther was a film critic for the New York Times. Although Crowther tried to get Columbia Pictures to distribute the film, The Only Thing You Know has never been screened in the U.S.

The Only Thing You Know tells the story of Ann who is struggling to find her identity amidst her freedom and responsibilities. After moving in with her boyfriend Scott (Allan Royal), much to the chagrin of her family and friends, Ann finds herself questioning her actions and, eventually, her identity.

“Ann is searching for something, but she is unaware of what it is,” said Mackey of the film.

“The only thing she knows is that she knows nothing at all.”

Despite its successes in 1971, The Only Thing You Know has still never received a proper release. The film was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1984, and shown a few times on the CBC and TVO, before practically disappearing into the depths of film studies academia.

Until Dave Douglas and Peter Rist—two professors from Concordia University—came along two years ago and decided to give Mackey’s film the recognition—and release—it deserves. Their organization, Pioneers in Independent Canadian Cinema Project, have put together the DVD release of . This high quality version has been distributed to approximately 200 schools and libraries internationally, including Austrailia, India, Italy, the U.K. and Canada.

Mackey hopes the film will be exposed to a new batch of eager filmmakers.

“It’s not going to be a blockbuster, but I never wanted it to be one,” he said.

“Canadian filmmakers, myself included, have always tried to question and challenge Hollywood and find a different way of making movies.”

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The Only Thing You Know will be screened at Etherington Auditorium on Sunday, as part of Cinema Kingston. The film starts at 7 p.m. and is $8.

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